(SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses many of the stories and novels relating to Jack the Ripper and does give away many plot details. )
The character of Jack the Ripper has fascinated writers for over one hundred years and it is easy to see why. Jack's very nature is so mysterious, so elusive, that he can be used in almost any way desired. The Ripper can be just another psychotic madman, a symbol of political repression, or a harbinger of a chaotic universe in which there is no meaning. Jack fits easily into almost any role.
Donald Rumbelow speculates that the Ripper's enduring appeal as a character may stem from the fact that he was never caught. Therefore, authors are free to speculate and imagine whatever they like. Not surprisingly, many writers have taken this challenge to either interpret Jack's crimes or write him into other, more bizarre scripts. It is impossible to cover all the Ripper appearances in fiction and media but it is rewarding to look at some of the high, and low, points that have helped make Jack into a cultural icon.
One of the earliest fiction interpretations of the Ripper occurred in Marie Belloc Lowndes' THE LODGER which first appeared in 1911. The legend behind this story maintains that Lowndes overheard someone at a dinner party (shortly after the time of the murders) mention that their mother and father believed their border to have been the Ripper. This was not uncommon as almost everyone was suspecting friends and relatives during the reign of terror and the Scotland Yard files contain many letters of accusation. Something in the story stuck with Lowndes and she quickly wrote out the novel. The basic plot is that an elderly couple take in a border. Soon after, they notice that he has odd habits such as going out late at night, venting a religious mania, and burning certain articles of clothing. Eventually, it is discovered that the man is indeed Jack the Ripper when the family attends an exhibition at the wax museum. The Ripper escapes but is later assumed killed. Nothing untoward happens to the family but they are very shaken by the experience.
The actual style of the book is somewhat poor. It is not a high literary landmark, to be sure, but Lowndes' style tends to become too conversational and slows the novel's pace. The revelation of the border as the Ripper is, of course, of no surprise to the reader who had been waiting for the old couple to catch on through most of the novel. In fact, the reputation of the novel makes it impossible to obtain much suspense from it. Having been popularized so much by the movie versions, it is unlikely that readers of mystery or horror would not already know the plot.
The suspense comes from the tension as the family realizes what they have been harboring under their roof and the uncertainty of the outcome. Though hardly a milestone in terms of style and construction, it provides a vivid recreation of what life in the East End during the Ripper's reign of terror must have been like. If nothing else, THE LODGER deserves a place in history for that. The novel was not particularly successful when it first appeared. Lowndes is reported as having said that she could not find one favorable review of it. But it grew in popularity until it became the only one of her novels still known today. Lowndes had, in fact, created her own monster in that nothing she did afterwards could escape comparison with this novel.
The lodger theory had actually been quite popular around the 1880's and was much discussed. Walter Sickert, the famous artist, was fond of telling the story of having rented the Ripper's old room in an East End house. The landlady had described the man as a young veterinary student who was in poor health. He would often go out late at night, come in early, run out for the morning paper, sneak back and burn his clothing from the night before. It is impossible to tell how much truth there is in the story. Sickert told his son that he constructed this tale to confuse listeners and anyone who might have questioned him too closely on the Ripper murders. Sickert, as we have seen, is a less than reliable source for such rumors but he may have adapted this story from one he had heard himself on the street.
Lowndes' novel was phenomenally successful and legitimized the use of the Ripper as a character. He now began to appear in plays, music-hall sketches, and even operas. Jack appears in Alan Berg's play LULU and fills a similar role in Bertolt Brecht's opera A THREE PENNY OPERA. In both cases he is a minor character who comes on stage to slaughter women who have fallen into prostitution.
One of the most famous Ripper stories is Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" which has been reprinted hundreds of times since its first appearance in 1943. This seminal story brings Jack into the twentieth century as the narrator is swept into a wild search for the Ripper in present day. The killer, he is told, no longer ages because the killings are ritual sacrifices to a dark god. After a few twists and turns, it is the narrator who is revealed to be the Ripper and he kills the man who has been hunting him for fifty years.
An ingenious little story, it has been one of the cornerstones in Bloch's impressive reputation. Thematically, it is sound and addresses several Ripper theories. Bloch has always been a sound Ripperologist and has explored the theme in several places but nowhere more successfully than here. Bloch was one of the first to adapt the concept of Jack escaping England by coming to America and combined it with the black magic theories that had been common during the murders. By so doing, he has come up with a theory that, although being fantastic in nature, is as sound as any other and tells it with a practiced tongue. The one major problem, as is sometimes common with much horror fiction, is that the story cannot be read more than once. The revelation of the narrator as the Ripper is the climax of the story and it is not strongly evident in the preceding text. The unmasking comes as a surprise and it is this final punch that gives the story much of its power. Unfortunately, it also handicaps it in that, once read, the ending loses all ability to surprise and the reader is left looking for other reasons to continue re-reading. As Bloch carefully crafted the story to lead to this climax, there is little left.
While Conan Doyle never addressed the problem of the Ripper in any of his Sherlock Holmes stories (despite many letters asking him to do so), his followers have done it several times. Holmes appears in center stage in Ellery Queen's A STUDY IN TERROR. This novel is, in actuality, two novels in one. Ellery Queen (the character) is given an unpublished manuscript by a woman who asks that Ellery use his powers of deduction to clear the man Holmes names as the Ripper. The Watson manuscript is interwoven with Ellery's as he reads through the book. "One reason why the book is so unsatisfactory is the denouement in which six of the principal characters are killed, murdered, or commit suicide in a little over four pages. One impales himself on his sword stick; four more are burned to death; and the sixth is stabbed by somebody pretending to be Jack the Ripper" (Rumbelow 248).
The Watson manuscript details Holmes tracking the killer and discovering him to be a doctor who was revenging the cruel beating and subsequent brain damage his brother had received at the hands of a prostitute's pimp. Ellery deduces from the text that it was not the young doctor, but his father who was the Ripper and the son was merely trying to save his father's reputation. Unlikeliness aside, the main problem of this novel is that it purports to be giving a solution to the puzzle. As such, it should follow the constraints of the evidence as we know it. This does not happen as victims are introduced haphazardly and the murders do not take place in the correct sequence. A petty point, to be sure, but one that invalidates its authority. The story is an amusing read but unsatisfying for both Ellery Queen and Sherlock Holmes fans. Holmes lacks Doyle's touch and there is not enough of Queen to bear mentioning.
In Michael Didbin's THE LAST SHERLOCK HOLMES STORY, Holmes is revealed to be the Ripper! After being the champion of justice for so long, Holmes feels unappreciated and decides to prove that he is as good a villain as a hero. He is discovered by Watson who confronts him at the infamous Reichenbach Falls. Holmes realizes the enormity of his crimes and flings himself off into the mist. The book appears to be designed to instill hatred in Holmes fans which is confusing as it is this group that is the most likely to buy it! The story is slow and full of gaps that make it an interesting footnote but nothing more.
The Ripper turns up again in two marginal Holmes novels: THE REVENGE OF MORIARITY and THE ADVENTURES OF INSPECTOR LESTRADE. The former, written by John Gardner, has Moriarty (who, like Holmes, survived the Reichenback Falls) detecting that Druitt is the Ripper and murdering him in a fake suicide to ease police attention in the East End. An amusing story, it has actually very little to do with the Ripper. Of more interest is the latter in which Lestrade is revealed to be the brains behind Holmes (!) and depicts the Inspector's adventures as he runs the Ripper to ground. The story is actually quite painful to read at points. Flying utterly in the face of Doyle, Lestrade is depicted as intelligent, aggressive, and effective in his investigations. Holmes and Watson, on the other hand, are portrayed as arguing old men who cannot make any type of logical deduction. Holmes kills Watson in the course of the novel because he cannot stand having the man around any longer. Lestrade discovers that the Ripper is a woman who was the daughter of Sir Charles Warren (!) and committed the murders through some insane delusion. Lestrade, by the way, has been having an affair with this woman through the course of the novel. If it were not so inane, it would be laughable.
One of the more recent Holmes/Ripper adaptations was Edward B. Hanna's THE WHITECHAPEL HORRORS. Within its chapters is the customary byplay between Holmes and Watson, and diehard Holmes fans will adore in the similarities between Hanna's and Doyle's characterizations. Regardless, the Ripper inevitably enters the scene, and Holmes takes a decidedly personal interest in the case. After the Stride murder, he is even lynched by the crowd at the International Working Men's Club because they thought him to be the Ripper! The entire work seems to hang on the Duke of Clarence (whose cigarettes were found at the murder scenes) and on a Royal involvement, but as the novel draws to a close the reader is left without an answer to the murders. A refreshing work, brilliantly crafted.
The use of the Ripper in novels and fiction was slowly falling into absurdity. In 1969, Robert Bloch was approached by Harlan Ellison for material for his upcoming anthology, DANGEROUS VISIONS. The book would become a landmark in science fiction literature by breaking many of the boundaries of traditional writing. Bloch responded to Ellison's request with a short story called, "A Toy for Juliette". This strange little story concerns a young girl in the future who is extremely bored with everything she possesses. Her grandfather goes back in time to find her a playmate who will satisfy her. The startled candidate walks into her room and cannot comprehend what has happened to him. He is dressed, of course, in a long dark coat and carries a Gladstone bag. As the girl, Juliette, begins to seduce the man, he reveals himself to be the Ripper and kills her. This interesting story is another example of Bloch's continued interest in Jack. Although not as powerful as "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper", due to its less intense climax, It was strong enough to inspire Ellison to create his own response.
Ellison's story, "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World", was a sequel to Bloch's story and picks it up after the girl's death. It is, undoubtedly, the best single piece of Ripper fiction yet produced. The Ripper discovers that the girl's grandfather had intended for him to kill Juliette as he was bored with her. He then takes Jack out into the city which is sparkling clean. Through a series of circumstances, Jack discovers that he has been brought to the future to allow the citizens to feed off his anger and emotions. Ellison's Jack is, at first, pleased with the antiseptic future as he has been killing woman to better affect social reform. At least, that is why he thinks he is doing it. Jack's motives are darker and more base than he believes. Suddenly, Jack finds himself back in Whitechapel slaughtering women. It is then he discovers that the future beings cannot experience anything themselves and wish to observe this violent specimen. Outraged, Jack tries to kill them and thinks he has succeeded only to find that it is another of their mind games. In the end, amusingly, Jack becomes a figure of pity as he, a small dark stain of emotion, rails against the stark cleanliness of the future. Ellison's story has only been reprinted a few times and is generally known only to followers of his work. This is an extreme pity as the story deserves more attention and study.
Bloch returns to the Ripper again in NIGHT OF THE RIPPER and gives a truly embarrassing performance. The novel, set in 1888, details one man's investigation into the identity of the Ripper and "it is hard to believe that [it] came from the author of the excellent Ripper story 'Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper'" (Rumbelow 245). The book details the search for the Ripper which results in two people instead of one. The infamous Dr. Pedachenko reappears, but not until almost the end of the book, as he and the love interest, nurse Eva Sloane, are caught and burned to death in house at the novel's end. The novel is entirely lacking in any worth whatsoever. The plot is loose and far fetched. If it is trying to be an actual theory it loses by the mere fact that nurse Eva Sloane is unknown. Dr. Pedachenko is a theory already much disputed and rejected among experts. What makes it worse is the idiotic parade of late nineteenth century figures through the book. All of them, from Conan Doyle to the Elephant Man to Oscar Wilde, have an important clue that they suddenly 'pop-up' to deliver and then disappear. The book is simply one of the worst Ripper fictions yet written and it is, as Rumbelow notes, astounding to consider that it was written by Bloch who should have known better.
The latest fictional development to appear is Paul West's WOMEN OF WHITECHAPEL. The problem with this novel is that it immediately warns you that this is 'serious literature, dammit, and you'd better pay attention'. The plot follows the Sickert theory exactly even to the point of directly connecting Sickert which some of the variations refuse to do. The conspiracy is exactly the same but the emphasis is supposed to be on the women in the case and viewing it from their standpoint. To be truthful, I sometimes cannot tell from whose viewpoint it is being told.
The style is extremely artistic and owes much to the impressionistic mood of writing. Instead of being told that Mary Kelly is enjoying lounging in a field on a beautiful day, we are confronted with a deconstructionist's dream in language that is ambiguous and undefined. Truly anything could be happening here based on the poor details we are given. West no doubt felt that this approach would enrich the subject matter and take it out of its unsavory connections. This may be true but it results in a narrative that is slow where it should be compelling and confusing where it should be moving quickly.
The actual use of Jack as a character is likely to continue for as long as Jack himself is remembered. After all, he has come to embody so many different concepts (violence, social unrest, conspiracy) that his uses are many and varied. Unfortunately, as we have seen, he sometimes comes out the worse in these literary adaptations. It is to be wondered if such things would be written were Jack still alive today and capable of protecting his reputation.SOURCES:
Rumbelow, Donald. Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook. (Revised)