Thursday, May 23, 2019

"In the Slaughteryard" (1890)

When I talked about horror lying within an intersection of true-crime, this very strange story with its overwrought title is not actually what I had in mind. It's from Mary Danby's Realms of Darkness collection, but it's not much like any horror story I know, certainly of the era. I'm sure it found a much better home in the collection whose cover is pictured above. Yet in its way the story speaks to the intersection very well—as tawdry, unseemly, lurid, with raw hints of derangement and sadism, as if serial murder itself might be a kind of plague contagion, for victims and killers alike, leading to general bloodlust and society quivering on the verge of the breakdown of all norms. See also The Purge (or "The Lottery," which is altogether more elegant than either). The whole point of this story appears to be to make itself as extremely unpleasant as possible for genteel 1890.

Jack the Ripper, of course, who'd finished his work and disappeared a scant two years before this story appeared, deserves all credit for establishing the serial killer as demented media celebrity, writing taunting letters to police and newspapers, sending along irrefutable proof as the whim moves, and generally conducting entire metropolitan areas into waves of panic and revulsion. He was the first, before Zodiac or Manson or Son of Sam, and in a certain perverse view he might still be the best ever—the Babe Ruth of serial killers. He invented it, aided by the media ecosystem in London. Jack the Ripper's irrefutable proof by mail, for example, was a sample of a victim's kidney. But why go into detail.

What somehow hadn't occurred to me, although it doesn't surprise me, is that Jack the Ripper would have almost immediately inspired feverish levels of fan-fiction tribute, which is basically what we have here. Perhaps not "tribute"—it's more like a fantasy of defeating and punishing him, which makes it almost pathetic in a way. The only author we know for this story is our old friend "Anon.," as it comes originally from an 1890 British collection called The Adventures of the Adventurers' Club, with five other equally anonymous pieces (credited to "five men and a woman," leading some to suspect single authorship, which nonetheless remains unknown. In other words, his parents probably never found out).

This fictional Adventurers' Club is a group of voyeurists, essentially, or at best troublemakers—let's be clear here—whose individual members prowl London neighborhoods at night and report back in the morning. No, it doesn't make sense to me either, but I only know this story, which focuses on Whitechapel, the hunting grounds of Jack the Ripper. Maybe there's a larger context. This is not exactly a Jack the Ripper story, but it was published shortly after the murders, Jack the Ripper is mentioned by name, and he even seems to make an appearance (it's not entirely clear because the story is not entirely coherent). He casts a long shadow over the action and certainly in the head of this author, who seems quite confident that setting the story in Whitechapel should alone be enough to reduce us to abject anxiety. Sometimes it feels like a case of mass PTSD.

Of course, Whitechapel was already a notorious slum before Jack the Ripper came along and it remained so afterward. Our story narrator and adventurer, one Horace Jeaffreson (sufferin' succotash, these names), is on the trail of ... a rendering plant. Which he tracks down unerringly by the stench, commenting as he goes on the aptness of the word "stench." A passing policeman describes the rendering plant as "a regular devil's kitchen ... they make glue, and size [a construction product used to stiffen textiles], and cat's-meat, and patent manure." Patent manure? When Horace arrives there he finds dead horses lying around. They are piled much like the grotesque detail in this story. Horace has an encounter with a kind of wretched Dickens homunculus who seems to thrive living near and/or working at the rendering plant. Later Horace is attacked and fends off, to the death, a man with a knife. Horace claims the man is leprous and strongly implies he is Jack the Ripper himself and that he has killed him.

The Whitechapel murderer was never caught, and much as we see with Zodiac, that naturally deepens the mystery and attracts hardcore obsessives. But this story is not a case of, say, claiming certainty that Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen or some other specific person (although there are plenty of Jack the Ripper stories like that), but more like looking for general comfort in a fantasy that the killer lived a miserable life, did meet justice, and/or, of course, will burn in hell. "In the Slaughteryard" is possibly the least comforting story ever written, a kind of late-Victorian violence and industrial-waste pornography meditation. With nothing at all of the sense of "the uncanny," much less any sexual charge (unless the horses count for necrophilic bestiality), it is blank and death-worshiping as few things I've encountered. Well, there's worse. It's not as soulless as death documentaries like Faces of Death. But its closest cousins are narrative movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)


  1. Having owned my second copy of Realms of Darkness in 17 years, I've read this short story three of four times already.

    And there's something I've come to realize regarding it: Whether the reader likes it or not, something that cannot be denied though is that both its atmosphere and eerie detail (one can almost smell the stench) do make you feel like you're walking down the streets in Victorian, poverty-stricken Whitechapel at ungodly hours, feeling therefore vulnerable and like something that might be lurking at every corner any moment.