Ray Russell’s Haunted Castles, Reading Proust, & Marilyn French

haunted castles ray russellI dislike horror.

I gave up on Stephen King’s The Shining.

I was terrified by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

They may be good horror genre books, but in general I prefer novels without ghosts or psychics.

Intrigued by the new Penguin series of the best in classic horror, however, I picked up a copy of Ray Russell’s Haunted Castles:  The Complete Gothic Stories, a collection of engrossing, but stylistically unexceptional tales.

In “Sardonicus,” the narrator-doctor, Sir Robert Cargrave, visits his former girlfriend, Maude Randall, and her husband, Mr. Sardonicus, at their castle in Bohemia.

He is one of those precise, detached scientific narrators we know from the tales of Poe and Le Fanu.  He accepts their invitation somewhat reluctantly and says amusingly of travel:

I am not–as my friend Harry Stanton is–fond of travel for its own sake.  Harry has often chided me on this point, calling me a dry-as-dust academician and ‘an incorrigible Londoner,’ which I suppose I am.  For, in point of fact, few things are more tiresome to me than ships and trains and carriages; and…the tedium of travel itself has often made me think twice before going out on a long voyage.”

He discovers that Maude is terrified of her husband, and when he meets Mr. Sardonicus, sees that the man’s lips are pulled back horrifically in “a mirthless smile.”  Mr. Sardonicus asks Sir Robert to operate on his face, though that operation has not, as it were, been approved by doctors.  It cannot end well…

The other tales are equally gloomy.  In “Sagitarrius,” an actor turns out to be demonic.  In “Sanguinarius,” a happy wife learns that her husband and her new female lover are not what they seem to be. In “The Runaway Lovers,” two lovers are put in a dungeon and horrified beyond imagination.

And so on…

There is a repellent, sadistic turn to these tales, as with so many other horror tales.

They’re for Halloween.

But I will certainly never read anything by Ray Russell again.


For a long time I went to bed early.  Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself, ‘I’m falling asleep.’

swanns-way proust lydia davisYes, that is Lydia Davis’s translation of the beginning of Proust’s Swann’s Way, which I persuaded my husband to buy, because I deserve the latest translation.  I will begin Swann’s Way in November, the centennial of its publication, and  I plan to read all of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in the next year.

Marcelle Clements, author of the excellent novel Midsummer, says in her article, “How to Read In Search of Lost Time” at Oprah.com, that we should read it quickly.

…here is the secret: Read fast. Read for plot—though you won’t understand what the plot is until the end. Don’t be frightened by the size of the novel. Critics scare readers off by talking of it as a cathedral.

Wouldn’t that be great?  Stay inside for hours…read…no distractions…get that app, “Freedom,” that keeps you off the internet.

But that is not going to happen.

I’ll be reading slowly.

It should take me at least a month to read Swann’s Way.  And then I’ll read something else, and then go back to In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

DO YOU ENJOY MARILYN FRENCH?  Open Road Media has reissued four of Marilyn French’s novels and one memoir as e-books:  Her Mother’s Daughter, A Season in Hell (a memoir), My Summer with George, The Bleeding Heart, and Our Father.

French is best known for The Women’s Room, a best-selling feminist novel, which I read many years ago.  How nice that her other books are available.

I plan to read Her Mother’s Daughter while I roast the turkey on Thanksgiving:   I always read a family saga or other pop book on Thanksgiving.   One year I read Edna Ferber’s Giant. You get the picture.

If you’ve read and enjoyed anything by Marilyn French, let me know.

8 thoughts on “Ray Russell’s Haunted Castles, Reading Proust, & Marilyn French

  1. I liked your comment on Trollope19thCStudies on the gothic, but am too tired to answer it specifically; here I’d like to say there is a central problem with the gothic: literally it’s a kind of sick genre, and those who enjoy it (as I do) approach it metaphorically,ignoring absurdities as well. I love the opening of Proust: once I had it on a tape and Izzy was in the car with me:she was so arrested by the description of a person in bed I knew she was electrified to discover someone had an experience like hers. She was very young at the time. I’m really writing to say yes I’ve read French and it was Season in Hell. I cannot say I enjoyed it, but it was riveting and I learned from it. She’s smart and candid enough.


  2. Ellen, I’m not as familiar with the Gothic as I’d like to be, except for Le Fanu’s novels. I rarely read short stories, and that is one of my problems with ghost stories. Ray Russell’s Gothics are good in their way.

    Oh, Proust is lovely!


  3. Gothic I can take – particularly older Gothic – but the modern Stephen King type horror makes me feel sick. In fact I’ve pretty much stopped reading *modern* crime novels because I can’t take the gore! As for Proust – good luck and I agree with the slow reading. I’m astonished at someone saying to read it fast – surely you’ll miss all the beautiful language?? Looking forward to hearing how you get on!


  4. Yes, Karen, I’m with you here. I avoid horror and crime.

    I did manage to read some Proust relatively quickly last night, but I’m sure I will slow way, way down. Reading fast is a mind set… Proust almost reads more like nonfiction than fiction!


  5. Gina asked me to post:
    “I am sure that I read The Women’s Room when it came out in 1977 and I was in college, but I dont remember it. I read a couple of pages in the Amazon preview but it doesnt seem familiar. One read so much in those days. Maybe I will try it for Thanksgiving!

    “I do remember reading French’s Shakespeare’s Division of Experience while in a Shakespeare class and I liked it very much and still have it in a bookcase in my bedroom. And after all the years and the books/houses/different places, that’s high praise indeed. But i havent read it recently, I will take it down this weekend and have a look and see if it still communicates with me.”


  6. Gina, by the way, let me know if you reread The Women’s Room and if it is any good. I have a copy from a sale for $1! (Though the family saga, Her Mother’s Daughter, is slated for my Thanksgiving.)

    I haven’t read her on Shakespeare: I should read her nonfiction.


  7. Kat, I saw the movie ‘Mr. Sardonicus’ when I was in the 8th or 9th grade. It scared the you-know-what out of me. I had nightmares for weeks. I didn’t know (until now) that the movie was from a story. It still creeps me out to remember the leeches that Mr. S used to experiment with (on a woman, of course) in an effort to see if they would relax his frozen facial muscles. Creepy, creepy movie.


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