THE SUBJUGATED BEAST by R. R. Ryan (2013,Ramble House)
“#13: The Subjugated Beast. Ryan could be extremely sadistic when the mood was on her, and the mood was usually on her, and it certainly was here. Ryan could combine psychological cruelty with Grand Guignol horror better than any writer going, except perhaps Charles Birkin, and she had a knack for putting her characters into situations that would have given Hitchcock qualms. This would have made a great Hitchcock film, although the British probably had laws against such things.”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, June 1983)
The Subjugated Beast is one of the two R. R. Ryan books released recently from Ramble House. The other, Freak Museum, also made the KEW list in 1983. Ryan has the distinguished award of having 3 books on the list, more than any other author. After reading Beast, I can understand why: it’s one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read.
The new edition also has ignited another skirmish in the controversy over the identity of R. R. Ryan. James Doing over at Wormwoodiana feels he has conclusive proof Ryan was the author and theater producer Mr. Evelyn Bradley. But in the introduction to the new edition of Beast, John Pelan puts forth his thesis that Ryan was Kings’s daughter Denice Jeanette Bradley-Ryan, who published several books of her own. Pelan offers family memories from Bradley’s grandson as proof. James Doing brings up actual book contracts and a death notice which states: “Evelyn BRADLEY otherwise Rex RYAN” as his smoking gun. I’m starting to wonder if the novels might have been a collaboration between father and daughter.
The Subjugated Beast begins with a back-story about the narrator’s family. One of her ancestors was a confidante with the infamous highwayman and cannibal Sawney Beane. Another went crazy and killed several people in a rampage. It seems a little out-of-place, but the opening chapter is significant later on in the book.
The book is narrated by Kyrle Rock. Curl, as her friends call her, has been living with her mother all her life. She’s in her early 20’s and is being courted by a young medical student named John. At the opening of the book, she learns of her grandfather’s will: she is to be the recipient of his fortune. But the will is conditional on her living with and under the guidance of her Uncle Paul, a famous scientist. Her boyfriend John informs Curl her uncle is known as”The Eunuch of Camberwell Green”, since he was injured on his wedding day, preventing the consummation of his marriage.
After visiting her uncle at his decaying mansion in Camberwell, Curl’s mother passes away. She decides to immediately move into the mansion with her uncle and his wife. And then the book really gets strange.
Curl suddenly notices Uncle Paul’s wife, her Aunt Beatrice spends every dinner time eating under-cooked meat. Uncle Paul is an aloof character who spends most of the day in his private laboratory, which we never get to see.
As Curl describes her uncle:
And yet when we did stand face to face, he and I, there did not seem so much about him that was formidable. He was unusually tall, angular and cadaverous. But there also seemed present in his physical make-up a quality of slackness, an air of burnt-out fires. His eyes lacked all lustre and expression. They were like precious stones fallen dead; lamps that give no light. He seemed to hang over himself, as if his abdominal muscles had not the power to support his powerful torso. Truly, I told myself, fate, in robbing this man of his manhood, had also robbed him of vitality; left a husk in place of an automatous human being.
Shortly after moving into “Castle Grim”, her uncle announces the three of them are moving temporally to the mountains of Wales. He doesn’t give a reason, just announces it at dinner. Stunned, Curl manages to get the mailing address to John, before leaving Camberwall. John wants her to stay, as he’s convinced Uncle Paul is up to something.
The second half of the novel is set in Wales, near a large river in the mountains. Curl describes it as a desolate and isolated place. Her Uncle Paul moves them into a decaying structure only known as “The Wheel House”. All contact is severed with the outside world. Their food and mail is delivered once a week by a local man. Curl sees the Welsh in the distance, but only has a conversation with one.
She finds out the house was the scene of a several gruesome murders and is shunned by the locals. As the woman tells her:
“It’s stood long enough empty from time to time; and why? Death waits in the Wheel House for those who dare its solitude . . . Three times since I was a girl folk have died in there. The first was slain; the second broke his neck; the third hanged himself. In my Grandfather’s time, a man was knawed to death by the rats. If you stay —”
Most of the Welsh fauna is hostile: while listening to the local woman tell her about the house, Curl is bitten by large fly. The steps are populated with snails. Feral animals roam the countryside and attack anything they can for food. Storms keep her awake at night. Even the household cat is known as Satan.
The days pass. Her aunt continues to eat under-cooked meat at the table under the close supervision of her uncle. One day Curl discovers she’s lost the power to walk. Her uncle refuses to take her out of the house, convinced he can treat the condition himself. Her aunt begins to act increasingly unstable.
And then her uncle begins to lecture Curl and her aunt on his theory of inherited memory. Basically, this is an odd concept about people being influenced by the deeds and memories of their ancestors. Frank Herbert used it to great effect in the Dune novels. Uncle Paul explains to both of them that Aunt Beatrice’s ancestors were involved in hideous crimes in the past (which accounts for the first chapter). And Curl realizes the purpose of the stay in Wales is to test out his theory in a controlled environment
The novel has two surprise endings. I won’t give them away, but they are consistent with the rest of the book. This is an outstanding horror novel where the sense of dread creeps up on the reader. I don’t think I’ll be too quick to visit the Welsh marches after reading it.