RUSSELL GRAY -
Godfather of Extreme Horror
Introduction to Hostesses in Hell and Other Stories
The Selected Stories of Russell Gray
A femme fatale laughs wildly at the spectacle of one of her enemies dangling from a chain as while her henchman burns off her breasts and facial features with a red-hot branding iron. A woman screams her way into the depths of insanity as she is brutally ravished by a lust-crazed beast man. Young women sob in despair as they realize that they are fated to become hostesses in Hell!
Are these from the novels of the late master of the macabre, Richard Laymon? Perhaps fevered visions from the lurid short fiction of Lucy Taylor? Slices of afterlife in Hell from the City Infernal novels of the acknowledged master of hardcore horror, Edward Lee? Or possibly even excerpts from tales written by your humble editor during his splatterpunk years?
The answer is “none of the above”, all these and many more similar scenes were written during a four-five period by Bruno Fischer writing as “Russell Gray” (and occasionally as “Harrison Storm”).
In the 1950s readers of Fischer’s mystery novels were more than likely a little shocked by the lurid excesses in his gothic tour de force, House of Flesh. It really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, after all, he’d written some two million words of similar fare twenty years earlier.
The weird menace genre as a whole lasted a mere eight years, from late in 1933 into the start of the next decade. By 1936, the kings of the genre were Wyatt Blassingame, Arthur J. Burks, Hugh B. Cave, John H. Knox, and Arthur Leo Zagat; few noticed a short story entitled “The Cat Woman” in the pages of Dime Mystery Magazine. A fine story (included in this present volume) it was fairly low-key and gave little indication of the explosion that was to come in the following year.
In 1937 the standard formula of the weird menace tales (a seemingly supernatural menace being revealed to have a rational explanation) was starting to wear a bit thin. Increasingly, the big guns like Wyatt Blassingame, Arthur J. Burks, and Paul Ernst would stray from the editorial guidelines in order to present straight-forward supernatural yarns, or in the event of a rationalized ending postulate one that was science-fictional in nature.
Editor Rogers Terrill realized that he would have to step up his game in order for Popular Publications to maintain its dominance of the field. Up until then the heroines were often threatened with “a fate worse than death”, but were always rescued by the hero in the nick of time. This was becoming as old hat as the chain-rattling specters in British ghost stories. The readers wanted something new and Terill’s concept was to turn up the dial of sexual sadism and have monster(s) get the girl before being rescued! In a word, the sex and sadism that had always been hinted at was brought to the fore.
Some authors, such as Paul Ernst were having none of it and turned to other markets with their contributions to the weird menace magazines dwindling as their sales elsewhere increased. Other authors such as Blassingame and Knox turned things up a notch without missing a beat, and one author who had been a sporadic presence since the early days, Wayne Rogers, found this new direction much to his liking and subsequently doubled or nearly tripled his output. There was also a new star in the firmament who was so adept at this new direction that he made it practically his own, even to the point of getting the coveted top billing away from the old masters. The author was Russell Gray, frequently aided and abetted by Harrison Storm (both pseudonyms of Bruno Fischer).
The sheer perversity of his plots may have caused many readers some apprehension as to “Russell Gray’s” mental health . . . For what it’s worth, I’ve found that the authors capable of the darkest and most perverse fiction are generally among the nicest people imaginable (the three modern authors I mentioned being stellar examples); and by all accounts the same can be said of Fischer and his contemporaries. It’s the folks writing about happy shining people and cute talking animals that I tend to worry about . . .
However, I digress . . . To get back to what Bruno Fischer did and arguably did better than anyone else before or since was to envision the worst things that could happen to a person and then turn it up another notch. What he also did and did extremely well was to provide characters that you believed in; (that stood up and cast a shadow, to paraphrase Faulkner). Lesser writers in the genre gave the reader cardboard cutouts that were of no more interest than the interchangeable teenagers in a low-budget slasher flick. Fischer’s characters lived, breathed, and felt . . . Often what they felt was horrible pain, enough to make the reader wince. You can see Fischer acquire more polish as a writer from his debut through his work in the late 1930s. Certainly there were some misfires along the way (not included in either collection, by the way), no one can crank out over a million words a year without the occasional misstep. In Fischer’s case he claims to have sold 90% of what he wrote during the period and there were enough imitators of the “Big Three” by the end of the decade that it’s likely some rejects from Dime Mystery Magazine, Horror Stories, and Terror Tales found other homes. In fact, one-third of this book is comprised of stories from other sources, and I can’t see any of the three being rejected due to lack of quality. For that matter, the selection from Sinister Stories may well be one of the finest tales in the genre by anyone!
Regardless of the publication, Fischer is never less than competent. At his very worst he offers up a paint-by-the-numbers cliché such as where a young couple accept an invitation from an elderly scientist and find a mumbling recluse in a ruined mansion, shunned by the locals and rumored to have an awful Thing in the cellar. Of course, the couple goes poking around and mayhem ensues. A sad example of an “idiot plot” as defined by the late Damon Knight. In short, a plot wherein without everyone behaving as an idiot there would be no story. “That sounds like the roar of a horrible monster in the cellar!” “Indeed it does! Let’s go down there armed with nothing but a flashlight and see if it attacks us!” That sort of thing . . .
Still, even when producing a bit of laziness like that, Fischer’s pacing is still crisp enough to make the story an enjoyable, if predictable, read. In these two volumes we have the luxury of selecting from the top 20% of Fischer’s work as Gray and Storm. This book will be followed by Satan’s Showgirls late in 2011. It remains a strong possibility that there may be a third volume. Certainly there’s enough material to produce a third book without diluting quality.
Dip into to these tales one at a time, as though you were having Buffalo Wings made with ghost chiles. These stories are strong stuff, not to be taken all at once. Read one and imagine the sensation of encountering the story embedded in a magazine filled with milder fare. You may feel a tingle of horror, you may even be repulsed, but what I can guarantee is that you will not be unaffected. More than anything else, Bruno Fischer as either Russell Gray or Harrison Storm will affect you; and after all, isn’t that what good writing is supposed to do?
Gallup, New Mexico
Winter Solstice — 2010