Review: Haunted Castles
Ray Russell’s Gothic work is absolutely the finest the latter half of the 20th Century has to offer in that genre: his tales are theatrical and atmospheric—remarkably macabre for all their sophistication, humor, and gloss. ‘Sardonicus,’ his most widely-known, is a grotesque and evocative masterpiece well-deserving its fame; it is featured here with two further novellas and four shorter pieces, ranging from the lurid to the cerebral and beyond.
The stories collected in Haunted Castles are united principally by their stylistic thread and achieve a rare success: they are capable of standing as both cunningly original works in their own right and dramatic, effervescent pastiches of the likes of Poe, Stevenson, or Wilde. They are bizarre at times, often disturbing, but never entirely revolting: they operate within a realm of shadow Le Fanu would recognize, despite their excesses, utilizing the classically-Gothic terror/horror distinction to underline moments of the most cleverly abstracted sort of dread; they are not ‘frightening,’ exactly (and much of the Gothic only seldom is), but they meander through musty corridors of unease with a charming sense of doom hanging about them like shrouds of stale smoke. Lovers of the twist ending are in for a real treat, too: each of these yarns ends with a decided jolt.
‘Sardonicus’ is the jewel in the crown. It is so utterly bizarre, though, that attempting to sketch any details of the plot would only rob it of its peculiar power. It is certainly the most typically ‘Gothic’ of all of Russell’s work, but only because it exploits the familiar motifs with the greatest loyalty to its inspirations: and yet, notwithstanding its use of the oft-encountered trappings, it is a clever and nuanced story and cannot be classified as derivative despite its almost effortless appropriation of the old clichés. It manages to exist in a world that is both real and unreal, fleshed-out and believable and yet absurd beyond reason; it carries off the kind of crepuscular atmosphere present in the finest of Poe’s work, but remains something entirely fresh, and endlessly enchanting in its own dank and gloomy way.
The second stand-out is ‘Sagittarius,’ a witty, decadent little puzzle full of Grand Guignol irreverence and mystery. And while its twist ending can be seen coming from very nearly the first page, ‘the devil is in the details,’ as they say—and this small masterpiece has them in spades. Moreover, while ‘Sardonicus’ utilizes nearly every mouldering, immediately ‘Gothic’ trick at its disposal, ‘Sagittarius’ indulges in a milieu more allied with the fin de siècle glitter of Wilde: and this with great success. Between the pair, Russell displays both the variety and durability of his talents.
Similar to each other stylistically, ‘The Vendetta,’ ‘The Cage,’ and ‘The Runaway Lovers’ are feverishly macabre little gems that deserve a much wider audience than they have thus far received: they employ some of the same devices as ‘Sardonicus,’ but are quite different in their technique and trajectory. ‘Comet Wine’ is a wonderfully nimble Faustian piece that builds slowly and pays off, despite a somewhat lackluster conclusion. ‘Sanguinarius’ is an exquisite and engrossing retelling of the Bathory horrors, at once erotic and entirely discomfiting, with a final twist so subtle and diabolical that I can almost promise it will catch any reader quite off his guard.
Several of the stories in Haunted Castles utilize shared characters and situations, particularly as framing devices through fictional correspondence; this adds further cohesiveness to the collection, which helps to present it not so much as a ‘collected’ work but as a whole that achieves an even greater effect in concert than its pieces do individually: and therein lies the author’s genius. Ray Russell is a master of his craft and a man of rare, if eccentric, talent. Like Jackson, Bowles, and Lovecraft, he has helped to define the darker regions of 20th Century American short fiction and has set a standard for the modern Gothic that remains exceedingly difficult to eclipse.