The following is from Eliza Clark’s Penance. A native of Newcastle, Clark lives in London, where she previously attended Chelsea College of Art. She works in social media marketing and has worked for women’s creative writing magazine Mslexia. In 2018, she received a grant from New Writing North’s “Young Writers’ Talent Fund.” Her short horror fiction has been included in Tales to Terrify, and she hosts the cultural podcast You Just Don’t Get It, Do You? with her partner. Her debut novel Boy Parts was publisher earlier this year.

This book is an examination of the 2016 murder of teenager Joan Wilson by three girls attending the same high school. It was written by journalist Alec Z. Carelli and first published in March of 2022.

Shortly after publication, several of Carelli’s interviewees publicly accused Carelli of misrepresenting and even fabricating some of the content of their interviews.

Following these accusations, it was discovered that therapeutic writing produced by two of the three offenders while incarcerated was illegally acquired by Carelli.

The book was pulled from shelves by the original publisher in September of 2022.

Now republished after the conclusion of relevant litigation, some names have been changed at the request of those involved.

We believe writers (even writers of non-fiction) have a right to express themselves and tell stories in the manner they feel best fits the story in question.

It is our fundamental belief that readers have the freedom and the right to read and judge a text for themselves – that contentious works with artistic merit should not be erased from history simply for causing offence. Despite the controversy attached to this book, we have chosen to republish it in its original form.

*

Extract: I Peed On Your Grave, Episode 341, 01/07/2018

Hosts: Steven Doyle, Andrew Koontz, Lloyd Alan 00:00:31–00:02:46

DOYLE: Hey and welcome to I Peed on Your Grave, a true-crime podcast. I’m Stevie Doyle and with me as always is…

KOONTZ: Me, big Andy Koontz.

ALAN: And me, Lloyd Alan.

DOYLE: And today we’ll be taking a trip to merry old England.

KOONTZ: Oh! [in a cockney accent] A little trip to England is it? ALAN: God not the accents.

KOONTZ: [in a cockney accent] What accent, mister, I’m just a lezzy English schoolgirl, aren’t I?

DOYLE: [laughing] Andy, no.

KOONTZ: [in a cockney accent] I’m a lesbian schoolgirl and I’m not wearing any knickers, aren’t I?

DOYLE: [laughing] Andy, dude.

KOONTZ: [in a cockney accent] Don’t like my accent, mister? The last girly who made me angry got set on fire, mister, didn’t she?

ALAN: Oh, man, is that a spoiler?

DOYLE: No, luckily that’s my starting point.

KOONTZ: [in a cockney accent] Glad you didn’t have to punish me for spoiling the episode, mister . . .

ALAN: Okay, dude, these chicks were like fourteen.

DOYLE: They were more like sixteen, actually.

KOONTZ: Well in England that’s kosher, right? I can be as weird and horny as I want.

DOYLE: [laughing] I mean, I guess.

KOONTZ: [in a cockney accent] Me knickers are staying off, mister . . . [ceasing accent] I’ll stop. Most of these chicks are not hot.

DOYLE: No, they’re pretty fucking gross.

KOONTZ: That Doris chick, though.

ALAN: Doris?

DOYLE: Doris? Doris? What year do you think England is in, dude?

KOONTZ: [in a cockney accent] It’s 1843, mister! [laughing, no longer using accent] Well whatever, Dolly, Doris, she’s kind of smoking hot.

ALAN: She’s older though, yeah?

KOONTZ: What would you say if I was like, ‘No, dude, she’s the youngest.’

ALAN: Is she?

DOYLE: No, she’s the hot one. [all laugh]

KOONTZ: The hottest chicks are always insane. I’m not saying all hot chicks are crazy because we respect hot chicks on this podcast, but I am saying that the hottest chicks are crazy.

DOYLE: The craziness usually makes them extra-hot. We respect crazy chicks too.

KOONTZ: Yeah, really takes them to the next level. It’s not sexist – I love crazy hot chicks. I would let Hot Doris set me on fire.

[all laugh]

ALAN: Oh my God.

DOYLE: Can I please start the episode?

KOONTZ: Go ahead, go ahead, sorry. I’ll just be jacking off over here while you read your intro.

[all laugh]

DOYLE: Okay, so this is a pretty new case – kind of obscure for us but it’s so fucking interesting, dudes. Today we’re looking at the murder of Joan Wilson, a sixteen-year-old girl in England who was set on fire by her friends in 2016.

ALAN: What the fuck.

DOYLE: Yep! Other schoolgirls. All like sixteen, seventeen.

ALAN: No way. How the fuck didn’t we hear about this?

DOYLE: Totally buried by Brexit, man. They literally killed her the night of their fucking Brexit election thing. In fact, I think we’re pretty much the first people to cover this. I could not find anything about this case.

KOONTZ: Is this an exclusive scoop?

DOYLE: I mean, more or less? There was local coverage, but I basically just heard about this because a wonderful listener – who wanted to remain anonymous – sent us this crazy detailed uh . . . DethJournal post about the case – which included archives of the murderers’ blogs, which a bunch of the fucking creepy true-crime Tumblr girls saved. They may or may not be the OP, I don’t know, but thank you, anonymous listener!

ALAN: I hate that I know what DethJournal is.

KOONTZ: No fucking way, dude – so this is kinda hot off the press, huh?

DOYLE: Totally. I think we’ve got a flaming-hot potato on our hands here. Maybe that was a poor choice of words.

[all laugh]

*

I came across the case in the ‘chumbox’ section of a particularly trashy true-crime news website, one which aggregated the most depraved, grotesque stories from all over the world into one place.

Depraved and grotesque was exactly what I was looking for; my last two books had not sold well.

For those of you unfamiliar with my work, I used to be a journalist; I reported on major British crimes for now-defunct tabloid Polaris.[i] I was implicated in the News International phone-hacking scandal (despite not being employed by News International) and I was sacked. But I was quite well off and had enough connections that it did not particularly matter. Bigger names went down in that scandal; people are often surprised to hear I was involved at all. At the time my reputation was tarnished but this was not the end of the world – it had never been particularly stellar.

So, I decided to write books instead. I wrote two very popular books: How Could She?, on the case of killer couple Raymond and Kathleen Skelton, and Into the Ether, on the strange disappearance of schoolgirl Molly Lambert – both of which I had covered for Polaris. My latest book, My Life in Crime, was published in 2013. The book was part memoir, part true crime. I wrote about the most famous cases I had covered and I wasted a lot of my best material in it. I could’ve gotten three books out of it, if I’d more liberally stretched some of the material. I also talked about myself far too much, apparently.

It was called ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘un-insightful’ in the press – and I was criticised for reusing material from How Could She? and Into the Ether, which readers were encouraged to read instead. It did not sell well, but it did not flop as badly as my next book.

The true-crime boom began in 2013. And while Serial and Making a Murder were achieving cultural dominance, I was languishing bitterly in My Life in Crime’s relative failure. It felt unfair that I hadn’t immediately benefitted from this true-crime explosion – I’d been doing this for decades, hadn’t I?

Then my first two books began to experience an uptick in sales after continually being referenced on popular podcasts and appearing on lists like Twenty Books to Read if You Can’t Get Enough of Serial or Essential True Crime for Podcast Addicts. I had earned a second chance and was offered another book by my old publisher in early 2016.

Because I had used my ‘best’ material in My Life in Crime, I had to find something new. I spent the next eighteen months writing a book about a serial rapist. A woman, a teacher, an abuser of boys. It was called In the Spider’s Web and it was published in late 2017. I thought it was rather good. And, unlike My Life in Crime, it reviewed well. But no one read it. The case did not catch the public’s attention. I went on a few podcasts, I had a couple of big press interviews, but I was mostly asked about my previous books. It did not launch me as the true-crime guy I had hoped it might. Offers were not rolling in. My publishers were not interested in another book from me.

In 2018, I had an embarrassing argument with a popular podcaster on Twitter. I bemoaned how distasteful his podcast was, and he replied with a series of screenshots of old articles about the phone-hacking scandal by way of a counter-argument. It went viral and I was ‘dragged’ far and wide by self-righteous zoomers, my fellow ‘blue ticks’ and other people in the true-crime community. In a manner of speaking, I was cancelled. My literary agency dropped me like a hot bag of sick. I was no longer being invited to appear on podcasts, or at conventions. When my books were mentioned by journalists or podcasters, it was always with the caveat that I was ‘kind of an asshole’ or ‘pretty scummy’.

After a year of doing absolutely nothing, you can imagine that I was bored and looking for a new project. I thought I would shoot my shot once again. True crime was still huge – and it wasn’t just books and podcasts anymore. Now it was television documentaries, dramatisations of documentaries. True crime was still huge – now beyond the realm of the niche podcast and the one-off Netflix documentary, the genre was ubiquitous and profitable. From Hollywood movies to HBO – A-listers were now clamouring to play Ted Bundy on screen, to executive produce the latest prestige docuseries. I spent my days combing through the trashiest websites the internet had to offer, hoping to find my next big hit.

As a former tabloid journalist, I was no stranger to picking through the rubbish – but even for me, this was beginning to get a bit depressing.

I had been reading about a case in Abilene, Texas: a man kidnapped a young girl and kept her in a dog cage. The man lived on a diet of children’s cereals and seemed to be planning to maim the girl and condition her into some sort of doll/slave. Weird, but not weird enough, really. The police found her alive and unharmed, and the kidnapper had no history of this sort of behaviour.

It felt typical of every ‘weird’ or interesting case I found. It wasn’t big enough. We don’t have big, messy crimes so much anymore, do we? Not like we used to. Forensics are too developed, and police all over the world seem slightly too wise to their own systemic issues under which serial killers once thrived. There are strange, one-off crimes, but they rarely have the complexities of those long, drawn- out serial cases. Nothing for you to really sink your teeth into – unless the internet was somehow involved. If I could find myself a catfish or a Facebook Svengali – my own Gypsy Rose Blanchard – I would be set.

At the bottom of the article on the case from Abilene, there was the chumbox. ‘They called her the most beautiful girl in the world; see what she looks like NOW’; ‘10 Tips For Losing Fat on Your Belly and gaining it on your ASS’; ‘Boyfriend gets LAST LAUGH on cheating ex’ – each of these headlines was accompanied, respectively, by images of a heavily edited child model, a woman’s backside in tight short-shorts and a busty woman crying. Below the backside, next to the busty cheater:

YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT THEY DID TO HER . . .

 Below the headline, a split image of a beautiful stock-image model with stark red hair, and a charred corpse, heavily edited to look smooth, uncanny, with strange white eyes, staring into the camera.

Each article seemed tailored to appeal to our basest instincts, calling to the most embarrassing depths of our curiosity. I clicked, I read. I needed to know more.

I googled the name, and I found a few podcasts – you’ve already read an extract from the first show that covered the case, I Peed on Your Grave, a trio of obnoxious American men who shouted over one another to make jokes about teen lesbians and do silly ‘British’ accents. They’d been handed information by a resident of Crow-on- Sea. IPOYG seemed to be the main source from which several copy- cat podcasts pulled their own episodes. I listened to a pair of white women with white wine who called it ‘the best contemporary story’ they’d covered in years. They paused in the right places and cooed ‘poor girl’, ‘poor thing’, ‘poor baby’.

This was all surface-level stuff, of course. They were Americans. They didn’t seem terribly interested in the broader socio-economic context of the crime – they didn’t talk about the town it took place in (apart from to giggle about its strange name), nor did they dig too deeply into the personal histories of the victim or her killers. The idea that one could talk about this case and gloss over a figure as important as Angelica’s father (whom most Brits tapped into politics would have heard of) was absurd to me.

There were a few photographs floating around, and YouTube videos (again, rehashing the IPOYG reporting), and a lot of Reddit threads with screen caps of the killer’s social media profiles. One of the best sources I found was a post on ‘DethJournal’, a clone of LiveJournal used by true-crime fans. On the ‘TCC [true-crime community] Wank [ii] Report board a user had gathered a large archive of Dolly Hart and Violet Hubbard’s Tumblr posts prior to their blogs’ deletion – as well as posts and chat logs detailing the reactions of Dolly’s online acquaintances.

Everywhere I looked people were asking for more info on the case. They wanted sources outside of dodgy local papers, the same handful of podcasts and few DethJournal posts. People were asking for a book.

The story was begging to be told and I appeared to have gotten there first.

I am being flippant. Though my interest was initially self-serving, Joni’s case did get to me. The podcasts about her bothered me. In 2014 my only daughter, Frances died. On a snowy January morning she washed up on the south bank of the Thames, apparently having taken her own life. She was twenty. When I first began researching the Joan Wilson case, I imagined how people might talk about Frances. I imagined men laughing about her, strangers making jokes around the circumstances that led to her death and doing her accent.

So, in late 2019, I temporarily moved to Crow-on-Sea. I tried to integrate myself into the community. I wanted to do something worthy. I wanted to write about the town in which this crime had taken place as much as I wanted to write about the crime itself. I got friendly with the locals and moved into their library – enlisting the help of local historians and journalists. I was privileged enough to interview the friends and loved ones of the victim and the perpetrators, and I was even able to have an extensive correspondence with Violet Hubbard and Angelica Stirling-Stewart. I was unable to contact Dolly Hart, who is still incarcerated as of publication.

Much of what you will read draws from that correspondence, as well as tens of thousands of blog posts and content from interviews. This book represents hundreds of hours of tireless research, in which I hope I have presented the heart of this story. This will not be an abridged version for easy consumption on your commute; there will be no silly accents and no interruptions from mattress adverts.

*

[i]Polaris (1947–2015) was one of Britain’s only left-leaning tabloid papers. It printed its last edition in May 2015.

[ii]‘Wank’ is a colloquial (now somewhat antiquated) term used to describe commu- nity infighting within fandoms, or as a catch-all term for bad behaviour. There were communities on LiveJournal and other similar websites which were dedicated to the cataloguing and discussion of ‘wank’ incidents.

__________________________________

From Penance. Copyright © 2023 by Eliza Clark. Reprinted here with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers



Source link