“Beneath the haunted castle lies the dungeon keep: the womb from whose darkness the ego first emerged, the tomb to which it knows it must return at last. Beneath the crumbling shell of paternal authority, lies the maternal blackness, imagined by the Gothic writer as a prison, a torture chamber—from which the cries of the kidnapped anima cannot even be heard. The upper and the lower levels of the ruined castle or abbey represent the contradictory fears at the heart of Gothic terror: the dread of the super-ego, whose splendid battlements have been battered but not quite cast down—and of the id, whose buried darkness abounds in dark visions no stormer of the castle had ever touched.”
—Leslie A. Fielder, Love and Death in the American Novel
About the Penguin Horror Series
Penguin Horror is a collection of novels, stories, and poems (in the Poe volume) by masters of the genre, collected and Introduced by filmmaker and lifelong horror reader Guillermo del Toro.
Guillermo Del Toro on Russell’s Haunted Castles from his Introduction to the Penguin Horror series…
(Followed by More of Del Toro’s Introduction to the overall series…)
‘The case of Ray Russell offers us a chance to talk about one of the most peculiar horror writers. Russell links postpulp literature and the Grand Guignol tradition, with the modern sensibilities of America in the 1960s. Within him resides a neo-paganistic streak that is passed from Algernon Blackwood and Sax Rohmer to him and other writers of unusual proclivities, such as Bernard (aka. Bernhardt) J. Hurwood. A fascinating combination of the liberal and the heretic.
Russell was born in the early twentieth century and saw action during World War II. He held a variety of jobs and published in a variety of publications. He was part of the resurgence of fantastic literature in American letters. As executive fiction editor of Playboy in the magazine’s infancy (1954–1960), Russell probably knew his share of excess and power, but he utilized this power to provide refuge to a host of valuable genre writers, among them the brilliant Richard Matheson and the precious Charles Beaumont, but also heralded the birth of adult fantastic fiction by publishing also Vonnegut, Bradbury, Fredric Brown, and many others.
‘Russell authored numerous short stories and seven novels—including his most famous one, The Case Against Satan, which pioneers and outlines the plights of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. But, in spite of this and his continued collaborations with Playboy throughout the 1970s, Russell remains a forgotten writer. A sort of writer’s writer, an acquired taste. This in spite of being a recipient of both a World Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In fact, in the last few decades, so little has been published about Russell that the only quote, oft repeated, is Stephen King’s blurb, in which he enthrones Sardonicus as “perhaps the finest example of the modern gothic ever written.”
But King, as always, is absolutely right. Russell has a savage streak in his prose, one that would today be considered inappropriate and even offensive and, to me, entirely reminiscent of the Grand Guignol Theatre. But in his best stories he also captures the tenuous atmosphere of the Gothic Romance. At a secondary level, Russell seems to wallow in a sadistic impulse akin to the conte cruel so aptly practiced by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.
This tortuous vocation is never clearer than in his Gothic S trilogy. The tales Sanguinarius, Sagittarius, and Sardonicus are all surprisingly inventive stories, with shocking twist endings that are here reprinted in their entirety.
My favorite of the three, Sagittarius, may not be a perfect exercise in style, but it is a luscious, devoted repast of Gothic fiction. Sagittarius centers around the tale of two stage actors—the divine Sellig and the revulsive Laval, a freakishly deformed performer who shocks the Grand Guignol audience every night, and who embodies evil to perfection.
If you can guess the not too subtle wordplay hidden in the performers’ names, then it will feel only natural that, in an inspired stroke, Russell links the pair with two more infamous figures of gaslight London: Jack the Ripper and Mr. Hyde. The connection is effortless and feels neither mannered nor insincere and, I guarantee this: It packs a powerful punch in its final pages.
“La vie est un corridor noir / D’impuissance et de désespoir!” cries Laval, which translates to “Life is a black corridor of impotence and despair.”
Sanguinarius retells—from an unorthodox perspective and with great macabre gusto—the story of Countess Elisabeth Báthory and her thirst for blood. Russell provokes and subverts the tale by adopting the Countess’s point of view. He succeeds in this by infusing the story with period quirks and idioms that lend an air of authenticity to the macabre proceedings.
It is also remarkable to hear the tale told in this manner as we find empathy and reason behind the most atrocious actions. Báthory starts her journey as a virginal bride in her early teens and is swallowed by a vortex of depravity and bloodshed that is described, at times, with zealous excess. In this, Sanguinarius represents an aspect of Russell’s fiction that will erupt in full in Incubus—the capacity of the author to get caught in his own compulsions as he attempts to titillate and shock the reader.
The most famous of his tales, and the only one that is frequently reprinted and discussed, is Sardonicus. First published in Playboy at the end of the 1950s, this is a tale of enormous originality that remains, at the same time, a grand homage and a reinvention of the Gothic. To the eyes of its seemingly straight protagonist, Sir Robert Cargrave, everything in Castle Sardonicus is askew and in decay. He has been called there to assist the husband of a former liaison of his—the man in question, the preternaturally pale Mr. Sardonicus, has the lower half of his face paralyzed in a horrid rictus, and the reason for this is too preposterous and delightful to consign in these few lines!
In my opinion, Ray Russell is the literary equivalent of the Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, a supersaturated neo-Gothicist who shines above the premises of his material based on style, conviction, and artistic flair. Until recently, most of Russell’s work has remained unavailable, except for outrageously overpriced paperbacks and expensive collectors’ editions. It is therefore that I took great pride in presenting a new edition of Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories as part of this Penguin Horror series—and as of 2016–I am now proud to introduce Russell’s work as an official Penguin Classic with a new cover by artist Lola Dupré (image below).
So, there you have it. We have prepared a small collection of books that I hope will find their way into the hands of young, strange readers—like I was—curious about this deranged form of storytelling—seeking that late-night chill, that intimate shiver that happens when the lamia crosses the threshold of our room and whispers at us from the darkened corner.
When the certainty of seeing a monstrous thing takes ahold of us and forces us to gaze at the end of a corridor—there, an apparition stands, a thing of supreme horror. And, as we advance toward it—as in HPL’s “The Outsider”—we are overwhelmed by the realization that the putrid flesh, the vacant eyes, the mad stare we see in that lonely figure is nothing but the reflection in a mirror. A dark mirror facing us.
May your nightmares be plentiful.
Guillermo Del Toro
Thousand Oaks, California, 2013’
About the Penguin Horrir Series
Read more of Guillermo Del Toro’s Introduction to the Penguin Horror Series below…