Thrift shops and used-book stores are amazing sources for true crime books. I don’t think I’ve ever been in one that didn’t have at least a few battered old paperbacks, screaming for attention on the shelf with their lurid, black-and-red covers. I also love digging through boxes of books at yard sales, flea markets, and church rummage sales. You never know what you’ll find — maybe the best part is finding older books, maybe even ones that are out of print. I love being reminded of cases that aren’t all over the internet, stories that made headlines years ago, but may have been buried or forgotten.
In this column, we celebrate our finds, some classic and some obscure, and encourage you to browse your local treasure troves!
On this day in 1984, killer, ghoul, and cannibal Ed Gein died from respiratory and heart failure related to lung cancer at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wisconsin.
There are many who would have breathed a sigh of relief on that day, feeling more secure in the knowledge that the Mad Butcher of Plainfield is no longer on this earth. Knowing that Gein died a bachelor, and likely a virgin (with living women, anyway), would add to the relief, knowing that there is no chance of Gein’s genes having been passed on to another.
But what if that weren’t true? What if Ed Gein did manage to spawn?
Every true-crime fan already knows and loves the work of Harold Schechter. Schechter is a serial-killer expert who has penned definitive tomes on H. H. Holmes, Albert Fish, Jane Toppan and, of course, Ed Gein, among others. With 1997’s Outcry, Schechter tried his hand at a novel built solidly around the skeleton of the real facts of the Ed Gein case.
The main character of the story is Paul Novak, the fictional writer of Slaughterhouse, a true-crime book about Ed Gein. It’s probably not a stretch to assume that Novak is a stand-in for Schechter, and that he’s maybe venting a little about having to constantly defend his choice of subject matter. Novak is barraged by criticism from colleagues, his family, the media, and the public, and accused of pandering to psychos and writing more or less snuff literature. As a teenage girl in the story who sneaks off to the mall to buy Slaughterhouse wonders, “How much harm could a book do?”
Schechter skillfully weaves a “what if?” tale around the facts of Gein’s life. In reality, while Gein likely didn’t have much contact with live women, there are some anecdotes of him pestering the women he’d eventually murder, Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden, with invitations to have a soda or go ice-skating with him. In Outcry, his awkward and innocent courtship of a homely spinster ends abruptly after one fumbling night of intimacy, after which he left her, and left her pregnant with his progeny.
A few decades later, a new serial killer pops up in Wisconsin. Young girls are being torturously murdered and creatively defiled after their deaths, and police have no leads. Novak, as well as an ambitious investigative reporter, have some insights that lead them to an older woman and her strange, sheltered son who harbors odd predilections and collections. As the back of the paperback says, “A killer’s instincts never die…”
In some ways, Outcry isn’t that different from any other sordid story about a serial killer. What makes it stand out from the rest is the trust the reader places in Schechter as an expert in such matters—despite being fiction, we know that the author knows how these minds work and is painting a realistic picture of what could have been.
Read more: Harold Schechter
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