Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Unholy Trinity by Ray Russell (1967): The Grandest Guignol of All

This little Bantam paperback from 1967 seems slight and cheapthe Halloween-costumed models beyond silly, although making specific reference to the three novellas withinbut it packs a solid wallop of historical horror. Unholy Trinity collects Ray Russell's three greatest tales of the neo-Gothic, "Sagittarius," "Sanguinarius," and of course the much more well-known "Sardonicus," which was made into a 1961 film by notorious showman William Castle. Long a TMHF favorite, Russell was fiction editor at Playboy magazine during its height of 1960s influence, publishing Vonnegut, Bradbury, and others, so, you know, class (quite unlike the sleazy delights of his 1976 novel, the infamous Incubus). And class is what Russell brings to the proceedings, a triumvirate of history's most monstrous: Countess Bathory, Gilles de Rais, and Jack the Ripper (what, you say, no Vlad III? Nope) all appear. These monsters may be garbed in the finest raiment, but beneath they are as ghoulish, as diabolic, as unspeakable, as ever they have been.

As one can surmise from a 1985 dust-jacket photo of the author, his style is at once saturnine, urbane, regal even, with a wicked vein of dark humor and irony winding through. His work suggests a sophisticate's interest in pain and debasement, mitigated by the mists of history but also given weight by the fact these the events described actually happened (for the most part; "Sardonicus" is Russell's own literary conceit). Therefore it can be stated that one's sadism is sated while using the cloak of respectable historical detail as disguise... if you even care about that.

We begin with "Sanguinarius"—actually no, wait, we begin with an intro essay by Mr. Russell, "The Haunted Castle: A Confession." He recounts a taxing day as an editor in a modern office and upon returning home, exhausted by the existence of television, telephone, Dictaphone, typewriter, etc., and reading "smart, savvy stuff full of bright slang and hip allusion," he wants to relax with "one of those good old aromatic baroque tales, told in an unhurried, leisurely, painstakingly structured way, with plenty of unashamedly elaborate language." Of course Russell's read everything like that on his shelves (giving credence to Harlan Ellison's cry, "Who the hell wants a library full of books they've already read?"), so what's he do? He begins writing one himself! "Fevered with compulsion, totally absorbed," he produces first "Sardonicus," and within a short time the other two works within. Huzzah!

And so: "Sanguinarius" is a fictionalized first-person account of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, written in faux-16th century hand, detailing her descent into blood lust. From her entombment in a high Castle Csejthe room she writes this memoir, beseeching her Lord to hear her now that she's being punished for unimaginable deeds. In the village below, she writes, "no soul will dare display a thing of crimson." The marriage of the Bathory and Nadasdy lines brought together Hungarian royalty; she is expertly wooed by Count Ferencz Nadasdy (although it was probably an arranged marriage). Imprisoned Elizabeth writes of her and Ferencz's lovemaking, which gets Russell's pen flowing:

...for indeed to peaks of pleasure Ferencz led me, slowly to start with, step by timorous step, then setting out with more audacity, striving together, each succouring the other, climbing, first to one ledge, then to a higher, and then to yet a higher more dizzying ridge, finally to soar as if on wings to attain, both in the same heart-bursting moment, that cloud-capp'd ultimate point.

When Ferencz is called off to battle, Elizabeth mopes and mourns, unconsoled by "faithful old servant" Ilona, till one day Dorottya arrives. A beautiful young "woman of the wood" with the knowledge of healing herbs and ointments, she offers her services to the lonesome Countess. Things turn... heady. Ilona hears illicit cries in the night. You know how it goes. When Dorottya asks Elizabeth if she might bring others to cheer her, the Countess agrees, although slightly hesitant. What follows when of course Ferencz's sudden arrival home interrupts proceedings. Will it surprise the reader to learn that Dorottya is Ferencz's long-time mistress in unholy arts, that he sent her to Elizabeth at her time of weakness, and she was to be his wife's teacher in torture?

"And let us lead thee onward," added Dorottya, "to keen delights far stranger and more bold than those thou  has already savour'd..."
"Ay, wife" said Ferencz, "and be thou Bathory not but in name, but in hot deed, as well!"
"And let us seal this compact with a solemn pledge," Dorottya said, "a ceremonial bath to signalize our fealty to sin."

I think you know what kind of ceremonial bath is to follow. Russell doesn't attempt to make her a sympathetic character. Self-serving, oblivious, even if at times regretful, Bathory blames her husband  and Dorottya for developing her taste for blood and torture (even if such traits ran in her family). The little twist at the end is welcome, however; welcome, appropriate, refreshing even.

 "For who would be disposed to smile under the same roof with him who must smile forever?"

Sandwiched in the middle of the book is Russell's most famous work, "Sardonicus." In 18— (I've never been able to ascertain why that dash was used in dates in pre-20th century literature...) one Dr. Robert Cargrave, an esteemed English physician, is called to a mountainous region of Bohemia by an old friend, Maude Randall. She is now married to a man who calls himself Sardonicus and together they live in a castle, a "vast edifice of stone... cold and repellent... of medieval dankness and decay" which "strike[s] the physical and the mental eye as would the sight of a giant skull." Of course they do! Once there, Cargrave and Maude strike up their old friendship (never consummated) and then she introduces her husband, Mr. Sardonicus.

"The gentleman before me was the victim of some terrible affliction that had caused his lips to be pulled perpetually apart from each other, baring his teeth in a continuous ghastly smile. It was the same humourless grin I had seen once before: on the face of a person in the last throes of lockjaw. We physicians have a name for that chilling grimace, a Latin name... risus sardonicus."

 German edition, 1971

Sardonicus's backstory is a clever one, reaching back to creepy Eastern European folklore. He then reveals himself to be a diabolic mastermind, enlisting Cargrave's medical prowess to cure his wretched face while dangling a promise of bliss with Maudeor, failing in this, Sardonicus threatens the tortures of the damned for his platonic wife:

"Perhaps now you will better understand the necessity for this cure. And perhaps also you will understand the full extent of Maude's suffering should you fail to effect the cure. For, mark me well: if you fail, my wife will be made to become a true wife to me—by main force, and not for one fleeting hour, but every day and every night of her life, whensoever I say, in whatsoever manner I choose to express my conjugal privilege!" As an afterthought he added, "I am by nature imaginative."

It may not surprise you to find that Russell's attitude is one firmly set in the 1960s it was written in; the subtext of "Sardonicus" is like a recasting of the Playboy philosophy, that libertine stew of sex, sophistication, and rationality, in terms of the Gothic. In the end modern urban bachelor Cargrave outwits the violent, boorish cad and wins the woman. Sardonicus's comeuppance is utterly terrible and unutterably fitting. As I said: Playboy! Philosophy! No, really: whether you agree with my reading or not, "Sardonicus" is superb.

Playboy Press, 1971

The final piece, "Sagittarius," is a tale-within-a-tale, two men in an upper-class club exchanging bon-mots over cigars and Scotch. You know the scene. Elderly Lord Terrence and young Rolfe Hunt converse of "the series of mutilation-killings that were currently shocking the city, and then upon such classic mutilators as Bluebeard and Jack the Ripper, and then upon murder and evil in general..." You know, the yoozh. Lord Terry then launches into speculation: what if Mr. Hyde, of Stevenson fame, were real? And supposing that, what if he had sired a son? Then that conversation, about the twists and turns of good and evil in one soul, turns into Lord Terry's reminiscences about his younger days in turn-of-the-century Paris, when he knew a famous actor of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol named Sebastien Sellig.

Ah, the Grand-Guignol! Theatrical performances of death and dismemberment, madness and the macabre, that drew standing-room-only crowds to witness buckets of stage blood spurting about. A terrific setting for a horror tale, and for Russell to show off his erudition. Into this brew he mixes Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and as a pièce de résistance, Gilles de Laval, Baron de Rais, that 15th century butcher of children and occult dabbler, compatriot of Joan of Arc and a man of—but of course—wealth and taste. Mystery piles upon mystery, and young Rolfe Hunt has, in the story's final sentence, a mind-freezing realization...

In the street, I felt I had to make some utterance. "To think, I said, "that her last evening was spent at the Guignol!"
Sellig smiled sympathetically. "My friend," he said, "the Grand Guignol is not only a shabby little theatre in a Montmartre alley. This—" his gesture took in the world "—is the Grandest Guignol of all."

I spent several days entranced by Russell's imagination, the twists and insights, the decadence of an aesthete's intelligence, enchanted by his delicate yet precise prose used to describe the indescribable. Russell's affection for the wormy tropes of Gothic literature is clear; his facility with them dexterous; his ironic repositioning of them enlightening. Thus I can recommend Unholy Trinity without hesitation (in print as Haunted Castles). High-minded, cultivated, blackly ironic and delighting in the debauched and the deranged from the vantage point of the mighty, Russell is a trustworthy guide through this netherworld populated by crumbling castles, dank dungeons, torture chambers, bleak landscapes, and most terrifying of all, the unfathomable cruelties of the human mind.

Not from God above or Fiend below, 
but from within his own breast, his own brain, his own soul.

1 comment:

Dan Doody said...

Love these three novellas--if anyone is looking for them (and can't find one of the vintage paperbacks above), all three are available in Haunted Castles (and four other stories, including the diabolically clever "The Cage"), published by Penguin Classics; unfortunately this edition is only available in hardcover at the moment.