Posts tagged book review
I know what everyone knows about Jack the Ripper: Whitechapel serial murderer of the late 19th Century. Five victims, all prostitutes. Taunting missives to the authorities. Some odd, ritualistic elements to the crime scenes. Never caught, and so the bogeyman figure of Jack is shadowed in conspiracy and horror to this day. And that? That’s about it, as far as my knowledge of the Ripper goes. Not what you’d call “in-depth”. I’ve (partially) seen From Hell, but it was around the time I was going off Alan Moore’s work and I was nursing a compound hangover at the time; it may have been switched out for Solaris, which is more friendly to morning-after-regrets.
So I was a little worried when I received an ARC of editor Ross Lockhart’s latest anthology, Tales of Jack the Ripper. Did I know enough about Jack to be able to really enjoy the book? Would I have to be a Ripperologist to dig the subtleties, savour the grim flavour of the thing? I’m glad to report that I shouldn’t have been worried at all, and that any reader coming anew (or relatively so) to the world of Jack the Ripper through this collection is doing themselves a huge favour. There are broad, masterful strokes here but with just enough tasty minutia to encourage further reading.
Down for bloody details and speculation on Jack’s identity? Ennis Drake’s The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker, Pete Rawlik’s Villains By Necessity and Stanley C. Sargent’s When The Means Just Defy The Ends are all serviceable tales well told, if a little dry.
The devil for me, at least as far as Jack is concerned, isn’t in the details: he’s in the place where the Ripper legend grows beyond the details. In the shadows. And there were a few standout authors here that really make the collection live, with stories that pulled inspiration from those shadows, the true bogeyman aspects of Jack…
It’s been years since I read any Ramsey Campbell and I was glad to find that time has not diminished his skills. Jack’s Little Friend is a prime example of Campbell’s claustrophobic, harrowing style of cerebral horror, and the final scene of this tale of possession and obsession is truly stomach-turning. It’s subtle, his use of the singular horrific image, but devastating in its effect, as is the way Campbell places the reader behind the eyes of his victim. Look-over-your-shoulder amazing.
The Truffle Pig by T.E. Grau lets a little Lovecraft into the book, and for that I was surprised and grateful. This story is great fun, riffing on the ritualized aspects of the murders, but taking things much further than the standard “Freemasons did it” conspiracy theory, into the realms of the cosmic and deep into the past.
I also enjoyed Abandon All Flesh by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Jack here is a display in a wax museum, mooned over by a young girl. It’s basically a coming-of-age story but Moreno-Garcia also weaves in Central American myth systems (with their focus on bloodletting and sacred murder) to create a unique perspective on the Ripper legend and a meditation on our fascination with him and his descendants. It’s “Death and the Maiden”, Mexico-style.
I wasn’t sure, even upon reading it twice, how exactly Laird Barron’s Termination Dust related to the Ripper, but frankly, I didn’t care, because (not unlike Campbell’s story) this one is pure Barron: hard-scrabble, terse, monstrous, funny… tough people performing bad works for worse reasons on the frontiers of the continent and the human soul. Which I guess is Ripper territory after all. I wish I could write like Barron; everything he puts out is a class for me, and I’ll be coming back to Termination Dust again and again.
E. Catherine Tobler’s Once November is the ghost story in the bunch and it is a beautiful, heartbreaking look into the lost souls of Jack’s victims. The writing here is superb, and there are interesting spectral mechanics and the kind of poignancy that makes a good ghost story work. Sorrowful and soft, Once November is a great way to close out the collection.
The only entries which fell a little flat for me were from the two Joe’s: Joe R. Lansdale and Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. The set-up for Lansdale’s God of the Razor comes off as a bit of standard E.C. Comics grue and Pulver’s Juliette’s New Toy is… I want to say experimental (ie. daring, innovative) but this prose-poem is essentially a hallucinogenic word-salad with more cleverness than craft in evidence. By the end of this short piece, there’s some hint about a (possibly female) Ripper in space? Dunno. It’s a weird, off-note.
All the stories are book-ended by two poems by the talented Ann K. Shwader, Whitechapel Autumn, 1888 and Silver Kisses.
Editor Ross Lockhart (Book of Cthulhu and Book of Cthulhu 2, Chick Bassist) has done a stand-out job with Tales of Jack the Ripper. This one’s going out to certain names on my Christmas list, that’s for sure. You know the ones. With their “funny little games”. Recommended.
Available for purchase soon from better independent booksellers everywhere and now available through the following online booksellers: trade paperbacks and Kindle editions through Amazon.com, TP and Nook editions through B&N, Powell’s Books, IndieBound, Book Depository, and Kobo ebooks.
I’m primarily concerned with horror in my work, and as such I’m all too aware of how the genre can bog down in its own awfulness and become comfortable with the feelings it delivers. Which is why I appreciate it when writing that is not horror brings that emotion to the forefront. Even better if the horror is that of Self, of the shadow within. Enter NIRA/SUSSA…
With NIRA/SUSSA, author Julian Darius has created a Lolita for the 21st Century: brutal in its honesty and honest about its brutality. And make no mistake, this is a brutal piece of fiction, on a par with the work of Brett Easton Ellis or Nick Tosches at his noir-ish best. NIRA/SUSSA explores the DMZs and No Man’s Lands between writing and living, man and woman, sex and love, fiction and reality with skill, eloquence, and, at the end of the day, a helluva lotta nerve. There are only a few writers these days who dare to go to the places this book goes.
As with Ellis, there were moments where I had to stop reading Darius’ book: moments of fear, of shame, of clear-eyed appraisal of my own history. He goes places (within the narrative itself, and within the soul of man: within your own soul, if you are honest, and NIRA/SUSSA ensures that you will be by the time you reach the hinge of it) that make you recoil in disgust at the same time you are attracted. This is a book you lean into, horrified, like a spectacular car wreck that you crane to see more of, even though the seeing will scar you. This is Humbert-Humbert’s journey of exploitation and transcendence, transposed from mid-20th Century middle-America into the bleeding-edge realities of our current moral minefield, into the heart of the international pornocracy. This is lovely, dangerous Lolita with a black AmEx and a free pass to the Castle of Silling. This is the author, as narrator and as educator, asking the reader: well? What would you do, if there was no one to stop you?
Perhaps there are readers out there who would respond with “well, I wouldn’t do that!” but NIRA/SUSSA claims, and rightly so, I think, that they protest too much. The real horror of the book lies in the moment when it forces you to map your own proclivities, kinks, and hidden desires onto a larger stage. Does a club such as the one detailed here exist? Do such things happen? Do such things have the potential to happen, given enough money and power and prestige? Just how far do people go?
What would you do, how would you change yourself, and others, if there was no one to stop you?
It’s a really awful (in the original sense) question to ask, and it takes a lot to ask it, and not botch the asking (or the novel) in the attempt. Darius has succeeded here, to my mind, and I’d love to see NIRA/SUSSA get more exposure, though it’s the kind of book that will likely give the majority of readers digestive trouble.
NIRA/SUSSA deconstructs many things (social fabrics, moral boundaries, the writer/reader relationship, itself) and though it tidies up after itself a little towards the end, there are some messy parts to it that refuse easy resolution, some negligible holes in the plot, the odd off-note in characterization (would the narrator really find a hotel room with a pool to be as amazing as he does, all things considered?) and, in a narrative that is utterly believable most of the time, the occasional moment of “seriously?” (the narrator parading Nonette around town in restaurants despite an earlier concern about his employers finding out about their unconventional relationship)… but these moments are few and far between and do nothing to lessen the impact of this very daring novel.
NIRA/SUSSA is going to stick with me for a while, as much perhaps as Ellis’ American Psycho, Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante (which has similar things to say about writing and living truly), and of course Nabokov’s Lolita, to which this is a loving tribute and excellent companion piece. Recommended.