The Shock v The Stock

Low-Life Deeps: An Account of the Strange Fish to be Found There by James Greenwood

In 1874 the London journalist James Greenwood reported an incident that was – and remains, to my mind – truly shocking, writes Matthew G. Rees.

Permit me not to disclose this matter straightaway and to keep you in suspense a little. For one of the reasons – perhaps the reason – I invoke Greenwood (1831-1927) in these pages concerns not so much the man himself. Rather, I mention him, and his piece, as a kind of touchstone – one against which the writing of perhaps some contemporary would-be practitioners of the short story (and not necessarily in the horror genre) might usefully be judged.

I refer to the use – no, let me make that the abuse – of shock. By that I mean the deployment by a writer of material that might loosely be called ‘extreme’, often presented in a deadpan but in-your-face way, over which the author has deliberated – and possibly delighted – thinking themselves shocking and, I have suspected, rather cool.


In fact, for all of the detail employed, the take-it-or-leave it insouciance, such material tends to be heavy, flat-footed: assault and battery, by means of a plank, on the very word ‘shock’. In terms of a punch we’re talking a haymaker swung wide of its target, rather than jab, bob and weave.

The biggest (though perhaps no longer) surprise is the forums in which it seems to thrive. I’m thinking here not of publications whose proclaimed and honest devotion is to the grotesque (and which are entertaining by comparison), but, rather, outlets that like to think of their merchandise as literary. As a reader and, in recent years, a student, of short fiction I have grown weary of encountering writing – sometimes heralded  – whose raison d’être and acclaim seem tied only to an alleged ‘shock factor’.

Stories that I recall with no relish include a boy’s rape of a young girl, a woman’s monstrous mutilation of a captive man, and multiple pieces with expletives strung with all the charm and lustre of half-soaked laundry on a line. All have appeared in publications presented as literary. Far from possessing ‘shock’, this has all come to seem rather… stock.

Perhaps a reason that I care little for such writing comes from my ten years or so as a newspaper reporter, during which I covered inquiries such as the crimes of Fred and Rose West, and other cases that have faded from public memory – but not my memory – that need not be mentioned here.

When, in literary fiction, I find myself on the receiving end of what I think of as the ‘look-at-me’ grotesque, I begin to wonder how much of life its writers – who it seems would have us believe them worldly (and possibly hip) – have really seen. Have they ever, I find myself asking, passed time in the public gallery of a magistrates’ court (let alone some higher seat of justice)?


Were they to do so, particularly at a crown court (where crime and punishment is more serious), they might well discover that their shockery and ‘realism’ pale to nothing when set against life as it actually is.

Far from glorying in every detail, newspapers, as I knew them, exercised a deal of restraint. (One hearing I attended about abuse on a farm consisted of facts that rendered its reporting almost impossible in a public print.) I suspect that such judgments by news editors persist.

Which brings me back to James Greenwood and 1874. As well as a journalist, Greenwood has been called a ‘social explorer’. One of his concerns was the plight of the poor. It should be acknowledged that he has been described as a ‘sensational journalist’, even a Janus figure, who denounced the so-called Penny Dreadfuls of his times while writing ‘bloodthirsty’ adventure stories for boys. Others speak of him as a pioneer of investigative journalism. Albeit in the windy, hyperbolic idiom of his day, he wrote about brutal conditions in workhouses and among railwaymen.


On a trip to that part of the English Midlands known as the Potteries, he encountered and reported in the Daily Telegraph an incident of human-baiting, in which a chained man was pitched to fight a ferocious dog. The report provoked scandal, and many disbelieved it amid a flurry of counter-claims.

Greenwood repeated the story in his volume Low-Life Deeps: An Account of the Strange Fish to Be Found There, published two years later (a compendium of unusual tidings from his wanderings across London and beyond). My copy (Dodo Press), a reprint of the 1881 version, contains supplemental information from him, which appears to support his assertions.

A note by Greenwood above the chapter states that it is about the true occurrence (my italics) of the human-baiting of ‘Brummy vs Physic’ – the names of the participants in that horrific combat.

I hesitate to use the hackneyed phrase about life ‘being stranger than fiction’. More shocking than fiction might be right. 

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Matthew G. Rees is the editor of Horla. He was a staff journalist on newspapers in the UK for ten years. During this time he reported a number of true stories of what has come to be called the man-bites-dog variety, between assignments of a more predictable nature.