Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Top
". . . Hawksmoor, raising symbols, statuary from the Mind's Lost Continent, to set atop this church, St. Johns'. An obelisk to loom above the bridge, streets, and lives that teem therein. Above their minds, their dreams, six generations to its shadow born. THERE's magic . . . aye, and Poetry! As true as any Bard he spoke his soul, in syllables of stone reverberating down the centuries."
If you have not yet seen the movie based on this comic, and you think you might like to, I strongly suggest that you go and watch it before reading either this review or the book. Partially this is because, while the movie is entertaining on its own, it's a completely wretched adaptation of the book; but more importantly, the book takes a completely different approach to the story, and reveals in Chapter Three the name of the killer.
A second warning about this book: It is extremely graphic, far more so than the movie, not only in the details of the killings, but sexually as well. Intercourse is repeatedly depicted in scenes which, if filmed, could not be found outside of adult movies. This is a book for adults, a graphic novel in more than one sense. It is not for those who have weak stomachs.
Having issued my warnings, I now feel free to discuss From Hell in detail.
Unlike most Ripper fiction, From Hell is not a mystery novel, or at least, not in the standard sense of the phrase. Rather than being merely another story of someone either learning the Ripper's identity by mistake, or of baffled police investigators doing their best to track down Saucy Jack, this is the story of the murderer. It is based on the theory put forth in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knights, now a much-degraded book first published in 1977.
When Prince Albert Victor, known to friends as Prince Eddy, falls in love with a shop girl, impregnates her, and secretly marries her, he sets in motion the actions which will bring a reign of terror to Whitechapel. Annie Crook is taken to a madhouse, and her daughter Alice is left in the care of Mary, or Marie, Kelly, a Whitechapel prostitute. Threatened by a protection gang, Marie attempts to blackmail a friend of the royal family with what she knows, forcing Queen Victoria to take steps. Her Majesty calls in the Royal Physician in Extraordinary, Sir William Withey Gull, a respected surgeon and Mason, and instructs him to deal with the matter.
What Her Majesty does not know is that Dr. Gull has been having visions which will drive him to the man known to history as Jack the Ripper.
The facts of the case have been known for more than a hundred years. Unfortunately, they still don't form a coherent picture. People today are still speculating about the true identity of this serial killer. And something about him has caught our collective imagination. Countless books, fictional and factual, have been written about Jack, and references to him have turned up everywhere, including a classic Star Trek episode. He has become a mythic figure.
More often than not, fiction has attributed occult significance and powers to Jack, and this has been true since the days he stalked Whitechapel. Since Alan Moore is himself an occultist, it's hardly surprising that his Ripper is, too. What's unusual (though not surprising to anyone who's read much Moore) is the way he goes about it.
I said before that this was not a mystery novel in the standard sense, and this is accurate. We, the readers, see both the police's struggle to catch the criminal and the killer committing his murders. We know who the culprit is. We even know that he will not go to jail or be publicly executed for his crimes. But if we look at older meanings of the word, we find that it is, indeed, a novel about mystery. William Gull seeks, through his actions, to gain a spiritual knowledge which cannot be fully comprehended, to attain true communion with a mysterious Masonic deity. This dark mystery lies at the center of the plot, not the identity of the killer.
"What is the fourth dimension?" asks Moore, borrowing the words of C. Howard Hinton. Time, in From Hell, is cyclical, helical: events return again and again, mutating as they reoccur. Resonances spread through four-dimensional space, affecting other times and places than Whitechapel, autumn of 1888. If the mystery is central, then this notion of time is integral, the aether which permeates it.
The language runs from the erudite, flowing, and beautiful to the clipped, ignorant, and coarse. Fitting, since From Hell carries a theme of class division, so harsh in Victorian England.
The story is peppered with references, some easy to miss or misunderstand without a guide. A very young Aleister Crowley appears in these pages, as do W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde. A three-page scene set in Austria, with its little dialogue given only in German, is incomprehensible without a few key pieces of historical information. For those who know, the story is made richer by these things; for those who don't know, there are the marvelous appendices, about which, more later.
Eddie Campbell's black-and-white artwork, mostly ink drawing with a few charcoal panels for effect, brings a starkness to the story that strengthens it, reduces it to the essentials. He ably conveys the oppressiveness of Hawksmoor's churches, the liveliness of drinkers in pubs, and the despair in the faces of the Whitechapel prostitutes.
Everything about From Hell is extremely well-researched. Appendix 1 is forty-two pages of annotations in which Moore details, chapter by chapter and page by page, exactly where he got each piece of information, precisely what he made up, and what kinds of conclusions and conjectures can be drawn. He does so in a scholarly tone which can be dry, but is seasoned with wit and Moore's own frame of reference. It wouldn't be a bad idea to read the book once through for the story, and then to read it a second time, stopping to read the notes for each page. He also includes some information on visual references. Appendix 2 gives an illustrated history of Dr. Gull as an object of study in Ripperology. It's fascinating, funny, and strange.
The story of From Hell may chill you, disgust you, enthrall you, or appall you, but it is superbly written and illustrated, and is an amazing addition to Ripper fiction. Enjoy.