Non-Fiction Reviews

Wicked Mortals

(2018) Aaron Mahnke, Wildfire, £14.99, pbk, xii + 339pp, ISBN 978-1-4722-5160-2


Here are the incredible stories of some of the mortals who achieved notoriety in history and folklore through horrible mans. Monsters of this sort – serial killers, desperate killers and socially mobile people with a much darker double life – are in fact quite real. Including H. H. Holmes, the infamous Chicago serial killer, William Brodie the Edinburgh mastermind who inspired Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Bela Kiss, a Hungarian tinsmith with a most disturbing hobby – collecting women in petrol drums… This book is based on the Lore podcast and now an Amazon TV series.

It’s been a podcast, it’s been a TV series. It’s been a book – the first one called The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures (the one with the red cover) and it’s been another book – The World of Lore: Dreadful Places (book three, the one with the blue cover) and in between, it’s been this book – The World of Lore: Wicked Mortals (the one with the green cover).

Whereas, the first book in the series looked at creatures from myths and legends, including many of the usual suspects, and many of the unusual ones – Mahnke likes to do his research and does it well; this book is about real-life monsters, and again, some of them you will be familiar with, and some of them you will not have heard of, but crikey, I live in Scotland and some of them even come from these parts like William Brodie whose double-life of respectability and criminality inspired Robert Louis Stephenson to write the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Brodie is forever immortalised by a fine pub in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

As a reader of horror novels, I was already familiar with H. H. Holmes, the American serial killer who actually confessed to killing more people than he actually did, which was lucky for his would-be victims, these killings taking place in his “murder hotel” or “murder castle” as part of the 1983 “World’s Fair”. I was familiar with him, as Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, wrote a novel about him called American Gothic and Holmes has been the subject of many documentaries and TV investigations. Likewise, the two body snatchers Burke and Hare, have also been the subject of documentaries and films, some serious, some not; and we remain in Scotland for an examination of the treatment of witches, particularly the Paisley Witches, who were dispatched in a mass execution and a horseshoe was placed on the ground where their ashes were buried to keep their restless and vengeful spirits at bay, and the treatment and gruesome fate of witches in other parts of the world is also examined elsewhere in the book, particularly at the hands of sadists like Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General of England who put 300 women to death.

Mahnke takes us on a worldwide tour of nastiness and while we may be familiar with the exploits of Countess Elizabeth Bathory through the Hammer film Countess Dracula there are plenty of other Europeans the reader will be unfamiliar with who were up to no good, including Bela Kiss who drained women of blood and pickled their bodies in drums of alcohol and was never caught. Someone else who was never caught was the Axeman of New Orleans who killed with an axe and a razor and caused a panic when he boasted he would not kill anyone on a particular night if they were somewhere where a jazz band was playing. Not surpassingly, the dancehalls were packed that night, and jazz was played practically everywhere but the Axeman did not strike on this occasion, but did kill again three more times, killing a total of 12 people during his reign of terror.

This second book is split into five sections each with their own chapters and there is an extensive bibliography to point you towards further reading if you haven’t had your fill of gore and the worst of human nature. If you like your fun, dark and gruesome then Wicked Mortals is the book for you with its dark facts and moody illustrations by M.S. Corley throughout. At least you can draw consolation from the fact that you are never going to run into any of these people, unlike the third book of the series – Dreadful Places – where some of these places still exist, such as old hotels and ancient castles, and are just waiting for you to spend the night.

Ian Hunter


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