Maureen Johnson’s latest YA novel, adds a few new wrinkles to the expanding mythology of Jack the Ripper. The myth-making began in 1913, just 25 years after the grisly murders in Whitechapel. Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote a popular novel called The Lodger. A landlord and his wife suspect their well-mannered tenant might be a serial killer. It was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1925 and remade three times, each with a different ending. In 1943 Robert Bloch suggested the Ripper might be immortal in his weird tale Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.
Bob Clark’s 1980 film Murder by Decree had the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes solving the Ripper murders by connecting them with England’s royal family. Even today, that theory has its adherents. Sherlock Holmes intervenes again in The Singular Habits of Wasps written by Geoffrey A. Landis in 1994. The premise here is that the Whitechapel murders resulted from human bodies being inhabited by insects from outer space. And most outrageously, Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 film Time After Time had the Ripper borrow H.G. Wells’ time machine to travel almost a century into the future pursued by Wells himself.
The latest entry comes from Maureen Johnson, a specialist in young adult novels. Her newest, The Name of the Star, is a modern-day Ripper story intended for a readership of teenage girls. The early chapters introduce us to Rory, a young American woman whose parents live in England. She enrolls at a private academy called Wexford located in London’s east end. This is near Whitechapel where the Ripper murders took place in 1888.
London’s east end had been a horrible slum for centuries. Later, during the blitz of WWII, it was pretty much leveled. By the time Rory matriculates at Wexford, the neighborhood is completely rebuilt and is pretty nice. Since this is a “young readers” novel, we meet Rory’s roommates and learn about the school’s daily routine in great detail.
Soon women in the neighborhood start being gruesomely murdered. It turns out that certain people who have had near-death experiences become uniquely gifted. They are able to see the walking dead, ghosts. These ghosts are invisible to everyone else. Rory has the gift, and she joins forces with a secret organized police effort to track down one of these ghosts who has become homicidal.
Whether this figure is a reincarnation of Jack the Ripper or is a mere copycat is hard to say. The good guys do have a weapon called a Terminus resembling a cell phone that can utterly destroy these apparently supernatural entities. The ghosts are not all evil though. One of them actually saves Rory’s life.
The Name of the Star is a strange blend of a boarding school story with many comic episodes and a chilling horror tale with a science-fictional premise. Maureen Johnson’s writing is consistently good. And even readers who are not teenage girls should enjoy it. The Name of the Star generates a good deal of suspense. But the climax, while shocking, is never excessively gruesome as it could have been. You can find the book in the “teen fiction” section of your local book store. Incidentally, Maureen Johnson’s author photo on the dust jacket looks like a webcam capture. -D.E.
Also available by Maureen Johnson are: The Bermudez Triangle; The Keys to the Golden Firebird; suite scarlett; devilish; 13 Littlle Blue Envelopes; Vacation From Hell; scarlett feer; The Last Little Blue Envelope.