We're all too accustomed to staring into the supposed "abyss." Dostoevsky did it. Selby Jr did it. McNamee did it. And, because of this, we have classic after classic to read and absorb.
But what happens when the author is a convicted child murderer?
In 2001, American underground publishers Feral House caused no end of controversy when they announced the publication of The Gates of Janus which was described as "partly a philosophical analysis of the human condition and crime in general, and partly an attempt to profile specific criminals, in the manner of the FBI."
Eventually emerging in November 2001, The Gates of Janus was not what was expected. It wasn't an autobiography, nor was it an apology/explanation. It was, at it's heart, Moors Murderer Ian Brady nailing his philosophy to the page as well as offering his interpretations of other serial killers, some of whom he had spoken to (such as Peter Sutcliffe) and others he had studied from afar (like Dean Corll).
When the reader begins, it's easy to imagine the angle they approach the book from: a disgust at his actions, but also an abject curiosity at what motivates such a person to carry out such heinous crimes.
Long time Brady "supporter", Dr. Colin Wilson, provides an introduction, where he depicts a Brady who is remorseful for his actions, but will not allow society the opportunity to see him so weak in the face of their hypocrisy. Although the revelation that Brady's favourite book was A Christmas Carol(because the idea of turning back time and becoming a different person appealed to him) is surprisingly moving, Dr. Wilson's words set off alarm bells, as the reader questions what tricks/games Brady will he be playing in the main text.
As the main book begins, we are introduced to Brady's philosophy on life. Basically, this can be summed up in two sentences:
➽Criminals/killers can see beyond the hypocrisy of modern society, which regularly execute people under the flag of legality.
➽You don't have to be a serial killer to be a psychopath, but you can find them in high positions of government and business.
Of course, this is all very true and this is a common thread throughout. But, all too often, his hectoring tone betrays an almost sneering contempt for the reader. Consider the following passage, for example:
Conformists who observe, deduce and vaguely bemoan the immorality of their superiors are largely too afraid of penalty, or are too lazy to run the risk of acting upon their conclusions. People are not so remorseful or ashamed of their criminal thoughts; they are more afraid of criminal thoughts being ascribed to them by others. To compensate, they rationalise their timidity or indolence as an indication of moral character, and their vociferous clamour for harsher punishment of criminals is mob retribution against a will to power they covertly envy. This envy is exacerbated by the media’s colourful, exciting stories about criminals riotously enjoying every forbidden pleasure the ‘decent citizens’ can only dream about.
Admit it, you read that and saw a flicker of yourself in there, didn't you? But you were kept at a distance by the tone, so you could easily divorce yourself from the crux of what Brady is saying. This is a recurring theme throughout the first half.
However, when the book moves forward to discussing other serial killers, the essence of the book hits home when, discussing his conversations with Peter Sutcliffe, Brady states that:
Whether or not he has responded to treatment since his capture is now of no earthly consequence. He will never be released. Politicians serve the mob, not the individual.
Anybody's first reaction should be to scoff at Brady, asserting (quite rightly) that Sutcliffe deliberately went out of his way to murder innocent women. But then, the eye lingers over the last line about politicians. Then the reaction is to half heartedly agree, but still asserting that Sutcliffe should be locked up for life.
Then you ask yourself, how is Sutcliffe different from someone like (say) Robert Taylor, who walked free on a technicality? Or even Robert Thompson, one of the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century? All three of these people committed horrendous and unprovoked murders. Yet they walked free for years, or continue to walk free in the case of Thompson.
It is at that moment when the reader realises the implications of Brady's line: people use each other. Using denies the object person their humanity. These characters hold an opinion of themselves that denies this basic relationship and identifies it as something else.
So, in the case of Brady, his murders allowed him to fulfil his pseudo Nietzschean 'will to power' fantasies, and denied his victims the right to live. Police officials use Brady as an example of the chaos that awaits society if the 'thin blue line' is not maintained. Psychologists use Brady as a window into a supposed nihilistic domain, using him as a way to back up their own fantasies masquerading as theories. Journalists use Brady, the police and psychologists to sensationalise the truth, sell more papers and whip up public opinion.
And it happens in the real world all the time. As Jello Biafra once sang: "Kiss ass while you bitch so you can get rich. But your boss gets richer off you."
When the reader pieces all of this together, it sends a chill down the spine. It makes you think about the oft quoted line that one bad day can change your life forever. By recognising that you share a view with an individual who has abused and killed children, you think "could that be me one day?"
And then, you throw up.
The book closes with an afterward from the highly controversial writer Peter Sotos. Formerly a member of the influential extreme noise/power electronics act Whitehouse, Sotos has been a bête noire for true crime writers, his writings often stretching the boundaries of decency and taste, making the point that the mass media are often even more exploitative when it comes to selling murder to bored housewives and frustrated office workers.
In this afterward, he takes the readers to task for reading the words of Brady, by reprinting part of the infamous transcript of Lesley Ann Downey's torture and giving brief descriptions of some of the photographs Brady and Hindley took of Downey in that time period. After all this, his line about "how desperate are you for perfect context" brings some uncomfortable truths home.
By quoting not only Brady, Wilson but also the mass media outlets and other books covering the Moors Murders, Sotos takes the point about people using other people to it's logical conclusion. He closes his section with the outraged line that " This, then, is child pornography", which seriously unsettles the reader, even more so than before.
Not a book to be approached lightly. But if you want an insight into an area of humanity that most wish to suppress, then approach with caution.
Ian Brady, 2001, The Gates of Janus. Feral House Publishing ISBN-13 978-0922915736
Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212