Wednesday, October 2, 2013
More Moore part 25: From Hell chapters 8-14
By the time From Hell reaches its halfway point, William Gull is losing his grip. Gull steps up his ritual murder in chapter eight, doing away with two women, while Moore lets the narrative slow and stretch each time. Long Liz Stride falls under the knife first, while each panel alternates between the gristly murder and William Morris reading a poem to an assembled group of Communists a few houses over. The second murder is the crux of the chapter, however, as it introduces and disposes of a new character within its forty-eight pages. Kate Eddowes, a prostitute who returns to London after a time away, is mistaken by Gull and Netley as Mary Kelly, the ringleader of the royal blackmail plot. As time slows within the panels, Gull leaps through the air to dispose of the innocent woman in a three-panel-wide action shot that is completely unlike anything else in the entirely of the novel. The panels remain silent except for Gull's grunts and gasps as he slices through his victim with an animalistic violence, long bloody strokes of action and movement like an ape messily devouring his prey. His deed done, Gull is seemingly stricken with another hallucination, raising his arms in triumph in front of a massive skyscraper before time returns to its normal pace and Netley shakes him from his stupor. The whole arc is horrific and disturbing, a kind of dreamy slow-motion within the confines of the medium, Gull losing himself as he slaughters a woman like an animal. His great task is losing its calm, practiced cruelty and drifting into an unhinged obsession.
While Gull is losing his grip on the real world, Abberline remains firmly within its realm, still one step behind his perpetrator. The action in chapter nine skips between Abberline putting pieces together in the autopsy and flashbacks of Gull silently disemboweling Eddowes. Abberline is accosted by a fourteen-year-old Aleister Crowley and given a brief lecture on magic, while Gull rebuffs Robert Lees, the psychic from the prologue, and acts catty with William Butler Yeats. The real Mary Kelly drifts into drink and sex and scares off her lover, while Prince Albert Victor, the bon viviant that started this whole mess to begin with, sulks, consumed with guilt over the mess his dalliance has created. Gull forces the semi-illiterate Netley, now a wreck after his complicity in the murders, to write the "From Hell" letter that gives the novel its name, and chapter nine ends with Gull sneaking into Mary Kelly's house under the cover of darkness. The final murder begins on the first page of chapter ten and lasts for a whole thirty pages, time slowing to a crawl as Gull slips in and out of reality, mutilating Kelly's body horrifically as spectres from his past address him like a homicidal Ebenezer Scrooge. The chapter goes for pages without the slightest dialogue before Gull mutters madly to the spirits around him, finding himself in a 1980s office building as he finally completes his ritual twenty pages in. He rails against the spirits his magick has unleashed, finally embracing Mary Kelly's destroyed corpse and leaving her heart in the fire. The whole scene is horrifying and effective, page after page of an elderly, upper-class man tormented by the future he hath wrought dissecting a working-class prostitute. It's the second amazingly effective moment in the novel, and the opposite of chapter four; whereas Gull's speech six chapters ago was endless droning by a strong, self-assured man, here he is mostly silent and clearly insane. By the time Gull is finished, he can give only an exhausted confirmation to Netley that they are indeed finished:
"I have been climbing, Netley, all my life toward a single peak. Now I have reached it. I have stood and felt the wind. I have seen all the world beneath me./Now there is only descent. Only the valley. Would that I had died there, Netley, in that light above the cloudline. I'm cold. Take me home."
The climax of Gull's life is also the climax of Moore's story; after the murder of Mary Kelly the rest of the world feels as exhausted as Gull himself, with chapter eleven, "The Unfortinate Mr. Druitt" dealing with the aftermath of the murders. As Kelly's body is discovered, the Freemasons and the royal family finally decide that enough is enough with Dr. Gull, and find a patsy in schoolmaster John Druitt while they decide what to do with their incapable doctor. Druitt himself comes off as an incredibly tragic character, a stooge in the royal machine that has no idea what's coming to him even as the reader does, making it all the more heart-wrenching when it happens. His life falls apart on-panel, sabotaged by the establishment just as much as the prostitutes were in the past ten chapters, and like them, Druitt is completely unable to do anything but die, drowning helpless and alone in the Thames, another sacrifice to Victoria and her court. Abberline finally agrees to accept the assistance of Mr. Lees, and Lees, angry at the way Gull treated him, offers up the royal surgeon's name as a potential candidate from a suspicious doctor. Gull, confronted and no longer in control of his faculties, admits to the murders.
Abberline learns of the royal bastard on a whim visit to the sweet shop that Mary Kelly worked in all the way back in chapter one, and while Gull receives a secret, Masonic trial, Abberline is told by his superiors in no uncertain terms that if he breathes a word to anyone about the royal web that had been weaved, he wouldn't reach retirement, leaving Abberline and Lees as helpless accomplices in the atrocities, just as we first found them in the prologue. And that sets up the final chapter, and the third really heart-stopping section in the novel, chapter fourteen, "Gull, Ascending."
Chapter fourteen finds Gull institutionalized, his death faked and under an assumed identity, in the final moments of his life. Languishing in a madhouse, a nurse and her lover rutting nearby, Gull has a final hallucination that takes up almost the entirety of the final chapter. Floating through space and time, Gull gives another pages-long, gorgeous, poetic monologue while he visits drifts back and forth throughout the 20th century, in a world birthed by his act of death magick. His spirit meets murderers such as Peter Sutcliffe and a young Ian Brady, it influences William Blake's demonic paintings, and it kills the shaken, wasted Netley, dashing his brains out on one of the obelisks they discussed decades ago. Gull moves through the galleries of his gods, past Jesus, Jupiter, and Horus, before we reach a strange, heavenly vista (which Moore keeps irritatingly mum about in his annotations) where what appears to be Mary Kelly, along with what must be Annie Crook and Albert Victor's daughter, in a cloudswept Irish landscape. Kelly commands Gull's spirit to "Clear off back to Hell and leave us be!" and Gull's spirit departs, leaving his body dead in the madhouse.
From Hell is magnificent. It is one of Moore's strangest, most idiosyncratic works, possibly the furthest he ever got from the nostalgia-based work that informs nearly everything else he ever did. It is nearly historical fiction, but it is historical fiction that plays with reality, a piece of 'fantastic realism' if ever there was one. To this reader, William Withey Gull is Moore's greatest creation, a giant not only of the medium but of all literature, a character worthy of standing alongside the greatest villains ever concocted. Gull's every word and every movement are awash in power, and nearly every other major character in the novel- Abberline, Lees, Netley, Druitt, Kelly, Stride, Crook, Chapman, Eddowes, and Nichols- are helpless pawns to the government, of which Gull is its public face, and which inexorably brings to ruin everything it touches. Gull is a force of nature, like a Cormac McCarthy villain, an avatar of death and destruction that slices through London's poor and falls to pieces when its job is complete.
Eddie Campbell's artwork is horrific, all movement, like an impressionist painting done entirely in pen. He lends every scene a sense of squalor, even the glittering hallways of Buckingham, and he makes the gore and grime of the murders almost unbearable. Color would do nothing to improve this work, and Campbell wisely keeps it black and white, even little grey, simple light and darkness illuminating the birth of the 20th century. This is not an easy work, but it rewards like no other, and Moore's annotations only suck you deeper into the world he and Campbell created. From Hell is brilliant, almost amazingly so, and it could be the pinnacle of Moore's work; scholarly, imposing, and worth every second.
Best quote: "I feel the tug of my ascension; my becoming. I go up into the sacred. I go up into the gold./They're waiting for me."
Up next: Wacky, bumbling aliens in D.R. & Quinch