In Karl Alexander's 1979 novel Time After Time, H. G. Wells builds a time machine which is then stolen by his friend Leslie John Stapleton, who is really Jack the Ripper. Stapleton travels to 1970s America and embarks upon a killing spree. Wells tracks him down, uses the machine to banish his old friend to the End of Time and returns to Victorian England, taking with him Amy Catherine Robbins, an American girl.
I have not read Time After Time, and I have only the barest recollection of the movie (written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, also 1979). It had Malcolm McDowell in it, so I'm inclined to think well of it. But it's hard to imagine that either book or movie could be quite as startling as this sequel.
Jaclyn the Ripper picks up the story from a few years into Wells and Amy's marriage. Amy is unhappy in the relationship, and (naturally) decides to borrow her husband's time machine to go and visit her family. Unfortunately, she leaves both her handbag and a drop of blood when she scratches herself on something—a reminder to us all that ladies cannot handle complicated machinery. Even more unfortunately, she leaves out a vital component of the machine, allowing it to travel forward in time, pick up Jack, and drop him off in 2010 Los Angeles—having turned him into a woman on the way.
(A note on pronouns: Alexander uses feminine pronouns from the moment Jack discovers he has a biologically female body—the assumption [borne out in the text] is that a female body automatically and immediately imposes a female identity. For the duration of this review, in order to avoid complete pronoun chaos, I must do the same.)
"Jaclyn" (obviously the first variation on "John" that a Victorian man would think of) discovers that she is in a woman's body and momentarily shocked. She gets over it almost immediately, though, and decides to kill a random security guard. But
. . .she frowned. This Teresa was no East End alley slut. Money had not changed hands, there had been no penetration, no thrusting, no sweet slime—where was the pleasure in this? The woman smiled a pretty, disarming little-girl smile as the answer came. Necessity has always been the mother of invention, so as long as we find ourselves in this dubious year of 2010—as long as we must kill—why not take pleasure in the pure simplicity of the act not fouled by an ejaculatory release? (pp. 22-3)
This is only the first in a series of murders. Jaclyn picks up a man at a cafe ("Why does that man keep smiling at me? Has he figured out that I am a misincarnation from out of time, or does he want to take me behind this coffee store and have at me?" (p. 57)) and carves him up as well as his wife:
Always the surgeon, ever curious, she cut them open, then suddenly stepped back, her eyes going wide with astonishment. She howled with laughter at this post-modern housewife-whore, this would-be Venus de Milo.Two silicone implants slid down the torso, leaving a bloody trail. (p. 92)
But female bodies have consequences, Alexander reminds us; you can't just go back to your serial killer lifestyle. Not only do we learn that "she'd already spent more time in a kitchen than Leslie John had ever done" (Jaclyn is at this point in the text cutting up some victims and baking them in a pie), but she finds herself confused after a sexual encounter with a policeman. "Oh my, this has to be what those whores felt when Jack filled them!"
She could easily slash him to death while he was sitting on the bed in tears, self-absorbed with a false morality, excreting snot instead of semen. Yes. Make a collage with that wonderful thing that had lit up her insides.
Instead she slid closer, wanting to cuddle and comfort him. (p. 157)
Meanwhile, H. G. Wells has discovered the loss of his machine and has worked out what happened.
Amy, oh, Amy, love of my life, not only did you leave your purse in the cabin, but rather than take the special key so that the machine would stay where it was, you pulled the declinometer and sent The Utopia to infinity. (p 111)
Following his wife into the future he meets Amber, a young forensics expert investigating the death of the security guard mentioned earlier. (Amber is a former English literature student. Working with the police gives her a "hard, cynical edge," and sitting in the museum that is the scene of the crime she thinks, "I've forgotten. My God, I've forgotten grace and beauty" (p. 48) and then cries.) Amber becomes H. G. 's guide to the modern world; teaching him how to use microwaves, travel by plane ("How absolutely marvelous! We're not disintegrating!" (p. 85)), and falling in love with him and his excellent moustache, even as she tries to help him to reach his wife before Jaclyn does. To say more would be to give away the plot, which would clearly be a pity. But time travel is involved, a major character is raped (this is taken seriously for approximately a paragraph before it is brushed aside), and another dies.
As for the writing, the quotes above are an adequate sample of Alexander's prose in this book. It is bad. It is more than bad; it is shockingly awful.
Even had the trope of the transgendered serial killer not been played out too many times already, the book is bewilderingly offensive on the subject of gender. We even learn, early on, that one of the reasons for Jack's transformation into Jaclyn is "a pitifully weak Y chromosome from his foppish father" (p. 22). This is in the middle of one of the many Science! paragraphs that litter the book. The fact that the whole story is based on a woman's lack of understanding of technology is a comparatively minor detail. The "female" personality traits that Jaclyn supposedly acquires as her new body's influence upon her grows are about as clichéd and sexist as they could possibly be—had she taken a break in the middle of plotting Wells's downfall to go shoe shopping I would hardly have been surprised.
I cannot, however much I try to, find a single redeeming feature in this book. So bad it's good? Only for the fifty or so pages before it starts to pall. It makes a good drinking game? See above. It shows genuine affection for H. G. Wells? I suppose, but I can't imagine he'd be flattered by the association.
It's tempting to believe that this whole thing is a very expensive joke. Assuming it isn't, a number of questions are raised. Who thought a sequel would be a good idea three decades after the first book? Did anyone edit this before they published it? Did anyone read it? Could even Malcolm McDowell redeem it?