Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Power of Three - 25th Installment

Here’s another trio of terror with which to disturb your Friday morning coffee break routine. Possibly you’ll remember all these three from tremulous times past, but if you don’t I’ve hopefully whetted your appetites to go out and look them up.

Again, all three of these classic chillers were chosen entirely at random. I assure you it’s completely coincidental that this week’s selections include two authors who were also famous for their children’s writing. That was not intentional in any shape of form (Do you think I’m playing games here?) Not that there is much that is child-friendly about the tales I’ve chosen today.

Happy recollections …

Sardonicus by Ray Russell

A London neurosurgeon travels to a castle in Bohemia, where his former sweetheart is married to the local count, a one-time pauper who found wealth by digging his father’s rotting corpse from the grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket, but in the process so shocked himself that he now wears a perpetual demented grin.

Possibly the most gothic of all gothic stories, not least because it introduces to us one of horror fiction’s most memorable madmen, and also because it literally puts Grand Guignol on the printed page. The condition Risus Sardonicus is actually real, so no matter how horrible this story becomes it’s based on a kernel of truth. Yet the real monstrousness of the character Sardonicus stems not from his gargoyle appearance but from his sheer wickedness. Compared to Cargrave, the morally upright hero, he is the epitome of malevolence. The relish he expresses as he lists the sexual depravities to which his wife will be subjected (and which she will deserve, in his opinion), if Cargrave fails to cure his affliction, is delightfully ghoulish but also plumbs the depths of conscience-free insanity. The environment matches S’s personality to a tee. No grimmer castle has featured in dark literature since Dracula; the surrounding landscape is appropriately bleak, empty and soulless. And the sting in the story’s tail is one of those great twists of well-earned fate, but at the same time it reinforces the story’s key message – no matter how rich the trappings of the supernatural, the worst malignancies in this world are strictly of human origin.

First published in PLAYBOY, 1961.

The Swan Child by Joan Aiken

Two confident kids seeking sponsorship money make cheery rounds of their village. They are advised to avoid a bungalow on the outskirts, but decide they won’t, and here meet a nice lady who agrees to contribute, though she suggests they don’t return for their money after dark. Of course, you can’t tell these youngsters anything.

Okay, it’s a little bit on the nose, this one. Like most of Joan Aiken’s work, it was aimed at a younger readership, but it’s beautifully written and very evocative of long summer days in rural England. It’s also as spooky as Hell. The meeting with the occupant of the bungalow is a masterly scene as our intrepid heroes only slowly begin to notice eerie details: her dirty feet; the scars on her wrists. Once they’ve got away without anything unpleasant happening, it’s quite a relief, though you just know that these two – typical Aiken youngsters, in that they are mannerly but also independent and assertive – are going to drift back there, and indeed there’s a real air of impending doom as they commence the long return journey from their charity walk, the target of which was an ominous figure – the titular swan Child – cut into the hillside by Iron Age mystics. They’re now on their own, they follow endless dusty paths between endless hedgerows, around endless ploughed fields, never meeting anybody, drawing ever closer to the mysterious bungalow as dusk approaches. To say more would be too much of a spoiler, but it’s worth mentioning that there’s a startling turn-around at the finale which, just in case you’d already decided what this was all about, puts everything into an even more uncanny context.

First published in A WHISPER IN THE NIGHT, 1981.

William And Mary by Roald Dahl

A widow is shocked to learn that her controlling husband has arranged for his life to be extended by having his brain preserved in a basin of cerebrospinal fluid, with one eye attached so that he can still watch the world. It isn’t long, however, before she realises that she can turn this to her advantage.

Another of Dhal’s cunning black jokes developed into a full-blooded if somewhat rib-tickling horror story. We are in vintage Dahl territory from the outset, with distinctly non-sentimental characters on all sides – the hospital’s matter-of-fact preparations for William’s death would be quite outrageous, were he not so selfish a person himself. Even Mary – innocent, abused Mary – turns out to be somewhat sly and devious, and maybe even, were we to hang around long enough, a little ‘wanton’. At the same time, fantastical (some would argue ‘nonsensical’) science is never far away. I certainly don’t know if all it takes to keep a disembodied brain alive is to pump it regularly with oxygenated blood, but you get the impression it would work from the scholarly exposition we get here. Of course, we know that the plan is never going to succeed as it was intended, but as always with Dahl’s work, we accept everything at face value and wait eagerly to see villains get their just deserts. Though it’s not perhaps quite as unexpected an ending as we’ve come to anticipate from the master of that sub-genre, the denouement is still very clever and great fun when it arrives. Of course, as so often, the real subtext investigates the latent vindictiveness that lurks within us all, even those of us who on the surface lead such civil and restrained lives.

First published in KISS KISS, 1960.

No comments:

Post a Comment