Archive for January, 2010

Musings on Jack the Ripper

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

I recently watched the movie From Hell, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore (which I have, embarrassingly, not read. I know, I know). It was fascinating and disappointing in equal measures, though overall I’m pleased to say I liked it; it had a good pace, interesting characters, and an incredible sense of period and setting. What it did not have was consistency, either with itself or with established Ripper lore, and while the latter is unfortunate but forgivable, the former is heartbreaking. It could have been so good! I will assume, because I love Alan Moore’s work, that the problems I’m about to enumerate were introduced not in the original but in the transition to film; I really need to read that novel.

Jack the Ripper is not history’s first serial killer–not by a long shot–but he is the first properly-documented one and certainly the most famous, by almost any metric you choose to use. His case has all the hallmarks of the classic serial killer template, from the stalking of a specific victim profile to the ritualization of the kill to the attention-seeking letters sent to the press and police. Most serial killers have only one or two of the traits we associate with the template, but Jack the Ripper had them all–indeed, he’s probably the reason the template bears such strong associations in the first place. The key to his story’s enduring fascination is that his crimes were never solved, leading us to more than a century of theories and research and armchair investigators all carefully crafting their own solutions to a lurid and unsolvable puzzle. In the past three decades alone we’ve seen stories and books and movies by the dozens–probably by the hundreds–each giving their own version of who Jack was and why he did what he did; many of them are supernatural, involving everything from witchcraft to time travel to aliens, and incorporating just about every conceivable historical figure, real or fictional, who could possibly have been involved. I once read a book where Sherlock Holmes investigated the Ripper killings, questioning no less than Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw on his way to discovering that it was in fact Cthulhu, or one of his be-tentacled minions, who’d done it.

From Hell (and I warn you fair and square that this sentence spoils the entire plot) posits that the prostitutes were murdered not by a psychopathic killer but by a Masonic conspiracy dedicated to preserving the secret of Prince Edward’s illegitimate heir. It seems that Edward, desiring a simple life away from court, wooed and wed a prostitute named Ann, and with her fathered a child rightwise born queen of England. Whether or not this secret could actually destroy the British Empire is beside the point (no one in the movie ever believes anything the prostitutes say, on any subject, so I doubt that “my friend the whore is married to the prince of England” would be taken very seriously). There’s also the issue of why the child herself is left alive, if she’s so fiendishly dangerous. Never mind all that: the point is that the prostitutes are witnesses, and must be killed, and the killings must be so sensational that everyone focuses on them and not on the dark secrets behind them. I suggest that a few quiet stabbings in a back alley would have been a much simpler way to not attract attention, but I possess merely a “middle-class intellect,” as one of the Masons says, so what do I know?

The really disappointing thing about this story, for me, is that it takes all of the wonderfully horrible details of the Ripper murders and throws them out the window: the psychological investigation leads to nothing; the letters to the press, so well-documented that they continue to fascinate people 130 years later, are discarded with two lines of dialogue about how they’re merely fakes designed to mislead the investigation; the body parts and prophetic promises mailed to the police are unexplored and ultimately meaningless. In other words, the actual details of the actual murders–ostensibly the reason one would choose to make a movie about Jack the Ripper–are ignored and replaced with a fairly standard government conspiracy, which would have been admittedly sensational at the time but is pretty much just par for the course in modern politics.

Here’s what really bugged me, though, and again I stress that for all I know the novel presented this much more effectively: at the last minute, or rather in the last fifteen minutes, the movie laughs and falls over and tries to have it both ways, claiming that the Masonic doctor assigned to carry out the killings was in fact a deranged lunatic, possibly schizophrenic, who went far overboard on the crimes because he hated whores and/or he wanted revenge and/or he thought God was telling him to do it. And/or a whole mess of other things; the movie doesn’t really care enough to tell us. That the doctor is played by Ian Holm, and that this final material is presented in a moving, intriguing way, only make it more depressing that the idea was so poorly worked in to the rest of the script. Why take all that time to prove it was only a conspiracy if you’re just going to come back and prove it was a loose cannon psychopath? If the killer is so profoundly interesting, why wait until the movie’s over to show him doing anything cool? The transition from one story to the other was so poorly integrated that it felt less like a twist than like an alternate ending on the DVD. Don’t take this to mean that I disliked the ending; in fact I would rather have watched a movie that matched this ending than to have seen an ending that matched this movie. Like I said before: it could have been so good if they’d done it right.

The movie itself, bizarre Ripper investigation aside, is enjoyably Victorian and extremely well performed. Heather Graham as Mary Kelly was surprisingly good in the role, with powerful acting and even a pretty solid English accent. Where did this performance come from, and why doesn’t she do it more often? When I heard she was in a movie opposite Johnny Depp, Robbie Coltrane, and Ian Holm, I feared the worst and braced myself for a Batman Begins-style fiasco, where the perfectly acceptable actress Katie Holmes gets lost in the shadows of much stronger actors, and comes off looking terrible in comparison. That is not the case here. Graham is always believable, always interesting, and if the movie finds silly excuses to show her cleavage at every opportunity, well, I can forgive them. If her role had been more active it would have been a landmark performance for her, but in the category of “strong-willed streetwalker tries to not get murdered,” she does a great job.

Similarly interesting is Johnny Depp, who does the best he can (which is considerably good) with a ridiculously under-developed character. He plays a Holmes-ish policeman with an opium addiction and a propensity for psychic visions, which sounds like the coolest character ever, but in practice he’s just the guy who walks around while the movie parcels out clues and atmosphere. His addictions never hamper his investigation and his visions never help it, and his insights are clever without ever being brilliant. I suppose my own preconceptions failed me here–I wanted either The Alienist or CSI: Whitechapel, with solid principles of psychology and investigation used to track one of history’s most fascinating killers. Instead I got a passable story where gritty Victorians uncover a salacious royal conspiracy. It was good, and I liked it, but it could have been so much more.

LTUE 2010

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

This year it turns out I’m far too awesome to be mentioned on their webpage, but rest assured that I will be there with a very full schedule:

Thursday, February 11
Noon – Mormons in Horror
From the program: “There is a growing number of LDS people who read, edit, and write horror fiction. What tensions do they see with their faith and culture and this genre? How does their belief color what they find ‘scary?’”
(Dan Wells, Eric Swedin, Michael R. Collings, Eric James Stone, Lee Allred (M))

Friday, February 12
Noon – Pacing and Story Structure
This is my first attempt at a full-on presentation–no panel, no back-up, just me and a slide show for 50 minutes straight. Also: it’s going to be awesome, and you want to be there. I’m going to present a larger, more interactive version of my Star Trek RPG structure system.
(Dan Wells)

5:00 PM -Writing a good suspense/horror story.
It’s more than just blood and gore–in fact, for a lot of people, blood and gore only get in the way of a really good scare. What makes suspense and horror good, and how can you do it well?
(Dan Wells, Eric Swedin, Scott Parkin (M), Larry Correia)

6:00 PM – Abnormal Psychology and how to use it in your fiction
I can make up all kinds of crap for this, but the real draw here is Dr. Carlisle, an excellent speaker and scientist who specializes in criminal and abnormal psychology. He’s an incredible resource.
(Dr. Al Carlisle, Jess Meeks, Dan Wells)

7:00 PM – Zombies: A cultural and social metaphor
Zombies are ridiculously popular right now: what’s the big deal? Are they just a convenient bad guy to be chainsawed by a plucky heroine, or is there something deeper at work–something that speaks to us on a cultural, social, and even political level? This is one of my favorite topics, so come prepared for a great discussion.
(Dan Wells, Eric Swedin, Aleta Clegg, Marty Brenneis, David Ferro)

Saturday, February 13
3:00 PM – The Experience of Writing a Good Blog
Whoever put me here has obviously never read my blog. You poor readers know that I’m probably intended to serve as the counter-example.
(Mette Harrison, Julie Wright, James Dashner, Dan Wells, Sandra Tayler)

4:00 PM – Writing Excuses Live
Your three favorite people in the entire world talk about writing and reading and goodness knows what else, recorded in front of a live audience and broadcast across the universe.
(Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells)

5:00 PM – Reading
In honor of my book not being released yet, I will be reading a selection of candy wrappers and restaurant napkins. Plus a little bit of my book anyway, plus (if you’re good) a choice selection from the second book, Mr. Monster. I will also have books and T-shirts to sell for anyone who wants them.

LTUE 2010 — UPDATED

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

LTUE is BYU’s science fiction and fantasy symposium: Life, the Universe, and Everything. Being a university “symposium” it’s not quite as fan-based as a typical convention, but in practice it’s a really fun combination of author talks, science discussions, and people in costumes. It’s also free, so if you live locally there’s absolutely no excuse to not be there.

This year it turns out I’m far too awesome to be mentioned on their webpage, but rest assured that I will be there with a very full schedule:

Thursday, February 11
Noon – Mormons in Horror
From the program: “There is a growing number of LDS people who read, edit, and write horror fiction. What tensions do they see with their faith and culture and this genre? How does their belief color what they find ‘scary?’”
(Dan Wells, Eric Swedin, Michael R. Collings, Eric James Stone, Lee Allred (M))

Friday, February 12
Noon – Pacing and Story Structure
This is my first attempt at a full-on presentation–no panel, no back-up, just me and a slide show for 50 minutes straight. Also: it’s going to be awesome, and you want to be there. I’m going to present a larger, more interactive version of my Star Trek RPG structure system.
(Dan Wells)

5:00 PM -Writing a good suspense/horror story.
It’s more than just blood and gore–in fact, for a lot of people, blood and gore only get in the way of a really good scare. What makes suspense and horror good, and how can you do it well?
(Dan Wells, Eric Swedin, Scott Parkin (M), Larry Correia)

6:00 PM – Abnormal Psychology and how to use it in your fiction
I can make up all kinds of crap for this, but the real draw here is Dr. Carlisle, an excellent speaker and scientist who specializes in criminal and abnormal psychology. He’s an incredible resource.
(Dr. Al Carlisle, Jess Meeks, Dan Wells)

7:00 PM – Zombies: A cultural and social metaphor
Zombies are ridiculously popular right now: what’s the big deal? Are they just a convenient bad guy to be chainsawed by a plucky heroine, or is there something deeper at work–something that speaks to us on a cultural, social, and even political level? This is one of my favorite topics, so come prepared for a great discussion.
(Dan Wells, Eric Swedin, Aleta Clegg, Marty Brenneis, David Ferro)

Saturday, February 13
3:00 PM – The Experience of Writing a Good Blog
Whoever put me here has obviously never read my blog. You poor readers know that I’m probably intended to serve as the counter-example.
(Mette Harrison, Julie Wright, James Dashner, Dan Wells, Sandra Tayler)

4:00 PM – Writing Excuses Live
Your three favorite people in the entire world talk about writing and reading and goodness knows what else, recorded in front of a live audience and broadcast across the universe.
(Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells)

5:00 PM – Reading
In honor of my book not being released yet, I will be reading a selection of candy wrappers and restaurant napkins. Plus a little bit of my book anyway, plus (if you’re good) a choice selection from the second book, Mr. Monster. I will also have books and T-shirts to sell for anyone who wants them.

Desolation

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

There is a lake in the Serial Killer books called Clayton Lake, which John calls Freak Lake, which serves various different functions throughout the series. This is based on a real lake near my house, called Utah Lake. Despite being situated right next to a string of fairly bustling residential areas, Utah Lake doesn’t see a lot of use; any other lake in that situation would be surrounded by jetties and resorts, and Utah Lake has a few, but for the most part it’s just there. Many people come and go from Utah Valley, living here for years at a time, without ever once even visiting the lake. Most of the time we forget it’s even here. Probably because it’s barren, desolate, and fairly ugly.

Several years ago, when I was first playing with the ideas and characters that would eventually become I Am Not a Serial Killer, I worked in a place called Pleasant Grove, just a few minutes north of my house. It was an easy drive on the freeway every morning, but on the way home the traffic was so bad that I started looking for alternate routes home. One day I saw a convenient back road and decided to follow it and see where it went (I do this all the time, just ask my wife), and discovered that it passed through this incredibly intriguing fringe area of the city: past the landfill, through a railyard, along the shore of the lake, and then through some farmland to the back side of Geneva Steel, a massive factory complex that was, at the time, mostly abandoned and about half-dismantled. About half a mile after that it popped out next to my kids’ school, and about half a mile later I was home. Needless to say, this road became my standard commute every day from then on, and I found myself endlessly fascinated by everything I passed.

The thing is, I find desolation to be absolutely gorgeous. I’m sure that part of this is the fact that I was born and raised in Northern Utah, which is technically classified as a desert, and which is very extreme in temperature. In the summer it gets very hot, and in the winter it gets very cold, and while we do have our share of green we spend most of our time surrounded by either white snow or brown rocks. I can appreciate the beauty of lush, verdant countryside, but I grew up with wasteland, and I love the images and scenery of a barren desert. Part of this is the rugged determination of it: a lush green forest is very pretty, for example, but a lone, scraggly tree clinging tenaciously to a boulder in the middle of nowhere adds a whole extra element that I find completely delicious. Put another way, anything can be beautiful in an already beautiful place. Being beautiful in an ugly, even horrifying place deserves special recognition.

So here I am, driving down this twisty little back road every day on the way home from work, watching the landfill and the railyard and the lake and the broken-down factory, and because I’m trying to write to plot out this new book I’m working on my thoughts begin to blend together. One of the first things I noticed were the people by the lake–people John calls Freaks, who come out and sit in or on their cars, in the middle of nowhere, simply watching the lake, quiet and alone. Who are they? Why are they there? I had no idea, and I certainly had no idea how to use it in a book, but I loved the solitary, melancholy feel of it and filed it away. Then winter came, and the lake froze over, and the dead trees bristled with spines of ice, and one day the lake was covered with a flurry of wind-blown snow and suddenly everything clicked. I knew in that moment that this lake had to be in my book, and that it had to be frozen over, and that someone would walk out in that snowstorm and hide a body under the ice. A passage in the book about the affect of cold on the human body (page 96 in the UK edition) wrote itself in my mind, right there on the spot, and over the next few days the entire plot of the book started coming together. The lake itself is incidental to the story, but the feel and tone that infused my mind on those many drives home became integral to the entire series. This was not a story about a normal kid, and it was not a story about a normal killer; it was the story of a Freak, a young man who goes out in the wasteland and watches this barren lake and sits in silence, alone with his thoughts.

Yesterday morning I got to visit my son’s school for a reading activity called Dads and Donuts, and yes it’s as awesome as it sounds, and afterward I got in my car and headed off to my office to work, and suddenly I realized that my new office was very close to my old one in Pleasant Grove, and that I was right next to the entrance to that old beloved back road. I turned at the park and drove north: past the vast, empty lot that used to house Geneva Steel; past the farmland with its leafless, ice-crusted trees; past the flat, frozen lake. The mountains on the far side were hidden by fog. Without knowing why, I stopped, convinced in that moment that I had to go out on the lake. I hiked down to the shore and across the snow, most of it packed down. I passed two blackened pits where someone had built a bonfire–one that was huge, leaving a tangle of charred logs on the snow, and a smaller one farther out that was simply a black patch around the metal base of an easy chair, the wood and fabric all burned away. The ground was laced with tiny, hairline fractures where the ice on the lake had cracked and separated and refrozen. I came to a long, narrow bump in the snow, the border where two massive plates of tectonic ice were sliding into each other to create a tiny mountain range. I followed trails of footprints, and I ventured off where the snow was untouched. I heard the ice cracking and shifting beneath me. The surface of the snow was rough and jagged, whipped by wind and crystallized by cold. I went back to my car and looked out at the lake, fascinated and moved.

Not everybody lives in a desolate place, but I hope that everybody can find some of the beauty in desolation. If you’re a fan of my book you probably already know what I’m talking about. Either way, I really want to close with some links to what they call Urban Decay. Some of these are absolutely incredible.

Urban Decay
More Urban Decay