Archive for July, 2014

Ray Russell’s “Sardonicus”

Posted in Frankenstein, Gothic Tales, Guy Rolfe, H.P. Lovecraft, modern gothic, Movie Reviews, Mr Sardonicus, Ray Russell, Sardonicus, Stephen King, William Castle with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by Manuel Paul Arenas

I have always fancied myself to be somewhat of an epicure in the terrible, a term coined by H.P. Lovecraft in his story “The Picture in the House” (1920); so imagine my surprise when I finally read “Sardonicus” , by Ray Russell.

Paperback of

Paperback of “Sardonicus” by Ray Russell (1961 Ballantine Books).

Here was a mid 20th century author writing a Gothic Tale in 1961 that could have been penned in 1861!  It’s not just that he wrote a Gothic Tale long after that genre had waned, but he seemed to understand the style, the language of the genre. He even used the convention of not giving specific dates. Anyone who has read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” or any number of books from the 18th and 19th centuries may have wondered at the practice of giving partial dates like this: “August 13th, 17–” [Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus: the 1818 Text, pg 22, Shelley, Mary W., Rieger, James ed., 1982, University of Chicago Press]

I am not entirely sure why this was done originally, but it is a definite nod to the genre by Mr. Russell, almost like a secret handshake to fans. Stephen King is quoted to have called it “perhaps the finest example of the modern Gothic ever written” (, retrieved 03-24-2014) although I have yet to see the original source of the quote.

The story begins with Sir Robert Cargrave, a doctor in 19th century London, England, receiving a mysterious letter from what turns out to be an old flame of his, Maude Randall, a young lady of great beauty and charm, with an enthusiasm for the opera, who had disappeared from his life seven years prior when her family had fallen on hard times and her father had committed suicide causing Maude to drop out of society. Now she is married to a man from the continent, a certain Mr Sardonicus. Sardonicus has a peculiar affliction and has read of Cargrave’s ground breaking medical work and upon learning of Maude’s previous acquaintance with the doctor, decides to invite him to his home in Bohemia for a visit and a private (discreet) consultation.

Cargrave and Maude.

Cargrave and Maude.

Cargrave, anxious to revisit his former crush accepts the invitation. Initially, the reunion is a joyous one, but Cargrave soon relizes that his former sweetheart is unhappily living like a prisoner in her own home, with no outside contact and under the oppressive thumb of her husband, a dark and mysterious man who seems to only be tolerating Cargrave’s presence so he can get a diagnosis for an eventual cure of his affliction. It seems that Mr. Sardonicus had a traumatic shock which has frozen his face in a grotesque grimace that is so unsettling he wears a mask most of the time to obscure it and must take meals by himself because his feeding process is unbearable to witness.

“It was the same mirthless 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, and as it entered my mind, it seemed to dispel yet another mystery, for the term we use to describe the lockjaw smile is risus sardonicus.”  (Russell, Ray. “Sardonicus” Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories. Ed. Guillermo Del Toro. Penguin Books, 2013. p 16.)

A masked Sardonicus leans in to strike his beleaguered wife.

A masked Sardonicus leans in to strike his beleaguered wife.

At first, Cargrave is uncertain as to whether he can help and when he demurs Sardonicus threatens to harm Maude. Eventually, he agrees to try a highly unusual and untested treatment to get Sardonicus to back off, but he also has a trick up his sleeve.

Cargrave begins his treatment on Sardonicus.

Cargrave begins his treatment on Sardonicus.

The story touches all of the great Gothic themes and devices but never sounds forced or derivative of any specific tale.

Movie poster for

Movie poster for “Mr Sardonicus” (1961).

The story was made into a film by B-movie director William Castle with Russell writing the screenplay that expanded the role of Sardonicus’s anonymous (in the story) manservant as an evil henchman named Krull.

Krull spends his downtime torturing young women from the village. Here he is punishing Anna, the maid for telling Sir Cargrave of the unorthodox experiments she has been subjected to by Sardonicus in order to test possible treatments for his affliction.

Krull spends his downtime torturing young women from the village. Here he is punishing Anna, the maid, for telling Sir Cargrave of the unorthodox experiments she has been subjected to by Sardonicus in order to test possible treatments for his affliction.

The make-up for Sardonicus, once his face is revealed, seems a little hokey by today’s standards, but the rest of the film is for the most part spot on in comparison to the novella. Castle’s gimmick for the film was to hand out cards to the audience to vote thumbs up or down whether they thought Sardonicus was to be shown mercy for his transgressions or given prejudicial punishment. He even stops the story within the film and feigns to count the cards in the audience to see what the crowd decides as per the villain’s fate but there was only one ending ever filmed so it is just a gag to get the audience involved.


Castle’s “Punishment Poll” card, which was handed out to audience members to vote on the fate of Mr. Sardonicus.

If you do however come across “Sardonicus” or any other Ray Russell collections I suggest you pick it up and treat yourself to some fine storytelling in the Gothic style but with a modern sensibility.  The movie is a hoot, but currently out of print, so definitely pick that up as well if you see it reasonably priced.

Mr Sardonicus DVD

Mr Sardonicus DVD

Galad Elflandsson’s “The Black Wolf”

Posted in Arkham House, Galad Elflandsson, Lovecraftian Horror, Necronomicon, PS Publishing, Randy Broecker, The Black Wolf with tags , , , , , , on July 19, 2014 by Manuel Paul Arenas

“A fantastic weird novel by a talented new author. The record of strange events and monstrous worship from colonial times. “…just as formidable as was your first encounter with Poe, Machen, Robert Chambers, or H.P. Lovecraft.””

Front and back cover art for the Centaur Books trade paperback edition of

Front and back cover art for the Centaur Books trade paperback edition of “The Black Wolf” (1980).

Thus reads the back cover blurb of the trade paperback edition of Galad Elflandsson’s lone novel,  “The Black Wolf”, which originally was published in 1979 by Donald M Grant in a lovely hardcover edition, beautifully illustrated throughout by renowned horror illustrator Randy Broecker.  Auspicious beginnings for any young  author of the weird variety. In the day, Elflandsson was touted as being the great new hope for fans of old school horror fiction, but he only got out the aforementioned novel and a handful of odd stories, which were published in various genre collections of the day before he got fed up with the politics of the publishing world and halted his output.

For someone who was so celebrated by the horror fiction establishment, it boggles my mind to see how quickly his star rose and fell into obscurity. I who have scoured second hand bookstore shelves and Internet inventories for years to find those hidden horror gems have never heard of him until I stumbled upon his novel in a recycle bin at work. I pulled it out to see what it was and saw that it was illustrated by Randy Broecker, whose illustrations grace the lovely PS Publishing edition of Ramsey Campbell’s collection of early Mythos tales, “The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants” (2011) which holds a treasured spot in my personal library.

Upon further inspection, I saw the claim in the blurb, which caught my attention, so I figured I’d give it a try. It took me two days to read it all and I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly, but the accolades were completely off the mark. I first encountered Poe as a pre-teen and it was a life changing experience that still affects me to this day. I came across Lovecraft a few years later and had a similar experience  with his work too. Although Elflandsson drops a few references to the Ancient Ones, Abdul Alhazred and his dreaded tome, the Necronomicon, that is where the similarities to Lovecraft end and there is nothing to tie this novel in with Poe, Machen or Chambers. There is no atmosphere here. The is none of the Gothic decay of Poe, Chambers or early Lovecraft, and there is nothing remotely Machen-like. If there were to be a Weird Tales connection, it would be Robert E Howard. The novel is more of a weird action adventure tale, with a manly proactive protagonist rather than a quailing Lovecraftian character who goes mad in the face of impending doom. There is a section where the protagonist reads a few journal entries from the 18th century which sound a bit like Lovecraft’s sojourns into antiquarian language, that sounded convincing enough, but there was none of the dread, or the Gothic atmosphere, despite the references to ancient black magic rituals and the like.

The basic premiss is that Paul Damon, one of the “city folk” coming to Thatcher’s Ferry for a camping trip on his summer vacation finds himself embroiled in a local feud between the town-folk and the remaining descendant of the town’s namesake. Eventually it escalates into a full blown supernatural horror tale with werewolves raiding the town and ancient dead coming back to life to exact revenge for a perceived two  hundred year old affront on the founding family. The story has much action with just enough sorcery and horror to keep the attention of fans of the weird tale genre without getting too bogged down with unpronounceable names and the myriad tentacled monstrosities of most Mythos fiction.

Mr Elflandsson spins a good yarn and it was an enjoyable ride to read his novel, but I think people expected too much from this young writer and he fell short. Even so, his prose is modern and lean, with only a few stylistic nods to the genre (e.g., “gibbous” moons abound in this tale) and I would like to see where he would have taken his fiction after a couple of novels and I would also like to read his short stories, if I can hunt them down.

If I can find one at a reasonable price I would love to procure a copy of the Donald M Grant hardcover edition of “The Black Wolf”. The Randy Broecker illustrations alone are worth it, being grotesquely gorgeous and surprisingly not at all represented on the Internet as far as I can see. If you find this book in your local bookstore, do yourself a favor and buy it!

Thoughts Upon Seeing “Haute Tension”

Posted in French Horror films, Grand Guignol, Haute Tension, Poetry with tags , on July 3, 2014 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Dismay, disgust and disdain at the slaughter of a family

Decapitation, mutilation, overkill à la Grand Guignol

I cover my eyes but peek between my fingers

Fountains of gore cannot quench the implacable blood-lust,

Pathetic cries cannot sway the  impervious evil of

the killer

French poster for

French poster for “Haute Tension” (2003) featuring an image of the Killer

Saturated with the cruor of his kills he opts for take-out

A fettered female is tossed into his ancient van

He is cocky and cruel, but also heedless

He is being tracked by a hip sexy heroine, come to fight for her beloved

Or is she just shadowboxing?

USA poster for stateside release in 2005, featuring the heroine, Marie

USA poster for stateside release in 2005, featuring the heroine, Marie

At turns titillating and horripilating, the story twists and flips

Leaving one numb and disoriented

When I close my eyes I see gory images running in a loop

Like carrion birds circling their supper

I will never see France the same way again

Bernie Wrightson’s “Bewitched”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 2, 2014 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Around 1982 famed horror comic artist Bernie Wrightson drew the artwork for a spoof of  Bewitched, which was run in the January issue of National Lampoon magazine. I had a subscription at the time and I recall that issue and how I was overwhelmed by the images which were alternately funny, horrific and titillating. They were done in black and white, but certain objects were colorized, like red blood and golden eyes. The premise was what it would have looked like if Samantha and her mother Endora behaved like traditional black magic witches? It was profanely grotesque; they sacrificed a scout who came to sell cookies at their door, they melted the peeping eyes of their nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz, summoned and rutted with demons which looked like they came straight out of a renaissance painting. With the advent of the Internet, I thought I could find a scan of the pages somewhere but, alas, after an extensive search all I found were a couple of edited panels and the last page, which I have posted below. The search continues!

Samantha and Endora draw a circle to summon demons

Samantha and Endora draw a circle to summon demons

Nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz gets her comeuppance

Nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz gets her comeuppance


Final page of Bernie Wrightson's "Bewitched" parody.

Final page of Bernie Wrightson’s “Bewitched” parody. If memory serves me, I believe Tabitha’s eyes were golden in the actual magazine.