Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mr Sardonicus By Ray Russell

The title of this post is a tad misleading. You see, our small local mall holds a bi-annual book fair to which I take a box. Hardbacks are a buck and soft-covers, well they aren't pricey either. So. Going through the labyrinth of tattered, musty spines and sifting through the hordes of Danielle Steele (omg, who are you people living in my town?) I often stumble upon an award-winner or classic I haven't yet read and swoop in before the big guy with an even bigger box than mine spies my gold. But sometimes there is a book or two if I'm really lucky that simply seems intriguing and I chance the fifty-cents. For me it is Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural selected by Marvin Kaye.

Admittingly I do not have as many short fiction anthologies as I should, but I have a few and often the stories selected are more miss than hit for me (with the exception of Best American Short Stories - the edition with Good Old Neon by David Foster Wallace tucked in the back). This anthology of terror and the supernatural is right up my ally. I love me some black and white horror/gothic movies real bad. There has been gem after gem of short stories in here by some famous and not-so-famous authors, including Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelly, Isaac Asimov and even Walt Whitman. So far two short stories have made such an impression on me that I've got to share them with you.

The first is Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu (please note that Carmilla is available free through the link as long as you have downloaded the free kindle app or the like). Published in 1872, pre-dating Stoker's Dracula by 25 years, this feminine vampire tale is filled with atmosphere and telling. Set in a forested, remote castle in Syria, the young female protagonist, Laura, develops a friendship with a mysterious girl after a carriage accident leaves the girl at their doorstep, the mother and strange carriage men vowing to return in three months time and warning them the girl will say nothing of who they are or where they come from. Soon  neighbours start dying slow deaths. I'm not sure how I would feel watching the movie after reading such an expertly crafted story, but it has been adapted for the cinema a number of times so I might do some research and seek out a recommended adaptation.

The second, and title-sake piece, is Mr Sardonicus by Ray Russell that was first published in Playboy (1961). It tells of a young doctor who accepts an invitation to the remote skull castle of Mr Sardonicus and his lovely wife, whom the doctor harbours romantic feelings. When the doctor meets Sardonicus he is affronted by the peeled back lips and teeth which are affixed in a wide grimace, only ever found in cadavers. Thus begins the most original, haunting, atmospheric tale I've read. This story too has been adapted for the screen by Russell and was directed by William Castle. I can't wait to watch it.

It must be noted I read these short tales when the night is black and my bed covers warm. It's the only way to read such transporting, image rich tales.