A collection of gothic-horror short stories as reissued by Penguin Books as part of their horror series. The most famous of which is “Sardonicus”, the tale of a man who cannot stop smiling. That sounds pleasant, but it’s a rictus smile, large and grotesque and frozen on his face. In the tradition of Dracula, our innocent narrator is brought in to deal with this man’s complaint and finds something much darker than he wagered.
Ray Russell. Anyone else never heard of this guy? I hadn’t, and I want to personally thank Penguin right here and now for putting this collection in with their horror series. Every other book was one I was entirely too familiar with, and it seemed more an exercise in recollecting favorite books for horror aficionados. Except for this one, which stood out for that reason. I had to see why Penguin deigned this good enough to dwell among the ranks of Lovecraft and Jackson and Shelley. And good thing I did.
I’ve never seen anyone in contemporary writing sound so downright old-school gothic. It was seamless. I could’ve been reading Poe or Lovecraft, as mentioned above. Only with even more envelope pushing, more of a modern sensibility, but not enough to interrupt that perfectly period voice.
As for the stories, this volume contains a very loose trilogy (“Sardonicus”, “Sagittarius”, and “Sanguinarius”), all of which were well worth the time. I say loosely because other than their titles sharing a theme, they’re all dark gothic stories with little else to connect them. Well, an argument could be made that they all had a similar tone and they all sought to create monsters similar to Mr. Hyde or Count Dracula to haunt us. And the other stories are equally worthy, though shorter, quicker jabs.
One thing I will say: you should be able to appreciate classic horror in some way if you’re going to approach this. Good and evil are black and white here. Many of the old tropes apply, like someone’s looks being proof of their character. The bad guys here are punished sinners. There are damsels to be rescued. Things like that. Things that might rub some readers the wrong way, but I found it charming, Pulpy. I have a real weakness for pulp.
It saddens me that Russell has been lost in the shuffle when it comes to horror. So much of his other work is out of print, and I’m hoping that Penguin will turn their eye that way again the next time they decide to expand their horror series.