31 Days of Stories 2020, Day 24: “Sardonicus” by Ray Russell

From Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories

Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories by Ray Russell

In the annals of comic book movies, only once have two separate actors received Academy Awards for playing the same character. That character, the Joker, is one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable pop culture villains in modern times. What few people realize is that the inspiration for the character sprang from a 1928 silent film by Paul Leni called The Man Who Laughs. Based on a novel by Victor Hugo and starring Conrad Veidt in the title role, the romantic melodrama tells the story of a man whose face is frozen into a terrifying rictus grin. He falls in love with Dea, a blind woman impervious to his disfigurement.

The visual aesthetic of The Man Who Laughs was replicated for the Joker’s first appearance in 1940; both characters seeded inspiration for American writer Ray Russell’s 1961 story “Sardonicus,” about a renowned doctor named Robert Cargrave who is lured to a castle by an old flame in order that he may tend to the woman’s husband, whose face is disfigured in precisely the manner of the Joker and the man who laughs.

Whereas Leni’s film is firmly in the genre of melodrama, Russell is operating in the Gothic mode, complete with a castle that resembles a grinning skull, a monster hiding in the shadows, several killings, an exhumed corpse, and a damsel in distress.

The Gothic trappings are apparent right from the outset. The story opens with Cargrave receiving a letter from Maude Randall, a woman for whom he retains a tender affection. Now married to the eponymous figure, her letter is emblazoned with an ornate wax seal – an S “whose writhing curls seemed almost to grin presumptuously.” This not-terribly-subtle foreshadowing precedes a trip to Bohemia, where Cargrave finds Castle Sardonicus, “a dense, hunched outline at first, then, with an instantaneous flicker of moonlight, a great gaping death’s head.” The Castle, we are told, “exudes austerity, cold and repellent, a hint of ancient mysteries long buried, an effluvium of medieval dankness and decay.”

The repeated images of grins – from the rococo S on the wax seal to the castle facade that appears as a death’s head – find their apogee in the character of Sardonicus himself:

[T]he gentleman before me was the victim of some terrible affliction that had caused his lips to be pulled perpetually apart from each other, baring his teeth in a continuous ghastly smile. 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. A pallor approaching phosphorescence completed his astonishing appearance.

This description is congruent with the aesthetic of Veidt as the melancholy hero of The Man Who Laughs. But while Hugo’s character, like his literary confrere, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a sympathetic figure, in Russell’s story Sardonicus is a black-hearted villain, a lout who earned his money by digging up his dead father’s corpse to retrieve a lottery ticket, who drove Maude’s father to suicide and her mother to an early grave, and who threatens unspeakable sexual misdeeds on his wife should Cargrave be unable to cure his affliction.

Russell displays a familiarity with the tropes and tactics of Gothic literature, going so far as to mention in his story Ann Radcliffe, whose 18th century novel The Mysteries of Udolpho is frequently considered to be the prototypical Gothic novel. Neither is he above poking a bit of fun at the conventions of the genre, at one point having Sardonicus and Cargrave discuss the etymological derivation of the word “ghoulish.” The descriptions of the landscape are moonlit and fog-enshrouded, and the castle looms like a malevolent character in its own right.

Perhaps the most unpalatable Gothic convention, for a modern reader, is Sardonicus’s threat to rape Maude should Cargrave not comply with his wishes. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Russell’s collected Gothic stories, Guillermo Del Toro writes that “Russell has a savage streak in his prose, one that would today be considered inappropriate and even offensive. … Russell seems to wallow in a sadistic impulse akin to the conte cruel so aptly practised by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.”

While Del Toro is not wrong about Russell’s sadism, neither is the threat of sexual violence in the story gratuitous, if for no other reason than it provides Cargrave – and thus the reader – with an explanation for why Maude agreed to marry the deformed and heartless Sardonicus in the first place. (The physical disfigurement that is reflective of a rotten inner state is another Gothic trope Russell employs effectively – and ironically – here.)

Russell was the executive fiction editor at Playboy in the 1950s and 1960s; “Sardonicus” first appeared in the pages of that magazine. At more than fifty printed pages in book form, the story is long, verging on novella territory. It was filmed, as Mr. Sardonicus, by the notorious shlockmeister William Castle, working from a script by Russell. The film version eliminates the threat of rape and replaces it with a threat to mutilate Maude’s face should Cargrave fail, a sure capitulation to Hays Code restrictions on Hollywood productions that remained in force until 1968.

The change removes the story’s most uncomfortable element, but also denudes the Gothic atmosphere and accoutrements that help make the print version so thoroughly unsettling. Stephen King considers “Sardonicus” to be “perhaps the finest example of the modern Gothic ever written,” and Del Toro compares Russell to the filmmaker Mario Bava, “a supersaturated neo-Gothicist who shines above the premises of his material based on style, conviction, and artistic flair.” All of these attributes are present in this story, which has lost none of its power to shock in the fifty-nine years since it was first published.

31 Days of Stories 2020, Day 24: “Sardonicus” by Ray Russell

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