By all accounts, Rick Geary’s a 'Treasury of Victorian Murder' series should not be scary at all. Geary’s art, at first glance seems a better fit on the pages of Gumby than illustrating some of the most gruesome crimes of the 19th century. Even the plots tend to be composed mainly of facts and theories about the portions of the crimes that have gone unsolved. But oddly enough, it’s precisely because of Geary’s firm hold on reality with his plots, and his subtle use of horror and gore, that each episode fills with a dread that creeps to the back of your brain and stays there.
The Saga of the Bloody Benders takes the non-fiction elements to extreme by starting the story with maps. What seems like a history lesson on the surface, begins Geary’s secret invasion into our mind. He puts in his own interpretation of the houses on the maps and presents them in such a way that 19th-century Kansas looks like a different world. The details on the history of the area help the reader become immersed in the culture of the time and how its people behaved and felt. Geary’s art helps by showing a creepy John Brown with his sword covered in blood. This one simple illustration takes a simple line from a history book and gives it a face and meaning from page one.
This invasion of fact and caricature into your brain builds up until you are finally confronted with the grisly act. The murders aren’t shown but their aftermath is, and that makes it worse. Characters who come from a state “born in blood and fury” are shown sickened by the murders of the family. The next panel shows the same men moving the house. It has the same disorienting look and feel to it that death gives in real life. These men are going through their work in a daze after being confronted with their mortality. There’s no shocking panel of gore that can be identified as horrifying. Instead Geary allows the weight and reality of these events to sink in by showing us one little bone sticking out from the ground or an understated blood stain on the curtain.
In Jack the Ripper, Geary uses all the techniques employed in the Bloody Benders even more effectively. Geary plays up the city atmosphere of the killings making the whole book feel claustrophobic. The city looms over everything and like most smart works of art presents both the positive and negative of city life. London has Scotland Yard and Buckingham Palace but also terrible areas like White Chapel where the killings took place. One of the reasons Jack the Ripper is so terrifying is the mystery involved. Geary shows how British investigators exhausted every technique and resource to catch the killer but apparently, nothing could be done.
Geary subtly sets up a dichotomy of order vs. chaos in a way that is realistic and complex. The page where the story discuss the infamous “From Hell” note is the perfect example. The entire page is dominated by the background of this crazy handwriting. In the bottom is a small circle containing Scotland Yard and the quotation, “Several detectives already deem this a “transparent hoax.” Nevertheless, the specimen was deposited for extensive examination with Dr. Openshaw of the London Hospital.” In a small gesture, and purely by his layout, Geary suggests how the Ripper has overcome their culture. He even implies that both the people and detectives are helpless in the power of the Ripper, and shows how the detectives who realize this try and protect the population from panic.
Geary’s real triumph of horror is getting the reader to identify with the psychology of these killers. We are so into thinking about Jack the Ripper’s situation that when the “From Hell” note is presented, it becomes the scariest part of the book. It’s a realization that this guy really thinks he’s from hell! On one page, Geary illustrates all the possibilities thrown out for Jack the Ripper, and it becomes a kind of societal cross section of evil. But it also forces you to confront that fact that while Jack the Ripper was only one person, it could have been any of these people. Life has sent all of these faces over the edge as we’re left to wonder how close we are to insanity.
Halloween Bonus: gruesome Jack the Ripper crime scene photo