“Miller’s Court,” a Short Animated Film by Alan M. Clark

I created the animated film “Miller’s Court” from illustrations I’ve done for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series of novels about the lives of the women JTR murdered.

Here are some of the illustrations I put into motion:

“Miller’s Court” copyright © 2016 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil, digitally colorized.

 

Study for “Of Thimble and Threat” copyright © 2012 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil.

“The Double Event” copyright © 2015 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil, digitally colorized.

Detail from “In the Dark, In the Night” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Acrylic on board.



At present, there are four novels in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series”

A Brutal Chill in AugustWord Horde.

Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man — IFD Publishing

Say Anything but Your Prayers — IFD Publishing

Of Thimble and Threat — IFD Publishing

The fifth and final novel in the series will be released in 2018.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Breathing Life into the JTR Victims

Writing the Jack the Ripper Victims Series, I’ve tried to give readers some sense of what the murderer took from the world. As part of that effort, I’ve manipulated mortuary photos to breathe a little life back into the women he killed.
Fascination over who committed the heinous deeds of the Autumn of Terror will always overshadow any interest in the lives of his victims, rather ordinary as they were in their time. Yet without them, I suggest that the murderer has little of value to offer us, perhaps even less than what the women had to offer. They suffered privation and degradation, especially late in their lives, but in their time, they no doubt also experienced love and good cheer with family and friends, not much different from what human beings have always known.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Link to the Jack the Ripper Victims Series on Amazon.com

 

Chapter 1 of APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Frontispiece for APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark

Chapter 1

Rivals

Saturday, September 1, 1888

“You pay for Eliza’s bed too,” Annie said to Eddie, careful not to sound angry.

They sat together in the early evening at the Britannia Public House, known locally as the Ringers.

He gazed across the stained and worn table at her, expressionless, his eyes cold and his mouth, hidden beneath his great mustache, offering no clue as to his feelings. Something about his look, a certain darkness around the eyes, echoed the frightful visage of Mr. Stewart, the cat’s meat man Annie had feared when she’d been little. Whenever Annie had heard Mr. Stewart’s song or seen him selling his tainted meat to pet owners about her childhood neighborhood, she’d fled and hidden from him.

What a pitiless master Eddie has become, Annie thought. Too bad I can’t say what I think of him.

The day before, Francis Booth had told her of Eddie’s two-timing with Eliza Cooper, and Annie had been trying to think of a way to talk to him about his deception.

Both Annie and Eliza lived at Crossingham’s Lodging House in Dorset Street. Although an illegal practice, the lodging house deputy, Timothy Donovan, allowed Eddie to sleep with women on the premises. No doubt, whatever arrangement the two men had involved money.

Eddie was a brick layer’s mate and pensioner with a curious surplus of funds. He currently had Annie over a barrel. She couldn’t afford a room of her own without help. As he had done for the past few months, he’d paid half her lodging fee for the week at Crossingham’s in exchange for sexual favors. Annie’s room was held as long as she paid the rest, four pence, due each night. Failing to pay, she’d lose a night on the back end. If she missed paying three nights in a row, she’d lose the room.

Likely, he had the same arrangement with Eliza because, apparently, he spent other nights with her. He had been able to get away with his cheating because the women lodged in rooms on different floors, Annie in 29 on the second floor, and Eliza in 36 on the third floor.

Number 29 was small and drafty. The loose glass in the rotten window sash rattled when anyone mounted the lodging house stairs, and the floor creaked loudly beneath one’s tread. The only heat available came through the open fanlight above the locked door to the adjoining room, number 28, which held the coal grate. Because the fanlight remained open, occupants in each room could hear what went on in the other.

On the good side, number 29 had a bed large enough for two. On the nights Eddie didn’t spend with her, she had the straw mattress all to herself—quite a luxury.

At present, she had no other prospects for lodging without going to a doss house and sleeping with strangers.

With his silence, Eddie clearly indicated he didn’t want to discuss the matter. In the midst of the busy pub, the hubbub of the patrons—the murmur of conversation, the laughter, the periodic shouting, the occasional insults hurled, both playful and serious—allowed him to turn away easily and ignore her as if he hadn’t heard. To repeat herself would seem like harping.

“Drink your stout and I’ll buy you another,” Eddie said seductively.

Annie struggled to finish her drink without appearing to do so in a hurry. The stout felt warm and comfortable in her belly.

She picked up the copy of the Evening News Eddie had discarded on the table. In it, she found an article about the murder that had taken place two nights earlier. The story had been all over the streets since yesterday. A woman named Nichols had been brutally assaulted and murdered, her body left on the street less than a mile away.

“Did you read about the murder in Buck’s-Row?” Annie asked Eddie. “Says her throat were cut, her bowel ripped open.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m certain they’ve made it out to be much worse than it was.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Another whore went against her minder.”

Annie could easily believe that the newspapers, always in heavy competition with one another, exaggerated to make their stories more sensational and improve sales. What she’d heard on the street about the murder, coming through the rumor mill, was much the same. She set aside the paper.

“Although I paid on your room,” Eddie said, “by chance, I may be gone much of the week. If so, you will give me extra satisfaction next week.”

I hope you are gone this week, she thought, disgusted that he brought up their transaction in a public place. Becoming angry would do her no good. She tried to look relaxed, even as Eliza Cooper and Harry the Hawker came into the pub and approached the table.

“Sit,” Eddie said, gesturing to empty seats, “and I’ll buy you a drink.”

The women merely nodded to one another.

“Dark Annie,” Harry the Hawker said in greeting. He called her that, as many in the neighborhood did, because her dark hair helped distinguish her from Annie Platt, a woman with fair hair who also stayed at Crossingham’s from time to time. Harry wore a brightly colored, green and coral-colored neckerchief, a ratty old maroon doublet, and a brown tricorn hat. His beard had grown exceedingly long and was held in an elaborate braid. “Anything to stand out in a crowd,” he’d said to Annie one day. “That is the way to make a sale in a crowded market.”

Eliza, a book seller, set down a heavy sack before taking her seat. She had a look of resentment about her as she looked at Annie. Possibly Francis had told Eliza about Eddie’s two timing. Then again, she could be angry simply because Annie hadn’t returned the soap she’d borrowed that morning.

Annie tried to relax and quiet her own resentment toward the woman while Eddie fetched drinks for everyone.

“Odd weather,” Harry said. “Got cold early. Were a brutal chill in August too. Hard on my knees.”

“Brutal, is it?”Eliza asked, chuckling. “Getting old, Harry?”

Harry merely huffed at her.

Annie could not determine Eliza’s age. Her body seemed younger, more powerful than Annie’s, but her round face had a weathered look. Her dark, curly hair had little gray.

Eddie returned, placed drinks before his guests and sat. He set a coin on the table, perhaps absentmindedly. Annie recognized the silver disk as a florin.

Eliza bent as if reaching for her sack, placing her right hand on the table for support, right atop the two shilling coin. When she straightened, holding a book, and lifted her hand, Annie saw that the two-shilling piece had become a penny.

“I’ve a new book to sell,” Eliza said, holding up the volume, “Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille, what come all the way from New York City.”

Seeing the theft, Annie thought she had an opportunity to turn Eddie against Eliza and have him all to herself.

Annie interrupted the woman’s sales pitch, addressing Eddie. “She took your florin.”

Eliza turned hateful eyes on her, as Eddie looked to the tabletop. He then looked at Eliza.

“Your sleeve might’ve thrown the coin to the floor,” she said, her eyes wide, “so I moved it.”

“You put a penny in its place,” Annie said with disgust.

Eliza glared again, rose up, and swung a fist from across the table. The blow connected with the right side of Annie’s face and bowled her over backwards out of her seat.

Harry the Hawker grabbed Eliza’s shoulders and pulled her back. Nearby patrons of the pub paused to turned and watch the rough goings-on. Eliza got free, picked up her sack, and left the pub.

The slight lull in movement and sound within the establishment ended as Annie got up, righted her chair, and sat. She stared back at curious onlookers until most became uncomfortable and looked away.

She glanced at Eddie, hoping to see some evidence that he was displeased with Eliza. Instead, he gave Annie a stern look. He and Harry drank their stout, and said nothing about what had happened.

Exploring the tenderness around her right eye with her fingers, she winced in pain. The blow would leave a bruise.

Annie wanted to condemn Eliza’s actions further, but couldn’t afford to get on Eddie’s bad side. Although ashamed of her opportunism, she couldn’t help thinking bitterly, That were an easy two shillings for Eliza.

I must find a way to be done with Eddie. Once this week is past, I’ll work harder to fully earn my nethers, so I don’t depend on him.

 

(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is available from online booksellers)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Chapter 6—Cat’s Meat

(Excerpt from the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, by Alan M. Clark)

“The Cat’s Meat Man” copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark

Around age twelve, Annie cut her right hand while helping her mother slice bread for an evening meal. Over the ensuing muggy summer days, the wound became red and hot. The hand swelled and the wound began to suppurate.

Early evening of one of those days, when their room above the cobbler shop had grown unbearably stuffy, she lay miserable and wet from sweat in bed, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in her right hand, and an increasing need to get up and use the chamber pot.

“You must get better so we can play Old Maid,” Emily seemed to say to the doll cradled in her lap, though clearly she meant the words for Annie. The two sisters didn’t get along most of the time, possibly because Emily knew Dadda looked upon Annie as his favorite. Still, she sat in a chair beside the bed and held Annie’s left hand. “I’m no good alone, and Mum’s too busy to play.”

Their father came clomping up the stairs. Annie heard him hop over the two rotten treads beneath the roof leak and the room shook a bit. She ceased to moan and writhe for fear of disappointing him. Mum, preparing supper, greeted Dadda, then he moved to the bed to have a look at Annie. Over top the odors of old leather and shoe black, he smelled most strongly of drink.

“If it worsens,” he said, turning toward Mum, “she’ll lose the hand.”

“No, Dadda!” Annie cried as he turned back to her.

Emily made a face and climbed down from the chair. She dropped the doll as she backed away toward Mum.

Hot tears poured from Annie’s eyes. She shifted uncomfortably in the bed and the rough straw inside the mattress bit into her painfully. Her bladder let go and she urinated there in the bed. He would discover the urine later, but she could not worry about that yet.

“Should they take your hand,” Dadda said, “they’ll give it to the cat’s meat man. You don’t want that, do you?”

Emily buried her face in her mother’s skirts.

“He’s teasing you,” Mum said. “Don’t believe your father.”

Busy, her defense of her daughter was weak and did not prevent the girl’s imagination from providing further torment. Annie saw the cat’s meat man, Mr Stewart, in his broad, brightly colored neckerchief, selling her severed fingers, dyed green and stabbed onto wooden skewers, to Mrs. Salter, who lived in the building next door. The woman kept a dog and a cat, and bought meat regularly from Mr. Stewart to feed her animals.

Thinking that one hand might satisfy the takers as well as the other, Annie frantically tried to pull herself together enough to say, “Tell them to take the other one, Dadda. It doesn’t work as well.” Sobs came out instead, drowning in the salty fluids of her mouth and nose.

“Cease your blubbering, girl,” Dadda said. “I’m trying to make you fight for that hand. We would not give it to the cat’s meat man.” Then he smiled with mischief. “Yet if you don’t fight to keep it, he may come in the night for it all the same. I’ll leave the padlock off the door to make it easier.”

“You are a drunken lout, George Smith,” Mum said, “terrorizing your own young the way you do.” She threw a wooden spoon. The implement smacked into Dadda’s head with a loud knock and bounced off. Unfazed, his mischievous smile remained.

Too late, Mum moved to settle Annie’s fears and calm her.

Although the wound healed and she kept her hand, afterward she knew she wasn’t up to the hardships life would throw at her. As she grew, Annie found her squeamish and fearful response to the world an increasing source of distress. She would have to become someone else if she wanted to survive.

The cat’s meat man seemed to follow her around and pop up in her imagination when Annie felt vulnerable.

(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, written by Alan M. Clark, is part of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series.)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Author’s Note from APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

(This is the author’s note from the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man a novel of Annie Chapman, the second Victim of Jack the Ripper.)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Author’s Note—Historical Terror: Horror that Happened

In September1888, after the brutal murders of Martha Tabram and Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols in August, how did Annie Chapman reasonably persuade herself to walk the streets of London’s East End looking for a stranger to pay her for sex? Seeking an answer to that question was in part my purpose in writing Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man.

The novel is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Annie Chapman, a woman believed to be the second victim of Jack the Ripper. I made an effort to stick to what is known about her, yet for purposes of storytelling, I did not adhere strictly to her history, in part because much of her life is obscured by the relative anonymity she had in her time. I have assigned to my main character emotional characteristics and reactions that seem possible and consistent with her life and circumstances.

To be clear, the novel is not about Jack the Ripper. The Jack the Ripper Victims series, of which Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is the fourth book, is not about the killer. Instead, each of its novels explores the life of a different victim. The books in the series can be read in any order, as each is a stand-alone account, their timelines overlapping.

“Ghost of Whitechapel” copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustration from APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

For me, history is stories, perhaps more fact-based than fiction, but stories nevertheless. Good tales are driven by emotion. Following the emotional motivations of characters is compelling for me, as I think is true for most people. When the motivations are a mystery, such as those surrounding a horrible crime, I want to make sense of them. I want order in my world, and with horrible crimes, the acts by disturbed individuals and sometimes their victims hang out there in time, niggling for answers. Part of the puzzle that wants answering is context. How could that person do such a thing? What made their actions seem reasonable to them? Answers lie within the person’s time and circumstances, the world as he or she knew it and how that individual in particular responded to the comforts and stresses within interpersonal relationships and environment.

History, sufficiently remote, but somewhat familiar, like the Victorian era, makes for interesting story context for me because I know something of that world. Remnants of that time still exist today, and I have communicated with family members who grew up close enough in time to the period that they knew something of the constraints and opportunities of life then. That era seems slightly alien and a little exotic. I also find I have a borrowed nostalgia for simpler times in which the people seemed to have had a naive innocence. Of course, that is a product of my complacency.

We’re basically the same creatures we’ve been for thousands of years, with all the same emotions. What stimulates those emotions varies for all of us, yet we’re good at interpreting and understanding others’ moods within the context of their experiences.

When stories of times past hold situations sufficiently developed that the complexity of human emotion is revealed, that supposed innocence of a “simpler time” vanishes. Suddenly, understanding the historical and emotional context, the characters are no longer quaint and simple. I am right there with them, having some understanding of their motivations.

Through the research and writing of historical fiction novels, I must use my imagination to project myself into another place and time. In the midst of the effort, I feel like I’m engaged in time-travel. My wife often asks about that far off look in my eyes when I’m in the middle of a several-months-long project involving historical fiction. We might be at the grocery store or the post office at the time. Little does she know that I’m not actually standing next to her in those moments.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is the 4th novel in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series by Alan M. Clark.  Each novel in the series is a standalone story.

Historical Terror: Horror That Happened—London’s Murder Weapon

Detail from “In the Dark, In the Night” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Cover art for EAST END GIRLS by Rena Mason

Was Jack the Ripper a monster, larger than life, beyond our comprehension?  From all that has been dramatized about the killer, one might think so. But no doubt the killer was merely a man, with the fears and frailties of an average human being.

If I could go through his pockets, I’ll bet I’d find that he carried common, everyday items that helped him maintain his physical and mental wellbeing in the world of Victorian London.  If that’s true, it would tell me that although he was an extreme danger to society, he was subject to the physical and emotional trials we all go through in life.

allthatshedneed_small_sepia

“All that She’d Need” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT by Alan M. Clark

The clothes we wear and the items we carry on our person say something about us.  I wear shirts that button up the front.  I never wear t-shirts.  If asked why, I might say that I don’t think t-shirts are flattering to my middle-aged abdomen.  I carry numerous keys because I want access to areas and items I lock up.  One can easily deduce therefore that I’m doing more than most would to secure my stuff against theft, and that might say something about how many times I’ve been robbed.  I slip my keys into a flexible glasses case before putting them in my pants because they chew holes in my pockets.  I got tired of paying for new jeans just because the pockets were ruined, so it’s reasonable to assume I have been concerned about money during my life and learned to be frugal.  I carry lip balm because I have the nervous habit of chewing my lips and making them chapped.  What have I to be nervous about?  That’s a good question.  I carry a cloth handkerchief to wipe my nose instead of using paper tissues which might have something to do with my desire to preserve the natural world.  For reasons I won’t reveal here, I carry a pocket knife and have no cell phone.

All these things say something about what I think and feel in my daily life, most of it of no consequence to anyone, but if I were a suspect or victim in a crime and the truth about me was important to discern, useful conclusions about who I am might come from considering these things.

Beyond the savagery of the Jack the Ripper killings, the murderer is perhaps most defined by his choice of victims; common, poor women who would have been forgotten in time if not for the compelling manner of their deaths.

With the idea that to know something of the women is to know something about the Ripper, I became interested in the possessions of the victims.  The possessions of the murdered women, found at the crime scenes, provide a glimpse of their lives and speak volumes about the time in which the White Chapel Murderer lived.  The people of 1888 London didn’t have the mp3 players and electronic tablets we have today. They didn’t have car keys, water enhancers, thumb drives, and anti-anxiety medications, but they did carry items useful to them in their time and circumstances.

Here are lists of the belongings of the first four victims of the Ripper as found at the crime scenes:

Mary Ann Nichols (Polly Nichols)nichols_beforeandafter_small

 Clothing:
A black Straw bonnet trimmed with black velvet
A reddish brown ulster with large brass buttons.
A brown linsey frock
A white flannel chest cloth
A pair of black ribbed wool stockings
A wool petticoat stenciled with “Lambeth Workhouse”
A flannel petticoat stenciled with “Lambeth Workhouse”
Brown stays
Flannel drawers
A pair of men’s boots with the uppers cut and steel tips on the heels
Possessions:
A comb
A white pocket handkerchief
A broken piece of mirror (This would have been a valuable item for one living in the work house or common lodging)

Annie Chapmanannie_chapman_small

Clothing:
A long black, knee-length figured coat.
A black skirt
A Brown bodice
An Additional bodice
Two petticoats
A pair of lace up boots
A pair of red and white striped wool stockings
A neckerchief, with white with red border (folded into a triangle and tied about her neck)
Possessions:
A large empty pocket tied about the waist, worn under the skirt.
A scrap of muslin
A small tooth comb
A comb in a paper case
A scrap of envelope containing two pills.

Elizabeth Stridestride_beforeandafter_smallest

Clothing:
A Long black cloth jacket, trimmed with fur at the bottom
A red rose and white maiden hair fern pinned to the coat.
A black skirt
A black crepe bonnet
A checked neck scarf knotted on left side
A dark brown velveteen bodice
Two light serge petticoats
A white chemise
A pair of white stockings
A pair of spring sided boots
Possesions:
Two handkerchiefs
A thimble
A piece of wool wound around a card
A key for a padlock
A small piece of lead pencil
Six large and one small button
A comb
A broken piece of comb
A metal spoon
A hook (as from a dress)
A piece of muslin
One or two small pieces of paper
A packet of Cachous. (a pill used by smokers to sweeten breath)

Catherine Eddoweseddowes_beforeandafter_smallest

Clothing:
A black straw bonnet trimmed in green and black velvet with black beads
A black cloth jacket with trimmed around the collar and cuffs with imitation fur and around the pockets in black silk braid and fur.
A dark green chintz skirt with 3 flounces and brown button on waistband.
A man’s white vest.
A brown linsey bodice with a black velvet collar and brown buttons down front
A grey stuff petticoat
A very old green alpaca skirt
A very old ragged blue skirt with red flounces and a light twill lining
A white calico chemise
A pair of men’s lace up boots. (The right boot was repaired with red thread)
A piece of red gauze silk worn around the neck
A large white pocket handkerchief
A large white cotton handkerchief with red and white bird’s eye border
Two unbleached calico pockets with strings
A blue stripe bed ticking pocket
A pair of brown ribbed knee stockings, darned at the feet with white cotton
Possessions:
Two small blue bags made of bed ticking
Two short black clay pipes
A tin box containing tea
A tin box containing sugar
A tin matchbox, empty
Twelve pieces white rag, some slightly bloodstained
A piece coarse linen, white
A piece of blue and white shirting
A piece red flannel with pins and needles
Six pieces soap
A small tooth comb
A white handled table knife
A metal teaspoon
A red leather cigarette case with white metal fittings
A ball hemp
A piece of old white apron
Several buttons and a thimble
Mustard tin containing two pawn tickets
A Printed handbill
A printed card calling card
A Portion of a pair of spectacles
A single red mitten

I have not included the possessions of the Ripper’s fifth victim, Mary Jane Kelly, because she was killed in her own bed, in her abode, and her possessions were not provided by the police reports in the same way.

These lists speak to me of women who had little of material worth in the world.  Not one of them had any money.  During the period in which they lived, unemployment and severe poverty were widespread in London.  Regardless of whether the Ripper’s victims had few opportunities to live better lives or were responsible in large part for their predicaments, their legacy is pitiful and poignant.  Items such as the brown stays, the comb, and the packet of Cachous suggest vanity or at least the need to maintain appearances.  The tin of sugar, the one of tea, and the black clay pipes speak of a desire for creature comforts.  The bloodstained rags, the pieces of soap, tooth combs (toothbrushes) were aids to bodily functions.  Those things that are part of a incomplete set, such as the single mitten, and the broken items, like the partial pair of spectacles and the piece of a comb, suggest that nothing could be wasted; that everything, even if seriously flawed or deficient was irreplaceable.

With little imagination, the lists speak of skills, preparedness, resourcefulness and even aspirations on the part of these women.  The list of Catherine Eddowe’s garments and possessions conjures for me the image of a Victorian-era bag lady, wearing many layers of clothing and carrying too many items in her bags (the many pockets, most of which were probably hidden under her top skirt).  The only thing missing is the shopping cart.  We have limited information about Eddowes’s life, and most of it leaves out the emotional aspects of her existence.  We can assume she didn’t set out to become a bag lady, to be homeless and poor.

swiftpassage_small_sepiaWhat events in her life led to her demise on the streets of London?  How much of the way she lived was a result of the choices she made?  What was beyond her control?  Was she chosen randomly by her killer?

I became fascinated enough with the questions that I explored her life and presented possible answers in my historical fiction novel, Of Thimble and Threat, published by Lazy Fascist Press.  Catherine Eddowes had led a hard life and was very ill at the relatively young age of forty-seven when she died.  My impression is that her choices had something to do with securing her wellbeing and placing her at risk, but that much of her existence was beyond her control.  A life of poverty in London was slowly killing her, and the final blow, London’s murder weapon so to speak, was Jack the Ripper.

Still fascinated with the environment of late Victorian London, I explored the life of Elizabeth Stride, the Ripper’s third victim, in fiction in Say Anything But Your Prayers, also released by Lazy Fascist Press.  Having thus started a string of novels, I titled it Jack the Ripper Victims Series, and went on to write about his first victim, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols in A Brutal Chill in August, which was released by Word Horde in August 2016.

ABrutalChillInAugust_coverI refer to the Ripper as male because of the name Jack, but of course we don’t know the gender of the killer.  Although we can’t know much about the Whitechapel murderer, we have information that tells us something about him and offers a glimpse of the world in which he and his victims lived.  We can surmise that he was in most ways as vulnerable as his victims in a dangerous, often merciless world, that he was no doubt as aware as they were of the need to maintain appearances and to achieve the highest social position possible in order to ensure survival in a swiftly changing environment, and that he probably understood that eventually disease and death would claim him without ceremony and that he would die, just like everyone else.  Perhaps, as he considered these things, he was filled with a pitiable fear like that experienced by his victims.

Most of us spend much of life feeling confidently alive, solid and incorruptible, not thinking about our demise, our eventual loss of facility and faculty, our loss of awareness and identity and finally the decay of our flesh.  Those of us who have not seen war or violent crime and disaster turn to face our demise slowly over many years as it dawns on us that we are just like those who have gone before us, that we all suffer and die.  But to face that terror precipitously, to have the process demonstrated within moments, to be the playwright and director of that drama—that is what the Ripper experienced.

maryjanekelly_small

Crime scene photo of Mary Jane Kelly.

Could he identify with the women he’d murdered and feel their suffering?  Having revealed to himself by his own cruel acts the heights of fear and pain and the terrifying frailty and ephemeral nature of flesh and awareness, was his dread of a particularly intense nature?

If his freedom or his life were never taken from him in answer to his crimes, did he at least suffer from the revelations of his own mortality? I would like to think that he did.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—What the Darkness Has to Offer

TheTollTaker_detail2

Cover art for THE TOLLTAKER by James Sneddon, published by Five Star Press. “The Tolltaker” copyright © 2003 Alan M. Clark.

In 1989, my diseased brain tried to kill me, but a year later, that experience saved my life.

Ever since I was a young adult, people have asked me in one form or another, “Why are you interested in horror?” At first I had little in the way of an answer beyond saying, “it’s just cool.” I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, though, and now have a better answer.

The darkness in horror represents man’s struggle against adversity. In life, we all face the possibility of brutality, pain, insanity, having our aspirations denied, and our freedom taken away. Even if we escape those fates for most of our lives, inevitably we lose control of our lives and die. Ultimately, we face the unknown. As we move along through life, we try to fill the time we have with light—the good and pleasant experiences—and avoid the darkness—the bad and painful. Yet the contrast between the darkness and the light provides existence with drama. Contrast helps us to see more clearly, to understand and appreciate with greater clarity. And though the people who’ve asked me the question might pretend otherwise, they too like such disturbing things, if only because they like a good story or having their preconceptions challenged by a piece of art.

Cover_TheSurgeonsMate_ADismemoir_smallestIn my new novel, The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, I’ve  attempted to write something of an anthem for those of us who like the dark and disturbing, as well as a broadside against those who would deny the value of the morbid, and choose to believe that individuals with an interest in the macabre are hiding a sinister and disturbed nature. The story is both a memoir and a fiction with a fantasy/horror element, sort of an alternate history of my life that allowed me to speak of emotional struggles, pain, and triumph that I’ve known intimately and could therefore relate with verisimilitude.

As a visual artist and a fiction author, I know that no good story has ever existed that didn’t have strong conflict, that there’s no good piece of art that doesn’t have a slice of darkness. There is no more powerful conflict than fighting to survive while facing the annihilation of death. That sets up great contrast in story-telling.

Composition in visual art employs contrasts of all sorts: The juxtaposition of light and dark, of warm and cool colors, of shapes that suggest motion and direct the eye, of subject matter that implies unusual relationships. Intimations of death, destruction, decay, and annihilation have long been a staple of artistic expression.

I have often wondered if Utopia is boring, if human beings have arguments in Heaven, if theatre is any good in Shangri-La. Experiencing perfect happiness in Elysium, does one cease to recognize it and appreciate it after a time?

I live sixty miles from the Oregon coast. The environment at the oceanside is beautiful, peaceful, refreshing, fascinatingly unique to me.  A friend hearing me talk about it once asked why I don’t move there. An answer came to me instantly, one that was so automatic I knew it to be the truth—“If I lived there all the time, I would quickly cease to see it for the wonderful place it is.”  I live in a beautiful part of Oregon, so I’m not missing out, but If I lived at the coast, the contrast with what I live with day to day would be missing.  Sure, if I lived there, I wouldn’t cease to appreciate the environment entirely, but the intensity of what I experience as a visitor would be somewhat lost.

In 1989, as I began the treatment for brain abscesses that would keep me in the hospital for  seven weeks, my doctor said, “Your condition is very rare. If you’d gotten brain abscesses twenty years ago, you would not have survived because medicine wasn’t what it is today. You’re lucky.”

I didn’t feel at all well, having stitches in my tongue, an upset stomach from ingesting my own blood, raw tissues from the tubes the doctors had stuck in me, and a severe headache. I was an alcoholic trapped in a situation in which I wasn’t allowed to drink. A surly bastard, I wouldn’t show any appreciation for the care I’d received. “Lucky,” I said, “is not getting brain abscesses at all.”

I was wrong about that. The flow of events from the time of that illness, the twists and turns of my life, the good, the bad, and the indifferent, led to circumstances that enabled me to make a commitment to getting sober, and my life became infinitely better than it had been. The reasons are complicated and I won’t go into them here. They are laid out in detail in The Surgeon’s Mate: a Dismemoir.

Instead, I’ll relate an old Chinese tale that exemplifies the point I’m trying to make about distinguishing fortune from the misfortune.

In a small kingdom, there lived a farmer who had a small plot of land. He had one son and one horse to help him. One day the animal got out of its paddock and ran away. The farmer’s neighbors expressed their sympathy, and said, “How unlucky for you.”

The farmer shrugged and said, “Who can say what will happen?”

Not long after the horse ran away, the beast came back and entered the paddock, leading three wild horses with it, and the farmer instructed his son to close the paddock gate.
When the neighbors heard the farmer had recovered the original beast and gained new ones as well, they congratulated him and said, “You are a lucky man.”

He shrugged and said, “You never know.”

While trying to break one of the wild horses, the farmer’s son fell and broke a leg, and the farmer’s crops suffered that year because he had less help in the fields.

The neighbors again expressed sympathy, and said, “Luck is not with you.”

The farmer shrugged and said, “Perhaps.”

War came to the small kingdom, and the emperor commanded that all able-bodied young men were to be called into service. While the farmer’s son was excused from serving because of his injured leg, the neighbors gave up their sons to the fight. All the young men were lost in a terrible massacre during the war.

When the neighbors said to the farmer, you are a lucky man after all, again he merely shrugged and said, “Who knows what will come of it?”

The farmer in the tale is much more philosophical than I am. The brain abscess experience nearly killed me three different ways. In the midst of the ordeal, I quite reasonably feared the worst, and had a dread of what the future held for me. If I’d known how things would shake out, and that ultimately my life would be so much better as a result, I might have relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Probably not, though, since the experience involved a lot of pain, both physical and emotional.

We spend much of our lives trying to avoid pain and hardship, putting systems in place to mitigate risk and ease suffering, and I’m not suggesting that we do otherwise, but clearly, dreading the grim possibilities we face in the future is not helpful. Pain and death are inevitable, yet, as unpredictable as life is, some of the safeguards we thrust before ourselves as we move forward through time must also reduce the potential for good outcomes.

I try to relax and allow the world to do its complicated thing. I’ve never had to ignore or turn away from the grim, the morbid, and the grotesque in order to benefit from the good, where ever it pops up. Instead of denying the darkness, I value its role in life.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon