15 Serial Killers
The last six months have been consumed with news of doom, be it the creeping black death unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico, Lovecraftian sinkholes in Guatemala (Google “sinkhole images” right now if you haven’t already) or the toppling of swarthy semi-European states. In response, I wanted to lighten it up a little bit for everyone and review a creepy, poignant and hilarious (no, really) book about iconic American killers.
Serial killers are pretty fascinating, especially to Ohioans because they’re all from here. Don’t think so? Charles Manson? Ohio. Jeffrey Dahmer? Ohio. James Huberty, the dude who shot up a McDonald’s in California? Ohio. (Massillon, to be precise. Yes, our former undertaker committed one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history. If you do some work at the library you can find his old address and drive by the house, you ghoul.). House of secrets anyone?
There have been many books trying to get into the “mind of a serial killer” with varying degrees of success. Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and John Douglas’ Journey Into Darkness are two of the better known examples of non-fiction works illuminating the world of the serial killer. Fiction, like visual art, is always going to do a little better job as it engages our lizard brain to become part of the story in a way no factual account ever could. Unfortunately, anyone who’s slogged through the thousands of serial killer novels rotating through bookstore shelves can tell you that the genre has gotten quite stale. (It’s a serial killer who kills serial killers! It’s a serial killer who kills serial killers who kill criminals that copycat other serial killers!!!, etc., etc.) Forget that stuff – 15 Serial Killers by Harold Jaffe is the best of both worlds.
The book has 15 chapters; each about a different figure from recent history. The classics all make an appearance, including Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Aileen Wuornos. Some unexpected folk take a turn in the spotlight also, such as Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Henry Kissinger. The book consists of fictional recreations of moments in the killers’ lives and transcends genre mystery by being incredibly true to the facts of the cases. At the same time, most stories are written in a first-person voice unlike true crime non-fiction.
Perhaps you’re getting bored thinking, “Fred, this is getting TLDR.” Well here’s a taste of madman Ed Kemper:
One part of me wanted to ask her out on a date. The other part kept wondering how her head would look on a stick. Murders, like mothers, are not always for public consumption. A murder done right – is an autistic – I mean, artistic – act. It is an intimate, even sacred, act. What comes after the murder also counts. The beheading, the dissection, the dining-in, the good old-fashioned necro f**k. I’ve heard folks say, what’s the point of f**king a corpse! You end up doing all the work”.
Hey, now you’re awake! This book is twisted, but so are the crimes. And like a real killer it mostly doesn’t try to moralize anything – it just takes pleasure in the act. Any deeper message comes from taking quotes from an esteemed figure like Henry Kissinger, coldly intellectualizing murder as a strategy of war, and putting him in the same book with John Wayne Gacy, coldly intellectualizing how to strangle young teenage boys looking for summer jobs. (“Found in Gacy’s suburban home: 36 Polaroids of pizzerias in the Chicago area, chain mail jock strap, two large mason jars of Snickers and Almond Joy”). By upsetting the apple carts of traditional fiction and non-fiction, this novel belongs in the Bizarro camp of literature – it is unsettling, unclassifiable, literary, strange, difficult and strangely compelling. Pick it up, or some of Harold Jaffe’s other books (same idea but with Charles Manson or terrorists through history) at Backlist Books in downtown Massillon.