Monday, October 4, 2010

Hidden Horrors: Real Life Monsters

By Brian M. Sammons

Welcome back, Horrorheads. Sorry that Hidden Horrors was absent last month but I was busier than a (insert your favorite cliché here). In fact, I’m still crazy busy right now. October is like Christmas for fright fans, but for those of us who review such ghoulish goodies it is also a very busy time, as everyone releases their spooktacular books, movies, videogames, and whatever to capitalize on Halloween. Since it is Halloween, I felt I had to do a new Hidden Horrors, but what to do it on?

Well, I couldn’t be too elaborate, because again, I just didn’t have loads of free time, but it had to be significant or risk the spirit of Samhain getting all pissy at me for dissing the holiday. So I thought I’d talk about honest to goodness real life monsters; the predators among us, the fiends far more frightening than any ghost or goblin, because they could be your neighbor, your doctor, the man who teaches your kids. Yes, I’m talking about serial killers.

Now, I don’t mean the fictional slashers and rippers of books and movies. While there was a time a few years back that the horror genre was absolutely awash with knife wielding psychos, they have kind of been passed over for vampires and zombies these days--not forgetting, of course, Showtime’s hit original series, DEXTER. But, no, I mean the real deal. The monsters with names like Berkowitz, Bundy, and Dahmer. They are the kind of beasts that would even give "Dexter Morgan" nightmares.

For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by serial killers. I mean, I don’t collect their trading cards (no really, they’re out there), I don't have any of John Wayne Gacy’s signed paintings, or any other demented fanboy memorabilia like that, but reading about them and trying to figure them out, even if just slightly, is something I’ve always been drawn to. And I’ve met enough horrorheads over the years to know that many of you out there share this rather dark fascination.

So with that in mind, here are four books all about crazed killers, each tackling the topic from a slightly different angle, and all from the same publisher: Ulysses Press. But just because they all come from the same publisher does that mean they are all of equal quality? Let’s find out.


I figured I’d start with my least favorite of the four books from Ulysses Press. Also, this one was the most disappointing because it had so much promise. Like what, you ask? Well it claimed to have exclusive inside info and never before seen prison interviews with some of the most infamous human monsters ever. Henry Lee Lucas, John Wayne Gacy, and Aileen (MONSTER) Wuornos to name such a few. Too bad the author, Mr. Berry-Dee, seems far most interested in patting himself on the back, blowing his own horn, and generally letting the reader know just how uber cool he is for getting exclusive access. While that is true that his access is neat-o, it just gets so old so fast when he brings it up again, and again, and again some more. Worse yet is the pervasive use of overwrought purple prose he uses to stress the ghastly nature of these habitual killers. After a while I started getting the giggles and hard to remind myself that I was reading a supposedly “serious” study of psychopaths and not a pulp with a title like “SHOCK!” or “TRUE CRIME TERROR!”

Now the book isn’t all bad, just kind of hard to get through. There are the promised exclusive interviews, but they’re neither very long nor very informative. Each chapter on a killer does recount their campaign of terror and gives all the stats and facts correctly. However, with their exception of those all-too-brief interviews, this book offer nothing new that you haven’t read in other such books and really, overly extravagant writing style and the deafening thunder from the author slapping his own back is pretty hard to overlook for the few morsels of useful and interesting information hidden within this book. Therefore I really can’t recommend this book, so let’s move on quickly, shall we?

ONLINE KILLERS, by Christopher Barry-Dee and Steve Morris

First, note that this book is coauthored by Barry-Dee, the guy who overwrote the previous book to death. Also note that for this book his name changes from Berry-Dee to Barry-Dee. Weird. Anyway, what’s also weird is that as much as I disliked the other book, I liked this one quite a lot and I think there are a number of reasons for that. First, I can only assume that the other coauthor, Steve Morris, did a lot to reign in Christopher’s purple prose and “gee, aren’t I special” moments that ruined SERIAL KILLERS: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL for me. Also, for the most part, all of the various killers and creeps in this book, with one exception, were new to me, so I wasn’t reading for the hundredth time about how Dahmer wanted to men into sex zombies.

While the entire book was fascinating, as always, in a very icky way, the subtitle of “Portraits of murderers, cannibals, and sex predators who stalked the web for their victims” was a bit misleading. In some instances the internet connection was tenuous at best. An example of this was a guy who killed a woman, and while that’s still horrible, he didn’t stalk her on the ‘net, he just got off on violent porn found on the net. Still sick and sad, but not really an internet predator we are always warned of by the fear-mongering media. John E. Robinson, who lured girls to him over the internet and then stuffed their dead bodies into barrels, yeah, he fits the bill to a T. The infamous German cannibal, Armin Meiwes is covered as is the sad case of woman finding the resolve to end her life after visiting a number of suicide sites, and then there’s the 11 year old girl in Japan who made ‘net buddies with a 12 year old girl just before killing her in school with a box cutter. None of these are serial killers, but they are all glimpse into the dark said of human nature and how these broken people used the modern tools of today to fulfill their twisted desires. If that sounds intriguing to you, then give this one a shot, it was pretty good. Recommended.

HOW TO MAKE A SERIAL KILLER, by Christopher Berry-Dee and Steve Morris

Once more we have the team of Berry-Dee (back with the ‘e’ in his name) and Steve Morris providing another slant on the serial killer book. Also just like the previous book, the team up of Berry-Dee and Morris works really well. The book is informative, pretty insightful, well written, covers both well known killers and those that are not household names, and brings up the age old argument of is it nature or nurture that makes a child into a monster. I’ll leave it up to the authors to make that argument, but it was interesting to note that they even mention pretty up to date facts such as a possible genetic reason on why some people can become monsters.

From that central question the authors give you nine rather lengthy examples and studies of killers who could trace their evil back to things that happened to them in their childhood. They also mention a FBI list of factors that predict if someone may kill, but then oddly don’t apply that to all of the cases they go in depth about, and in one instance a killer had none of the “warning signs”. Further, more detail on the motives of some of the psychos profiled would have been great, especially since that is what makes this book different than your standard encyclopedia of serial killers. That said, the book does cover a wide selection of bad men (and one bad woman) from the psycho superstars of Dahmer and Gacy, to the lesser known killers like Ivan Milat, to somewhat recent terrors like the Washington snipers. It does a fairly good job at shining a spotlight on their shadowy, troubled pasts, but doesn’t go too terribly in depth. This is a good book on the subject of serial killers, and takes a novel approach, so I can recommend this book but it’s not essential reading.


Finally, a book about serial killers from Ulysses Press that has no connection to Christopher Berry-Dee and you know what, it was my favorite of the four. Well, to be honest I did like ONLINE KILLERS a lot too, so maybe this is in a tie for first place. Perhaps what I liked most about this book is admittedly shallow; it’s pretty. It is wider and taller than the other books, almost approaching coffee table dimensions, and like those books it is chock full of photos.

Good looks aside, this book covers a wide array of killers, far more than any of the other books reviewed here. Now that means that each isn’t covered too deeply, so if you are already a well read psychophile then you may not get too much new info out of this. Knowing that, the author chose to tackle the subject in a slightly different way. As the title suggests, this book focuses on the order of events in these killer’s lives. Mostly that means listing the victims in the order they were murdered, but a few other topics get the chronological treatment as well. For a quick look, handy reference, this was a very good idea. Also this book covers the who’s who of serial killers. Even some golden oldies are covered like H.H. Holmes and Albert Fish and even a short chapter three female murderers, something a lot of books skip over. So for a rather light, but inclusive and visually impressive book, consider this one very recommended, especially for neophytes to the disturbing world of serial killers.

--Brian M. Sammons