Inspired by Murder

On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts    Guilty Things A Life of Thomas De Quincey

This review was written by Colin Dickey for New Republic, November 2, 2016:

“Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person,” (De Quincey) reasons, “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This attitude to primal panic would never “suit the purposes of the poet.” What, then, must a poet do to elevate such a scene to high art? The only option: “He must throw the interest on the murderer.” Since 1823, this has become commonplace; from The Godfather to Silence of the Lambs to Breaking Bad, it’s become the default position of any serious drama to include the perspective of the murderer. Like it or not, our imaginative lives now reside in De Quincey’s dreamworld.

Fittingly, Frances Wilson’s new biography of De Quincey, Guilty Thing, begins not with his birth or his lineage, but with a murder: In the early hours of December 8, 1811, shopkeeper Thomas Marr, his wife and infant child, and his apprentice were all found dead, their throats slit and their heads bashed in. With no real suspects, the case fascinated everyone in England, but none more so than Thomas De Quincey himself. The Ratcliffe Highway murders, as they became known, inspired in De Quincey a “profound reverie,” according to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and would occupy his mind and his writings for decades to come. The murders, De Quincey would later write, “had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale,” he concluded, by the “deep crimson” of the Ratcliffe Highway murders.

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Penny Dreadful: Edward Pettit on Varney the Vampire

Left: Front wrapper from the 1853 edition of Varney the Vampire; Right: The 2007 Zittaw Press edition

In his Book Reviews, Edward Pettit, The Philly Poe Guy, tells us, “Years ago I discovered Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood, a penny dreadful from the Victorian age, the first full-length vampire novel in English (I’ve never discovered whether there were any vampire novels in other languages that predate it). My discovery was a three volume Arno Press edition, a facsimile of the original 1847 edition with a plethora of illustrations throughout the text.”

But Pettit found the print in that Arno Press edition difficult to read, being small and almost illegible in places.  “Happily,” he says, “Zittaw Press has published a new complete edition of Varney, edited by Curt Herr. 

Here is Pettit’s entire Review

Mysteries of London

 G. W. M. Reynolds  (July 23, 1814 – June 19, 1879) is not as famous today as Dickens or Thackery, but during his lifetime, he was arguably more popular. His serial The Mysteries of London (1844), sold 40,000 copies a week in installments known as “penny dreadfuls” before it was issued in bound volumes.

Wikipedia tells us, “The Mysteries of London and its sequel The Mysteries of the Court of London are among the seminal works of the Victorian ‘urban mysteries’ genre, a style of sensational fiction which adapted elements of the Gothic novel – with its haunted castles, innocent noble damsels in distress and nefarious villains – to produce stories which instead focussed on the shocks of life after the Industrial Revolution: the poverty, crime, and violence of a great metropolis, complete with detailed and often sympathetic descriptions of the lives of lower-class lawbreakers and extensive glossaries of thieves’ cant, all interwoven with a frank sexuality not usually found in popular fiction of the time. Although Reynolds was unusual in his religious skepticism (one of the main characters in The Mysteries of London was a clergyman turned libertine) and political radicalism, his tales were aimed squarely at the tastes of his mostly middle- and lower-class audience; they featured hump-backed dwarves, harridans and grave-robbers who groped past against a background of workhouses, jails, execution yards, thieves’ kitchens and cemeteries.”

You can read the entire text of Mysteries of London at the Victorian London web site.