Reviewed by Rod McLary
The Devil Aspect can be described as a modern Gothic horror story. It meets all the criteria for such a story – it effectively combines fiction and horror, death and romance, and is even placed within a Gothic castle in rural Czechoslovakia. Although the author is not German, there is a strong German influence evident through the story to the extent that it could – and does – safely fit the German version of Gothic literature – the Schauerroman or ‘shudder novel’.
The Gothic castle houses the Hrad Orlů Asylum for the Criminally Insane where the Devil’s Six are resident under heavy guard. The Devil’s Six are so-called because they are ‘homicidal lunatics’ who have committed unspeakable crimes of violence and for whom there is no other place which can securely and safely imprison them. The Asylum – described as ‘a place where evil is bound’ – is located in Mladá Boleslav in ‘the dark heart of Europe’. As an aside, Mladá Boleslav is a real city and is now one of the more prosperous cities in northern Czechoslovakia.
The castle itself almost seems to be alive and there are moments within the novel where the castle appears to take breath. It is local folklore that the castle sits over a passageway direct to Hell. While that thought is somewhat frightening in itself, it is more frightening to consider what this may mean for those residing within the castle walls.
A new graduate in Jungian psychiatry – Dr Viktor Kosárek – is on his way to the Asylum to test his theory of the ‘Devil Aspect’. This theory is based on Viktor’s assumption that the devil aspect is within us all and only needs the right circumstances in which to manifest itself and for us to commit the most barbaric acts. It is Viktor’s intention to test his theory by drugging each of the Devil’s Six to overcome their egos and to allow him to access their deepest thoughts and memories. By this process, he hopes to access the devil aspect within each of them and to use the knowledge he gains to heal others.
The following extract provides some insight into the process.
The effect [of the drugs] was like watching the peeling of an onion as layer after delaminated layer of Macháček’s personality was shed. First was the physical restlessness, the fidgeting fingers stilling; then the tensions in his expression, his eyes. Macháček’s characteristic, continuous impatience fell from him. 
There is a rhythm in this extract which is consistent throughout the novel and which demonstrates a thoughtful and considered writing style by which the reader is thoroughly engaged despite the subject matter.
Needless to say, Viktor’s attempts to delve deeply into the psyches of psychopaths does not end well. However, Viktor’s arguing in support of his theory with other scientists, who perhaps have a more cynical view of the Devil’s Six and their futures, allows for an interesting and challenging discourse on Jungian theories and the nature of evil.
The Devil Aspect is set in late 1935 against the backdrop of Europe’s momentum towards World War Two which manifests itself in the novel in the growth of the Sudeten German Party and its anti-Semitic beliefs. Sudetenland was then an area in northern Czechoslovakia which was largely populated by ethnic Germans and an area on which Hitler wanted to press his claims for annexation. Viktor and Judita Blochová – the personal assistant of the Asylum’s Director and later Viktor’s lover – are both Jewish and it is not long before they experience anti-Semitism at first-hand.
The developing romance between the ‘attractive, tall and handsome – if in a slightly imperious way’ psychiatrist and the ‘tall, slim, dark-haired woman [with a] sad, dark beauty’ who is Judita – adds a welcome frisson of sexual excitement as a counter-balance to some of the events in this story of psychopathy and evil.
Both Viktor and Judita have deep seated and unresolved trauma from their respective childhoods and how this plays out in the present contributes a further dimension to their romance and a further source of tension to the story.
The novel begins as it means to continue with the description of particularly brutal and gruesome killing in Prague. One sentence may be more than enough to provide an indication of what was seen by the investigating police officer: But this – this latest hell – was unsurpassed . The more sensitive reader may not want to continue beyond this point.
But not continuing would mean missing a taut and gripping thriller. Certainly, there are gruesome and barbaric events which jolt the reader but there is tension and excitement as well; and a writing skill which transcends the murderous events throughout the novel.
Reflecting the former career of the author, there is also an ongoing police investigation into a series of killings which echo those of Jack the Ripper. In the hunt for Leather Apron – as the killer is nicknamed – the police officers cross paths with Viktor more than once and, in the final nail-biting dénouement, arrive at the Asylum.
Overall, The Devil Aspect is a gripping and confronting Gothic tale of horror and romance.
Craig Russell is an award-winning novelist who has won the CWA Dagger in the Library and the McIlvanney Prize and has been shortlisted for the CWA Golden Dagger, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and the SNCF Prix Polar in France.
He is a former police officer and his novels have been translated into twenty-five languages and four have been made into films in Germany.
The Devil Aspect
by Craig Russell
ISBN 978 1 4721 2834 8