I had a couple of questions about this book, and books on Jack the Ripper in general, when I first sat down with it. One: is it okay to base a piece of entertainment on a real-life serial killer? I realize that it happens all the time in the horror genre – most of our favorite fictional killers are based on the actions of real-life murderers. But giving those characters different names and placing them in different circumstances at least adds a layer between the made-up atrocities and the true ones.
There is no such buffer when it comes to Jack the Ripper. Although we don’t who Jack really was, we know he existed, and we know what he did, and who he did it to. We know their names. Editor Ross Lockhart dedicates this book to them. So we know, going in, that we’re about to read a group of stories about a man who took five human lives… that we know of.
Is that okay?
My other question was: why does this particular killer attract so much attention? Why, more than a hundred years later, are we still fascinated with his story? What about him is enough to spark the imaginations of the twenty authors represented here, and the countless others who have examined the legend in fiction and nonfiction before them?
I got my answer to the second question about halfway through the book, in a story titled “Ripperology” by Orrin Grey. In it, Grey writes that Jack still holds power over us because we don’t have a face to put with the name. With other killers, the mystique is gone; with Jack, it is still there. We don’t know if Jack was a man, a woman, one person or more. We don’t know what sparked the killing fire, and we don’t know what quenched it. “Suddenly, the Ripper was no longer just a killer, but had become something that was alive in every heart,” Grey writes. There is no single theory that can explain what happened; therefore, everyone has a theory to share.
As for my first question, I had my answer by the time I’d reached the end of the book. I don’t believe it’s okay to be entertained by the wanton murder of five real people – but that’s not what this book is about. It’s not a glorification of Jack the Ripper – it’s an examination, from multiple angles, of the myth that has grown up around his (or hers, or its, or their) actions. Lockhart has not put together the print equivalent of the Friday the 13th film series, in which the murderer becomes the hero. This is not an ode to a killer of women. This is, instead, a look at the power that Jack the Ripper holds over us, even today.
There are stories told from the killer’s point-of-view; “A Host of Shadows” by Alan M. Clark and Gary A. Braunbeck, for example, in which the man who was Jack is on his deathbed. He knows what he did but he’s never been sure why, and he’s spent his life trying to “balance the scales” through good works. He’s been so successful at it that his son is driven to desperate acts in order to remove himself from his father’s “saintly” shadow.
There are stories that wrap the Ripper legend in the supernatural, such as Joe R. Lansdale’s classic “God of the Razor,” in which a drop of blood on the right blade drives any man to murder.
There are stories about the Ripper’s bloodline, like Patrick Tumblety’s “Something About Dr. Tumblety.” And there are stories like “Ripping” by Walter Greatshell, a nasty little piece of misdirection that uses the Ripper legend as a launching point and nothing more.
What Lockhart has done with this anthology is to show that the Jack the Ripper story has grown far beyond who- or whatever murdered those women all those years ago. It’s become a myth, grounded in fact, and the reason it continues to hold power over us today is because we still don’t understand what happened, or why, and we likely never will. Stories like that are the stories that continue to frighten us, and until we can banish those shadows forever, there will always be writers wrestling with them on the printed page.
Tales of Jack the Ripper manages to walk that fine line between entertainment and exploitation with real finesse. It’s a gripping group of stories about one of our most enduring mysteries, and well worth your time.