Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Tales of Jack the Ripper edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Serial killers hold the title of being the most terrifying form of criminal, yet also the most fascinating. Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy. The crimes they committed were numerous and brutal, and the complete lack of remorse they displayed made them all the more terrifying. While they all had more victims, many killed in a more gruesome manner, they still haven't quite achieved the status of Jack the Ripper. In his story, Ripperology, Orrin Grey's characters ruminate on this, and it seems that what makes the Ripper so legendary is that he (or she) was never caught. There is no face to put to the name. These other killers, once caught under the public spotlight, are just men with some really deep problems. Jack the Ripper remains a boogeyman. There are many theories out there, but the true identity and motives of the Ripper will forever remain a mystery, and with mystery comes power.

With this in mind, it's no surprise that editor extraordinaire Ross E. Lockhart chose Jack the Ripper to be the theme of his first publication from his new publishing venture, Word Horde, just in time for the quasquicentennial of the Ripper murders. Tales of Jack The Ripper contains seventeen stories (three are reprints, the rest original) and two poems (both reprints) from many notable weird fiction authors. While there are a few weaker tales, most of the tales are strong enough to carry their weight. Now on to the stories I liked.

Of the three reprints, Ramsey Campbell's is the strongest. Jack's Little Friend is a second person narrative, and adds a supernatural twist, that maybe the force driving Jack to kill is a parasite of sorts that can be removed and even latch on to others. In A Host of Shadows, authors Alan M. Clark and Gary A. Braunbeck present readers with a dying, elderly Jack. As death nears, the man who was once the Ripper ruminates on whether or not all the good he has done with his life since is enough to wash away his sins. In more pulpy fashion, Joe R. Lansdale's God of the Razor features an antiques dealer stumbling upon a dark entity that compels people to murder, entering their minds when they cut themselves on a razor. Bits of the story may seem silly, but Lansdale has the voice of a master storyteller and pulls off a creepy little tale.

The reprints come early in the book, making way for the originals. Sylvia Morena-Garcia's Abandon All Flesh is about a girl obsessed with a wax museum's rendition of Jack the Ripper. The girl is cold, and indifferent to much of what's going on around her, thoughts of the Ripper being the only thing that seems to draw a reaction from her.

Ennis Drake's The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker is another exercise in the second person narrative. Drake pens a tale of a man reenacting the Ripper murders, interwoven with other tales of violence, making for a commentary of our violence-saturated culture.

T.E. Grau's The Truffle Pig is one of my favorite stories in the collection, and a pure weird fictional take on the Ripper. Blending bits of Lovecraftiana with a confident narrative voice, Grau's Ripper is a misunderstood defender of mankind, constantly on the hunt to slice away the darkness.

Orrin Grey's Ripperology, as mentioned earlier in the review, offers some insight into what makes the Ripper so special among serial killers. These ideas are woven into a narrative about a friendship between true crime authors.

Hell Broke Loose by Ed Kurtz is a look into why the Ripper does what he does, and if anything is a prequel story in the Ripper saga. The protagonist of the story, Blake Prentiss, is a broken-hearted mess of a man who finds himself entwined with the brutal murders of local girls in 1885 Austin, Texas.

Edward Morris and Joe Pulver both take inspiration from Harlan Ellison's famous anthology Dangerous Visions, which included two connected Ripper stories. Robert Bloch's A Toy For Juliette sees a sadistic woman and her grandfather pull Jack into a dystopian future setting, while Harlan Ellison's The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World acts as a sequel. Edward Morris explores this theme of dislocation with Where Have You Been All My Life? In this story, Jack wakes up with amnesia far from home. Joe Pulver's Juliette's New Toy is a short piece told in Pulver's disjointed, poetic style.

Pete Rawlik's Villains, by Necessity throws Jack the Ripper, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, and many other turn of the century literary figures into a literary blender to produce a very short, very pulpy story that reads like the beginning of a much larger piece.

When the Means Just Defy the End creates a sympathetic Ripper with understandable motives, but loses steam when it veers into ghost-story territory. Stanley C. Sargent does a great job at giving readers a glimpse into the truly unpleasant and disturbing childhood memories of the killer.

One of the darker stories in the collection, Mercedes M. Yardley's A Pretty for Polly paints an unforgettable portrait of a madman. Over the course of the story, the killer's mental state deteriorates further and further, leading to an unforgettable ending.

Laird Barron's Termination Dust is the one story in the anthology that is not overtly about Jack the Ripper. Instead, Barron sets his slasher tale in a small, isolated Alaskan town. During a blizzard, someone goes on a killing spree. The story is not only an unreliable narrative, but it even tells the reader that it is. The answers are not laid out neatly, making for an interesting puzzle piece of a story, demanding re-reads. Barron's story has the distinction of being the best of the bunch, hands down. By taking some of the Ripper murder themes and turning them into an otherwise unrelated narrative, Barron's tale stands out as perhaps the most original piece in the anthology.

Tales of Jack the Ripper marks a strong debut for Word Horde. Lockhart, in usual fashion, has managed to put together a strong, multifaceted anthology that explores the Ripper legend at length. If this book is indicative of what's to be expected from his new press, than readers have much to look forward to.

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