Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Knowing Jack: The Ripper crimes and the Gothic imagination.

The first time I realised that the Internet could provide any information I might care to find I was in year 8, in the IT labs at school. Drunk on my new powers of limitless knowledge, I did what any self-respecting, blood-thirsty little toe-rag would do and typed the title of a very famous murderer into the Lycos(!) search bar along with the word 'photographs'.

You get one guess as to series of murders to which I refer.

I was a nasty minded little horror junkie, innocent in my fixation on the gruesome details, the theories, the hyperbole. I was keyed up on blood and thunder. I'm still ashamed at what I did that day.

And what I found? Grainy, morgue photographs, violence in all its tragedy, the human body rendered frail and somehow obscene. My prurience seeped away. No splatter-fest with Hollywood lighting, no gruesome and intriguing details, just the images of five women stripped of human dignity, of life. That afternoon, September-hot and staring at old, thick screened monitor, I lost any interest I had in serial killers.

Don't get me wrong, I was still as morbid as hell, still a nascent Goth with a fevered imagination. I still am. But I draw the line at real crimes, real people, real tragedy. I can't look at it any more and see a mystery, see the puzzle for a autumn afternoon. I can't care about justice, or sleuthing or conspiracy theories. I don't want the perpetrator blazoned on my imagination like some byword for Victorian fog and squalor, a set-piece of the Gothic. I rather not be giving these things any further house-room.

All of which makes my attitude to the Ripper crimes somewhat conflicted. We're at that season, after all, as my Gothically inclined Twitter-feed subjects me to a run of speculation, of recreation. And, one glance at my bookshelves hammers the message home, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, Brian Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, Paul Cornell's The Severed Streets. Why are we so obsessed with Jack the Ripper? Why do even I keep returning to it?

Yet all of these writers are ambivalent about the legacy at which they pick, the tragedy real and human, the murderer co-opted, played out, lionised or demonised until its power far transcends the cruel and ultimately petty act of murder. As Moore say, the crimes don't tell us anything about themselves, simply about us, our fears and obsessions. Newman tells the story of tragic madman, co-opted and exploited to a political end, Talbot of the bitter moral it doles out upon female sexuality. Cornell, ah, Cornell...

I won't be spoiling that for you.

Books aside, though, the focus is always on the killer. Whose names, or aliases, live on in our consciouness? The victims pushed aside, ignored, erased or sensationalised. Killers post manifestos on YouTube, hoping to gain some scrap of Jack's immortality, or at least a passing fame.

Sometimes they succeed. There are crimes, sometimes, that capture the zeitgeist of the time that they were committed. I can think of a few that have happened in recent years, but their memory fades as the society that birthed them dies. Interest in the wanes to the few people who have long memories, and those whose interest in the macabre stretches as far as reality (and there is nothing wrong with that.) But the Ripper crimes are as much part of our historical consciousness as the work of Conan Doyle, Shelley, or Stoker. We have all let this one inside us, even if we turn from these things.

But they are not feats of Frankenstein science, not Sherlock Holmes mysteries, or Dracula-seductions. They, and the hyperbole surrounding them, were moments of exploitation, of xenophobia, poverty and misogyny. They are symbolic of their age, all its conflicts, all its failings.

And yet we still tell these stories among ourselves, brood over them, gloat, create ever more elaborate theories and retellings. Even I do it, still, and I try to stop myself.

What does that say about the age we live in now? How far, really, have we come?€

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