Published by Valancourt Books on August 11, 2017
Genres: Crime/Serial Killer, Dark Fiction, Fiction, Gothic, Horror, Psychological Horror
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The offspring of a profligate scoundrel and a drunken circus performer, Aleck Severn was born inside a prison’s walls after his mother stabbed his father to death. Severn shows no outward signs of inheriting his parents’ faults: a handsome, affable man about town, he is popular with his friends and beloved by his wife Marianne. But she begins to suspect her husband has a dark secret. What is he doing during those long nights alone at a remote house? And what connection could it have to the bodies of murdered women being found around London?
One of the earliest novels inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders, The Devil in a Domino (1897) received mixed reviews when originally published, with critics praising the author’s literary talent while decrying the book’s horrific contents. A work of exceeding rarity, it survives in only a handful of known copies and has not been reprinted in over a century. This new edition features an introduction by Simon Stern.
THE DEVIL IN A DOMINO, by Chas L’Epine first appeared in print in 1897. At that time it was met with mixed emotions. For example, The Literary World called the book “a frankly horrible performance . . . a gruesome compound of madness and butchery” which “no sane person could find pleasure in reading.” . Whereas others, such as The London Star, recommended the novel highly: “May be guaranteed to disturb your night’s rest. It is a gruesome, ghastly, blood-curdling . . . piece of work, with a thrill on every page. Read it.” Valancourt Books has managed to bring back yet another gem in the horror field, for new generations to discover.
This story stood out to me for many reasons. The first being the unique way–especially for the period in which it was written–that the book managed to impart a sort of ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ situation. Our main character, Aleck Severn, shows a form of split personality, but this one being more “mental” than a complete physical transformation. Aleck is obsessed with the idea of heredity coming from birth, for reasons of his very own.
“Aleck Severn’s father was gently born; he was also a profligate and a scoundrel. His mother was a drunkard. . . . By profession, the wench danced at fairs, on the platform of the traveling booth, and did it better drunk than sober . . . “
In the very first chapter we learn that Aleck–whose mother died in a prision during childbirth–was adopted by a kind relation with “. . . wealth, an honorable name, and a peaceful home . . . “ Therefore, despite his heredity, he was raised in luxury, well educated, and had a life of ease–with a position in high-class society–all before him.
Just as it seems he has it all, the reader is introduced to the “other” side of Aleck. He hides away his . . . thinking. . . side, which is always obsessed with the idea of creating life–but not that as it is “naturally” done.
“. . . he was sick of a trivial life in a trivial world . . . “
Although he goes into a respectful marriage, Aleck’s persona that he presents to his wife is vastly different than that of his private life–a secluded cabin he keeps in which to do “his thinking”. Here, he only has one faithful servant/companion to attend him, Jem Pate. It is easy to ascertain that Pate is the only one that ever knew the true nature of Aleck’s thoughts, although at times his wife suspected something amiss.
“. . . but I soon found that ‘to think’ is more to him than I am . . . “
The atrocities that the dark side of Aleck Severn commits were sometimes likened to the Jack the Ripper murders, but I find them completely unique to this character, as he never loses sight of his vision and firmly believes his practices are justified in the pursuit of his knowledge.
The book contained so much more depth and detail than I had been expecting. While there was still much the author left unstated, the results were able to be garnered from the gestures, comments of others, and even in the ‘absence’ of precise words.
“. . . as a rule, it is the tremendous truths that spring from the seed of a little mistake.”
This enigmatic novel, with its beautiful literary prose, kept me up thinking about its implications, so long after I had finished reading it, that I actually got up to go and re-read several chapters. As of the writing of this review, I have read the story in its entirety twice, and select scenes several more times. If that isn’t a sign of a great novel, I don’t know what is. Pick up a copy and see for yourselves.