LURID: Saucy Jack - The Ripper In Horror Fiction

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

…you'll hear about Saucy Jacky's work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn't finish straight off. ha not the time to get ears for police.

—Jack The Ripper, September 30th 1888

This weekend sees the anniversary of the ‘double event’. In the small hours of Sunday, September 30th, 1888, two mutilated female corpses were discovered within 45 minutes of one another in the poverty-stained streets of London’s Whitechapel district.  None of the police, doctors or onlookers present at the crime scenes had any doubt that they were witnessing the latest horror perpetrated by Jack The Ripper, the serial killer who had been terrorizing London and titillating newspaper readers the world over since his first slaying just a month previously. After these murders (Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes), the Ripper would kill just one more time (Mary Kelly on Friday, November 9th) before disappearing into history. 

His three-month spree both embodied and transformed the zeitgeist.  He seemed to spring fully formed from the collective cultural consciousness of the time. All summer, audiences had been enthralled by the stage adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that played to packed houses at the Royal Lyceum.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic tale of a respectable man who gives in to his baser self was in itself a distillation of contemporary thought.  In the 1880s, the chattering classes believed in both evolution – that humans were the descendants of apes – and degeneration – humans had evolved as far as they could and were now undergoing a physical, moral and mental decline.  Therefore the “pale and dwarfish” Mr. Hyde, who “gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” represented both the past and the future of the human condition.  The star of the show, Richard Mansfield, had had great success with the role in New York, and he exerted a similar fascination over London audiences with his nightly transformation (or degeneration) between the noble intellectual Dr. Jekyll and the “something troglodytic”, murderous Mr. Hyde.

Those audiences were all too familiar with the concept of duality.  They trundled on wheels of denial, embracing the rapid rate of social change forced by the Industrial Revolution whilst clinging to the wreckage of feudal values and traditions.  The burgeoning middle classes espoused temperance, hard work and conformity in daylight hours, but behind closed doors they indulged peccadilloes of every kind.  Charles Booth’s poverty maps of the time show that many well-to-do Londoners (their airy, well-ventilated houses lit by electric light) lived just a street or so away from the dank slums inhabited by “the lowest class...occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”.  Spiritualists flocked to séances, seeking validation for their belief in life after death, while fake mediums perfected their ever-widening repertoire of ghostly voices, smoky images, table rapping and other parlor tricks in order to meet demand.  Secret societies abounded, with outwardly decorous citizens donning bizarre regalia for their Golden Dawn or Masonic meetings.  British society lived by its illusions – that Oscar Wilde was a family man, that the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s fascination with little girls was healthy and that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife, Mary Benson, was absolutely not having a string of lesbian affairs (she referred to them as ‘swarmings’) – and ignored the anger, repression and cruelty that suppurated beneath the surface.  In order to sleep soundly at night, many resorted to then-legal narcotics: opium and its derivative, laudanum, and chloral hydrate, all highly addictive and delivering diminishing returns on the sweet dreams front.

Then, along came Jack.

They needed him to be a fallen angel, one who’d turned his back on civilizing influences and who was relinquishing his self to the base, bloodthirsty animal within.

In all likelihood, the killer was probably a Whitechapel local who was “down on whores”.  An anonymous, ordinary individual with no other motive than misogyny and a burning desire to rip through human flesh, he may only have committed three of the anything-up-to-eleven murders attributed to his blade.  He didn’t necessarily have the anatomical expertise, surgeon’s tools or friends in high places credited to him by various theories of the time.  But the good people of London didn’t want another petty backstreet cutthroat with a grudge.  They required a supervillain.  Inspired by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and their tumescent guilt, they wanted the murderer to represent an extreme of moral decline.  A monster in human form would validate their belief in degeneration and make them feel less conflicted about their own struggles with duality.  They needed him to be a fallen angel, one who’d turned his back on civilizing influences and who was relinquishing his self to the base, bloodthirsty animal within. 

The first victim, Mary Ann Nicholls, was discovered before dawn on Friday, August 31st, 1988, the second, Annie Chapman, a week later on September 8th.  The similarities in these unfortunates  – middle-aged prostitutes who sold their bodies nightly in order to stay one step ahead of destitution – and the comparative stab marks on their bodies led the police to conclude that a single killer was responsible.  That’s when the letters began.  Hundreds of them, scrawled in a variety of hands and inks, taunting the police, insulting the victims, pointing the finger of blame at individuals and ethnic groups.  It seemed everyone wanted their turn in the spotlight of the Whitechapel murders.  Although the police could dismiss the majority of written communications as hoaxes, there were three, the “Dear Boss” letter, the “Saucy Jacky” postcard, and the “From Hell” letter, with a ring of truth.  The “Dear Boss” letter, received by the Central News Agency on September 27th, was signed with a flourish and may be one of the most successful examples of self-branding the world has ever seen: “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper”.

The letters, not the murders, spawned the legend.  Jack the Ripper is Santa Claus-famous not because of his horrible deeds but because of his jeering words.  His catcalls to police (“I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits… The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn't you.”) doubled his persona.  Not only was he a silent killer who hacked women apart in the ink-black shadows of the slums, but he was also a bawdy barroom raconteur, complete with a nickname and a unique line in humor.  You could be sharing a joke with him one minute and the next the cobblestones beneath your feet would be slippery with the arterial spray of your own blood.  That’s showmanship.  That’s psychopathy. That’s Saucy Jack.

After the Kelly murder, Jack The Ripper sealed his immortality by disappearing from view.  Modern criminal profiling decrees that serial killers keep killing till they’re caught, imprisoned for another crime or die.  Jack vanished into the abyss so completely that we’ll never know what happened.  He left behind a tantalizing puzzle – five corpses (Three? Six? Eleven?), grossly mutilated (as black magic or Masonic rite? Ritual sacrifice? Vengeance? Warning? Cover-up?), situated across points on a map (Ley lines? Pentangle? Astrological chart? Ichthys? Random scatter?) in one of the most symbol-dense cities in the world at an epochal moment in history.  The list of suspects runs into the hundreds, including many well-known figures of the day.  It’s no wonder that so many writers have been fascinated by the case, either from a true crime perspective (new Ripperology books continue to be printed every year), or as novelists, using the known facts and conspiracy theories as the raw material for their fiction.  In many ways he provided the prototype for the modern superhero; ordinary citizen during the week – he killed only at weekends – with a secret identity as a caped crusader, scourging filth from the Whitechapel streets.

The versatility of the Ripper mythology can be seen in the way the basics of the story have been regenerated over and over again in the ensuing century. Other serial killers have their day in the sun, then disappear into obscurity, remembered only as headline-grabbing aberrations from the years of their spree, capture and trial. We’ve all but forgotten Earle Nelson, H.H. Holmes and the Cleveland Torso Murderer, with their more sadistic MOs and higher body counts.  Only Jack is always contemporary, perpetually relevant, his swishing cloak, top hat and Gladstone bag acting as symbols of menace for all time.

Mrs Belloc Lowndes’ novel, The Lodger, published in 1913, was the first Ripper-based fiction to attain literary notoriety and was adapted no less than five times as a film, first by Hitchcock in 1926.  Husband and wife, the Buntings, run a boarding house and suspect that one of their tenants might be The Avenger, a serial killer slaughtering alcoholic prostitutes under cover of the London smog.  Their dilemma is simple – inform the coppers of their suspicions, or say nothing and keep collecting his rent?  It’s the only one of Belloc Lowndes’ novels still in print, and is still a brisk, morally opaque read for the modern reader. 

Robert Bloch, Lovecraft protégée and author of Psycho also achieved a degree of notoriety as a Ripper-riffer.  His short stories, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, A Most Unusual Murder and A Toy For Juliette, introduce time travel to proceedings, as does his Star Trek teleplay, Wolf In The Fold.  In these works, Bloch represents Jack as a supernatural entity, not subject to the laws of time, space, or the Crown – it’s no wonder he was never caught.  Bloch’s somewhat plodding novella, The Night Of The Ripper, is a less enjoyable read.  It’s fun to see how he weaves luminaries of the time (including Oscar Wilde and the Elephant Man) into his version of events, but his conclusion is less than compelling.

Karl Alexander also introduced time travel into the Ripper equation in Time After Time.  His account sees the Ripper flee the clutches of Scotland Yard by stealing H.G. Wells’ time machine and transporting himself to San Francisco in 1979 where, naturally, he continues to kill.  An irate Wells pursues him and has to figure out a way of getting rid of the murderer once and for all, finally discovering a way to send the Ripper into infinity, with no way home.  Until the sequel, Jaclyn The Ripper, when, thanks to an anomaly in the space-time continuum, the nineteenth century gentleman finds himself reconstituted, as a woman, in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2010.  Despite being female, the Ripper’s desire to hack and slay is as strong as ever.   Once again, Wells has to ride through time to the rescue.  Inventive and fun, Alexander’s books provide one explanation for Jack The Ripper’s mysterious and total disappearance from nineteenth century London.

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic “melodrama in sixteen parts”, the graphic novel From Hell, originally published between 1991-1996, is probably the most intelligent and inventive reconfiguration of the Ripper myths.  Based on the now-discredited 1976 theories in the non-fiction book, Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight, From Hell uses the Whitechapel murders as a jumping-off point for exploring cultural undercurrents in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The Masons are the villains here, with the slaughtered women represented as sacrificial offerings that will help shore up the ruling cabal.  The doomed prostitutes symbolize the hopelessness of the poor and disenfranchised.  In this vision of London the only money worth having is inherited.  Those not born into wealth and entitlement don’t stand a chance, whereas the elite do exactly as they please.  At one point, the Ripper tells his accomplice that he is merely an instrument of history (“For better or worse, the twentieth century. I have delivered it”), yet he transcends the Victorian era.  The signs of the times that Moore incorporates into his storytelling (religious fundamentalism, the gulf between rich and poor, the suppression of social revolution by authoritarian police, the propagation of privilege, the beckoning of apocalypse) could be ripped from today’s headlines.  Sir William Gull may have been exonerated, but From Hell is still a ripping yarn. The truths contained within its pages are far more significant than anything as simple as a ‘hedunnit’.

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic “melodrama in sixteen parts”, the graphic novel From Hell, originally published between 1991-1996, is probably the most intelligent and inventive reconfiguration of the Ripper myths.

Other trends in Ripper fiction include what can best be described as Ripper bricolage, (Ri-Bri?), as writers combine literary styles and figures of the era into a pastiche retelling of events.  Sherlock Holmes is an obvious candidate for this treatment – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation first appeared in 1887, so he was an exact contemporary of Saucy Jack.   There’s a wistful nature to a lot of these books: if Sherlock Holmes had been real, there’s no doubt he would have solved the case that baffled posterity.  Unfortunately, the Whitechapel murders occurred too early for them to come under the purview of the ‘real life Holmes’, Sir Bernard Spilsbury.  The Holmes vs. Jack paradigm is used in A Study in Terror (1966) by Ellery Queen, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978) by Michael Dibdin, Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek, and Sherlock Holmes and the Royal Flush (1998) by Barrie Roberts.  More recently, it forms the basis for the debut novel from Lyndsey Faye, Dust and Shadow: An Account of The Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009).  Faye nails Watson’s earnest pedantry and in an uncanny rendition of his voice unfolds a suitably lurid account of events of the late summer and fall of 1888, beginning with the non-canonical murder of Martha Tabram.  Her Holmes believes the cases to be connected, shrewdly observing that “Men do not often stab helpless females thirty-nine times and then disappear into the ether.”  Running true to form, Holmes is always closer to catching the killer than anyone from Scotland Yard, but his perspicacity puts him in peril.  From the get-go, he’s engaged in an elaborate pas de deux with the shadowy murderer – Holmes gets some taunting letters, written in red in, for his eyes only – and is even a suspect at one point. Naturally, Holmes solves the case, but at great personal cost – hence his solution remaining shrouded from history.  Faye’s novel is a compelling combination of well-researched Ripperology and deep-seated affection for Conan Doyle’s oeuvre.

Other literary figures of the time have been subject to the pastiche treatment.  Paula Marantz Cohen adopts the James family (alienist William, invalid Alice and author Henry) as her own in What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack The Ripper (2010).  Although she adopts the mannered prose style of a late Victorian, her relish of the lurid details is wholly contemporary.  Her Whitechapel is as much a state of mind as a geographical location.  In the opening chapters, a drunk Henry James wanders into its  “narrow, trash-strewn streets” by mistake, pisses himself, gets propositioned by a street-walker and has to be rescued by a stranger.  His brother, William, is asked to consult on the case by Scotland Yard, and faces the horrors of the Victorian morgue up close and personal: “[it] was poorly lit, the air heavy with the odor of must and incipient rot.  Death was palpable, not just in fact but in that more pervasive sense that reached out to include oneself.  One felt that the people taken here were once alive and now were dead, but that this would be one’s own fate too.”  He confronts the suspended corpse of Catherine Eddowes (bodies that needed to be photographed were hung from a hook).

What made the body hard to identify was the maze of stitching, where it had been reassembled, in light of the extensive slashing.  Black thread crisscrossed the abdomen and breasts, the neck, and most grotesquely, the face, delineating the gashes that the murderer had made under the eyes.  There was a zigzag of black thread at the left side of the head as well, where a severed ear had been reattached.”

Marantz Cohen has obviously been studying the extant autopsy photos, and her dedication to research underpins her use of artists Sargent and Sickert, philosophers Henry and Nora Sidgwick, the ubiquitous Oscar Wilde and Inspector Abberline, and several other luminaries of the day in her retelling of the tale.  Her final reveal is melodramatic, but that’s not the point.  What Alice Knew is a smart, satirical take on our idealized view of the Victorians, who were not so very different from ourselves.  We're all enthralled by crime scene investigations.

The Dracula Dossier (2008) by James Reese purports to be a set of notes found among Bram Stoker’s papers detailing that gentleman’s activities in 1888.  At the time, Stoker was manager of the Royal Lyceum, venue of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and was well placed to reflect on how truth follows fiction.  In between dealing with the whims of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, Stoker struggles with his abhorrence of a new acquaintance, Dr. Francis Tumblety, who triggers the same vague discomfiture as Edward Hyde (“His handshake was unpleasant, rather off-putting…”).  Unfortunately, Stoker can’t seem to shake Tumblety.  The American doctor follows him to parties at the house of Speranza Wilde, Oscar’s mother, and invites himself to a supposedly secret meeting of the Order of The Golden Dawn, where he takes part in an initiation rite alongside Stoker.  Unfortunately, that rite goes horribly wrong, unleashing an ancient evil onto the East London streets.  Stoker and his literati friends must outwit both the bumbling police and the supernaturally prescient Tumblety in order to prevent occult calamity.  Although it takes a while to gather momentum, The Dracula Dossier is an engaging blend of historical fact and plausible conjecture, with a macabre eye for the details.  As well as ‘solving’ the Ripper case, it suggests where Stoker got the inspiration for his infamous fiend for all ages, Count Dracula.

The Ripper juggernaut shows no sign of slowing, despite its age.  Come Halloween, there’ll be no shortage of Saucy Jack costumes parading up and down suburbia, and he’ll be just as easily recognizable as ever.  The BBC Worldwide 8-part drama series Ripper Street will air across the globe this season, proving he’s still worth big media bucks. Written by Richard Warlow and starring Matthew Macfadyen, Jerome Flynn and Adam Rothenberg, it follows the progress of the East End H Division group of detectives still investigating the case in 1889.  Jack The Ripper continues to be the ultimate blend of fact and fiction, words and deeds, ego and id.  On present form, he’ll be stalking the foggy back alleys of writers’ imaginations long after this present century has been consigned to the past.  And we still won't know who he really was.


I love my work an I shant stop until I get buckled and even then watch out for your old pal Jacky.

Catch me if you Can
Jack the Ripper”

Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


Dennis's picture
Dennis from Los Angeles is reading Necroscope by Brian Lumley September 28, 2012 - 10:23am

This was an amazing column, Karina.  So fleshed out and informative.  I've only ever read 'From Hell,' but I loved it.  I also read the Brian Michael Bendis graphic novel 'Torso,' which posits that he may have actually been Jack the Ripper, after he supposedly fled to the states.  Fun stuff.

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash September 28, 2012 - 12:49pm

Thanks Dennis.  There are so many Ripper books out there - I'll have to check out 'Torso' although I think the real Ripper would have been a bit past it by the time those murders were committed.  Unless, of course, he's an immortal.

Iulia Silvia Istrate's picture
Iulia Silvia Istrate June 21, 2015 - 11:31am

Useful article.