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Murder by Candlelight: The Gruesome Crimes Behind Our Romance with the Macabre

Murder By Candlelight has a great cover and talks a lot about murders in The Past, which means you don't have to feel as guilty as usual when reading about them, because there are not currently people alive who were affected by them.

shut up, Ayn Rand

Short non-fiction books are maybe my favorite. So many non-fiction writers have the tendency to let their work be bloated & distended, so those who can keep it short and to the point have my immense respect. Murder By Candlelight is subtitled "The Gruesome Crimes Behind Our Romance With the Macabre." How can you not read that.

It covers a number of murders, starting with the unshocking-for-our-times murder by Jack Thurtell, moving to James Greenacre and the murder of Hannah Brown, the murder of Lord William Russell by his valet, the Ratcliff Highway Murders of 1811, and ending with some Jack the Ripper. Michael Knox Beran ties in all of these with literature of the time, while talking about the shift from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era, and it's all very fascinating.

look at this great image I found. Damn.

While I never felt it was made quite clear why the people in the murder cases were murdered, the surrounding detail has stuck with me long enough (I read this months ago) to make it a book I'd consider re-reading. He talks about things like public executions being "a rare public edition of a fact which, like the other great biological acts of birth and copulation, is generally hid under so many decent veils...Even so, there is a barrier. The gallows is a stage, and those who tread it are conscious of playing a part."

If you can't handle an author enjoying his own writing, then this is maybe not for you. I chose to like when he wrote phrases like "the vituperative savagery of the 'raff'" and saying Thomas De Quincey was "found in supine thrall to the juice of the poppy," because it meant he was having a good time while writing the book. It's a little unfocused, but it's fun and interesting.

The book mainly focuses on De Quincey and Thomas Carlyle and how their writings reflected the age in which they lived. Beran is distinctly anti-the Enlightenment and Modern era when it comes to murder.

The rational or empirical investigator affects to solve the mystery of a particular evil when he has in fact but grazed the surface of its horror; it is as though he had lit a candle and, pleased with the little circle of illumination he had made, flattered himself that he had vanquished darkness.

I want to just quote him on this subject, because he has a lot to say, and it's all excellent. So:

The more one gets into the habit of thinking of evil as a byproduct of social or economic circumstances, or as an anomaly in the neural architecture of the brain, the harder it becomes for one to take it seriously as a permanent element in the soul, one's own included. The first principle of goodness, it would seem, is to accord evil a healthy respect.

Evil loses a good deal of its horror when you succumb to the illusion that it can be done away with by means of better plumbing or a saving pill, the establishment of a more intelligent school curriculum or a reformation of the gene pool.

It's so interesting. I mean, is evil a real thing? Our teachings today would say it's due to something like a head injury that damages key areas of the brain. But are we saying then that someone or something cannot just be evil? My own Christian beliefs blanch from "someone" because I want to believe that all of humanity has the ability to be good. But to outright say that evil doesn't exist in the world, that doesn't seem right either. One of the most thought-provoking things he says in the book is:

Like cancer and mental depression, the phenomenon of the psychopath appears to be of those malignancies which flourishes most abundantly in the sunshine of progress and enlightenment.

This goes along with industrialization creating cities, which created masses of people not knowing each other, which created easy targets for someone with psychopathic tendencies. It's harder to be a serial killer in a small English village. Or, as Beran says:

Modernity was an acid, one that rapidly corroded customs and restraints that in the past had done something to restrain the sick man's more vicious impulses. As the same time, the monster-cities of the modern world gave such a soul a new habitat in which to hunt: he found a protective coloration in the anonymity of the urban crowd, with which he could blend himself more easily than his counterparts in less congested ages.

What do we do about this? Nothing. We can't do anything. We just have to know that one of the opposing sides of our faster, sleeker age is that we have provided humans with evil more prominently inside them than some a much easier time of it than they've ever had before.

One of the lines that's stuck with me the most, mainly whenever I look at a detective story, is "Surely it is no coincidence that at the very moment when murder was being degraded into a socio-medical problem, to be alleviated by Acts of Parliament, it was simultaneously being trivialized into a form of light entertainment, the literary equivalent of a parlor game."

Ouch. Yes, sir. That is what we have done. And it makes me feel guilty now every time I think of picking up Lord Peter Wimsey or Robert Galbraith, because murder has been trivialized in our minds. In detective stories, you're just waiting for the next dead body so the detective has more clues (and also so there can be some more action, thank you very much, story, you were starting to drag). We aren't able to take in the seriousness of murder unless it's under the most shocking of circumstances.

A kind of fatality hangs over our choices; this I suppose is why the great stage tragedies seem to us so true in their account of human chances and human destinies. A small sordid character like Greenacre's is but a petty thing in comparison to such a work of tragic art as Othello or Oedipus; yet, studied closely, it discloses the same Sphinx's puzzle of madness and unreason, the same horrors, darknesses, inscrutabilities.

Murder By Candlelight gives you a lot to think about in terms of our modern sensibilities, rethinking dismissing the Romantic era, and what role good and evil play in our world.

As much as Ibsen, De Quincey knew that the trolls and goblins of myth are real, only, like Ibsen, he saw that they are not (as our ancestors supposed) outside of us, but inside.


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