Book Review: The Abyss: A Journey with Jack the Ripper, David Ruffle (2013)

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Speculative Fiction for the Ripperology Set

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

A quirky little novella, The Abyss: A Journey with Jack the Ripper imagines the birth and development of infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. Born into a staunchly religious household, only child James is routinely abused by his traveling lay-preacher father and arguably sadistic mother. When mum dies in her sleep (supposedly of natural circumstances – but what of her bloodshot eyes?), James is sent to live with his Uncle George and Aunt Katherine in Surrey. After several peaceful years in this household, a now sixteen-year-old James discovers that Katherine is cheating on her husband. His reaction? He blackmails her into buying his silence with sex, and then arranges for his uncle to accidentally walk in on one of her trysts anyhow. An enraged George murders Katherine, and James is unleashed on the world.

The man who would eventually come to be known variously as “Jack the Ripper,” “the Whitechapel Murderer,” and “Leather Apron” finds his way to the East End of London, where he takes on a series of menial jobs, many of them involving the slaughter and butchering of animals. Unhappy, poor, and a perpetual underachiever, he begins to take out his aggression and low self-esteem (to say nothing of his misogyny) on the local population of sex workers.

Told in the third person, James’s story is interspersed with chapters written from the viewpoints of his “canon” victims: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly. I appreciate this approach, since it helps to humanize and give voice to women who are so often overlooked (or worse, objectified and demonized). This is somewhat undercut, though, but the chapter titles, which refer to the women by number: one through five, corresponding to her sequence in Jack the Ripper’s killing spree.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: History Is Dead: A Zombie Anthology, Kim Paffenroth, ed. (2007)

Monday, July 16th, 2012

History Is UNdead!

four out of five stars

Zombies have coexisted with humans since before the birth of h. sapiens – that is, if we’re to believe the team of “crack historians” behind History Is Dead: A Zombie Anthology, edited by Kim Paffenroth (2007). And why not, when believing is such bloody good fun?

While at least half of the twenty stories found in History Is Dead take place in the past 200 years – with America and Europe proving popular settings – the rest stretch as far back as the Pleistocene epoch. (“This Reluctant Prometheus,” in which members of the homo ergaster species become infected with zombie-ism after consuming an infected wooly mammoth, is one of my favorites.) Zombies are credited for bringing humans the gift of fire, rescuing a Viking kingdom from insurrection, inspiring budding horror author Mary Shelly, and administering vigilante justice to Jack the Ripper. They appear on Civil War battlefields and in East End slums. They infiltrate the United States government in their quest for gooooold. (An “Indian” curse gone weird. Don’t ask.) The Great Fire of Chicago? Started by zombies, the first of which was created when Biela’s Comet rained a mysterious green rock onto (and into) Pat “Paddy” O’Leary’s Aunt Sophie. Zombies, it seems, are all around us.

As always, anthologies are difficult to review, since you’re apt to take a shining to some pieces more than others. Overall, History Is Dead is a quick, enjoyable, entertaining read – perfect for a morbid Saturday afternoon at the beach. I polished it off in under a week, which is near-record speed for me. Though they share a common theme, each story in this collection is unique. In some, zombies make a brief, even ancillary cameo – while in others they serve as the story’s protagonists. A bloody, gory, over-the-top collection of shoot-‘em-up zombie tales this is not.

In fact, it could be argued that zombies aren’t even the scariest monsters to be found within the pages of HISTORY IS DEAD. Take, for example, “Junebug” – which comes with a major trigger warning – in which a preacher (at the End Times Church, natch) uses the looming zombie apocalypse as a pretense to sexually enslave one of his young parishioners (June or “Junebug” of the story’s title). After several months of living with him – with her parents’ permission, ostensibly to babysit his children due to his wife’s illness – she becomes pregnant from the repeated rapes. Cast out by the preacher, she finds no solace from her family, as they blame her for “seducing” her rapist. June and her sole defender, brother Ethan, ultimately meet a gory end – and yet, even at their “worst,” the reader has more sympathy for the zombie siblings than for their human victims.

I found a similar pleasure in “Awake in the Abyss,” which finds Jack the Ripper’s “canonical five” victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – along with a sixth woman, narrator Nelly, awakening from the grave in order to avenge their deaths…as only zombies can. I bet you never thought you’d find yourself rooting so enthusiastically for the zombies, eh?

(This review also appears on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper, Patricia Cornwell (2002)

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

Intriguing theory, but ‘Case Closed’? – Hardly!

three out of five stars

In PORTRAIT OF A KILLER: JACK THE RIPPER – CASE CLOSED, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell tackles the true crime genre with mixed results. With the help of modern-day forensics, she attempts to prove that Walter Sickert (1860-1942), an English Impressionist painter, was in fact Jack the Ripper. She lays out an intriguing, albeit largely circumstantial, case. However, one could hardly say that she’s managed to do what so many before her have not – that is, close the case.

To her credit, Cornwell presents the reader with a volume of evidence that points to Sickert as a viable suspect in the Ripper crimes. She draws on paper, watermark, handwriting, and mitochondrial DNA analysis, and also delves deep into Sickert’s personality, expounding upon his childhood traumas and adult eccentricities in great detail.

Of particular interest is a childhood condition that may have caused damage to Sickert’s penis, perhaps to the point that he was impotent as an adult. Clearly, Sickert endured lengthy hospital stays and several surgeries as a young boy. Unfortunately, hospital records kept during this time were spotty, so it’s impossible to tell whether Sickert did in fact suffer from a fistula on his penis – or if the fistula was instead located on his anus (as the more commonly accepted theory goes).

Certainly, it’s possible that the results of a penile fistula suffered in the days before modern medicine – i.e., the inability to have sex `normally,’ and/or the grotesque appearance of one’s genitalia – could cause a man to hate that which he cannot have, that is, women. Although Cornwell assumes that Sickert did in fact have a fistula on his penis as a boy, and was disfigured by the resulting surgery, she has no concrete evidence to support her claim. Since this is a significant part of her argument – after all, she presents it as Sickert’s primary motive for the killings – it tends to weaken the rest of her case, which she presents in pieces as she describes the Whitechapel murders.

The “penile or anal fistula mystery” is illustrative of what follows. Cornwell has certainly done her research; yet, when all her digging fails to turn up any conclusive evidence, she shows herself more than willing to take huge leaps of faith. What results is a case built almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. It makes for an interesting read, but to call the case closed is preemptive at best (and, quite frankly, Cornwell comes off much worse, what with the smug, know-it-all tone she takes, particularly throughout the first third of the book).

Another major point of contention is that Cornwell explicitly refuses to consider any suspects other than Sickert. She briefly dismisses John Druitt, who committed suicide shortly after Mary Kelly was murdered, but Druitt is literally the only other suspect that Cornwell mentions by name. In fact, she explicitly states that it’s not her place to clear other suspects in PORTRAIT OF A KILLER, which strikes me as rather disingenuous (especially when her case against Sickert is so flimsy!). Throughout the book, Cornwell seems so eager (“overeager” is putting it mildly) to implicate Sickert – continually referring to him as “Jack the Ripper,” a “killer” and “psychopath,” etc. – that one has to wonder whether her inexplicable hatred of Sickert clouded her judgment. Or perhaps mere stubbornness is to blame? It seems that, once Cornwell had her sights set on Sickert, on went the blinders, rendering the author incapable of registering any information that contradicted her theory that “Sickert did it!”

Other reviewers have complained that the book is disjointed. While Cornwell does jump back and forth in time, it didn’t bother me. Rather, I thought it was a nice narrative technique. I do agree, though, that the book ended abruptly. One moment, Cornwell is describing how Sickert mistreated his second wife; the next, the poor woman is dead and buried, and so is the book. I’m still puzzled why the discussion ended with the wife’s death, and not Sickert’s, particularly when Sickert’s murderous tendencies (allegedly) continued.

Finally, a note on the various formats. I first listened to PORTRAIT OF A KILLER as an audiobook on CD. Kate Burton did an excellent job of narrating, assuming both elite and Cockney English accents with ease. The play-like quality of the book also helps to offset the abrupt switches in place and time. The unabridged version, which I borrowed from my local library, ran eleven discs (the current version available on Amazon, which is listed at five discs, seems awfully short – even for an abridged book).

Not long after finishing the audio book, I ran across the hardcover edition at a used book sale and snatched it up. It has a number of pictures, including a few autopsy photos, Sickert family portraits, and snapshots of Sickert’s artwork and handwriting, side-by-side with that contained in some of the Ripper letters. After listening to Cornwell’s comparisons of Sickert’s and the Ripper’s (or the Ripper imposter’s) handwriting and scribbles, it was interesting to compare them for myself, firsthand. Suffice it to say, I was less impressed with the similarities between the two men’s handiwork than was Cornwell.

In summary: Serious Ripperologists will most likely hate this book. Very little of Cornwell’s evidence is bulletproof, and her arrogance can be off-putting (doubly so to those who have been studying Jack the Ripper for years). Even so, I found the book entertaining and thought-provoking. Cornwell’s description of 1800s England and early police work, along with comparisons of modern and centuries-old forensic techniques, makes PORTRAIT OF A KILLER worth a read alone. We’ll probably never know who killed Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes, Kelly, and possibly others – or if they were even murdered by the same person – but it’s “fun” to wonder. Cornwell’s theory, at the very least, makes for an engaging exercise in “what if?”

One star for the thorough research, another for the author’s captivating writing style, and a third for sheer entertainment value.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)