Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Ronseal Psycho

I went on a trip around the Wye Valley with my girlfriend a couple of weeks ago. It was very pleasant - lots of nice rolling green scenery and historic towns, old inns and pubs and the like. One day we stayed in Hay on Wye - she shares my love of books and yet had never been to the country's second hand bookshop capital. So of course I ended up buying a few books - just musty paperbacks of a certain age. All four were, in some way connected with my love of early 20th century 'weird fiction' and the HP Lovecraft writing circle; two Robert E Howard, one Ramsey Campbell, and one Robert Bloch. All were part of Lovecraft's circle of correspondents; Campbell was, like Stephen King, a conscious imitator of Lovecraft, albeit filtered through a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Liverpool. Bloch was arguably the most talented of the circle and of course later went on to find fame and fortune in Hollywood by writing 'Psycho'.
The Bloch book I picked up, American Gothic, was not one I knew anything about, but just his name on the cover was sufficient. I've finally got around to reading it in the past week, and it's an interesting read. Set in 1893 during the Chicago World's Fair, it concerns a pharmacist with a shady past, G. Gordon Gregg, who has managed to have built for himself a weird 'castle' on the fringes of the fair, with numerous hidden rooms and passages that he has disguised by getting several different builders to work on the project and keeping the full plans to himself. He manages a succession of inventively grisly murders, mainly of heiresses for insurance money, and is foiled only when a local newspaper reporter, Crystal, takes an interest in him via her insurance clerk fiancee, and starts to unravel his past and crimes. Of course she nearly falls for Gregg's charms herself, and is at one point only narrowly rescued.
Well, the book is called 'American Gothic', and like the Ronseal advertisements, it certainly "does what it says on the tin". There is a haze of Edgar Allen Poe and his 'Murders in the Rue Morgue', a dash of 'Phantom of the Opera', and the weird castle folly is about as Gothic a setting as you could wish for, but there is also a large dose of American can-do pioneer spirit, and 'modern' devices like electricity, the telegraph and new chemical compounds. The trope - a mad doctor preying on gullible young women - in some way feels well worn - the staple of a dozen Hammer films, from House of Wax to the Abominable Dr Phibes. Indeed, finally, at one point the book's sheer preposterousness exhausted my patience, and I was ready to set it aside, but then, as I Googled others' opinons of the book, I discovered to my great surprise that it was, in fact, all - or very nearly all - absolutely true...
Yes, true. What Bloch was writing was not fiction, but a fictionalised life of a real American serial killer; H. H. Holmes. The weird castle, the multiple builders (some of whom he also murdered), the disappearing heiresseses and insurance scams - all true. Bloch, who had a lifelong fascination with serial killers, was writing the book in 1974, fourteen years after 'Psycho', and may have come across Holmes while researching his masterpiece (itself a fictionalised treatment of serial killer Ed Gein).
I was, it must be said, flabbergasted that the things about the narrative that had frustrated me had turned out to be the true ones. I guess that Holmes, like another of Bloch's obsessions Jack the Ripper, had existed just at the end of the period when it was possible to get away with that kind of thing, when uncertain communications and the difficulty in cross-correlating files and evidence between different police forces allowed criminals to play with what we would now call identity fraud, when a forged signature and a confederate willing to answer a telephone were enough to bamboozle an insurance company. The capture of Dr Crippen in 1910, after a radio message overtook him on his escape by fast ship to America, marked the start of a new era, when technology could outpace criminals and fraudsters in a way that had not been possible beforehand. Holmes is known to have killed 27 people, but may plausibly have murdered as many as one hundred. The only real anachronism in the book is Crystal, the spunky heroine, who is far more a creation of the 1970s (via His Girl Friday) than the 1890s.
And talking of anachronisms, I guess that buying a yellowing paperback from a heaving shelf of second hand books is something of that these days too. But how is the digital age ever going to duplicate that thrill of the serendipitous find that such places - dying as they may be - are able to provide? All the internet knows how to offer us is more of the same. People who purchased this book also liked... Will we ever find books like American Gothic that are out of print but not out of copyright, not scanned by Google's or Amazon's ever-widening maw, but simply lying on a few shelves around the world, waiting to be discovered?

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