Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 11: His Red, Wrong Life

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In 2009, how do you begin writing about Jack the Ripper? What can you say about him, at least in preface, that will add any insight to the man who, in the public mind, invented serial murder? Who, having never been caught, exists as both a historical figure and as a source of mythical horror (so he's like Dracula in that sense, I suppose)? You'd do as well to write about Santa Claus, for all you can add to the conversation. Oh, you could make a fool of yourself, I suppose, by concocting a new, poorly researched and barely thought-out theory as to identity, but even then you'll have your work cut out for you if you hope to reach the level of absurdity achieved by Richard Wallace, whose candidate for Jack the Ripper's true identity is Lewis Carroll (by the way, if you don't feel like picking up Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend, Wallace's book on the subject -- which I recommend you do, for the entertainment value -- then at least click on that link. It's amusing stuff).
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Fortunately for me, I'm not here to write about the Ripper murders as a piece of history, or as a symbol of certain cultural trends, both in 1888 and now, but rather as the subject of fiction. Which is, of course, difficult enough to do, as the list of novels, comics, films, poems and short stories is virtually endless: cheap thrillers by the handful; Hollywood B movies (or B+, in some cases) like Time After Time and Murder by Decree; Hitchcock's The Lodger (or John Brahm's The Lodger, or Marie Belloc-Lowndes's The Lodger); blasphemous, though still good, Sherlock Holmes pastiches like Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story; high literary novels like Lawrence Durrell's Quinx, or The Ripper's Tale, Paul West's The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, Ian Sinclair's White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Pat Barker's Blow Your House Down; and the grandaddy of them all, from where I sit, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's epic, and epically complex, comic book, From Hell...I think you know as well as I do that I've barely scratched the surface. So for my purposes today, the question has much less to do with how I am going to write about this subject, but how do writers still find a scrap of meat to pick off the Ripper's bones, and turn it into a meal?
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Apparently, they don't. Or rather, they don't necessarily concern themselves with the fact that the road they've chosen has already been well travelled, because, by pure coincidence, both stories I chose to read today -- chosen essentially at random -- deal with a Jack the Ripper who has survived into old age. I think it's probably safe to assume that, in reality, the murders stopped because the Ripper died (though who knows), but the legend is so powerful, so unhappily rich (and richly unhappy) that almost nothing is too much, or too ridiculous. The Ripper is a ghost to us now, and ghosts can do and be anything. The entire reason for this is because he was never caught, and unsolved murders refuse to be shaken from our collective conscious. Even attempts to downplay the dark mystery by focusing on the day-to-day, historical reality can't snap things into focus: James Vanderbilt and Brad Fischer, the screenwriter and producer for David Fincher's Zodiac -- and I bow to no one in my love for that film -- have both said that one of the aims of that film is to demystify the Zodiac Murders, but I believe it's a rare individual who leaves that film and doesn't have the strange facts and numerous unknowns of that case buzzing and scratching around in their brains.
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So...Jack the Ripper as an old man. The first story I read is by Charles L. Grant. It's a little nine-page affair called "My Shadow is the Fog", and it's a low-key, mysterious little story whose true nature isn't revealed until the end. The truth is, it would be easy to be entirely unaware that this is a Jack the Ripper story until the ending, if I hadn't found it in an anthology, edited by Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper, called Ripper! For most of its length, it appears to simply be a somewhat off-kilter story about an old man wandering along a beach, who finds himself bothered by a young girl. At first he humors her, but he grows increasingly frustrated by her presence, and her strange questions, and her unnerving familiarity, a familiarity whose source he cannot place.
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I will admit that, had I found this story in a less thematically specific anthology of horror stories, the fact that it's revealed that the girl won't stop talking about a strange man named Jack, who is "a cleaner", and further that the old man's name is Jack Light ("light" being an old euphemism for lungs), I might have been tipped off that "Jack" wasn't a randomly chosen name. But still, for the most part Grant's story is quiet, moody, and keeps its cards close. The final truth of what all of this means in relation to Jack the Ripper is maybe a little bit old-news, but it's handled quite well -- Grant gets the chill he's after, as well as a haunting, lingering quality that most stories that aim for a similar kind of stinger ending could never manage.
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The other story I read is by Lucius Shepard, and it has the wonderful title, "Jack's Decline". In Shepard's version of events, the Ripper -- whose identity Shepard doesn't bother to provide, because he knows it's irrelevant -- had been caught, or rather identified, by his own family, and privately put away in an upper-class mental institution. At the turn of the 20th century...
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...there was a reawakening of interest in the murders, new clues and rumors that struck close to the bone, and his family -- none of whom he had seen since the beginning of his confinement -- gave orders that he be moved from England, fearing that their awful secret would be brought to light. He was issued a German passport under the name of Gerhard Steigler, and one night in the autumn of that year, along with his warders, his doctor of the moment, and a trunkful of the drugs that kept his demon tame, he crossed the English Channel to Calais, and there entrained for Krakow in Poland.
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Shepard's Ripper is a man who fully believes that his bloodlust is not entirely his own doing, but more the fault of a demon who has possessed him. In 1915, a new doctor is sent to the Ripper's home at a hunting lodge in the hills of Poland. This doctor attempts psychoanalysis on the Ripper, and manages to dredge up a series of childhood traumas that the doctor believes is at least a clue to his patient's mental aberrations, but the Ripper is having none of it:
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"You claim, Doctor...that once I accept the connection between my childhood pain and the murders, a cure will be forthcoming. But those experiences only weakened me, made me susceptible to the demon and allowed him to enter and take possession of my body. There were supernatural forces in play. Witness the arrangements I made of the viscera...like some sort of cabalistic sign."
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Those visceral arrangements are, of course, another source of the eternal power of the Ripper's fact and legend, because they've never been explained, or decoded. Alan Moore exploited this aspect with great success in From Hell, but Shepard's Ripper doesn't even know why he did it himself. Something forced his hand to drape the organs just so, and he's at as a great a loss to explain the meanings of those bloody designs as anyone. But if he doesn't know, surely someone must.
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Perhaps you've noticed that Shepard has placed the Ripper in Poland during the early part of the 20th century. And perhaps you've come to a conclusion regarding where this is all leading. Perhaps you think that's a bad idea. Well, you're right about some of that. There are Nazis in this story. It's such an obvious ploy, bringing the greatest symbol of pre-20th century horror together with the greatest evil of the modern world, and see what shakes out. When I clued into where Shepard was taking this, I began to despair. But the truth is that, while a small group of Nazis, and their abuse of Jewish captives, does feature prominently in this story's second half, it's also strangely irrelevant. At least, these Nazis are irrelevant as Nazis, but they are relevant as their own representation of a different, modern kind of evil. At one point, a Nazi officer and the Ripper (who everyone knows as a harmless old man named Herr Steigler, of course) have a brief conversation about the definition of evil. The officer believes that evil "is a judgment made by history", and idea that the Ripper dismisses this idea. The officer goes on to insist that while war "may call for a repression of one's conscience at times", he hardly believes this counts as true evil. The Ripper takes note of the officer's uniform and responds:
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"Black cloth and patent leather and silver arcana. These are not the lineaments of a good soldier, Captain. They are designed to inspire dread. But apart from being psychological weapons, they are ritual expressions. Invocations of evil...Your invocations may prove effective and allow evil to possess you. Should that occur, you will have no joy in it..."
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Later, the Ripper and the officer have cause to speak again (and the Ripper will face his demon) under much different circumstances. When the officer refers to the Ripper as "Herr Steigler", the Ripper's response sums things up quite nicely:
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"I am not Herr Steigler," said Red Jack. "I am mystery."

9 comments:

Greg said...

Oh, you could make a fool of yourself, I suppose, by concocting a new, poorly researched and barely thought-out theory as to identity...

I'll have you know my theory is sound. I have concluded after years of research that Walter Mondale was Jack the Ripper. I know, I know, wrong time right? Wrong! He had a time machine and went back to commit the murders. His "Where's the Beef" slogan in 1984 was code for "Guess where I hid the bodies? Only I didn't hide them because I'm Jack the Ripper." Also, he was Mussolini. Oh yeah, and the alias he used was Herr Steigler. Amazing coincidence huh?

So yeah, you might want to apologize for jumping to conclusions about concocting theories. I think I deserve that much.

Word verification: Jack the Ripper was Walter Mondale.

I swear I'm not making that up. That really is the word verification. Really.

Really.

Okay I'm lying.

Michael said...

Wrong. I am Jack the Ripper! Mwuhahahahahaha!

I think that any figure, this sensational or not, without a defined history,(or at least significant gaps) is fertile ground to incorporate into a story. Your audience already thinks they know the character, but because there is only limited fact, you have creative carte blanche. It is unlikely that you would see stories involving JFK with such liberties taken as with the Ripper, or say, Caesar. This would apply to any genre; one of my favorite examples is Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, where Newton figures so prominently. I do think it takes a special kind of imagination to do this effectively and to not be so self conscious of history that you shut down creatively.

Plus, Time After Time was awesome! Sparkly crystal time-travel effects matched only by The Black Hole.

Greg said...

I loved Time After Time too but David Warner unfortunately didn't bear much of a resemblance to Walter Mondale.

bill r. said...

I loved Time After Time too but David Warner unfortunately didn't bear much of a resemblance to Walter Mondale...

Well, the truth hadn't come to light yet. Cut them some slack.

I tried to watch Time After Time again recently, and I must say, I didn't care for it. McDowell mugs quite a bit when no properly reined in, or given the proper mugging role, and the whole vibe of the movie just felt...goofy, I guess.

Michael (Mike S.? Is that you?) - Yes, the mystery of Jack the Ripper is one of the things that makes him such a ripe figure for horror fiction. Writers can let their imaginations just go, but it's still locked into basic facts, or assumptions, we all have that somehow grounds everything. A good writer can do wonders with that material.

Greg said...

I tried to watch Time After Time again recently, and I must say, I didn't care for it.

That's probably just because you're stupid. It happens.

Okay, seriously, it's goofy, very goofy, yes. But it's a comfort movie from childhood and I still like watching it although I probably haven't watched it from beginning to end in years, just snippets.

Michael said...

yes. Mike S here. Probably should have chosen a more descriptive id considering the first name.

Greg, have you seen a slim Mondale? I would revisit that theory of yours.

Anyway, is there a movie/tv show where McDowell doesn't mug? Perhaps it is 80s nostalgia, but I did think it was a decent, if campy, film.

horoki said...

I'm not really a reader of horror, so these posts have been interesting new ground. I would love to hear your thoughts on Zodiac sometime though, if you ever get around to it.

Tony Dayoub said...

What'd you think of Robert Bloch as a Ripper writer?

He wrote two of the more interesting takes on the Ripper, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" (1943), and the Star Trek episode, "Wolf in the Fold" (1967).

bill r. said...

Tony, I was going to bring up Bloch, but I ran out of time, and, also, I forgot to.

I remember really liking that STAR TREK episode, but it's been years. But I was going to bring up "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" because it gets my vote as the most ripped-off story of the 20th century. I'm probably exaggerating, but if you come to that story for the first time now, it will have no impact on you, because the vultures have picked it clean.

He also wrote at least two other Ripper stories, the short "Toy for Juliette" -- which is a companion piece to Harlan Ellison's far superior Ripper story "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" -- and the novel Night of the Ripper. By the time Bloch wrote that novel, he'd run out of steam, and the book is, unfortunately, pretty silly.

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