Recommendation

From Hell by Alan Moore; Illustrated by Eddie Campbell

Pete Hausler

This is as much a warning as an endorsement: I recently recommended the graphic novel, From Hell, to a friend and he cursed me out for it. As well he should have. From Hell posits a fictional conspiracy theory of Jack the Ripper: who he was, why he did what he did and, especially, how he got away with it. The writer and illustrator, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell respectively, mine the depths of so-called Ripperology to cobble together a chilling and plausible solution to the unsolved London East End murders of 1888.

The term graphic novel is used to distinquish so-called literary illustrated narratives from their more frivolous brethren known as the comic book. Here, the term takes on a double meaning (let’s just say that the murders do not happen tastefully offstage.) Simply put, this book is a black hole; but like the morbid attraction of the proverbial fatal car accident, you can’t look away, no matter how horrific and bloody. Eddie Campbell’s scratchy, drippy-pen illustration style has rendered London’s grim, Victorian-era slums in precise period-detail; it’s like looking at the past through a sooty funeral veil.

The pivotal chapter of this sixteen-part novel is chapter four; what comes before is setup and what follows is the murders and their aftermath. As testament to Alan Moore’s singular genius, chapter four ends with a peculiar harbinger: before even one drop of blood is shed, a character violently retches on the front steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The queasy one is a coachman, John Netley, who becomes an able, if not always willing, accomplice of one Dr. William Gull, who the author believes to be Jack the Ripper. The cause of this bit of physiological foreshadowing? A day-long lecture—spanning nearly forty verbose pages in the book—where Gull directs the coachman Netley around London in order to expound on, among other things, the finer tenets of Freemasonry, the deliberate alignment of architect Nicholas Hawskmoor’s brooding churches, Dionysian cults, the lost continent of Atlantis, a short history of Celtic Britain, a psycho-etymological study of the London topography, and even the poetry of William Blake.

This chapter is dreadful, in the true sense of that word; the ranting tidal wave of words spewing out of the newly-insane Dr. Gull (Moore suggests that Gull was always slightly odd, but that a recent stroke has pushed him over the edge), augurs the horror to come. This chapter is dense and convoluted, claustrophobic. By chapter’s end, you, the reader, feel as much like puking as the poor coachman. Because, despite the overwhelming glut of fact thrust in your face by Gull’s pedantic monologue, you begin to understand his intent and his misguided “purpose.” You realize that he, like all budding serial killers, sincerely believes he falls beyond the pale of humanity. Gull fancies himself a Nietzschian Superman, untouchable, unbeholden to mortal laws.

His higher purpose is nothing less than the protection of the British Empire—namely, from a blackmail plot. Four prostitutes from Whitechapel, one of London’s grimmest slums, learn of an illegitimate royal child, fathered by Queen Victoria’s wayward grandson, Prince Albert Victor (known familiarly as Prince Eddy). The poor mother, Annie Crook, a sweet, illiterate shopgirl, is an acquaintance of the prostitutes and doesn’t realize that her lover is a royal. In a secret meeting, Queen Victoria—knowing that her physician, Dr. Gull, is a Freemason with high-placed connections—implores him to eradicate the problem, by whatever means necessary. When Gull is all too eager to comply, you realize with growing trepidation that these “poor working women” never stand a chance, now that the doctor has been given carte blanche.

Particularly poignant—and no less cold-blooded than the five actual murders—is the fate of Annie Crook, the victim of Prince Eddy’s irresponsible dalliance. She is locked away in an asylum and lobotomized by Dr. Gull so that she has only confused memories of her ill-fated love affair with a man she had begun vaguely to realize was a Royal. She is left a drooling half-wit, harmlessly wandering around in the rain, wondering where her child and wayward lover went. The surgery scene, pre-dating the first of the murders, is one of the most chilling in a book fraught with malice and menace. To see the deranged Dr. Gull—to the outside world a competent and respected physician—lecturing his assistant while he operates on the terrified girl is literally sickening.

From Hell is horrific, but to dismiss it as simply a horror comic is to miss the point. Through numbing words and bleak pictures, Moore and Campbell paint a sweeping and resonant portrait of the times. My reference to the prostitutes as “poor working women” is made without irony. This novel is as much a numbing, socially-conscious paean to the plight of these destitute women as it is a speculative, true-crime narrative. Much is made of the staggering number of East End women who had no option but to prostitute themselves, and of the sheer hopelessness inherent in their line of work. Moore and Campbell are both such period-accurate geeks (I mean this as a high compliment) that they even explain and portray the unflattering slang term thrupenny upright. The “thrupenny” is the price (three pence, a pittance even then), while “upright” refers to the wham-bam style of doing it by standing against a fence or alley wall.

Ultimately, it isn’t important how close to the truth Moore’s fictionial solution is (which is one reason From Hell isn’t written as a detective story, why it is methodically spelled out for us.) Like the Kennedy assasination, the Ripper murders have spawned dozens, if not hundreds, of Byzantine conspiracy theories and twice as many suspects. Moore makes reference to this Ripper cottage industry in a brief and amusing coda that skewers the various Ripper-theory tribes who all fiercely believe that their solution is the solution. He astutely includes himself in this coda, realizing that he got sucked deep into the minutae of Ripperology. In the end, it is hard not to come away marveling at Moore’s and Campbell’s intellegence, audacity and deranged genius.

Again, I will issue this warning: From Hell is in no way a pleasant read. It will never be in the Oprah Book Club. It is depressing, cloying, dark and dreary. The poor and helpless get screwed, the rich and powerful get away with it, some even get rewarded! There is no comeuppance. It is long. It resembles a telephone book in heft. There are 550-some pages of the illustrated narrative, plus a 42-page, triple-column appendix set in 8-point type. The appendix itself is a thing of wonder, ostensibly a page-by-page annotation and prose bibliography; but it is much more than that. It becomes a compelling and necessary companion to reading the chapters, where Moore ruminates on everything from an early treatise on the Fourth Dimension to his own fledgling theory about the preponderance of prophetic visions in ancient cultures.

This novel is black and bloody, graphic and gory. But, it is affecting and effective. When you finish that last page, you will know that you have read something. Even if you don’t like how it makes you feel, you will feel. You may wish to forget From Hell but you won’t. Ever.