Tracking Jack, Pt. 4 – Spring Heeled Jack in the Penny Dreadfuls

The Spring Heeled Jack Library

Aldine Publishing Co., 1904

The covers of the 1904 Aldine series, especially that of issue number 2, are the most common on the net. In fact, they are usually coupled with information on either the earlier versions or with rehashes of the urban legend.

In a way, it’s fitting that this is the best known image of Spring-Heeled Jack, because it’s far and away the best story of the lot.  As mentioned last week, the 1878, 1885 and this 1904 version were ostensibly the work of one man, Alfred Sherrington Burrage.  John Adcock at Yesterday’s Papers disputes this. And though I wouldn’t have known any of the history John narrates, I have SHJ 08 Tracking Jack, Pt. 4   Spring Heeled Jack in the Penny Dreadfulsto agree simply on the evidence of the writing style. Although going into a stylistic analysis is not the intent of this series, it seems really clear to me that at least the story in The Boys’ Standard and the one in the Aldine series were written by two different people, the first being an inferior writer.

The Spring Heeled Jack Library is advanced in style even over its American contemporaries, almost but not quite reaching the level of decent pulp writing. Coincidence is still prevalent, but the manner in which the story unfolds is far more sophisticated than one would expect from 1904 popular fiction.

It also has a more modern pace. The whole conflict is set up in the first two pages. Bertram Wraydon has recently come into his father’s estate; he is leaving to return to his post during the Napoleonic Wars*. His cousin, Henry Sedgefield, stands to inherit the estate should Bertram be killed. At that same moment, Col. Manfred arrives with a squad of policeman. He has found evidence that Bertram has been spying for the French. Despite his protestations, Bertram is taken to jail and sentenced to hang. Only the intervention of his lawyer, Philbrick, allows Bertram to escape.

Sedgefield settles in comfortably at the Wraydon estate. All believe Bertram dead, but rumors soon start to circulate that he has been seen in the villages nearby. And in the forests, travelers are beset by a mysterious phantom who leaps from the shadows then disappears again.

Here’s where the author really distinguishes himself from the preceding authors. The dark figure is never seen directly, only in shadow and mist, or caught moving away from a window. He doesn’t make a clear physical appearance until halfway  through the first issue. This oblique approach builds tension and anticipation for what is to come.

As his laughter rings out through the night:

“Laughter! I call it a howl. It’s some animal as has got out of it’s cage.”

As he is glimpsed in the fog:

A form, dark and shadowy, coming from where no one could tell, just topped a wheel and flew over the coach, alighting with a curious spring sound on the other side.

A military man, Tench, who is an associate of Col. Manfred, is on one such coach.Jack’s appearance startles the horses and as they run away, Tench loses his valise.

The runaway coach horses are stopped by a mysterious gentleman in black, who joins the party. Later, when Tench returns to the scene to look for the valise, the stranger accompanies him. As Tench’s back is turned, the gentleman whirls around, and Tench turns to see someone…else:

His eyes were no longer soft and kind but gleaming with a fierce light. His face had become fiendish with painted eyebrows and stiff bristling mustache. His hands had grown larger and the nails of his fingers were long and hooked.

He also has bat-like wings. Rather than kill Tench, he carves the letter ‘S’ into the soldier’s forehead.

Within pages, the whole vista comes into view. Bertram Wraydon has indeed returned, along with his friend, Denis Stocks, whom he rescued on the battlefield. David is the inventor of the two and has developed a bullet proof vest as well as the spring heeled shoes. They make their headquarters in a crumbling churchyard, from which they sally forth not only to avenge the wrong done to Wraydon and restore his fortune, but to fight against the French espionage ring that headed my Manfred and Sedgefield.

More so than any previous version, this Spring Heeled Jack is clearly an early prototype for a thousand heroes to follow. A great personal wrong, a strong sens of justice, a costume, a secret identity, a secret headquarters, a calling card, unique gadgets (including a flaming gas grenade)… and he strikes fear into the hearts of evil doers (and everybody else.) What more could you ask for in Batman or the Spider or the Shadow?

The author doesn’t stop there. He introduces subplots and new characters deftly, building a larger world. Soon Townsend, the top detective of his day, is on Jack’s trail, and closing in. Manfred’s loyalty to the French cause comes under suspicion and Sedgefield seeks to do away with him. An old friend of Wraydon’s is blackmailed into carrying papers to the French, and in saving him, Wraydon is forced to undertake the journey himself. New allies are made, new enemies are discovered.

Spring-Heeled Jack is not above killing people, giving him a little glimmer of Richard Wentworth. Astonishingly, in issue 10, he actually kills his nemesis, Sedgefield, in cold blood, cutting the man’s throat with a knife. By this time, though, there are new villains in the guise of Beau Brummel (!) and Sir Whitaker Wedge. It’s clear that Aldine intended this to be a long running series, not a serial. They couldn’t continue to tread water in the same story forever.

The author doesn’t shortchange the atmosphere, either.

Night had fallen over London….In those days the safety of London was left principally to the decrepit old men who went wheezing and coughing, swinging a lantern in one hand and thumping a staff with the other.

________

A strange, lopsided looking man entered the room, crab-like, with his arms hanging straight at his sides.

________

 

Sadly, just as the new story arc was getting underway, the magazine ceased publication. Although four more issues were announced, number 12 was the last one that made it to the stands. Why is anybody’s guess, but what intrigues me is that if they got as far as announcing the next four issues, it’s likely that one or two of those stories were actually written. Where are they? Finding them would not only be an amazing piece of popular fiction history, but might actually solve the riddle of who wrote the series.

^ 3 Comments...

  1. Tony

    This is so much fun – I keep spotting details that I haven’t come across before in researching my novel, but which directly parallel my plot points.

  2. lovecraf

    There are a lot of similar incidents in the various SHJ stories. There’s always a wager at an inn, for example. I figure these are remnants of the original newspaper story.

  3. JustJohn67

    This has been an excellent series, very enlightening. Thank you for your hard work.