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.
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 he 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” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Russell, 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 discreet and private consultation.
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 who is 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 great traumatic shock which has frozen his face in a grotesque grimace that is so unsettling that 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.)
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.
The story touches all of the great Gothic themes and devices but never sounds forced or derivative of any specific tale.
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.
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.
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.