R.B. Russell's Bloody Baudelaire Reviewed

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

R.B. Russell's Bloody Baudelaire is one of the latest books from the upstart publisher Ex Occidente. This novella is a bold new effort by Russell, whose short stories have haunted journals of supernatural literature for years, amid his work as chief operator of Tartarus Press. His previous short story collection by Ex Occidente, Putting the Pieces in Place, sold out rapidly and was well received by readers of weird fiction.

Unlike other books that seek out catchy titles in a bid for attention, Russell's Bloody Baudelaire lives up to its name in every way imaginable. The 71 page book is a quick, but fulfilling tromp through a heavy atmosphere of decadence and multifaceted tension. A fog of uncertainty clouds the strange happenings of this story just enough to give it an aura of unease, without any openly supernatural horrors coming onto stage. Readers are introduced to the young and ignorant Lucian, who is a guest at the Cliffe House, an almost Gothic construct haunted by the preternatural presence of the alluring Miranda and the Baudelaire-quoting miscreant Gerald.

The friend and girlfriend Lucian arrives with soon slip away from the narrative after a disastrous night of gambling, leaving him and Miranda sealed in the tomb like house with the ambiguous visitations of Gerald hanging over their heads. For a thin volume, Bloody Baudelaire is stuffed with all manner of thoughtful, heady dialogue among slabs of colorful description. Miranda and Lucian discuss art, life, love, and everything in between as they are assaulted by a battery of internal and external anxieties infesting the Cliffe House.

Russell boasts a definite talent for portraying troubled characters in a nominally modern setting. His figures are as talkative as they are reflective and philosophical--recalling an entertaining trait of 19th century literature (particularly French and Russian)--in a refreshing departure from most mainstream novels today. The conversations between Lucian and Miranda blossom into observations about existence. Thoughtful readers will enjoy pondering these from both their own perspective and those of the novella's odd characters. However, far from sounding like one of Plato's dialogues, Russell's story flows with an almost theatrical quality, leaving ultimate conclusions up to readers instead of handing down concrete truths.

The author also taps his considerable experience with weird literature to cast a spell of mysterious unease behind the actors' exchanges. The youthful Lucian is confronted with the disturbing mental and physical manifestations of Miranda's inner torture. Meanwhile, the evasive Gerald plays the part of specter until the potent mystery is uncovered at the novella's close. A painting of Miranda mysteriously changes throughout the story, leaving readers to speculate on the true identity of the artist as well as any Dorian Gray allusions. Russell might have exhibited this chief artifact of brooding strangeness a bit more in the novella, but the descriptions that are there enliven Bloody Baudelaire with an added layer of eeriness that should satisfy lovers of the weird and the decadent alike.

Like many effective stories, Russell's book defies genre labels. A solid case could probably be made for Bloody Baudelaire as a wide legged performer straddling the gap between weird fiction, neo-decadent literature, and modern mysteries. But why bother? The novella is what it is: a jittery, intelligent conundrum that leaves the shadowy questions raised by Cliffe House and its inhabitants with readers well after the book has been placed back on the shelf. On a strictly literal level, one could plow through its pages in the space of a couple hours or less. Fortunately, the weird and the decadent have never been one dimensional, and Bloody Baudelaire is proof that Russell understands this. The book should be read slowly for maximum effect, until the emotion-charged shadows of Cliffe House beam out through the ink and into one's mind, where the private hells of Miranda and Lucian can become strange neighbors to one's own.

-Grim Blogger

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