Ray Russell - Sardonicus And Other Stories (Ballantine, 1961)
Cover painting: Richard Powers
Sardonicus The Actor The Cage The Exploits Of Argo The Sword Of Laertes Montage Booked Solid Take A Deep Breath The Pleasure Was Ours The Room I Am Returning Incommunicado His Father’s House Last Will And Testament The Rosebud London Calling Ounce Of Prevention
Sardonicus: Sir Robert Cargrave, Harley Street specialist, receives an invite from old flame Maud Randall to visit she and her husband at Castle Sardonicus in Bohemia. When he arrives, he finds his former sweetheart much changed, the once carefree and vivacious girl now sad and distant. One look at her pale-to-the-point-of-translucence husband explains the situation: he is disfigured with “Ricus Sardonicus”, his lips permanently pulled apart to display his teeth in perpetual ghastly smile. The affliction was brought on when, as a young man, he dug up his father’s body to attain the winning lottery ticket that was buried with him(!).
Sardonicus first tries to bribe the doctor by promising him a night of passion with Maud if he’ll operate, then threatens to rape her when the disgusted Cargrave refuses. Reluctantly, our hero complies with the madman’s wishes …
The Cage: The Countess is about to begin an affair with her husband’s right-hand man, who many suspect is the Devil Incarnate. Worried at her husband’s penchant for torture, she demands her fiendish suitor grants her wish: “Make this beauty never fade. Make it withstand the onslaught of time and violence. Make me - no matter what may befall - live forever.” When the Count discovers her infidelity, true to form, he locks her in his favourite contraption for the night, just as her treacherous lover is advising the enemy army how best to take the castle …
The Exploits Of Argo: Thirtieth century. Argo III, Emporer of the asteroids is on the run after "a lifetime of atrocities all committed in the names of humanity, freedom, fair play, the will of the majority, our way of life and the preservation of life as we know it." An angry populace, led by his son, is determined to inject him with the black elixir, a lethal drug which kills but keeps one conscious of pain for seven days in an undead condition, during which time he will undergo all the tortures his enemies can inflict upon him. Argo escapes to Zero, home of the last wizard, who transforms him into a were-vampire.
A hundred years later Argo is still alive, tormented beyond endurance by thirst, having drained the last drop of blood from the last wizard. He cannot be killed as Zero is an unvegitated planet and has no precious metals so stakes and silver bullets are out. Worse, there is no let up in his unliving Hell as, lacking a Sun, planet Zero has no day ...
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty. - Christine Campbell Thomson