Ginger Nuts of Horror
by Alan M. Clark
I wrote this blog post close to Halloween, a good time for something scary. Although I like the cute horror of Halloween and a good, over-the-top zombie film, lately I’ve been chasing after some true-life horror as I research the lives of murder victims for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series of novels. As one who has always been intrigued by the dark and disturbing, as a practitioner in the horror genre, a professional writer for almost two decades, and an illustrator for three, the real horror of history and the lessons to be learned from it are what I have drawn my interest lately.
Long ago, when I first learned of Jack the Ripper and the murders associated with the killer, I was, as most everyone is, intrigued by the endless speculation about who he might have been (I use male pronouns when referring to him merely because of the name Jack; although, we don’t know the gender of the Whitechapel Murderer). The more I read about the murders and the various theories, the less interested I was in the killer and the more intrigued I became with the environment in which the murders took place. As I learned more about Victorian London and how rapidly it changed due to the industrial revolution, the more interesting I found the lives of those who lived there at the time. Although I couldn’t learn much about the killer, I could gain some knowledge of the five female victims. Potentially, there are more than five, but those considered canonical victims are Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.
Coroner’s inquests were held to determine the cause of death for each of the women. The inquiries are essentially trials, with juries and witnesses to help make a determination about the manner of a victim’s demise. The verdict in each of the five cases was "Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown."
The words, actions, movements, and motivations of each of the women are most clearly known to history closest to the time of their deaths because of the testimony of the witnesses called during the inquests. In some cases, such as that of Elizabeth Stride, the last couple of hours were recounted in detail, and in other cases, such as that of Catherine Eddowes, we have a good idea what she did within several days of her death. The farther we go into the past away from the hour of their deaths, however, the less detailed and the more generalized is the information about them. Within the few years prior to their deaths, all five had suffered real hardship—all had engaged in prostitution to survive, most, if not all, had been active alcoholics, and most had spent time in the dehumanizing workhouse system.
In Victorian England, the Industrial revolution had led to large-scale unemployment, much the way the Tech Revolution has done in America today. Victorian London, much like large American cities today, suffered from overcrowding and large numbers of homeless.
We can see a modern reflection of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the homeless of twenty-first century America. Much of the cause of that homelessness went unseen in Victorian times, as it does now. With the rise in the numbers of the homeless, then as now, people had a tendency to shy away from the problem.
My natural inclination is to avoid knowing why so many people are hungry and without shelter. I want to look away, and I don’t want to look away. My experience is that many people are just as ambivalent. Many of the homeless are intoxicated much of the time or begging for the means to become intoxicated. I can easily become disgusted with the endless need of the addicts among the homeless. I could justify my righteousness by blaming their lack of hygiene, and their crimes of desperation. However, I am a sober alcoholic and expect myself to have compassion for them, even when it doesn’t come naturally. There, but for providence, go I.
Although I avoid those who are clearly intoxicated, on occasion I’ve asked someone begging on the street for their story. Most aren’t good at telling a story, perhaps because they are rarely asked to tell one. Even so, from what they say, I always get the sense that they have had happier times, that they have capabilities, and that they have aspirations involving their own personal interests and those whom they love.
Worse than the surface irritation of having to deal with a person who might be slovenly, dirty, inconvenient, or in-my-face is the emotional stress of considering the plight of an unfortunate person. My immediate response is to want look away. I speak of my experience to take responsibility for my reactions, but I’m not alone. We find it easy to scorn the beggars on the streets and then project that disdain on all homeless people, further isolating them. As a result, the down and out are less likely to find help when in danger. If they are seriously harmed or killed, fewer people step forward to try to find out what happened. Those who prey upon the homeless more easily get away with their crimes. The same was true for the down and out of Victorian London.
What events in the lives of the five Jack the Ripper victims led to their demise on the streets of London? How much of the way they lived was a result of the choices they made? What was beyond their control? Were they chosen at random by their killer, or did he choose them because he knew that fewer people would step forward to find out what happened to them? We don’t have good, solid answers to these questions.
My impression is that their choices had something to do with securing their wellbeing, but much of their existence was beyond their control. The environment of London itself was a danger. Literally hundreds of thousands of Londoners were killed by the pollution in the air, water, and food. New industries popped up everywhere to support the burgeoning population and to exploit the cheap labor market. Small factories occupied converted tenements or houses that once held families in residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, only a part of such a tenement or house was occupied by industry while the rest still functioned as a residence for individuals or families. With an increase in the use of chemistry, and with little knowledge of the damage many chemicals inflicted upon the bodies of those exposed to them, industries, such as match making, destroyed the lives of their workers and those living within close proximity to production. Those who suffered often did so without knowing why until it was too late. Matchmaking is only one example of the industrial poisoning of Londoners. Deadly chemicals were everywhere. They were used in medicines and in prepared foods as preservatives. Madness abounded, if not as a result of the emotional hardships of life, then from chemical damage to the brain.
A life of poverty in London was slowly killing all of the Ripper’s victims. Survival within that environment is the story that intrigues me. Those are lives I can relate to because I see parallels with life in my own time.
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. Not the cute horror of Halloween perhaps or the over-the-top-turned-almost-cartoon horror of slasher and zombie films, the stories of the five women are full of emotional content, conflict, and drama. What happened to the victims of Jack the Ripper is true horror, and in the telling of those tales we are reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When I was growing up, my mother had a strange way of watching scary movies on television with the family; she’d stand in the hallway beside the living-room, peeking around the corner at the TV, ready to run away if the film became too scary. Is that the way we as a society treat true horror? We all love a fun scare, but when the suffering becomes too real, we want to run away because it is painful to witness. I suppose I’m saying that if fewer of us looked away, if we had the courage to see, there might be less actual horror in the world. So here’s to remaining in the living-room of life with our eyes wide open.
My Jack the Ripper Victim Series began with the novel, Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, released in 2011. The second in the series, Say Anything But Your Prayers, about the life of Elizabeth Stride came out August of 2014. The third in the series, A Brutal Chill In August, about the life of Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, will be released next year.
—Alan M. Clark Eugene, Oregon
Come join us at Ginger Nuts of Horror, he said. It will be fun, he said. I would love to, I said. This is a dream for me, I said. Just give me some reviews, he said. Delighted, I said. Just write me a bio and an “article” to introduce yourself, he said.
Never written an “article”, I thought. Too late to run away, (?) I thought. Just waffle, I thought. Everyone will buy it. I hope you do……
The wrought iron door slams behind you in your new home, where you will stay until your death. The guard made no attempt to provide optimism or hope; indeed he actively discouraged it, assuring you that your punishment in this dismal prison would probably break you down psychologically and mentally. The grey walls are washed in despair, perfect for bouncing the echo of the howls of other prisoners around this building from Hell….
Horror fans seem weird to ‘normal’ people sometimes. We like to be scared, and that’s a little unusual, right? If something scary happens to us in real life, we’ll get the hell out of dodge as quickly as possible, hoping never to feel that fear again. Yet, here we are, time and time again, reading nightmarish scenarios at night (and we all know they mostly come at night… mostly). We’ll turn out the lights to achieve maximum scariness and put on a film, hoping (nay, demanding!) to be scared. Sometimes, we’ll band together much like the hordes of zombies so many of us love, and go be scared together at the cinema or theatre. If we so happen to finish a horror book or film without experiencing that gut-wrenching terror, then we are annoyed about it. Miffed, even. We feel that we were lied to: manipulated into spending our hard earned cash under false pretenses. We actually feel disappointed that we weren’t supplied with a good dose of the eebie jeebies, as promised.
I'm very proud to welcome Kayleigh Edwards to Ginger Nuts of Horror. Kayleigh will be joining Kit, Paul and Charlotte's excellent contributions to the site. So please say hello to Kayleigh in the comment section of her debut article.
So why horror, I hear you ask? It’s a question I’ve been asked countless times, and I’m sure every horror writer on the planet has heard it just as much as I have. I’ve thought long and hard about the answer to this, a little perplexed myself. Was it a book or a film that first reeled me in, and if so, which one? Which singular piece of art could possibly be responsible for introducing me to a world in which I would become completely obsessed?
I rise early… very early! I’m up by 4am, and walk Jess, my giant German Shepherd, followed by a jog and then weights. Then by 6am, I’ll check social media, followed by trying to answer as many messages from readers as I can. Then it’s breakfast, shower, and hopefully ready to begin writing by 7.00am.
Mornings are my most creative time, and this is where I’ll craft new elements, or correct complex pieces of the plot – it’s funny how you can go to bed with a literary roadblock and wake up next morning with the solution on how to move the story forward in a plausible and exciting way. Afternoons are for editing, and evenings are for red wine!
These days, I have a fairly standard pattern – usually, I’ll do a brief story step-through, outlining the major plot points, and then may break that down further for each scene. I’ll start a story these days without having any idea how it will end or where the characters will take me. Sure, this sort of non-planning can result in my ripping out tens of thousands of words at a later stage, but I’ve found that for me, the best thing to do is simply to tell the story… let it all just tumble out onto the page. Tidy-up comes later!
My story inspiration can start with a single image – a picture of something that sets the mood for the entire story. Or it could be a paragraph on a website, a newspaper, or magazine, telling of something strange happening in some exotic part of the world – a cave found, a new species located, an ancient temple, proof of life on a comet – you get my drift. These all go into my Ideas Book – it’s like a scrapbook of my future projects waiting to be given life.
The other inspirations have come from my love of horror / sci-fi / action-adventure books, comics, movies, you-name-it, from, it seems, forever. My favorites that always held me spellbound were the ones where some age-old mystery is found, or something released, that has dire consequences for mankind today. The king of this genre was my idol, Graham Masterton, and I devoured everything he wrote. And now as a delightful bonus, Graham is reading through my latest work, The Book of the Dead, as I type this down.
Massive sinkholes are opening across the country – each larger and deeper than the previous one. First the family pets go missing, and anyone living near one of the pits, is reporting strange phenomena – the vibrations, sulphurous odours and strange sounds rising up from the stygian depths. Then come the reports of horrifying ‘things’ rising from the darkness.When the people start disappearing the government is forced to act. A team is sent in to explore one of the holes – and all hell breaks loose – the Old Ones are rising up again.From the war zones of the Syrian Desert, to the fabled Library of Alexandria, and then to Hades itself, join Professor Matt Kearns, as he searches for the fabled Al Azif, known as the Book of the Dead. He must unravel an age-old prophecy, and stop Beings from a time even before the primordial ooze, which seek once again to claim the planet as their own. Time is running out, for Matt, and all life on Earth.The BOOK OF THE DEAD by GREIG BECK – coming Dec 2014.
I grew up across the road from Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. My earliest memories were of sitting on the golden sand digging holes with my older brother and younger sister, my mother in bikini and dark sunglasses, and diving through the blue crashing waves with my father - long days of sandy feet and sunburned shoulders.
In my teens the surf still dominated; surfboard riding with my beach gang, the Rock Crew.....endless sunny days sitting on the beach when I should have been sitting in class (at least pretending to study). Between the sunshine and waves, there were the science fiction stories - great tales by Edger Rice Burroughs, H.G.Wells and Pierre Boulle. Writers who could create whole new worlds and beings that were wondrous and exciting.
The 1980s were also the halcyon days of the horror writer - King, Koontz, Herbert and above them all, stood my favorite, Graham Masterton. These were my influencers, they shape my writing even now; and they're still my favorites today.
The end of the 80s also meant it was time to pursue a formal career. I studied computer science and then immersed myself in the financial software industry. The role took me to most of the financial capitals of the world - from Hong Kong and London to New York and back again. An MBA and later technology company directorships seemed to cement my trajectory. A busy life sure, but still there was time to write, and now, time to introduce Captain Alex Hunter and all his amazing abilities - extraordinary times demand an extraordinary character. Already he has been below the ice of the Antarctic, traversed the blazing deserts of the Middle East, and is currently hacking through the dark jungles of South America.
Today, I spend my days between the software industry, writing, travelling and enjoying time with my wife, young son, and Jess, an enormous black German Shepherd.
Thanks to everyone who shared and commented on yesterday's post, both here and on Facebook, and in a few instances in emails.
Some of you, and it might be my fault for not being clearer, thought the article was about Ginger Nuts, it wasn't. It was about you writers slaving away and the sense of loss of community (that's why I used the picture from Community).
Most of the comments were positive, but some of them and in particular some of the emails had a rather sour grapes feel to them. I want to address a couple of them here briefly, before a more in-depth follow up article in a few weeks.
Some of you may know I've been off work for a couple of weeks with a busted up leg. I've spent more days than I care to remember lying on the floor of our living room desperately trying to get comfy. Doped up on more painkillers than I can even name I've been unable to focus on reading or writing, but what I have been doing is spending a lot of time tinkering about on the site, watching the awesome The League on Netflix, and farting about on Facebook.
Part of what I've been doing with with the tinkering of the site has been reaching out to other websites, magazines, people on Facebook and other organisations that I thought shared a love of horror, and what I've found has been somewhat saddening and frankly really off putting.
Clowns are scary. Allegedly. Personally I don’t get it. I don’t like them particularly. They're the least-funny source of comedy since the last time Miranda Hart fell over. But I don’t find them scary. Many do though, it seems. I’m not sure when or where the idea of clowns as a horror device started, but it’s fairly well ingrained into popular culture now. From Bart Simpson refusing to sleep because “clowns will eat me”, to full-length books and movies, clowns have now joined vampires and werewolves as an actual monster breed. How they feel about that is anyone’s guess, but if nothing else it’s certainly given them a longevity that their tomfoolery alone wouldn’t have allowed.
I like to think that I’m a man’s man. You know the sort, big strong, not afraid of anything. The sort of man who, when faced with danger turns into the all action hero ready to defeat whatever danger is facing those that he loves. And I would like to think that I’m pretty capable of doing this sort of thing, as an ex British kickboxing champion, someone who knows how to handle a firearm, and dab hand at survival skills all topped off with an anger and a rage that will see me go all Berserker on those that threaten me I reckon that if faced with almost any sort of horror monster I would come out top. However there is one thing that I am terrified of, one bogey man that can turn me into a quivering wreck. What is it? Well read on to find out what scares The Ginger Nuts of Horror