Erik Ruhling's Book 'Infernal Device: Machinery of Torture and Execution' Brings the Pain

The headcrusher

New book on torture devices brings the pain

Jesus Christ and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were my gateway to a fascination with torture.

It began with Sunday School illustrations of Jesus' back being flayed, thorns ripping into his scalp, the puncturing of his feet and hands with large metal spikes. Imagery that simultaneously scared me and filled me with awe.

Shortly after that, I discovered the vintage Aurora glow-in-the dark Universal Studios monster models (now running for hundreds of dollars, if you can find them on eBay) and their Hunchback kit.

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Unlike the cinematic environments for the other monster models, there was no French cathedral bell tower for this guy. Instead, the love-lorn "monster" is hog-tied and chained to a pedestal in such a way that his whip-torn back and its gaping shreds of skin are exposed in clinical detail. While I had previously been able to drip some blood on a model here or there, this allowed me to grab my bottle of shiny red acrylic paint and go to town.

Aurora soon upped the ante with a model series based on titillating grade-Z horror-movie clichés. Their female Victim model—wearing Daisy Dukes, her huge breasts barely covered by an open blouse tied at the waist—could be strapped to an electrocution console. Far more intriguing was a hanging iron gibbet with a row of sharp spikes at the bottom (which the Victim gamely fit into), alongside a barbecue pit filled with red-hot coals and a pincer. Even better was the swinging-pendulum model straight out of Roger Corman, with the Victim conveniently separating at the midsection as the blade did a Black Dahlia on her.

I was too young and too removed from the historical use of torture that I didn't connect with the ugliness of what these things represented. When concerned parents and feminists succeeded in getting the Aurora toys banned, it was more imposition than admonition. It wasn't until I developed a political consciousness as a teen, saw movies such as The Deer Hunter and The Falcon and the Snowman (where Sean Penn, tied to a chair, gets whacked in the face with a telephone book during an interrogation), and heard the Clash singing about Chilean folk singer Victor Jara that I could put cruelty into its inhumane context.

In his fascinating new 92-page book, Infernal Device, graphic designer Erik C. Ruhling proudly admits to having had a similar fascination with the grim wares of political persecution, and he has re-created a diverse series of torture tools with the help of 3D software. While there are times when the images might have been enhanced by seeing the machines in use—I just couldn't wrap my head around how some of them operated, despite Ruhling's accessible text—after the past few years of graphic torture-horror flicks, I have to say I'm kind of glad he didn't. Infernal is a quick read, a page-turner that's surprisingly informative and even ripe for a sequel: There's no way Ruhling could get to every monstrous machine possible in less than 100 pages.

He gets to enough gruesome gadgets, though, that leaving this little collection lying around your abode virtually guarantees horrified attention from anyone stumbling across it. Imagine your friends grasping at the sides of their heads to ward off the Ear Chopper (a device that fits over the head and has what looks like those heavy grade-school paper-cutter blades on the sides); groaning as they look at the spiked Knee Splitter; imagining the screams of people burning alive inside the beautiful/horrible Brazen Bull; or feeling their sphincters snap shut when reading this description of the Pear of Anguish: "The device is constructed of four metal leaves surrounding a central screw, looking much like a pear. . . . Inserted into the mouth, rectum or vagina . . . these pears were supposedly "spring-loaded," springing apart at a touch."

It's hard to say whether Infernal Device is an enlightening history lesson, a nifty/cool coffee-table book for the Goth set, or a guide for S&M aficionados looking to spice up their sex life. Safe to say all three. If your friends fall into its morbid clutches and aren't dumbstruck over the pictures and descriptions, this timely conversation starter will have them talking about Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, or all those men in orange jump suits over in Cuba. Buy a copy. It's your civic duty.

Infernal Device: Machinery of Torture and Execution by Erik C. Ruhling; Disinformation Company Limited; Hardcover, 92 pages, $14.95.

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