Fred & Rose – Book Review

Title – Fred & Rose

Author – Howard Sounes

Genre – Non-fiction, Crime

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Fact is truly stranger than fiction. I have spent the past month reading a number of horror and thriller books – a spook fest dedicated to Halloween. One of the books I read (Murderabilia – will review in due time), touched upon the theme of serial killers. The names Fred and Rose West led me to discover this book by Howard Sounes. The month ended with “Fred & Rose” , a true account of the serial killer couple who gained notoriety in British criminal history for murdering numerous women and children over a period of twenty five years; their own children being among the victims. Author Howard Sounes was a journalist at the time the crime was uncovered in 1994, and had reported for the Sunday Mirror newspaper in London under the headline “House of Horrors” – the title the case came to be known as (before the Josef Fritzl case of 2008). Cited to be among the most extraordinary murder cases that shocked even police authorities and medical experts, the skeletal remains of twelve young women and children were discovered – all tortured and killed by the West couple. Nine remains were discovered in the house the couple was living in – buried in the cellar, under the bathroom tiles, near the chimney – as life continued normally in the household. The remains of twelve corpses were identified; it is not known how many people Fred and Rose West killed in all during their murderous spree from the late sixties to the early nineties.

In “Fred & Rose” , Sounes has attempted to understand why so many people died in and around 25 Cromwell Street – the House of Horrors. The book begins back in time with the grandparents and parents of both Fred and Rose. A background into their individual childhoods helps us understand what motivated such violence and how they developed into people capable of such behavior. Both Fred and Rose were born to parents suffering from mental illnesses at various points in time, and were abused as children themselves, and didn’t see anything wrong in what they did to other people, including their own children. According to them, pedophilia was a part of family life – something they too went through growing up. (Their grown up children later said they loved their parents, and assumed the abuse was what happened in all families.) To the outside world, they appeared as any normal couple – cheerfully greeting people on the street, helping out neighbors with chores, providing accommodation to lodgers at cheap rates – they seemed to go out of their way to help others. 25 Cromwell Street was in the middle of the city. Numerous visitors went in and out of the house. And yet no one had an inkling of what was going on within.

The targets included hitchhikers, problem children from delinquent hostels, runaways – people whom no one might inquire about if they went missing. Fred and Rose would drive around town together, offering rides to hitchhikers. Sometimes they would take their children along too. Women who might have been suspicious about getting into a car with a single man, did not see any danger with a young woman and/or children alongside. Young women were invited to work as nannies for their children. They provided lodging at cheap rates affordable for poor students. The women who trusted them were abducted, tortured, raped, killed, cut into pieces, and buried within the floors of the house. Some of their own children too met with the same fate. (The ones who survived did so because they ran away.) Pregnant women had their bellies cut up because Fred wanted to check the gender of the babies. (Fetal remains were found next to the remains of the mothers.) The crimes went undetected for twenty five years. Schools didn’t check when a child stopped turning up for classes. Emergency units treated wounds without bothering to inform the police about abuse. Social services did not follow up on pregnant women who were registered under their care. Children who complained to neighbors were answered with, “They would never do something like that” . Lodgers who inquired about screams at night were told the children must have been having nightmares. Out of all the remains found over two decades later, only six women had been reported missing by their families. The rest said they thought their relatives had left home and didn’t want to be bothered. The House of Horrors case was as much about the sadism of Fred and Rose West, as it was about the failure of society as a whole.

The couple did not know the names of all their victims, and barely registered the faces of the ones they picked up at night. Remains were identified on the basis of dental implants and superimposition. Evidence of torture was identified on the basis of cracks in the bones, cords around decapitated heads, tape and fabric around skulls, nails stripped from fingers. There might have been many more victims whose bodies were never located. Before writing the book, Howard Sounes had broken the story and covered the murder trial of the West couple. In an age where the media often plays judge and jury, Sounes has presented the book as plain facts. Beginning from their own childhood, up to the lives of their surviving children as adults, we are provided a case study of a life in crime in forensic detail, showcasing a fascinating and frightening account at the same time. Sounes does not let his own emotions about the killer couple influence the reader, and urges us to read and reflect for ourselves. Whether one chooses to see Fred and Rose as victims themselves on account of their own abusive childhoods affecting their personalities and later behavioral traits, or one feels the punishment they received from the courts wasn’t enough for the depravity of their crimes, this book is a must read for the case details it provides. The discovery and unearthing of the skeletal remains, forensic identifications of the victims, the court trial, police interviews with the couple, media frenzy, people trying to make a quick buck by claiming to be former victims, actual victims and police detectives selling stories to newspapers and book publishers – Sounes has everything covered about the House of Horrors case. Depictions of torture are gory, but however squeamish one feels as a reader, one realizes that people actually went through the sadism of Fred and Rose. Not a read for the faint-hearted, but a book that deserves to be read as an ode to the victims who finally got justice over two decades after their disappearance and death. My rating is for Sounes’ presentation of facts and writing quality of the book. The content is absolutely heartbreaking.

Rating – 5/5

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Victorian Horror Stories – Book Review

Title – Victorian Horror Stories

Editor – Mike Stocks

Genre – Horror, fiction

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The spook fest continues as our countdown to Halloween grows shorter. “Victorian Horror Stories” is an anthology of some of the scariest short stories from the nineteenth century, featuring a mix of British, French, and American short story writers. The stories range from tales of the supernatural to more explicitly horrific subjects. Some of the authors featured here include Guy de Maupassant, Samuel Savage, W.C. Morrow, Mary Cholmondely, as well as some stories whose writers were never identified. The tagline states that Mike Stocks has selected and retold these tales. In his introduction, Stocks mentions how this compilation targets young readers, while introducing them to the horror genre. The font size is fairly large and the book is peppered throughout with numerous sketches keeping in line with the stories. Stocks also explains the original context for each of the stories when they were written centuries ago, and the significance of their themes.

“Victorian Horror Stories” brings in the chills almost immediately by starting off with Mary Cholmondely’s “Let Loose” , loosely inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s “The Hand” – a horror classic from the greatest French short story writer. When an evil person dies, does evil itself die? What happens when severed body parts of a killer have a life of their own when the killer is killed? Samuel Savage’s “The Cat” is about a cat that might not really be a cat, as its fifteen-year old narrator is left to solve the mystery.

“In that room, at twelve o’clock, something unimaginable happened to me. The room was an ordinary room. The day had been ordinary, too. I went to bed without the slightest reason for thinking something extraordinary was about to happen.” Fitz-James O’Brien begins “The Beast From Nowhere” quite simply, and the narrative turns completely eerie in no time. How do you confront a beast you can’t see? If you can’t see it, does that make it a beast to begin with? A perfect analogy for the things we fear but can’t see, as O’Brien connects physical horror with psychological terrors.

W.C. Morrow ups the ante with “An Original Revenge“. Some of the scariest stories are those without a supernatural element. They prove that reality can be just as horrifying, or even more than fiction. A soldier tormented by a captain to such an extent that he takes his own life. A threatening suicide note left behind. The horrifying demise of Charles Gratmar and its aftermath stays with you much after the story has ended. This was one of my favorite tales from the book.

There are some stories by unknown writers as well, and it is commendable how Stocks dug them up for readers. “One Silver Bullet” , as the title suggests, is about werewolves. “It was the noise of everything that is horrible, a howl of evil, dying out slowly, lingering in the air like a foul stench.”  The narrative draws you in and keeps you guessing till the end, as a nightwatchman takes the onus of destroying a werewolf who might be more than what he believes it is. “The Head of Jean Cabet” is another one from the anthology that stood out for me with its brilliant portrayal of pure horror writing. “One spring evening in the middle of the eighteenth century, a group of villagers stood around a pond. High above, skylarks sang. It should have been a beautiful and tranquil scene. It wasn’t. In the middle of the pond, a body was floating, a dagger plunged into its back.” These haunting opening lines have nothing to do with Jean Cabet, and have everything to do with him. As you conclude reading, the head of Jean Cabet literally haunts you. Such is the atmospheric writing by the, unfortunately, unknown author.

I love anthologies because short stories have much lesser time and space to get to the point, unlike novels. It’s a hit or miss within a few pages. There’s a thin line between scratching the surface and providing depth. Too much too soon gets overwhelming for the reader, and rambling on for too long bores you till you get to the end. “Victorian Horror Stories” is a treat for fans of the horror genre. A brilliantly edited anthology which, in spite of its macabre theme, serves as an introduction for young readers into classic horror, and is equally enjoyable for adults as well. I was hoping to read more of them. Stocks, however, has gone a step ahead and listed down more authors and some of their works readers might be interested in looking up. Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft are some of the more familiar names. Shelley, Stoker and Wells are popularly known more for their novels, but their chilling short stories are worth reading as well. Those interested in art will love the sketches that accompany the writing. Give this one a go if you like the chill factor in reading and appreciate classic literature.

Rating – 5/5