Sam Gafford Delivers Otherworldly Terror and Suspense in “Whitechapel”

You may order Whitechapel here.

My dear unknown friend,

I never set out to become intimately familiar with Jack the Ripper. This familiarity arose due to professional concerns. As a magician, every year at Halloween I would hold a Jack the Ripper séance. Being the stickler for preparation and research I am the amount of material I accumulated soon bordered on the obsessive. The same goes for Arthur Machen. When my wife and I first moved in together I was delighted to find fine editions of The Great God Pan and The Hill of Dreams on her bookshelf. In temperament and views Machen is the  writer of weird fiction I am most in simpatico with so when I heard of a new novel in which Jack the Ripper was pursued by none other than Arthur Machen himself I must confess my first thought was less than charitable. Then I saw the novel in question was written by Sam Gafford, a writer well versed in the minutiae of weird fiction, that was enough to overcome my initial reluctance.

whitechapelWhitechapel is the engagingly told tale of a young man named Albert who departs Cornwall for the promise of a literary life in London. Events do not proceed as smoothly as he envisioned and in time he finds himself destitute, wandering the streets of London, truly at wit’s end when he falls in with Arthur Machen. Machen sees his younger self in young Albert’s plight and takes Albert under his wing, guiding him through London and thus through Albert’s sought after literary life. Yet like all gifts in this world there is a toll to be paid.

Gafford has mastered the art of providing just enough detail to place the reader within the setting, be it the slums of the East End of London or an opulent Victorian theater, without weighing the reader down with unnecessary elements to press the point home. Gafford does employ Machen’s device of having his characters comment upon their own dialogue. I noticed this towards the end of the novel and I would be curious to know the effect this has upon readers unfamiliar with Machen’s work before reading White Chapel. This happens infrequently and is in no way a reason to pass by this excellent novel. I observed it being employed when Mr. Gafford wished the character of Arthur Machen to pass along to the reader knowledge of Welsh culture as we neared the end of the novel and it was only due to the finesse with which he established his London tableaux that this became apparent.

thedreamerMr. Gafford has also captured the element of timing within this novel perfectly. He knows precisely the correct point at which to apply excitement and action and when to lay back and allow the reader to recoup. One of the heartbreaks of writing this is that I cannot write a review of both Whitechapel and Gafford’s just released collection of short fiction from Hippocampus Press, The Dreamer in Fire and Other Stories. One of the great joys I had last week was reading the collection straight after the novel and seeing not only the building blocks of locations and characters but also the lessons Mr. Gafford applied so beautifully in plotting the action and timing of Whitechapel. I would humbly advise aspiring writers reading this review to do precisely this. Read Whitechapel, then read The Dreamer in Fire and Other Stories to see the careful construction at hand.

samgThere’s two more points I’d like to make about Whitechapel. The first is Sam Gafford’s use of historical figures which I found absolutely delightful. We all know what a minefield this area is yet Mr. Gafford pulls it off with aplomb, largely by separating the historical figure in question from our preconceived images of them. I will not say whom he uses within Whitechapel for that is part of the thrill in reading the novel from which I will not deprive you. A large part of the time Gafford accomplishes this with the use of age, at others with a shift of intensity yet I always felt it compelling. I would encourage any writers considering using historical figures within their own works to study Whitechapel as a template of one possible direction in which to proceed.

The second point I would like to make is Mr. Gafford’s use of the supernatural. Elements of it fit perfectly in line with Machen’s own writings* yet Gafford brings his own lagniappe to the table which makes scenes within the book both terrifying and horrifying. As a point of clarification I recently had a conversation with a friend where we discussed the idea that terror is the emotion one feels preceding an event and horror is the emotion one feels witnessing the effects following from the event. Gafford employs both to devastating effect within Whitechapel, building a foreboding sense of malaise and then, most importantly, delivering when called upon. He does not shirk from this calling. It is not just with Machen that Gafford shows skill and familiarity with within the world of Whitechapel. He uses the spiritualist practices and fraternal magical orders of Victorian England with an adroit hand that not only advances the story in an intelligent manner but adds an otherworldly air to Whitechapel that feels neither forced nor belabored.

house-of-nodens-cover-front-v1As is obvious by now I loved Whitechapel and consider it one of the finer books to come out in a year marked by particularly strong novels. I also feel it marks the discovery of a truly dazzling novelist. As much as I enjoy and appreciate Mr. Gafford’s short stories I feel this area is where he shines. I know this may be premature after reading only one novel from him yet Whitechapel is simply that strong. With Whitechapel Sam Gafford has come surging out of the gate and leaves me chomping at the bit to read his next offering, the forthcoming The House of Nodens. If there was a window to place money on writers to watch Mr. Gafford would have a large part of my action.

* I would encourage those unfamiliar with Arthur Machen’s works to start with the Penguin collection The White People and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Classics). Then once you are well and truly hooked consider joining The Friends of Arthur Machen  which prints the lovely journal Faunus twice a year and the newsletter Machenalia.

Soundtrack for this review:

You may order Whitechapel here.

Article’s featured image by szydlak, see more of their wonderful photography here.

Review by Acephale.

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