The Pleasures of Delving Into Another Time and Place: Lloyd Shepherd's 'The English Monster'

There's a little bit of Oscar Wilde, a little bit of Wilkie Collins, a little bit of Bram Stoker, and maybe even a little bit of Charles Dickens in The English Monster.

The English Monster: The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass

Publisher: Washington Square
Length: 432 pages
Author: Lloyd Shepherd
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-05

The English Monster brings to mind some quintessential 19th century novels and novelists—there’s a little bit of Oscar Wilde, and a little bit of Wilkie Collins, and a little bit of Bram Stoker. With the social criticism, particularly of the justice system, The English Monster might even be likened to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Perhaps this is why author Lloyd Shepherd decided to subtitle the book The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass--could anything sound more 19th (or perhaps even 18th) century?

The English Monster is a book with many layers. It's a murder mystery and a detective story, but it begins as a 16th century adventure tale. The story follows the travels of Billy Ablass as he leaves his love, Kate, to try and earn his fortune as a seaman, not realizing that he will be trafficking slaves. Days before joining the crew of the Jesus of Lübeck, Billy writes Kate and tells her “I know you are frightened by this Journey, my sweet. I am frightened too. But if all goes well, I will come back a Man, having left a Boy. A Man with Prospects and with the Resources to meet them. A Man, in short, with Money.” Billy should have been more careful with what he wished for.

The book alternates between Billy’s story, which covers several hundred years and several continents, and the more modern England of 1811-1812. This section opens with a series of gruesome murders—based on the real life Ratcliffe Highway murders.

At each murder scene, a coin (a clue) is found. Detectives and the British courts struggle to find the killer or killers, but their attempts are less than successful—for several reasons. When Resident Magistrate John Harriott suggests looking for a motive, he is told “The Devil needs no motive… These are the works of the Devil… the undertakings of fierce demons with only one thought—our extermination and our eternal damnation.” Another reason: one suspect was “arrested for the astonishing crime of being an Irish seaman with an eye for the ladies and a fondness for a drink” causing Harriott to state: “When I heard of his arrest, I confess that I rolled my eyes. In recent weeks we have arrested enough Irishmen to form a new regiment."

The turns of phrase (think ‘damnation’ or ‘God’s teeth’), the long sentences, the strong sense of place, the methodical pacing, the intricacy of the plot—all contribute to the 19th century literature feel of the book. Of course, Shepherd does appear to keep his 21st century audience in mind at times—several scenes are depicted in gory detail—the descriptions of the murder victims for example—“Another crushed skull. Another throat sliced down to the gleaming bone…” or “a man’s throat… severed through to the bone… one thumb… hanging off a hand by a piece of skin".

Another departure from the 19th century storytelling method: the pirate characters often curse like the sailors they are and occasionally they walk about naked. Certainly these scenes and passages are not graphic compared to many other 21st century stories, but they are also certainly not the type of descriptions (or language) found in most 19th century novels.

Additionally, as Shepherd details in an author’s note, the Ratcliffe murders aren't the only historical accuracy in the book; the ship Billy sails on and several of the characters, for example, did actually exist. Also adding to the historical flavor of the novel is the theme of British imperialism.

Author and literary critic Edward Said once suggested that any book written by a British (or Irish) author during the 19th century was somehow related to British imperialism, and Shepherd seems to be following this mindset. Much as Bram Stoker’s Dracula encapsulated the British fear that some monstrous foreign entity was going to breach their borders, The English Monster reexamines British imperialism and “what happens to Britain as she gains global power but risks losing her soul”.

And this adds just as much to the mystery element as do the murders. The back of the book claims: “Two moments in England’s rise to empire, separated by centuries, yet connected by a crime that cannot be forgiven”. Who is responsible for the murders is relatively clear before the end of the novel. The larger questions revolve around the connections (and other crimes) and wondering how all the different pieces—spread over several continents and several hundred years—are going to end up coming together so everything makes sense.

And in the end, it does make sense—for audiences who are willing to suspend their disbelief for a moment or two (which is pretty easy to do) and who will not be distracted by the numerous details and jumps between time and place (which is a little harder). It’s an intelligent book meant for an intelligent audience, and for readers who like to be immersed in another time and another place, this book is well worth the effort.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.