David Hitchcock’s Springheeled Jack is worthy of your immediate consideration. Imaginative and enthralling, this playful consideration of a real terror from nineteenth-century England is entertaining from beginning to end. In his introduction, Hitchcock explains the historical context for this book. Beginning in the late 1830s, there were reports in London of a mysterious individual who would terrorize women before leaping away and vanishing into the night, only to be spotted later on rooftops and other high points in the city, such as the Tower of London. Beginning with one breathless, pearl-clutching report from the period that claimed this acrobatic tormentor was “most assuredly not of this earth,” Hitchcock reimagines the story of Springheeled Jack as a gothic alien invasion drama, loaded down with literary and historical references that comic book readers are sure to enjoy. For example, the hero of this tale has a bat suit and a fastidious butler named Alfred. His best friend is Dr. Jekyll. (Yes, that Dr. Jekyll.) And, his flying gadgets are crafted by “Orville and Wilbur.” Prince Albert and Queen Victoria also show up, and there are veiled references to Jack the Ripper. And, did I mention the alien invasion?
Fortunately, the anachronisms and historical references are generally only used to contribute to the general tone, and, with the exception of Dr. Jekyll, they don’t bear too heavily on the plot. If they had, the work would have become goofy or campy, and it’s neither of those things. The story is presented in black and white and rendered with an exceptional level of detail. All the grit and hopelessness of East-End London stands out in stark relief as the drama plays out across the alleys and rooftops. Haggard faces are as common among the nobility as they are with the street urchins, and everywhere there are deep shadows promising mysteries and miseries in equal number. This is the kind of work that you read through once but page through many times, as there are so many interesting tableaus along the way.
The dialogue is well crafted; each character has a distinct voice, and there is very little needless repetition. One possible complaint about the dialogue is that, in the first act, the reader spends a lot of time reading through the thoughts of the main character, Sir Jack Rackham. This becomes a little dull, but this weakness soon vanishes from the story when the writer begins to introduce the rest of the cast. Also, regarding dialogue, Hitchcock is wonderfully restrained in his use of third-person narration, which appears very infrequently and almost always with an illuminating effect. It is never superfluous, and it never demeans the reader’s powers of observation.
In terms of the general story, the ending is not as rewarding as one would hope — but the journey to that ending is nevertheless worth the price of admission. This is a document where all of the pieces work together to facilitate the reader’s experience, and Springheeled Jack has a quality that is all its own. Readers unfamiliar with London in the nineteenth century may want to look up some images before diving into the book, so that they can better appreciate Hitchcock’s world. It would also be a good idea to spend a little time looking into the actual accounts of the book’s namesake, as this too will help you better enjoy the more exciting aspects of the plot. This work is highly recommended for all readers. Don’t miss it.