Obituary: Ray Russell

Jack Adrian
Saturday 27 March 1999 01:02

RAY RUSSELL specialised in the mid-century equivalent of the conte cruel, a potent and often grisly mix of grand guignol, sick humour and American gothic (in a line that runs directly from Poe through H.P. Lovecraft and now takes in such chroniclers of the putrefying psyches as Bret Easton Ellis). His chief plot elements - or at any rate the ones he utilised with what seemed the greatest facility and enthusiasm - were torture (chiefly of the medieval variety), perversion, sexual violence, grotesqueries, and irony of the most dreadful kind.

He was a prolific short-story writer, and on occasion wrote to novel length, but his favoured form was the novella of roughly 15,000 to 30,000 words. Some of his most engrossing, and ghoulish, fictions are contained within that shorter frame, including "Sagittarius" (which, though starting and finishing in the 1960s, features scenes actually set in Paris's Theatre du Grand Guignol in the 1900s, its extravagant heyday), and "Sanguinarius", a gory (as its title implies) retelling of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory story (the heroine - for want of a better word - is taught various depravities including how to bathe in the blood of young virgins, but dies in a frenzy of madness and despair, entombed alive).

His best-known work, "Sardonicus", a novella of exceptionally savage irony, features a man whose face is fixed in an eternal rictus so that his mouth can hardly close. He torments a surgeon psychologically, forcing him to perform an operation which will relieve his condition. The surgeon's revenge is brutal: he too is a master of psychological cruelty and persuades Sardonicus to believe subsequently that now, far from being unable to close his mouth, he cannot open it. Powerless to eat or speak, Sardonicus suffers the tortures of the damned before starving to death.

Surprisingly this piece of old- fashioned gothic did not appear first in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, say, or any of the other weird fiction monthlies of the day, but Playboy. Although perhaps not so surprising, since Russell was an executive editor of Playboy during its formative years (the 1950s), and kept a strong connection through to the 1970s, editing (anonymously) many of the celebrated Playboy anthologies, including The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1966) and The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural (1967).

It was mainly due to Russell that Hugh Hefner's brainchild became one of the finest showcases for imaginative fiction (principally SF and horror) during the 1950s and 1960s, Russell bringing in real talent such as Ray Bradbury, Henry Slesar, Frederic Brown, Kurt Vonnegut (his small classic "Welcome to the Monkey House" first appeared in its pages, next to greased- lens shots of pneumatic blondes doing extraordinary things to themselves), Frederik Pohl, Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Robert Bloch and - Russell's greatest discovery - the remarkable Charles Beaumont, with whom he was later to write a screenplay for Poe's The Premature Burial (Beaumont was hugely talented but luckless: in his late thirties he succumbed to a degenerative disease which prematurely aged him and destroyed his mind; when he died, at 38, he looked 100).

Ray Russell was born in 1924, served in the South Pacific theatre of war in the US Air Force (1943-46), was briefly at the Chicago Conservatory of Music (1947-48), the Goodman Memorial Institute (1949-51), and the US Treasury. As well as becoming a long-standing contributing editor to Playboy, he wrote for a variety of markets, including the Paris Review.

Like his peers, and close friends, Beaumont and Richard Matheson, he recognised the cultural significance of genre fiction, especially when translated into screen terms, and wrote a number of screenplays, including that for his own Mr Sardonicus (1961), as well as The Horror of It All (1964), Chamber of Horrors (1966), and the excellent junk-flick for lovers of late-night horror on the television The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963; a vehicle for Ray Milland at his most manic), for which he and his co- screenwriter Robert Dillon won the Silver Globe at the Trieste International Film Festival in 1963.

Some screen plays of favourite projects never made it to camera, however: for MGM, Odd John (based on the British novelist Olaf Stapledon's 1935 classic about mutants) and, perhaps surprisingly, Rip Van Winkle. Another unfilmed script was Dorian Black, a modern version of Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray.

Russell's novel The Case Against Satan (1962) described a priest wrestling to exorcise a young girl possessed by the Devil a whole decade before William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. His third novel, Incubus (1976), combined psychic sleuthing with sickening sexual horror (a demon with a penis the size of a stevedore's arm is raping young girls in a hopeless attempt to continue its line: thus instead of impregnating them it is rupturing them beyond surgery). His forte, however, was for much shorter fiction, and it is his savage mordant novellas which will be remembered by devotees of the disturbing.

Ray Robert Russell, writer: born Chicago 4 September 1924; married 1950 Ada Szczepanski (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 15 March 1999.

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