From Hell chapters 1-7 (1989-1991)
In 1989 Alan Moore, flush from an endless string of successes starting with Marvelman six years earlier and culminating in Watchmen and The Killing Joke in the late '80s, was at the absolute pinnacle of his career. Depending on your outlook then, it is unfortunate or fortunate that this is the precise moment when Moore's relationship with DC soured and Moore, after being screwed out of merchandise royalties from Watchmen trinkets, decided to stake out on his own, going indie for the first time since Captain Britain and beginning the true second phase of his work, one focused more on the complexities of the human brain, and one that doesn't come within miles of the superhero genre. While it's true that Moore would go on to make some incredible work after this point, from a commercial standpoint there are only a handful of his works from the '90s onward that could be considered equal to the staggering success he enjoyed with his work in the '80s, and especially his work in the early '90s seems the product of a master doing what he wants with his craft, offering psychological profiles and historical fiction without the genre underpinnings that made him such a household name in the prior years. It should come as no surprise, then, that Moore's first major work, free of editorial meddling, is the gargantuan From Hell, a vicious, bloody, impenetrable monster that couldn't be more different from his previous work if it tried. And yet Moore's prose, solid, lyrical, and self-assured, turned what could otherwise be an indulgent mess into a work of horrific beauty, and for this writer's money, his absolute definitive work. From Hell is the medium's Moby-Dick, a leviathan of ugly grace, a beast that demands your rapt attention and rewards you like no other when you submit to it.
From Hell is Moore's fictionalized story of the Jack the Ripper murders, and this first point is the most crucial to understanding it: this is no whodunit, and you will glean no insight in to the real-life murders by perusing Moore's words; the book's basis as to the nature of the killer, Steven Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, was already debunked and thought ridiculous when Moore and artist Eddie Campbell began on their macabre opus, and Moore admits as much in his supplemental index "Dance of the Gull-Catchers". But Moore isn't out to reveal what really happened in Whitechapel; the London of From Hell is as much an alternate reality as the New York of Watchmen, if perhaps more realistic due to the lack of superheroes and psychic squid. But while Moore doesn't give us any startling truths of the murders, he didn't set out to and he doesn't have to: while From Hell may be about the Ripper (and it is, his presence looms as large as Ahab or Iago in their respective works) it is also about the cancer that was London in the late 19th century. It is about the birth of the 20th century with a surgeon's knife, and about the working class and the aristocracy and what happens when they mix with deadly consequences.
The book begins with several epigraphs, the last of which is a quote from Queen Victoria's royal physician William Gull. Gull is our Ripper, according to Knight and as told by Moore, and he is without question Moore's greatest, best-written character, as well as his scariest, more disturbing villain. Gull focuses the thoughts and the attention of readers even when he isn't on-page, commanding a respect and attention that not even Moore fan-favorites like Rorschach and Constantine could ever dream of. Every great moment in From Hell's 600-something pages involve Gull, every beautiful bit of poetry is issued from Gull's lips. And yet, for all the black-coated terror he will bestow upon us and the world in which he lives, Gull doesn't even appear until chapter two. First is the Prologue, taking place well after the events of the novel. Here we're introduced to two old men: Lees and Abberline, as they walk across a rotting, grey English beach. We don't know who these characters are, and neither of them will actually appear in the story for quite some time, but Campbell gives their slow, doddering walk a sense of foreboding, carcasses of seabirds nearby as the two men discuss times long past on their way to Abberline's house, "The House that Jack Built".
The first proper chapter seems even more slight, until its conclusion. "The Affections of Young Mr. S." tells of a whirlwind romance between candy shop worker Annie Crook and young aristocrat Albert Sickert. The whole thing unfolds in just a few pages, Eddie Campbell's scratchy, splattered inks telling the tale of Albert and Annie meeting thanks to the elder Walter Sickert. The young couple live and love, and soon Annie is with child. Despite Walter's increasingly nervous warnings, Albert and Annie are married. And then like a thunderclap, the first domino falls: Albert is herded into a carriage by soldiers. They refer to him as "Your Highness" while Walter begs Annie to take the child and run. Annie Crook, simple working girl, in suddenly in posession of a royal bastard, belonging to Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria's grandson. Something will have to be done.
Chapter two introduces us to William Gull and provides a similar expedient telling of his young life. We see the entire chapter from Gull's point of view, only his hands visible until the last handful of panels, as he chillingly intones to his father that he is to have “a task most difficult, most necessary and severe”. Gull grows up rapidly, finding an interest in cutting open animals and removing their organs, an interest he turns into a trade as a physician. Gull becomes a fanatical Freemason, and the order's prestige, secrecy and trappings are yet another domino, putting him into position to rise to the top of society, finally taking on a job from Victoria herself to 'relieve the suffering' of poor Annie, locked away in an asylum howling for the return of Albert and the baby, last left with Walter Sickert. One removed thyroid gland later, and Annie is taken care of and Victoria's royal embarrassment is cleaned up. Or it would be, if Annie's prostitute friends didn't know of the whole sordid affair, and try to blackmail the royal family with the information. Gull's work must continue.
Chapter three fleshes out the stories and relationships of Gull and the four prostitutes: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, and Mary Kelly. The girls are portrayed crude and realistic, weak human beings in a world with no room for weaklings. Even before Mary Kelly gave Walter Sickert the ultimatum that would be her undoing, there is a heavy tragedy about her, in the truest sense of the word: an inevitable end for her and her friends, as helpless as the characters in Watchmen. The next domino falling into place comes courtesy of Gull: he has a stroke on holiday and hallucinates the massive visage of the Masonic god Jahbulon in a gorgeous single-panel page, Gull insignificant before the towering majesty of his Pagan creator. This sudden occult awakening is exacerbated when he is summoned back by Victoria to eliminate the further threats to the throne, leading into the awe-inspiring chapter four, "What Doth the Lord Require of Thee?"
Chapter four is another thing of perfection from Alan Moore. With the exception of a couple pages at the beginning, the entire chapter is a long, single monologue from Gull, thirty-eight pages in length, detailing his thoughts on man, woman, and god to his semi-literate coachman Netley. The speech is easily the best Moore has ever done, issued from the lips of his greatest villain, spiraling and weaving along with Netley's carriage to several of London's great cathedrals, all designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. On the way, Gull launches into an occult diatribe against womankind, that he has been chosen as an avatar for the rational, male half of the brain to exert magickal dominance over the irrational, female half of the brain. He gives a history of Hawksmoor and his Pagan leanings, showing the city to be dotted in masculine, phallic obelisks, Apollo and his progeny keeping Diana chained, and that the renewing of this seal through the ritual murder of Diana's prostitute-priestesses is Gull's true, difficult task. By the end of the chapter, Gull lays out his map of Hawksmoor's cathedrals to show Netley that they intersect as a pentagram, a Satanic secret deep within the very heart of Protestant London, which acts as an eye-opener for both Netley and the reader through Netley's astonished eyes. The writing is gorgeous, and even though his aristocratic veneer, Gull's misogynist insanity shines through. The man is a monster, and the story is so much better because of it. If there was any question that Gull is Moore's most incredible creation, and one worthy of the pinnacle of literature's villains, "What Doth the Lord Require of Thee?" should make a convert of of anyone. And throughout it all, Eddie Campbell's messy, pen and ink linework propels the madman along, waiting for night to fall to begin his arduous work. As Walladan Bint Al-Mustakfi said, "Expect my visit when the darkness comes. The night I think is best for hiding all."
After the grandeur of chapter four, the second quarter of the book is best examined in sequences of action, as Gull and Netley pick off the first two girls, cutting their throats from left to right, in accordance to Masonic tradition. Gull removes the women's wombs, and in each you can feel him grow as a murderer: while Polly Nichols' death is sloppy and botched, Annie Chapman is dispatched in a series of careful, surgical cuts. Abberline is finally introduced in the main story in chapter six, an Inspector from Scotland Yard forced back to the dismal, rotting Whitechapel because of the murders, and his disgust with the land that he once thought he left behind is palpable on every page, even as he fights assertions by his peers that a Jewish bootmaker is likely the suspect. Of course, though Abberline doesn't yet know it, the Yard is well aware that Gull is doing the killings, and that his connection to the Queen is keeping them silent. While at the same time, the press emerges as a fourth contender in this tragic opera; chapter seven ends with journalists forging the infamous "Dear Boss" letter and creating the name Jack the Ripper themselves. Lastly, Gull's hallucinations are getting worse. Moments before the murder of Annie Chapman, Gull seems to look into the future, seeing a beat-up English tenement room from 70 years or so further in time, a TV blaring. The new century is creeping up, called forth by Gull's ritual sacrifices, and it's only going to get worse.
Best quote: The whole of chapter four. But is we must pick one, than it's “The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity.”
Up next: “Perhaps this is the purpose of all art, all writing, on the murders, fiction and non-fiction: Simply to participate.”