Craig Russell’s new stand alone gothic horror serial killer thriller The Devil Aspect has an alternative title: Where the Devil Hides: The strange truth behind the occurrences at the Hrad Orlú Asylum for the Criminally Insane. This is a bit of a mouthful. But is in keeping with the retro, pre World War II styling of the novel. And there is more going on here than just strange occurrences at the asylum.
When The Devil Aspect opens, psychiatrist Dr Victor Kosárek is on his way to the Hrad Orlú Asylum in the mountains of Czechoslovakia to take up a new post. The asylum is famous in that it is used to house six infamous killers, known as the Devil’s Six. Victor has been hired to try a new technique on the six and to test his theory about the ‘devil aspect’, a hidden part of the personality that drives bad behaviour. At the same time, in Prague, a series of gruesome killings, reminiscent of the deeds of Jack the Ripper, are challenging detective Lukáš Smolák and slowly a link emerges with the Devil’s Six.
The Devil Aspect is more gothic horror than crime fiction. Long sections are taken up with Victor’s interviews with the six inmates of the asylum, each has a disturbing story to tell about how they came to become killers. And when he thinks he has identified his devil aspect, he finds a similar voice emerging from more than one patient and starts to believe that perhaps it is, as his patients are saying, the devil himself. A feeling starts to emerge of a single power behind these killings that is also connected to the current spree in Prague.
Craig Russell leans heavily into the gothic atmosphere. The asylum itself is housed in an old castle nestled into a mountainside that is itself built on a site that is reputed to be a gateway to Hell. The townsfolk call the asylum by its old name the Castle of Witches and are replete with stories of evil and the actions of evil characters from local mythology. Between the castle and its nearest township is a thick fairytale-style forest which itself hides secrets. And the Prague of Lukáš Smolák is full of dark alleys, prostitutes and eviscerated corpses. Meanwhile, the drums of war are beating from Germany and the real horrors of World War II loom on the horizon.
Overall, The Devil Aspect is an engaging, if overly long, gothic thrill ride. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that in the end Russell tries to have it both ways. He does provide a twisty, page-turning and satisfying solution to much of the violence and mayhem. But in a coda he also leaves the door open for a more supernatural explanation.