The crimes of Jack the Ripper were committed over 120 years ago and yet they still remain as mysterious and compelling as perhaps they ever did. Whether it’s the fact that the cases were unsolved, or the mix of sex and violence, the Ripper’s exploits have made their way into hundreds of works of fiction, including several works by Robert Bloch, now assembled in a collection from Subterranean — Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.
Robert Bloch is perhaps best known for writing the novel, Psycho, upon which Hitchcock based his film. However, he was a prolific author writing numerous novels and short stories. One of his most successful short stories was “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” published in Weird Tales in 1943. The story was reprinted various times and adapted for radio and television.
Later in his career, Bloch returned to Jack the Ripper as a subject, not only in short stories, but in a novel and a script for an episode of the original Star Trek series. Subterranean has collected all of Bloch’s Ripper works in one volume, named after that first popular short story. In looking at the volume, it’s perhaps easiest to look at the components that make it up.
“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”
The story that started it all posits that Jack the Ripper was an immortal and that his victims were sacrifices to extend this immortality. John Carmody is a psychiatrist helping to counsel Sir Guy Hollis, a man who is on the trail of Jack in present day Chicago. Carmody narrates the story, going along with Hollis, while questioning his sanity. He humors the Englishman, investigating with him up to the end where the real Jack reveals himself in a twist ending. Though it was fairly predictable, Bloch uses his knowledge of the Ripper well, though the only real fantastical element is the premise itself.
“A Most Unusual Murder”
Bloch takes the Ripper into the realm of science fiction in this story. Two men come upon an unusual antiques store and one of them buys what he thinks might be Jack the Ripper’s medical bag, unopened after all these years. Unknown to them, though, the antiques shop isn’t really what it seems, and the secret of the medical bag is even more chilling.
“A Toy for Juliette”
This story first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. In the story, the titular Juliette toys with and tortures various people that her mysterious Grandfather presents to her, using his time machine to obtain them. How does this tie in to Jack the Ripper? Well, let’s just say that Juliette’s latest toy isn’t quite so defenseless....
“The Night of the Ripper”
With all his accumulated Ripper knowledge, it’s understandable that Bloch would write a novel-length work. Unlike the other stories in this collection, this novel doesn’t contain any fantastical elements. What it does contain is pretty much every suspect identified to have potentially been Jack the Ripper. Bloch mixes them all in with a few original characters (like doctor Mark Robinson and Inspector Frederick Abberline) sprinkling the mix with a few cameos from real-life personalities like Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, and John Merrick, the Elephant Man. Though not quite as exciting as some of the other stories in the collection, I have to admit that I didn’t see the end coming until the last few chapters and Bloch’s knowledge of the Ripper case lends it a sense of authenticity. I only wish that Mark and Abberline had been stronger protagonists. Also, Bloch introduces each chapter with a description of an example of violence or torture from history. Unfortunately, these horrors often outdo the Ripper’s crimes. While Bloch does a great job in describing the Ripper’s crimes, they often come across more clinically than I would have hoped.
Wolf in the Fold (Script)
Many of you may have seen this second season episode of Star Trek the Original Series. In it, Scotty, Kirk and McCoy are visiting the planet Argelius. Scotty takes off with a belly dancer through fog-filled streets. Kirk and McCoy go off in search of action of their own when they hear a scream. They arrive to find the dancer dead and Scotty looming over her with a knife. This scenario continues again and again with Scotty unable to remember what happened in all of the murders. In the end, the Enterprise’s lie detecting computer is necessary to help the crew discover that it’s a non-corporeal entity that has been committing the murders, an entity that lives off of fear. This entity was responsible for the Jack the Ripper killings and for other serial killings in the past. In the episode, it resides in the body of the murder’s investigator, until it is forced out into the ship’s computer. Eventually it is forced back into the investigator who is then beamed out into space.
Bloch’s script is close to the final episode, but there are differences. For example, in Bloch’s script, Spock is on the planet with Scotty and the others in the beginning. Additionally, instead of Spock instructing the computer to calculate Pi to all decimal places, Kirk instead feeds the teachings of Christ and Buddha into the computer when “Jack” is in the machine, trying to show the superiority of good to evil. Generally, though, there aren’t too many differences.
It’s not my favorite episode. It depends too much on details fed to us from off-screen, but still an interesting use of the Jack the Ripper idea and a fascinating look into what a Star Trek script looks like. It was fun comparing it to the actual finished product.
“Two Victorian Gentlemen” (Essay)
The collection ends with a short essay by Bloch, comparing the enduring interest in Jack the Ripper with the continued fascination with Dracula. It’s thoughtful, if short, and I found myself wishing after reading it that Subterranean had had more essays from Bloch to include in the collection.
For fans of Jack the Ripper, the collection is a no-brainer. Bloch takes the facts of the case and spins them off into a wide range of stories in a variety of genres. As someone who went on the Jack the Ripper London walking tour twice, I’m happy to put it on my shelf next to Alan Moore’s From Hell.
The book will also appeal to those looking to read more of Bloch’s work. I only knew of “A Toy for Juliette” before reading the book, and the collection shows more of Bloch’s skill and his ability to spin an entertaining yarn. While none of the stories are quite as mindblowing as they once may have been, it’s a fascinating look at a writer returning to a topic time after time and wringing something new out of it.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator and blogger who did indeed brave the cold London night to go on a Jack the Ripper walking tour, not once, but twice. He may be distantly related to Sir Charles Warren, the Comissioner of Police during the Ripper murders. His website is www.rajankhanna.com