I hope you read my recent interview with fiction author William Todd. If not, it’s still available here and definitely worth your time and trouble. I would again like to thank him for being so gracious with his time, and for sharing a lot more than his thoughts. The following is one of the chilling tales from Dead of Night, Todd’s new collection of 19th century horror stories. I’d set the stage for you but the true beauty of a guest blog is that it gives me the opportunity to turn the keyboard over to someone else for a change. If you need me I’ll be hiding under my bed.
As a lover of all things Victorian I could not write a compilation of horror stories without including a story about the infamous Jack the Ripper. Next to Sherlock Holmes, Jack is my favorite person from that era. I’ve read the stories of possible suspects, examined the gory photos, and watched just about every cable show devoted to the serial killer. Every time someone purports to have “new evidence”, I listen, read, or watch. It’s one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time, after all, and who wouldn’t want to know who Jack the Ripper really was? Now, I do have my own opinion, of course, and that is how my story Jack came about. The story is told from the Ripper’s point of view and in the present tense, as the killer sets out on the night of the infamous “double event” where Jack kills both Elizabeth Stride and Catherin Eddowes. I dare you to take a walk, side by side, through the streets of White Chapel in 1888 with Jack the Ripper. Enjoy.
Jack. Jack. I like that nickname. Only my closest acquaintances call me Jack, but the newspapers are proof my inner circle is ever widening.
Jack. It has certain qualities to it that appeal to me. It is a one-syllable name, and no one should waste lung capacity on any name longer than one syllable. It is also a hard, uncompromising name. There is nothing in the sound of it that denotes indecisiveness.
Jack. I kill like my nickname—quick and decisive.
Tonight is the night. The moon knows. It is hiding behind a wet blanket of clouds the color and consistency of drab wool. On occasion it may peak out momentarily, but once it sees my distinct silhouette upon the cobblestones of Whitechapel, it whips up those dingy covers over its head once more.
Gaslights barely cut through the vaporous filth that is the atmosphere of London, leaving most anything beyond ten feet of their golden, glowing halo in undulating darkness. But the darkness and I are inextricably linked. It envelops me like the welcoming hug of a friend and ushers me along the back mews unseen. That is where I prefer to do my business. That is where the whores and prostitutes dole out their vile bodies for nothing more than a drink or drug or food.
Tonight, another lucky one will confer her body to me, but it will be for my pleasure and not hers.
For some reason, this amuses me and I smile, but my friend the darkness sweeps it into the shadows under my rimmed felt hat as I pass under a lamppost and turn left onto Duke Street.
A little farther, and I will turn down Church Passage toward Mitre Square. I have business there.
I feel inside my caped coat and find the long, polished steel that I will use in my endeavor. It is long, sharp, and slightly slick with the blood of my first catch. I wiped it in haste on the trollop’s dress, but it did not come completely clean. I can feel its coldness through my leather gloves. It transfers to my touch a longing that entices me to quicken my pace—just a little.
My hands also trace along the bulge of my belly through the thick lining of the coat. Tucked into the front of my shirt is a linen bag from the hospital. My employer never misses them. They have more linen bags then they can ever account for. Within the bag is my post mortem clothing. The bag sits in my front in such a way as to make me look paunchy, like so many Englishmen. In reality, I am lean, so my torso amalgamates with the linen bag quite well. Any abnormalities from concealing this under my shirt are further hidden under my full-length coat.
I also feel, but do not rattle, my full change purse. It is the bait that will be cast into the slimy sea of prostitutes.
The fish are hungry. They are always hungry.
So am I, yet my hunger doesn’t subside with a full belly but with bloody hands.
As I begin to turn into Church Passage, the onset of my affliction is quick. I have to stop. Everything is silent when my footfalls cease. This area between the street lamps and the passage is coffin dark but not reassuring to my sense of seclusion.
I look around at the stone and glass cemetery around me for an even darker refuge. None is darker than where I am about to proceed.
My head is pounding as though being pummeled under the hoof of a draught horse, and my equilibrium leaves me like an exhaled breath.
I take refuge in that narrow, walled walkway. Its darkness is soothing and complete, but its length and narrowness fosters within me a feeling of staring down the mouth of a well that stretches to the very bowels of the earth. My dizziness lies to me, telling me that lifting my feet would be tantamount to lunging headlong down that forever-falling fount.
After a few steps into the tarry gloom, so as not to be seen by any improbable passers-by, I clutch and pull myself to the cold, wet wall just in case that fabrication of falling transforms into fact.
I squeeze my face, as if the pressure I produce will force the vileness within me out through my ears. This vileness is Syphilis. My experience tells me that it is in its final stages.
In this tertiary stage, Syphilis will manifest itself by causing severe pain and vertigo, hallucinations, and dementia, to name but a few.
Some of these symptoms affect me, but it is not dementia that inclines me to slice the throats of and eviscerate prostitutes. One of those bottom dwellers infected me so many years ago. I was young and adventuresome, a free spirit who was willing to try anything for the sake of pleasure. I was ruled more by my groin than my brain or my heart. It was folly, I now know, but the young always seem to think their humanity is covered in a suit of armor. I was different in many respects, but in that respect I was a rank-and-file youth who thought could get away with eating the poisonous mushroom and come out unscathed.
Now, that poison is eating my brain. I am not so far gone as to think I can rid the world of all of its overgrowth of weeds, but I can certainly give it a trim around the edges.
Besides, I have found by the purest of happenstance that I also like doing it. There is a certain feeling of contentment that wells within me after my business is done, not unlike, no doubt, that which Michelangelo felt when completing one of his frescos. Like him, I am a master of my medium.
I repress a tormented wail that has boiled up to my lungs from the pot of pain in my belly. If it advances any further I will give myself away. I squeeze my face even harder to keep my torment within me, lest it escape with the ferocity of a North Sea gale.
I have a small bottle of laudanum to ease the pain, but I loath drinking it before doing my business. It numbs my senses and lessens the enjoyment I might otherwise have playing with a wench’s internal organs. I will use it, if need be, but I decide to wait and see if the ordeal passes. Sometimes it will come and go within a matter of minutes, but sometimes the agony lasts for hours at a time.
Just when I think the pain is at its most unbearable and reach for the small bottle in my coat pocket, the pain relinquishes its iron grasp on me. It leaves me weak and exhausted. I resist the urge to retch, because I am strong.
Syphilis will eventually win the war, but I have won every battle since taking up the fight.
I inhale deeply to give much-needed oxygen to my body. This renews me, and I need as much strength as can be mustered tonight. A lot of energy was used up just a short while ago with the first one but not as much as I would have liked; someone in a dogcart was boorish enough to interrupt my opus.
This grip of pain was not entirely unexpected, but its intensity, though short in duration, was one of greater magnitude than any previous. It takes several more deep inhalations to regain my vigor.
Then, the sudden footsteps at the end of the passage sober me fully. She is coming from the direction of Mitre Square. How convenient it is that the prey comes to the predator this time.
The outline to most at this distance would be indiscernible, but the darkness is my friend. It whispers in my ear in the form of quick, delicate steps that this is a woman. As if ushering her to her demise, fingers of fog wrap themselves around her as she starts down the passage.
There is only one kind of fish in the sea at this hour. It is time to cast another lure.
As our paths narrow, my steps are longer and faster; we are nearer to Mitre Square than Duke Street, from which I had just turned. I can sense apprehension in the woman—just a little. Her step slackens then resumes its original pace, scraping a heel of her shoe on the walkway, almost stumbling. Considering the deeds I’ve done over the last few weeks, I suppose one should not blame her. She has reason to be fearful; fate has put her in the path of Jack the Ripper.
See, even Destiny is unwilling to protect those such as this creature, who will give away her most precious asset for the smallest morsels of sustenance, not even being civilized enough to keep herself clean for those to whom she sells.
I will now free her of that burden.
She is within striking distance.
I rattle my change purse loud enough for her to realize my intentions.
She slows down and nods. “Evenin’, sir.”
I tip my hat, and disguise my voice, though I probably have no reason to do so to catch this fish. “Will you?”
She stood a moment perfectly still, as though ascertaining my qualities through the inky night between us.
I can smell apprehension in the small space between us.
She begins to walk past without reply, but I grab her by the arm.
I once again rattled my full change purse. “Twice what you usually ask, if you will. If you will, please.”
I think it beneath me to plead, but I am in character. A paunchy old Englishman like myself would no doubt have to plead, even if a little, to get a woman to open up for me.
Her shadowed head turns briefly inspecting the coal-black walkway behind her. She turns her head back to me, up the passageway, then back to me, once more. I can tell by the slight widening of her shadowed cheeks that a smile has creased her face in acquiescence. It is too bad that her last smile would be wasted on me.
She begins lifting her dress as she says in a whisky-hardened voice, “Twice it is, then, and you won’t regret what I give you, if I do say so myself, sir.”
This is when I am at my best. I am an expert at this grizzly business. I know precisely when to strike and how. I am ambidextrous in this obscurity and know my way around a body by a sense few others possess. It is this awareness that strengthens my bravado to do something no other would dare try nearly sightless and with stepped up patrols in every quarter of Whitechapel.
My hands are surprisingly lightning-quick and tourniquet-tight, and they strike at the woman’s neck while her hands are busy with her dress.
I force her back towards Mitre Square then up against the gritty wall, as my hands clench off the blood supply to her brain and her windpipe, refusing her the ability to scream.
She struggles violently, as they all do, but she is quickly using up what little oxygen she has in her lungs. She only manages a push against my face. She swings her hands wildly, but she manages only to land fruitless blows to my shoulder.
There always arises in me at these times a revulsion-induced strength that I would never otherwise have. My hands compress like the coils of a constrictor around her neck, and I almost believe that I have the force to pop her head completely off her shoulders.
She tries with what little energy she has left for one last attempt to free herself from my grip, but my forearms are plastered against her shoulders, my legs are firmly between hers, pressing outward to keep her off balance, and all she can do is wiggle like an insect on an entomologist’s pin board.
Instead of striking at me, she tries to maneuver her right hand to her body. She is surprisingly quick as she reaches for something hidden under her shawl.
I might have misjudged how close she was to death. Some succumb quickly to my grip. Others aren’t so ready to give up the ghost. This one is a fighter, and that only heightens my arousal for blood.
I feel the tempered steel brush up against my forearm.
Halloa! She carries protection. Since my implement is sullied, I will use hers when the time comes.
Though she manages to retrieve the knife, I do not give her enough use of her arm to use it with any effect. She manages to stick its point into my coat sleeve, cutting the outer shell, but it is not with enough force to rend all the layers and get at my skin.
I momentarily free my left hand from its death grip around her neck and place it firmly around her right wrist. I then continuously smash it against the rough wall behind her. Each connection of knuckle to stone elicits a muffled cry of pain, until at last she loses her grip of the knife, and it falls to the ground.
I give her credit. That was an admirable attempt. But even with one interrupted session and an unbearable attack of pain, I, even in a weakened state, am more than she can manage.
I feel her muscles begin to ease. The hiss of her cut-off screams lessens.
I begin to move her along the wall as I squeeze the remaining pathetic life from her. I like moving them around. I know from experience that a dance with death will help use up what little strength they may as yet have. Usually they die quickly when we dance, and I have to be quick.
As if transferring her life force into me, her limp body empowers my now weakening muscles. This has been a grueling night, even for the likes of me. But the dead give off a scent. This scent is like perfume to my nostrils. It reinvigorates me to finish gutting my catch.
I retrace the distance from the end of our death dance to where it had begun. I find her dropped knife in a shallow pool of rainwater at the base of the passage wall. I retrieve it and I set about doing my business happily and swiftly.
I am midway through my business when my affliction strikes me, once more. The pain sears me like a hot iron poked into my eyes and into my brain.
Recently, I have begun to notice the onset of my attacks becoming more frequent. For the most part, they have been bearable, and I have been able to disguise the painful attacks or seek temporary refuge until they subside. The only one who knows about my affliction is my friend the night. That is the way it shall remain until such a time arrives when I can no longer keep control of my senses. I will not spend the rest of my days locked in an asylum room, staring out at the drab London fog, watching the pestilence peddle their wares on the streets below. I will take my own life when the time comes. I am the only one worthy to take the life of Jack the Ripper.
Instead of trying to repress the pain, I turn it into an all-consuming anger that jolts my hands like lightning strikes. These seething bolts of hatred are concentrated around the woman’s face. I stab, I slice, I cut, I gouge, until I am completely winded.
The shadow-hidden knife drips the aftermath as I clutch my head once more and drop to my knees.
I decide prudence at this point is best if I am to carry on my business beyond this night, and I pull the laudanum from my coat pocket. It won’t take affect right away, but by the time I am a block away, my head will no longer swell to its bursting point.
I also take from my coat pocket a small leather satchel. I put a few trinkets from my handiwork into it for later use, pull the drawstring and my onyx companion whisks me into the damp and foggy night as unseen as the cowering moon.
Two blocks down, I find a small alcove hidden by the night that services a butcher shop. It is here that I change into my post mortem attire. I put my bloody gloves, ripped coat, trousers and shirt, even my felt hat into the linen bag and replace them with more proper attire.
I walk several more blocks to London Bridge. There, before I start across, I pick up a large and heavy stone from the walkway and place it into the linen bag and secure it tightly. This I toss into the Thames’ muddy waters when I am at the bridge’s midway point.
I spend the next hour walking about with my friend the night, reliving the precious moment in my mind over and over: the muffled, desperate cries of terror arouse me; the tension as the blade touches the skin then the release as the sinew parts sends my spine tingling; the viscous fluid that sprays from the wound warms me like a hot cup of tea. All this brings a sigh of satisfaction to my lips from a good night’s work, but every artist must rest between masterpieces, and the sigh is quickly replaced by a yawn.
It is nearly three-thirty in the morning when I finally arrive back home. I try to be as quiet as possible when entering the flat. I even left my taxi a block away to keep the hoof-upon-cobblestone noise at a minimum.
Instead of going directly to bed, I spend some time in the toilet room. Candlelight flickers my distorted shadow across the wall as I pour cold water into a basin and splash its coolness across my beaten features. I return my gaze at the stranger who is staring back at me from the mirror. The stranger looks weary.
My hands shake.
My ears ring like the inside of a tolling bell.
I know that my playtime is nearing its end.
From another room I hear a tired voice call out, “Jack? Is that you?”
I say nothing. I just stare at the wilting face before me. At one time it was such a beautiful face. Now, it is a haggard shell of what it used to be.
There is a knock at the door then a sleepy-eyed face peaks in. “Jack?”
I still can only stare unblinking at what Syphilis has done to me. My eyes, once as blue as a country sky, are now dull and gray. My cheeks have sunken and my chin protrudes like the desiccated ruins of a mummy. The once delicate features of a woman are now being eaten away. This transformation has seemingly happened within the time span of an evening.
“Jacqueline, are you alright?” he asks again, using my given name.
I unfasten and let down my long, blond hair then run my hands through their thinning strands.