Is there a statute of limitations for when – or, indeed, how – the exploitation of true crime cases stops being grossly offensive? I’m asking on behalf of novelist Michael R. Perry, who decided in 1992 that it would be a good idea to write a crime thriller about the recently executed Ted Bundy – not based on his actual murders, but a wild work of fiction in which the murderer apparently returns from the dead to carry on raping and killing young women. Bearing in mind that Bundy had only been put to death in 1989, for crimes that at the time of publication were less than twenty years old, and you can see why some people might have thought that this was not in the best of taste.
Of course, real life murder has long slipped into the popular culture – look at Jack the Ripper and the way he has become something of a gothic horror staple, with wildly speculative films and books that feature the unknown killer, often taking a fictional approach (there are plenty of films where Saucy Jack comes back from the dead, after all). So The Stranger Returns is not without historical precedent. But the Ripper murders happened at a time when there was less sensitivity surrounding such things, and are now so long ago – with all involved many years dead (unless the Ripper really was a time-travelling immortal), and as the hysteria surrounding the Jack the Ripper Museum in London a few years ago showed, there are still many people who find his elevation to pop culture icon rather offensive.
Bundy’s killing spree was rather more recent – the last murders were in 1978, and the surviving victims and their families were still very much alive when this book came out. Admittedly, America is rather more relaxed about exploiting true crime than the UK – here, even films about the actual case tend to skirt around the crimes and concentrate on police procedurals, and are determined to be serious and sombre – and even then, they are widely condemned. Look at the recent outrage over Detainment, the new short film based around the James Bulger murder. The idea of someone writing a fictional crime book about, say Peter Sutcliffe or Ian Brady continuing their murder sprees is pretty much unthinkable.
Perry’s novel sees (spoiler alert) the ridiculously named Web Sloane – father of a Bundy victim – investigating a series of similar crimes that take place across California after Bundy’s execution. He becomes convinced that Bundy has somehow escaped the electric chair (a not altogether impossible scenario, given that Ted managed to escape custody twice) and is now carrying on his killing spree, this time as ‘Alan DeVries’. Bundy ends up in a relationship with a woman called Mars – Perry clearly had the worst book of names ever to select his characters from – while carrying on his murderous spree and having an ongoing internal monologue that consists of stuff like “I will have them and I will move around undetected because no one is looking”, which is probably dumber than anything the real Bundy ever said. Oh, and Web has a daughter, Joyce, who refers to him as “Daddy-O”, because that’s how people spoke in the early 1990s apparently.
The explanation of how Bundy escaped execution is suitably ludicrous, and takes forever to be revealed – Perry drags this story out for 420 pages, with precious little happening for much of it. Being tasteless is one thing – being boring is much more unforgivable though.
Still, The Stranger Returns obviously sold a few copies for Pocket Books and didn’t cause outrage, so Perry clearly saw a niche opening up. His next novel, Skelter, has Charles Manson being hunted by his own son. However. his career took a more productive route when he got into screenwriting. His credits include the TV shows Millennium, American Gothic, NYPD Blue and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and he co-wrote the first Paranormal Activity film – possibly missing a trick by not having the supernatural forces turn out to be the ghosts of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy.