R.R. Ryan is a forgotten master of the macabre. The author of several British publications that appeared in the 1930s and 40s (precious few copies of which survive), Ryan only truly rose to prominence in the 1980s, with the appearance of Karl Edward Wagner’s contributions to the Twilight Zone Magazine’s fabled “Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf.” In his listings Wagner singled out three of Ryan’s books, ECHO OF A CURSE, FREAK MUSEUM and the present novel--which took another three decades to see print, courtesy of the ever-eclectic Ramble House.
Since the appearance of Wagner’s write-up much ink has been spilled by Ramsey Campbell and others about the true identity of R.R. Ryan, a mystery John Pelan, in his introduction to the present book, claims to have solved. According to Pelan “R.R. Ryan” was actually Denice Jeanette Bradley-Ryan, the daughter of a successful playwright. THE SUBJUGATED BEAST is said to be Ryan’s most overtly sadistic novel, and seeing as how Ryan is (in Pelan’s words) the “Godmother of Splatterpunk,” that claim is not to be taken lightly.
It’s about Curl, a young woman who as a condition of her inheritance is obliged to live with her mad scientist uncle Paul. The other major catalyst for Curl’s move into her uncle’s house is the sudden death of her mother, which occurs, curiously enough, a week after Uncle Paul shows up at their house for a visit.
That’s the set-up for a story that starts out slowly but steadily gains in malevolent intensity, as Curl comes to suspect that her weird uncle is up to no good. Her suspicions are triggered by the condition of Uncle Paul’s residences, including the appropriately named Castle Grim and an even more forbidding abode in Wales (which comes complete with a cat named Satan) where Paul winds up together with Curl and her Aunt Beatrice.
As for the latter, she exhibits a disturbing aloofness that seems bequeathed by Uncle Paul. It seems he has an interest in abnormal psychology, and is using Beatrice as a guinea pig in some unholy psychic experiment. Curl obviously isn’t happy in this atmosphere, but figures she can leave any time and is only staying to “protect” her aunt. But then one day Curl awakens to find her legs completely paralyzed, and so becomes a literal prisoner to her uncle’s sadistic whims--or more accurately those of her aunt, who under Paul’s demented tutelage appears to be developing into a much uglier version of herself. As Curl concludes, her uncle “held aunt’s mind under a thrall as a snake a rabbit, as a spider his fly.”
The above-quoted splatterpunk comparison may be a bit of a stretch, but there’s no denying the harsh, sadistic charge of this book. The buildup of suspense is expertly handled, and culminates in a stunningly bloody climax. The specter of the supernatural is breached throughout, but (as the final pages make clear) the true demons haunting this tale are those of sadism and insanity. Only a nauseatingly out-of-place happy ending mars the effect.