Pity the monsters

Richard Altick

  • The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance
    Faber, 71 pp, £2.25, June 1980, ISBN 0 571 11569 1
  • The Elephant Man: the Book of the Film by Joy Kuhn
    Virgin, 90 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 907080 09 X
  • The Elephant Man by Christine Sparks
    Futura, 272 pp, £1.25, August 1980, ISBN 0 7088 1942 7
  • The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves
    Star, 126 pp, £95.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 352 30747 1
  • The Elephant Man and Other Freaks by Sian Richards
    Futura, 197 pp, £1.25, October 1980, ISBN 0 7088 1927 3
  • The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford
    Allison and Busby, 190 pp, £6.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 85031 353 8

The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his feet were bare, he wore a pair of threadbare trousers that had once belonged to some fat gentleman’s dress suit.

It might almost be mistaken for the dénouement of an early Sherlock Holmes story: Dr John H. Watson describing the scene in an East End police station when Holmes literally unmasks the man with an old scar running across his face from eye to chin which turned up his lip into a perpetual grimace, a ‘crippled wretch of hideous aspect’ who hid out in a vile opium den near the docks. But it is, in fact, Frederick Treves MRCS, a medical contemporary of Dr Watson and Dr Conan Doyle, describing, after forty years, the first scene – in an East End hospital – in the even stranger story of the Elephant Man, the least of whose manifold disfigurements was a grotesquely twisted lip. A year or so before he wrote his tale of the actor-turned-mendicant, Neville St Clair, Doyle would have read the Elephant Man’s brief obituary in the Times. If he was tempted to use some of the facts in the case – the man’s never appearing in public unless concealed by a curtain-like mask with a single slit, a hat the circumference of his waist, and a huge cloak, his occupancy of two secluded ground-floor rooms in the London Hospital from which he emerged at night to take solitary walks in the courtyard – Doyle no doubt rejected them as too bizarre even for his own freely imaginative fiction.

The memory of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick (Treves always called him John, but he was wrong), was largely lost until 1923, when Sir Frederick, as he had by then become, a distinguished surgeon laden with professional and public honours, revived it in an essay subsequently reprinted by Ashley Montagu in his monograph on the Elephant Man (1972). Now it figures prominently in the printed spin-offs and tie-ins inspired by the success of Bernard Pomerance’s play and the film starring John Hurt encased in a make-up construction that seems destined to be a classic in its own line of art. Once again the showmen and the hucksters, independently or in collaboration, have been true to the long tradition of the London exhibition trade. The printers of Seven Dials and the mountebanks of Bartholomew Fair squeezed additional revenue from a popular freakish attraction by producing and hawking descriptive pamphlets, ballads, prints, and ‘autobiographies’ ghosted by the same hacks who concocted dying speeches to be sold at the site of public executions. The play and film of The Elephant Man have likewise generated a variety of byproducts ranging from the reputable to the catchpenny. On sale now, in addition to the text of the play, are The Elephant Man: The Book of the Film, an illustrated souvenir; Christine Sparks’s The Elephant Man, a competently written fictionalised narrative based on the film script; a reprint of Treves’s own The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences; a wretched paperback entitled The Elephant Man and Other Freaks, which adds to Treves’s essay a selection of the mediocre short stories from which equally mediocre horror films have been made; and Michael Howell and Peter Ford’s The True History of the Elephant Man.

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