Classic Books: Happy Like Murderers

The haunted house is perhaps the most enduring horror myth. The idea that a single building can be inherently evil or a doorway to a place that is. Stephen King’s The Shining centred on a hotel in which so much badness has been done that the place itself retains an active malignancy. The mystic and pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake invented the term morphic resonance and defined it as ‘a kind of memory in things determined not by their inherent natures, but by repetition.’ It is almost certainly nonsense, yet instinctively we feel that lived-in places have sentinence. I can’t walk into a private residence without feeling that the walls are hammered with the tenant’s psychic force. When coming back after going away, I’m struck by the feel of myself in the room, and it’s doubly weird when you’re returning as a temporary outsider. There’s an initial discomfort to the familiarity, like stepping into a hot shower on a cold morning.

After the logs and mementos and instruments of torture therein had been removed and destroyed at an RAF base the house at Cromwell Street was razed to the ground and replaced not with a plaque or memorial garden but a simple walkway connecting the street to central Gloucester. ‘The feeling was that people wanted to see the site made anonymous and ordinary,’ Gordon Burn writes. A man named Brian Fry grew up in that house before the Wests lived there. He worked in the local cinema and played with trains in the cellar where numerous young women would be eventually disinterred. It was a happy childhood and even after leaving home he’d walk past his old house to remind him of the memories of his train set and the showreels he used to put on for family and friends. By the eighties, the house had begun to freak him out and he stopped passing. ‘Brian Fry can honestly say that he had those feelings even not knowing what he now knows… You never saw anybody, that was what got him. He believed there were several children living at the house, but you never heard a sound.’  

When novelists write about evil, they tend to define it as the act of using people as things. When questioned by police Fred West couldn’t remember the names of his victims, couldn’t remember the names of his children, couldn’t remember how many children he had, and often his answers would slide into gossip and tangents and irrelevancies. The only thing that got a reaction was talk of his house and what the police were doing to it as they dug up bodies. He’d talk in great detail and exactitude about the tools he used to kill and dismember, referring to these tools in the personal pronoun: ‘All I done was lifted him up and packed her underneath him, and dropped him back on top of her.’ People as things and human as manmade. He would listen to his wife’s sessions with other men by means of recording devices (he made use of what basic home surveillance technology that existed in the seventies, eighties and nineties; had he been born a generation later, Fred West would have existed most fervently as a librarian or curate of unspeakable footage in the blacker reaches of the internet) and she would lead the conversation around to roadworks or construction, knowing that anything that involved holes being filled in or things slotting into other things he would find erotic. West’s fantasy life was like something out of Cronenberg’s darkest nightmares with little separation between the organic and the material.

Happy Like Murderers takes place on the edges of cities and the forgotten towns and villages that still make up so much of England. Much Marcle. Bishop’s Cleve. Forest of Dean. You don’t write about these places. You might have grown up in them but you don’t think much about them. And Burn begins as a novelist, telling the tale of teenage runaway Caroline Raine whose series of bad decisions and unhealthy friendships takes her into the poisoned orbit of Fred West. The story takes place in ‘the ancient, unofficial routes… riddled with rat-runs and mossy alleys and long narrow walks, like the dark passageways running behind the walls of grand houses in such a way that the servants, ceaselessly running to and fro laden with coal scuttles, baskets of firewood, bed linen and tea trays, never had to cross the paths of their betters.’ If we’re honest, we’ve all met someone like Fred West; the kind of man who is always present at drunken or drug-fuelled gatherings at pubs and parties, who doesn’t drink or take drugs but just stands there watching the people who are too wrecked or not quite comfortable in their own skin with a derisive smile and empty, laughing eyes, getting off on his own self-control and the loss of control in others, the kind of man who will walk up to you in bars and without invite or warning start telling you about sexual conquests through contact magazines or specialist websites. Burn juxtaposes Gloucester’s cattle market with the sex shop across the way and points out that the German word ‘fleisch’ means both living skin and dead meat.

Martin Amis writes about Cromwell Street in his memoir Experience (his cousin was murdered by West in the early seventies) and ‘conceived of a short chapter that would describe an average domestic day at 25 Cromwell Street, ending – after a scarcely credible inventory of troglodytic squalor, including theft, violence, incest, rape, sexual torture, whoredom, pimpdom, peeping-tomdom (daughter: ‘my bedroom was like a sieve’), pornography, child prostitution and paedophilia – ending, as I say, with West’s oft-repeated goodnight to his large and various brood: ‘When you go to sleep, my life begins’…’ Amis does not exaggerate. It was a loveless and subverted world in a house of constant ugly metamorphosis. Do not read the book if you are susceptible to nightmares. That any of West’s children survived to become the reasonably balanced adults that they appear from Burn’s account is a testament to the resilience of human goodness. It’s probably the most horrific and challenging read I’ve come across. Then I think: if this was horrific and challenging to read, what must it have been like to write? Brian Masters, in his Spectator review, wrote that Burn ‘understands Frederick West. What this has cost him, God only knows.’

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