The blurb on the back:
Count Ferencz Nadasdy - Charming, handsome, irresistible ... and depraved beyond redemption, an indulger in fiendish rites.
Bit of a cult item this one, a collection of three longish short stories from the mid-1960s that hark back to the glory years of Gothic and exist somewhere between homage and pastiche.
The first, 'Sanguinarius', is a reworking of the story of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the 16th century Hungarian aristocrat who became one of history's most notorious mass murderers. Told from her perspective, it takes on the sheen of an apologia, but is somewhat constrained by Russell's decision to write it as though it were an authentic 16th century text, translated contemporaneously into English. It's a nice idea, but not one that he pulls off:
The final story, 'Sagittarius', also bounces ideas off a psychopath from history - in this case, Gilles de Rais, but there are also elements of Jekyll & Hyde, Jack the Ripper and the Théâtre du Grand Guignol. And it's a fun little historical romp, framed in the traditional manner by an elderly man recounting tales of his youth.
And in the middle there's the strongest of the trio. 'Sardonicus' is the story of a wealthy Polish man whose face is frozen into a horrifying grin akin to that of the risus sardonicus found in extreme cases of lockjaw. Told by the eminent English doctor summoned to try radical treatments to cure this chronic affliction, it's got a very Poe-lite feel that can't help but entertain fans of traditional horror.
It was filmed in 1961 by William Castle as Mr Sardonicus and proved to be one of Castle's better efforts, i.e. it was still total rubbish but it was at least watchable. Russell adapted the story for the screenplay, which was the strongest element in it. The weakest was the traditional Castle gimmick, which in this instance was an appearance by the old charlatan himself asking the audience to vote on whether the villain should be punished or not. The result of the so-called Punishment Poll was clearly known in advance, since no alternate ending, with Sardonicus getting away with his crimes, was ever filmed.
Anyway, the appeal of the book is the gleefully dated quality of the writing. This is the 1960s, after all, when the past came up for grabs, when playing with history was hip. Pure froth, but cool.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5