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The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack
Created by ggrihn on 5/15/2017 2:14:13 PM

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero, by John Matthews.

Reviewed by Gregory G. H. Rihn, Steampunk Chronicle Literary Editor

 

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero, by John Matthews, is a non-fiction work that does a quite comprehensive job of collecting and presenting original source material and related data about the famous mysterious character of Victorian and later legend.

Beginning in 1838, and continuing on and off into the the 20th century, people travelling by night, especially women, were astonished and frequently terrorized by an apparrition that variously took the form of a man in a bear costume, a man in a bull costume, or a close-fitting white outfit with a helmet, who at times breathed fire, tore clothing with steeely claws, and ended the incidents by leaping away into the night, clearing walls, leaping over carriges, or escaping to housetops in a single bound.

It was this last feature that caused the newpapers to dub the miscreant "Spring-Heeled Jack." Anyone might make a grotesque costume and fit it with claws. Breathing fire (often described as blue, like an alcohol flame) is a mountebank's stunt. But the ability to make jumps of more than twenty feet in height, and more than that in distance, has never had a credible explanation of how it might have been done. No Victorian machinery—and likely, no modern machinery—could have accomplished this feat, and moreover, silently. Thus, the fevered theories that Jack was a ghost (albeit a very palpalable one), an alien, or the Devil himself.

Mr. Matthews collects the contemporaneous newspaper accounts of Jack's appearances, the editorial and letter commentaries, and news reportings on the actions of police, civic authorities, and citizens, who often went hunting for Jack in posses, although without success. Although the varied disguises and the decades-spanning series of events would suggest that there were in fact many Jacks, or many imitators of an as yet unidentified original, no one has ever been apprehended and proven to be "Spring-Heeled Jack."

The book goes on to chronicle the appearances of similar beings, such as the "Camberwell Ghost," that dared to tweak the noses of the British Army at Aldershot Barracks, and others, ranging into both the new century, and the new world.

The author also does an inclusive round-up of folkloric trickster figures who might be Jack's spritual ancestors, ranging from Jack the Giant-Killer and Jack-in-the-Green, to Robin Hood and Robing Goodfellow. Some of this, I think is definitely reaching, as is, in modern times, connecting Spring-Heeled Jack with the internet boogyman, Slender Man.

Surveying Jack in fiction, Mr. Matthews casts a wide net, noting many of the "penny dreadfuls" that recounted stories of Spring-Heeled Jack, sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain, and sometimes in up to forty or more serialized installments. This volume includes the complete text of one of the more well-known such serials, Spring-Heeled Jack: The Terror of London. In more modern times, the author devotes half a page to Mark Hodder's monumental series commencing with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, but spends ten pages synopsising a series of "audio plays" called The Springheel Saga. Perhaps he felt the more obscure work needed more explication?

While definitely uneven, the work is well worth perusing if you are interested in the character at all, and is quite a useful source for newspaper writing of the period. Mr. Matthews chatty style makes the reading quite painless.

 

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack at Amazon


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