– Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell
This was my first Alan Moore book in quite a long while... Especially after having such trouble with his previous work, inspiring interest and repulsion in equal parts. For every one thing I liked about them, there was yet another that I didn't. From Hell continues my impression of Moore through his make of historical fiction.
I first found this book on my library's bookshelf way back in undergrad, but was only able to give it a passing glance. I felt spoiled on the concept when I flipped it open to a random page, discovering the book's central premise: a historical novel about the 01888 Whitechapel Murders, done by the historical serial killer “Jack the Ripper,” whose true identity was never fully determined.
Spoiler culture is something we should look past. At the time, I thought it made reading the book superfluous, as if I accidentally discovered the “plot twist” by mistake. What this rules out is any possibility of Moore's writing being good enough to impress in execution. Sure, it is about Jack the Ripper, but that alone doesn't quite cover why. This book is wonderful examination of not only the murders themselves, but also of the social conditions in which they happened. It is not just a thriller story about the characters involved and their actions, but also about the society in which they lived. The historical setting of Victorian London is something the book makes living and breathing place, even if it isn't pleasant about it. The Ripper is only the vehicle used to explore this larger tener duende.
... yet that's also what repulses me. Its fanciful construction of the historial murders poses some risks of its own, wrapped up in a blanket of intrigue that goes all the way to the upper echelons of the Victorian Monarchy and a gaggle of rich gentlemens clubs. The real historical murders likely possessed no such aspirational qualities, targeting entirely low-income targets of no particular import. Yet conditions on the street were so terrible, a politics of suspicion caused so many people to fling accusations against the rich and powerful anyway. (It likely did not help matters how the historical murders prompted their own media frenzy in contemporaneous newspapers.)
This book lies purely within that conspiratorial frame of reference. How the historical Inspector Frederick Abberline suspected another known serial killer who lived in the Whitechapel region at the same time, is not really a topic in this book. Yet if that route would be taken, there won't be much of a story to tell. We ignore such prosaic things to instead focus on the wonders of totalitarianism, with its all-encompassing constructions of both society and history. It certainly is an interesting place to be, but not a terribly healthy place to dwell within for too long. Moore is aware of this, writing in the book's postscript “the greater part of any murder is the field of theory, fascination, and hysteria that it engenders. A black diaspora. Our tireless, sinister enthusiasm. Five murdered paupers, one anonymous assailant. This reality is dwarfed by the vast theme-park we’ve built around it.”