Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper by Robert Bloch
Robert Bloch is justly famous for writing the scariest shower scene in history, even if it was Alfred Hitchcock’s movie that introduced it to a broader audience. Bloch is the author of Psycho, which introduced us to the cross-dressing, multiple personality-mass murder Norman Bates.
Over several decades Bloch wrote crime fiction, thrillers and horror. One recurring theme was that of the unsolved murders in Whitechapel, London in 1888, and the unknown killer with the nickname “Jack the Ripper.”
Subterranean Press has gathered together a collection of Bloch’s Ripper-themed work called Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper. It contains three short stories, a Jack the Ripper novel from the 1980s, the original teleplay from a classic (original) Star Trek episode, “Wolf in the Fold,” and two short essays from Bloch. The collection is introduced by horror writer Norman Partridge.
The short story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” was written in 1943. Though dated, the piece still works today because of Bloch’s sense of dramatic timing. In Chicago, Englishman Sir Guy Hollis approaches successful psychiatrist John Carmody. Hollis is obsessed with solving the riddle of the Ripper murders. He has an insane theory—that Jack the Ripper never dies, and that his murders are sacrifices to some dark elder god in return for immortality. Hollis thinks that the Ripper is hiding among Carmody’s arty, bohemian crowd and that another rash of murders is about to start, since a sacrifice is due. Carmody humors him, taking him to a party full of poets, artists and writers. Hollis’s behavior is bizarre, but he persuades Carmody to go out with him the next night as well, which would be the night of the first murder. Hollis opens up to Carmody, explaining the root of his obsession about the Ripper. The final few pages gleam with atmosphere; the Negro bar where they stop for drinks, the shadowy areas on the street where streetlights don’t penetrate, the thick fog off the river; and the last three paragraphs are still shiveringly good. Like Damon Knight’s old story, “To Serve Man,” “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” is good, even when you know what’s coming.
The weakest of the three short stories is “A Most Unusual Murder.” Hilary Kane is an observant fellow and knows his London neighborhood very well, so when a new antique shop appears overnight he is intrigued. He and his friend Wood go inside to explore. At first I thought that Kane was a kind of twisted Sherlock Holmes, with Woods as an unwilling, or unwitting, Dr Watson, but the story does not go in that direction. A worn medical bag with a set of initials soon puts Kane, who is obsessed with Jack the Ripper, on a circuitous search, one that ends in a predictable tragedy. The story counts on a time-travel paradox to work, and the opening section, in the sinister shop, is not completely successful. It does work as a cautionary tale about the dangers of collecting, though.
“A Toy for Juliette” is a futuristic tale that first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology. Alone in her soundproofed pleasure-chamber, Juliette waits to see what kind of “toy” her time-traveling grandfather has brought her this time. Grandfather travels from Juliette’s time in our future, when the earth is poisoned and the handful of remaining humans lock themselves in domes, into the past, where he abducts people. Juliette admires her “playthings;” the iron maiden, the rack, the shackles, and the sharp knife she has tucked under the pillow on her bed, while she waits for her grandfather’s return. She also reflects on her life. The story is a nod to the Marquis de Sade. The most chilling part is not the climax but Grandfather’s careful shaping of a sociopath.
“Wolf in the Fold” was written in 1967. Fans of classic Star Trek remember the “Red Jack”episode. During a shore leave on a mellow, peaceful planet, Mr. Scott is accused of stabbing a local girl to death. Scotty, normally the most gallant of men, is recovering from a head injury he got in an accident caused by a woman crew member. As the murder is investigated two more women are killed, including a crew member. Scotty is near them each time. The suspense ratchets up as Kirk and Spock persuade local law enforcement to move the investigation to the Enterprise. In a manner of speaking, the solution to “Wolf in the Fold” is similar to “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Both pieces postulate long-lived entities. Serious fans will enjoy reading the first draft of this episode.
Night of the Ripper is an original Bloch novel published in 1985. It starts the night of the first murder attributed to Jack the Ripper, and follows several characters, trading points of view. Mark Robinson is a young American doctor come to study at London Hospital and Dr. Albert Trebor is one of his mentors. Mark is interested in the study of psychology, an art Dr. Trebor doesn’t have much use for. Eva Sloane is a lovely nurse probationer at the hospital. The shock of the first murder grows into fear and distrust as the deaths continue.
Bloch intersperses the action throughout the book with reactions from various “bit player” characters, including the several people who were suspected; a Jewish barber-surgeon, a shoemaker, the Duke of Clarence (Queen Victoria’s grandson) and so on. The book feels episodic until Detective Abberline appears. Once Abberline is on the page the book develops the structure, to some extent, of an investigation.
Many real-life historical figures make an appearance. Arthur Conan Doyle gives Abberline some advice; Abberline interviews Oscar Wilde and meets George Bernard Shaw. Mark has an encounter with John Merrick, the Elephant Man.
A real-life person connected with the investigation who lost his job because of it is Charles Warren, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Warren, a military man newly assigned to this position, was already unpopular with the press when the Ripper murders started. Bloch portrays him, probably accurately, as an arrogant bully and engages in some merciless fun at his expense, as in this scene where a political superior reads Warren a letter, a sample of many, which makes suggestions for how the investigation should go. Warren does not take the suggestions well:
“ Sheer drivel!’ Warren halted before the desk, bringing his cane down with a thud. “Even a child would know we’ve considered such matters from the start. Why should anyone bother with the advice of some bloody stupid crank? Give me the name of the fool who wrote this—I’ll have his guts for garters!”
“Allow me to finish.” Matthew raised the letter and scanned the final lines.
“These are the questions that occur to the Queen on reading the accounts of this horrible crime. Signed this day and date—Victoria R.”
All of the characters we meet have dark secrets and dark spots on their souls. This is Bloch’s way of keeping you guessing; which of them is the murderer? Or is it someone else entirely?
Night of the Ripper did not age well. I think the book took an original, or at least unusual, view of the killer in 1985, but in 2011 it is easily figured out. Although atmospheric, the book lacks a genuine Victorian feel. Eva and Mark’s rocky relationship, for instance, would fit a 1980s cop drama better than a story set convincingly in 1888. Abberline emerges as an honest cop with good instincts, and the final few pages are suspenseful, intense and dramatic, even if you have already figured out what is going on.
The collection is book-ended by a preface by Bloch and a short essay called “Two Victorian Gentlemen,” in which Bloch speculates on the popularity of Jack the Ripper and Count Dracula. In the preface, Bloch states that is the mystery that has given the Ripper his literary staying power; in “Two Gentlemen” he talks about sexual repression. The best thing about both essays is the author’s voice; fresh and immediate, as if Bloch were grinning at you over a glass of rye on the rocks.
I wish that Subterranean Press had put the publication histories of each piece in the book, rather than sending me to the Internet for them. This book will appeal to “Ripperologists” or fans of Bloch, and the histories would make the book richer. This is a nice collection to round out a bit of the history of American horror, and a tribute to Bloch, but I do not think it will entice new readers. It is for aficionados. The new readers it might attract, if they do not already read Bloch, would be fans of the original TV show Night-Stalker. I’m giving the book three stars, but I think this is for a limited audience.
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