Welcome everyone to the second installment of our review/interview series—we’re arriving in style with a new name for the series “Author’s Own Words”—and featuring an interview with the darkly elegant and ever enigmatic Daniel Dark! Enjoy!
“What desire can be contrary to nature since it was given to man by nature itself?”
― Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason
I have written on Jack the Ripper before, when I reviewed editor Ross Lockhart’s Tales of Jack the Ripper. For convenience, I will include that review’s opening lines here, pertinent to the current task of discussing a new face of this timeless horror:
Jack the Ripper—the name claims one of our culture’s eternal enigmas, at first calling to mind images almost innocent, a magician-like figure in a top hat, almost campy enough for a neighborhood Halloween costume. Almost—because in a time when the Internet (a term itself becoming as problematic and borderline-anachronistic as “TV”) makes every image that ever existed accessible in an instant, the photos of his victims still hold their own on the shock scale. If you’re over 18 and feeling cocky, Google an image search of “Mary Jane Kelly” and you’ll get shredded faces interspersed amongst nineteenth century photos of a woman in a dress along with a few color stills from the movie From Hell. You’ll also get the infamous crime scene image of a torn apart body lying on a bed. An appetizer of organs sits next to it on a side table. You can find all this with the SafeSearch “on”.
If one reads further in the review from which the above is cut, a hydra of Ripper stories comes to light. They are all offered from Lockhart’s 2014 anthology, which shows an impressive and diverse array of interpretations of this iconic figure.
Here, however, we are taking a turn down a different path. A darker alley awaits—indeed, turn with me and mind you don’t slip on the alley’s damp stones. Slickened with what substance, we cannot say, certainly some rain, some fog, certainly something else as well. When you come along on the journey that is author Daniel Dark’s Knife’s Tell, you are entering a blur of chaos, blades, and blood, but you are also entering something too real, and too authentic, to keep that chaos at a safe distance. In his remarkable novel, Mr. Dark doesn’t want you to merely hear the Ripper’s story, he demands you live in his world, demands you taste its flavors, its sweet, its bitter, its bloody, until you cannot decide whether to flee or join the cackling glee of its ruthless poetry.
Knife’s Tell opens as would an inviting diary—a recounting of the days of an intriguing English doctor. Never mind his name, he speaks in the first person and offers every other intimate detail of his life. In the reader he confides all, his profession as a respected gynecologist, his lovely wife Elizabeth and their adoration for their two-year old son. He introduces his servant Savant (dubbed so for her precocious talent for flowery décor, and because she herself is sweet as a flower), and the governess Narcissa (who combines her talents for Victorian etiquette with the appearance of a not-so-understated vixen). He tells of taking in a street urchin he dubs “Hardwick”, whom he plans on making his laboratory assistant and protégé. He even demonstrates a certain regard for the important role his coachman Howard plays in his life.
Without unveiling too many of the sumptuous pieces of Knife’s Tell’s feast, suffice it to say that this ‘days of the life’ of a Victorian gentleman and professional offers a highly atmospheric and masterfully easy stream of consciousness style. Daniel Dark’s strength comes from his ability to deliver accurate sensual details. As this author, in addition to writing, has worked as a professional Victorian chef, few can match his ability to convey a sense of realism to a bygone era. Victorian authors themselves— Shelley, Dickens, Thackeray, the Bronte sisters—may be said to leave out details which during their time could be taken for granted, but this author of historical fiction conveys a setting to a Twenty-First Century audience in a way that brings the late Nineteenth Century to life. The recipes alone—from roast pigeon to pig’s head cheese (that’s right—the novel includes a set of full recipes for the dishes described in the story) plant the reader jarringly in another time and place.
And yet Dark’s stream of consciousness style does not lack clear signposts. There exist enough touchstones of clarity in the sequence of actions and thoughts that the story’s “treasure map” of events and symbols can be swiftly followed. Indeed, as it progresses, new sensual delights are added to the early descriptions of London’s shadows, candles, ales, banquets, and fog—for the good doctor begins experiencing multiple laudanum-soaked trysts with his servants and a mysterious noblewoman from outside the city. Sex scenes as exquisite as the soft leather interior of a smooth-riding, well-polished coach take the reader for a ride that refreshes our already more than well-represented landscape of erotic literature.
But while we are enjoying these delights, the specter of murder is never far away. Bodies begin to appear in London’s Whitechapel district. The police recruit our good doctor to help with the investigation, and thereby the reader’s lusty feast begins to be laced with episodes of blood and body parts. We understand that the doctor is on a mission that involves finding a cure for his wife’s mysterious ailment, and that he needs something from the desperate ladies of the evening swarming in London’s slums. As the novel progresses, a tension both maddening and enjoyable grows as we fear what the doctor needs for his experimental cure while at the same time sympathizing with him and rooting for his success.
In the end, of course, any novel on the topic of Jack the Ripper must give the author’s take on answering the one all-encompassing question—Who was he?
In this Dark’s success rivals both the traditional and the outlandish. To both those who would say simply that it was a local madman such as Aaron Kosminski, to Patricia Cornwell’s baroque claims that he was modernist painter Walter Sickert, Daniel Dark counters with not only neither, but that there are far deeper shadows of motive moving beneath the surface, and should we not explore those? For in Dark’s novel he simultaneously paints a highly traditional figure in top-hat and cloak, and yet at the same time creates a person who serves as an intricate symbol of the end of one era and the beginning of another, and all the pleasures and madnesses that accompany them. For the doctor of Knife’s Tell becomes an ironic Prometheus—murder is as much self-sacrifice as it is assault. He is a figure that opens a dialogue with Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein about the changing meaning of the heroic and the very nature of success. Without spoiling the novel’s climax and its actual answer to who the Ripper was and his motives, I will say that readers will an experience a satisfying shock and revelation when they realize the true facts of the darkness behind the debauchery. The novel reads with all the fun and sensuality of Stoker’s Dracula, but cuts back across with an apocalyptic and merciless conclusion à la Hardy’s Tess D’Ubervilles. Knife’s Tell’s ultimately beautiful and impossible fantasy is how it binds the future and past together by slicing them apart in so many darkly dazzling pieces.
Interview with Daniel Dark:
Have you ever eaten roast pigeon, and can you really pick your teeth with the talons?
In the cooking society today it is normally called squab. Yes I have eaten it, and if you have ever had quail you have tasted something similar to it. As to the picking your teeth with a talon, after they dried you could.
What first motivated you to become a Victorian chef?
I was drawn to the era in my younger days and as such all aspects of it. When I started studying as a chef it was easy to transfer that study into my passion. I have over thirteen hundred cookbooks in my library, and a few hundred from the Victorian era. Now the new ones that I’m collecting are from the year nineteen ten or before.
When did you begin writing? Was it a conscious decision to choose the novel as a form, or did it come about another way?
I have always written but in my younger years it was mainly poetry. Then after I had a stroke I wrote my first Victorian cookbook as therapy for my brain. It wasn’t until after that that I thought I could possibly write a novel.
You appear to have a very original take on the Ripper for an author so knowledgeable about traditions. How do you feel about Jack the Ripper as an iconic figure, and about “Ripperology”?
In my opinion the truth behind who or why Jack the Ripper existed will never be known. Every part of the case that we still have available has been written about. This is the reason I chose to write about a part of the case that has not been evaluated in a novel. What would cause someone to become the notorious Ripper?
Many of our images coming from the Victorian world today are those of stuffiness, uptightness, and repression. And yet your depiction of 1880’s London and Whitechapel gives it a wild, hedonistic allure. Do you feel that a Twenty-First Century audience has been missing out on the whole picture of the Victorian era, and all it has to offer?
The picture in most movies only shows part of the truth about the life in London during the late eighteen hundreds. There was a definitive stiffness in society, but there was also the underbelly that proper people didn’t speak about. The so called “unfortunates” were known and thriving in those days and people had to do whatever they could to survive.
Your novel makes the case that there may be something tragically heroic in the figure of Jack the Ripper and the Victorian ideal in general. Does the Ripper share anything with Frankenstein’s monster? Are the wages of genius, madness? And vice versa?
The fragility of the mind has always been known and the line between. Frankenstein made his man, and the public made him a monster. Likewise, in my novel, the pressures of life change the man into a monster.
Thank you, Daniel Dark!