Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Peter Haining and Spring-Heeled Jack

I read the latest issue of Hellblazer, which features an appearance by the early-Victorian urban legend Spring-Heeled Jack, on the same day that I read that Peter Haining had died. It was something of a coincidence, as the last of Peter Haining’s books that I had read was The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack (Frederick Muller Limited, London, 1977), which I picked up at the Tynemouth book fair a few weeks ago – though, since I have read fewer than twenty of the, roughly, two hundred books that Haining wrote or edited, there may be more to come.

The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack is a typically frustrating example of Haining’s work. It is a non-fiction book, but is hugely unreliable. Several incidents are written up in novelistic detail which cannot possibly have been available in the sources – indeed, as Mike Dash points out here, the incident with which Haining opens the book, an attack by Jack on a barmaid in Blackheath, seems to have no source. He may simply have made it up – it’s hard to tell, as Haining gives no notes, sources or bibliography. He takes third hand accounts – the sort of “friend of a friend” story that forms the very core of urban mythmaking – as solid evidence; and he devotes a lot of attention to the theory that Jack was the Marquis of Waterford, on the familiar assumption that any mysterious figure must really be someone famous or aristocratic, or both, because that is the better story. (Andy Diggle, by the way, uses the same identification in that Hellblazer issue).

And yet there is a lot of material here that would not have seen print without Haining. His discussion of Jack’s place in popular culture, for example, seems sound, and I will be plundering it in an upcoming post about Spring-Heeled Jack’s life in comics.

And so it is with the rest of his work. For every sloppily-compiled anthology of Victorian horror stories with no details about first publication, there is a book about penny dreadfuls which considers publication and authorship in detail. For every collection of otherwise hard-to-find horror and pulp illustrations, there is a scissors-and-paste book about Doctor Who full of popular misconceptions.

The lesson, I suppose, is to handle Peter Haining’s legacy with care. But, by all means, do handle it.

A personal recollection of Peter Haining, and an interview with him, by Steve Holland, can be found on Steve’s Bear Alley blog.

Pictures and panels
Hellblazer issue 238, “The Smoke” by Andy Diggle (writer), Daniel Zezelj (artist), Lee Loughridge (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Casey Seijas (editor), DC Comics, January 2008 (I must have slept through the New Year celebrations)

Cover to Peter Haining The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack, Frederick Muller Limited, 1977, reproducing an illustration from Spring-Heel’d Jack, The Terror of London, Newsagents’Publishing Company, 1840s

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