Gothic Revival

Unholy Trinity by Ray Russell (1967), containing the following novellas: “Sanguinarius” (1967), “Sardonicus” (1960), and “Sagittarius” (1962): Penguin recently re-released this slim volume of three novellas. If you enjoy Gothic fiction, you should buy it.

Ray Russell fiction-edited Playboy over its first several years. He was also a very talented writer. Unholy Trinity collects Russell’s three Gothic-infused novellas of the 1960’s. They pay homage to both the general tropes of Gothic and pre-Gothic texts and to specific texts within that long tradition. Stephen King once characterized the most famous of the three, “Sardonicus,” as the finest Gothic homage ever written, and I don’t necessarily think he’s wrong.

First in the collection and last to be written, “Sanguinarius” retells the true story of the Bloody Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, who slaughtered young women and bathed in their blood to remain youthful back in 17th-century Hungary. Russell’s style mimics English literature around the same time — the diction occasionally ventures into the territory of grue-filled plays by Shakespeare, John Webster, and others from that century. The novella establishes a remarkable level of sympathy for Bathory while also bringing the reliability of her narration into question throughout. Technically pre-Gothic in literary time, it reflects the style and content of Gothic influences that include The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, The Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth. Its a marvelous piece of work about a lot of dreadful people.

Secondly and first-written is “Sardonicus,” adapted into a movie entitled Mr. Sardonicus in the 1960’s. Set during the 19th century, Russell’s novella is a brilliant whole of description, characterization, and plot: only the psychology feels a bit too modern for the tale to be a lost story from the end of the Gothic’s dominance. It’s an immersive pleasure, a joy to read. It also straddles the line between natural and supernatural throughout its narrative, a common attribute of the Gothic; deployed within, to fresh and startling effect, are such tropes as the sinister, wealthy male; the younger woman in terrible peril; horrifying physical disfigurement; a dark and terrible castle; a blighted landscape; torture; and many, many others.

Finally, there is “Sagittarius,” Russell’s tip of the hat to Jack the Ripper, the Grand Guignol, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  As with the first two, this is told as a reminiscence of horrors past, though the frame-tale now exists in 1960’s New York. And, another tip of the hat, that frame tale takes place in a gentleman’s club, that oft-used setting for the frames of ghost stories. It’s another terrific piece, especially in its evocation of the Grand Guignol theatre in late-19th-century Paris, with its excesses of horror and titillation.

As noted, this volume now exists as a Penguin reprint under the collective banner of guest editor/presenter Guillermo del Toro. It’s a terrific example of a writer conjuring up tales that seem to be from another time yet nonetheless remain determinedly contemporary in their sensibilities. Highly recommended.

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