1 November 2007
In an era obsessed with the macabre underbelly of Jack the Ripper's London, Penny Dreadfuls were a publishing phenomenon. Now a Southwark resident is breathing life back into the gruesome Victorian genre, writes Henry Wismayer...
Author, historian, walking tour guide and library worker, Walworth's Chris Roberts is a multi-faceted local talent. His latest project - 'One Eye Grey, Stories from another London' - revives the nineteenth century literary tradition, depicting tales of murder, mayhem and mystery, which rose to cater for the sensationalist appetites of an increasingly literate working class.
Roberts explains: "There wouldn't have been too many outlets for the macabre in Victorian England so I think Penny Dreadfuls just filled the gap. Some of them were really shocking in their descriptions of people being murdered and backstreet abortions."
"I just felt that some of the tales really needed re-telling, especially the one about Queen Rat," Roberts enthuses, alluding to the tale of the anthropomorphic one-eyed rodent that inspired the title of the series. "But I wanted to give them a modern twist and set them against twenty-first century London."
The Liverpool-born writer has a background in historical literature and achieved critical acclaim with his 2005 book, 'Heavy Words Lightly Thrown', an irreverent exploration of classic nursery rhymes. And since moving to the capital fifteen years ago, he has developed a passion for London's past and present, something he puts down to the outsider's natural curiosity. "An awful lot of people who come to London from elsewhere start to engage with the town's history. It helps you to make sense of the place," he says.
These two fascinations, with the folkloric tradition and with the big smoke, are at the heart of the One Eye Grey series, which is now on its third volume.
Roberts stumbled across the idea of writing Penny Dreadful-esque fiction last summer while doing research for a new book on London's ghost stories.
"I was interested in folklore and London ghost stories with the idea of writing a non-fiction book. But I realised a lot of this stuff was already out there and it seemed like a bit of a gip on the public to bring them out again without changing them. The Penny Dreadful concept came along as a means of presenting these stories in a more original way."
For the last twelve years Roberts has lived in Walworth, and Southwark provides the canvas, and the inspiration, for many of the lurid tales within the pages of his pocket-sized publications.
"You just find things out," he shrugs, insisting that he finds more potential material riding through the city on his bike or attending talks at Borough's South-East London Folkloric Society than he does sitting in the library.
"I love Southwark, especially all that history along the waterfront. I even love the untidiness of it, like East Street Market on a Saturday morning. It's proper. But at the same time you've got the darker side," Roberts muses.
"Because it's an inner city area and people grow up so fast it gives the place an energy."
Though its mastermind intends to adopt more of an editorial role in future editions of One Eye Grey, the borough will remain a focal point for the next book, due out in early 2008. Among contributions received so far is a tale in which the protagonist awakes to discover that Walworth's high-rise towers have been replaced by the affluent gentility of Primrose Hill while the latter wallows in squalor, and another in which a one night stand with an Amazonian Lizard Woman at an Elephant and Castle salsa club leaves a man burdened with a constantly growing penis.
It's clear that Roberts has a penchant for the unorthodox. Other recent projects in which he's been involved have included 'slumber offsetting' and 'Londinium', a collection of London's cacophonous noises intended to parody the soothing new-age mood recordings of countryside sounds and whale song that some people actually listen to.
One of his more durable ideas, running historical walking tours in the city (which he's been doing on and off since 2001), has been adapted to complement the One Eye Grey books.
"When a new edition comes out I do a series of free walking tours [including one that explores the history of old Southwark]. The idea that we were bringing the literature to the streets was a key part of our application for funding to the Arts Council."
Roberts is yet to find out whether that application has been successful. But it seems likely that his books, inspired by a century-old genre but addressing timeless fears in a modern voice, will be scaring commuters witless for a long time to come.
"The books have grown in popularity and we get back-sales as new readers discover us. There are other groups producing horror stories in London, but no-one is doing anything quite like this."
The three volumes of the One Eye Grey series - 'Transpontine Drift', 'A Goose in Southwark' and 'Out of the Orbital' - are published by F&M Publications and cost £2.50 each.
For more information visit their website: www.fandmpublications.co.uk
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