"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a book by Robert L. Mack, who's evidently an expert on the subject of Sweeney Todd, as he's also author of The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend
, comes to us as a rather odd tie-in with the recent major movie on the subject, Tim Burton's, starring Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd [DVD] [2007
]. And it does tie in with the subject of the infamous Sweeney Todd, in fact. Just not in the way a reader might anticipate.
For the author has edited the earliest-known major literary treatment of the subject. That happens to be an anonymously-written Victorian-era British "penny dreadful," published as an 18-part serial that ran from November 21, 1846 to March 20, 1847, called, "The String of Pearls: A Romance." And the very modern horror tale of the murderous barber and his partner in crime, the cannibalistic Mrs. Margery Lovett, who owned a meat pie shop, is but a subplot in a fusty, melodramatic, rather conventional tale of the romance of Johanna Oakley and Mark Ingestrie.
However, as the writer Mack points out in his very interesting introduction, before the serial had even been completely published, the story of the barber and the pie shop owner had already been lifted from it and used for a wildly popular stage play that would be followed by many more such throughout the Victorian era. And these, of course, were followed by the 1979, multi-award winning, landmark Broadway musical production, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, that was the basis for Burton's recent movie musical. Mack also tells us that, though there is some slight documentation that a somewhat similar crime might have been committed in 18th century Paris, the story of Sweeney Todd might, at that time, be considered more a rural legend than an urban one: apparently many countrymen, in the big smoke of London for the day, selling livestock or whatever, scared themselves to sleep with tales of a big city barber who would murder them for their money.
The tale itself, which owes a lot, around the edges, to the Charles Dickens' novel also being serialized at the time, is fun to read, although the story is, certainly, told Victorian-style, and therefore won't be to everyone's taste. But the reader can, to a degree, share in the author's thrill of discovery, as Todd and Mrs. Lovett walk right out of this silly romance, into our imaginations, and onto the world stage. Mack has also footnoted the book for its modern-day readers: as several other reviewers have complained, the footnotes are somewhat inconveniently located at the back of the book, rather than on the page, and vary from the informative, to the self-explanatory, to the extraneous.
But it helps to know, in understanding the emergence of these early 19th century icons of horror, that London at the time was a place we'd consider fairly horrible today, stinking, dirty, and unsanitary. And the Fleet Street area, as I mentioned in my review of the recent movie, was particularly bad. Before it was covered over, the Fleet River had become so polluted that it burned, and became known as the Fleet Ditch, an open sewer. The network of underground caverns used by the sinister pair to conduct their business was undoubtedly what remained of that troubled body of water.
All in all, it's got to be interesting for those who like to know the background of what they're seeing.