I’ve been a fan of Alan M. Clark’s work for a really long time. We met mumble-something years ago at one of the World Horror Conventions, when Alan was showing his paintings in the Art Show. He painted an amazing painting for me and my husband—still one of my treasured possessions—and later wrote an incredible piece about his adventures in brain disease for my Morbid Curiosity magazine.
Officially, author and illustrator Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. He has created illustrations for hundreds of books, including works of fiction of various genres, nonfiction, textbooks, young adult fiction, and children’s books. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. He is the author of eighteen books, including twelve novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. Mr. Clark’s company, IFD Publishing, has released 44 titles of various editions, including traditional books, audio books, and ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan M. Clark and his wife, Melody, live in Oregon. You can check out his work at www.alanmclark.com.
Alan’s latest book is The Prostitute’s Price, a novel that beats back our assumptions about the time of Jack the Ripper. It’s not the grim story of an unfortunate drunken prostitute killed before her time, but one of a young woman alive with all the emotional complexity of women today. Her intellect and beauty, both blessing and curse, opened doors to both opportunity and threat. She saw lust as her means to lucre, her tender feeling toward one man as perilous, and the deadly obsession of another as merely the risk of her trade. Fleeing the hazards of love and running from a man wanting her to pay for her crimes against his brother, Mary Jane Kelly must recover a valuable hidden necklace and sell it to gain the funds to leave London and start over elsewhere. Driven by powerful, conflicting emotions, she runs the dystopian labyrinth of the East End, and tries to sneak past the deadly menace that bars her exit.
Did something in the real world inspire The Prostitute’s Price?
Yes, recognizing that history repeats itself in some interesting ways, especially in similarities between life in America today and life in Victorian London. That recognition lies at the heart of what inspired the Jack the Ripper Victims series, of which The Prostitute’s Price is the fifth and final volume.
Then as now, money was political and social power within a capitalist system. We are in a tech revolution today. The Victorian period saw the industrial revolution. The revolutions have similarities in their social impact: the large numbers of unemployed and homeless, the increasing power of those who provide employment to control working conditions and keep wages low, the laissez-faire capitalist tendencies of Victorian Great Britain and those of the United States, the vast gap between the haves and have-nots, the attitudes that some of the powerful take toward the poor: social Darwinist views that suggest that the struggle for life in human society is one of survival of the fittest.
I began the Jack the Ripper Victims series after reading the transcripts of the victims’ inquests and the police reports about the crimes attributed to the murderer. The parts of those documents that spoke specifically of the victims—their clothing, possessions, circumstances, lives—had the most impact on me. The first four victims were middle-aged women who had lost the man in their lives, their major breadwinner, and were living precariously, much of the time on the street. It’s believed that all four of those women were casual prostitutes. That meant that they supplemented their all too-meager incomes with occasional prostitution. There were countless such women on the streets of Victorian London. In the area of London’s East End, where most of the murders occurred, 500 to 800 people lived per acre.
And that brings up the relative value of single, middle-aged women in that British society. Small worth to employers, I’d say. The competition for jobs, especially with the untold numbers of children willing and needing to work to help their families survive, left many aging women out in the cold.
To avail oneself of the relief system—the workhouses, the casual wards, the infirmaries—would have been much like willingly going to prison, where the inadequate food and accommodations were earned through hard labor, much like that given convicted felons in actual prisons of the time. Occasional prostitution would seem a reasonable alternative.
The going rate for a casual prostitute was 4 pence. For the American reader, translate “pence” into “penny.” The going rate for a quatern of gin—a quarter of a pint—3 pence. A share of a bed in a doss house—flophouse for the American reader—was 4 pence. A loaf of bread 2 pence. Within those numbers and choices, I find a cruel hand to play. With few funds, on what should she place her bet: a piece of a bed, drink, bread, or should she begin the search for another client? In a similar circumstance, which would you choose?
The first couple of JTR’s victims might not have suspected they were exposed to unusual danger on the streets. The third, fourth, and fifth? What made it seem reasonable to them to be searching through dark slums for strangers to pay them for sex?
Truly, it is that sort of question that makes me want to tell a story from history: what made the decisions of those women reasonable within that dire context?
In our time, what similar desperate choices must the unemployed, homeless person make with the hand they’re dealt? Perhaps our safety net in the U.S. is much better than what Londoners had in the 1880s, but plenty of those currently in power look for ways to weaken it every day.
And has enough changed for women? Not to my liking. For many, women are still the second-class citizens they were meant to be in the Victorian period. I’m thinking that in a time of the #MeToo movement and increased awareness of the abuse of women, stories about 1888’s Autumn of Terror should not glorify Jack the Ripper as daring. Instead, they should show the humanity of his female victims. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
The Prostitute’s Price is about the life of Mary Jane Kelly. Unlike the victims before her, she had been a professional prostitute associated with a high-end brothel until she fell to street-level soliciting due to troubles in her life.
The other titles in the series are:
1) Of Thimble and Threat (about the life of Catherine Eddowes)
2) Say Anything but Your Prayers (about the life of Elizabeth Stride)
3) A Brutal Chill in August (about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols)
4) Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man (about the life of Annie Chapman)
The stories take place primarily in London during the middle to late Victorian Period, roughly between 1850 and 1890. They are character-driven dramas based on what is known of the victims’ lives. They can be read in any order.
Actually, there is a memoir/horror fiction novel that is sort of a secret, meta volume in the JTR Victims series, titled The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir. Most people do not know I consider it part of the series. It reveals a lot about why I got involved in the project and how it’s effected my life. It is a very strange beast of a book, an exciting crime thriller as well as being partly true.
What is your favorite scene in The Prostitute’s Price?
The erotic scene between Mary Jane Kelly and Joseph Fleming in chapter 11. The complexity of her feelings was fun to portray.
What was your writing process like as you wrote The Prostitute’s Price?
Loose outline based on what is known of Mary Jane Kelly’s history, much research—most of it done online, looking for the emotional threads in her story. The novel, like the earlier ones in the series, is strictly from the POV of one character, the female victim. None of the books in the series are about Jack the Ripper, yet they all do end with murder.
With The Prostitute’s Price, I had difficulty starting because the crime scene photo so discouraged me.
While considering how to begin, John Linwood Grant asked me to write the introduction to his “Tales of the Last Edwardian” collection, A Persistence of Geraniums. In its pages, I found John’s great character, Edwin Dry, the Deptford Assassin. I’d read a couple of stories about him already. He is an extremely capable, dispassionate assassin: one might at first think a sociopath. He will take a job from just about anyone to kill just about anyone as long as the job is earnestly offered. The pay for the job is important to Dry, but the amount seems to concern him the least. In one of the stories, John gives a short history of how Edwin Dry gained his reputation. Some of that involved Jack the Ripper in a manner that gave me an idea. I do not want to give anything away here, but I will say that it gave me heart, and I was able to move forward with the last book in the series.
I asked John to work with me on it and for us to employ his creation, Edwin Dry, as a character in the story. He agreed, but then the idea kept evolving. We decided that each of us would have his own POV character for the novel, so our different “voices” wouldn’t become a problem. Our chapters would alternate. With time, we came to the conclusion that we were writing two separate novels, and settled on that as part of our goal. Mine, The Prostitute’s Price, is from the POV of Mary Jane Kelly, and is the final book in my JTR Victims Series, standing on its own as the others in the series do. His, The Assassin’s Coin—also capable of standing on its own—is from the POV of a spiritualist woman name Catherine Weatherhead, about the same age as Mary Jane Kelly. It is a very different story that takes place in the same timeline. The two “companion novels,” as we call them, share some scenes and some characters, including Edwin Dry, the Deptford Assassin.
The Prostitute’s Price was released on September 10. The Assassin’s Coin came out on October 10. The two novels will appear together in a third volume titled 13 Miller’s Court, in which the chapters alternate. That came out on November 9, 2018, the 130th anniversary of Mary Jane Kelly’s death. For a larger experience of each novel, we say, read both. All three novels are from IFD Publishing.
What was the best thing that happened during your promotion of the book?
A couple of things. The first had to do with the titles for the novels. I presented the title for mine, The Prostitute’s Price, to John and asked if he might come up with one for his novel that complimented my title in length and had a similar possible multiple meaning. This was in part because I wanted the book covers to have much the same design. He offered The Assassin’s Coin, which is perfect in ways that I cannot explain without giving things away. Trust me when I say he was brilliant to come up with that title.
The other has to do with a review. Halfway through writing the JTR Victims series, David Green, the fiction editor for Ripperologist magazine, contacted me and asked for a review copy of A Brutal Chill in August, the novel about Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, published by Word Horde. It seems he’d known my artwork from the book covers I’d done over the years, had become curious about the first two books in the series, got them, and read them. He’d contacted me for A Brutal Chill in August because, as he said, the first two in the series had been among the best Ripper fiction he’d read. This is a man who knows quite a lot about the subject matter, the investigations, and what life was like in 19th century London. The review he produced for A Brutal Chill in August was a glowingly positive one. When Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man came out, he gave another extremely positive review. The review for The Prostitute’s Price in Ripperologist #162 is the most wonderful of all, winding up with the statement, “I regard the five books that make up this series as unarguably one of the high points in Ripper fiction over the past 130 years.”
As you can imagine, I was very pleased.
What do you have planned next?
Oh, shit, I don’t know. Let me take a few breaths and ask me again later. Thanks for the interview, Loren.
My pleasure, Alan!
You can pick up The Prostitute’s Price on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/2JnTVd7
Or check out all the rest of Alan’s books here: https://amzn.to/2DaPnqd
Or check out his web page at www.ifdpublushing.com