Writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell’s ambitious graphic novel is not only the most forensically lurid representation of London’s 1888 “Whitechapel Murders” to date, insofar as it happens to be the most historically accurate, but it offers another chapter in Moore’s ongoing spiritual archaeology of London and its environs. In From Hell, Moore strip-mines what he calls the “burgeoning black library” of Jack the Ripper lore for the facts, then rearranges them into a strange yarn that transcends the source material.
Like the best of Moore’s nonsuperhero work (and as a comics writer, the author of The Watchmen simply has no peer), Hell is a dark, mythology-saturated journey into Britain’s magical antediluvian essence. Campbell reconstructs a London that to a large extent no longer exists yet is arguably the book’s primary character. Indeed, late Boston architect Kevin Lynch’s realization that “there is a pleasure in seeing receding, half-veiled space or in detecting the various layers of successive occupations of the city as they fade into the past” could serve as Moore’s artistic credo for both Hell and his less commercial ’90s writing. His 1996 novel, Voice of the Fire, for instance, consists of a dozen interrelated stories that take place over five millennia and are all situated in the same 10-mile geographical radius now occupied by Northampton, England.
Moore and Campbell transform geography into a character again in Hell, in which London itself seems to have conspired to murder the four prostitutes whose deaths were attributed to Jack the Ripper (in reality the fabrication of a sales-hungry newspaper editor). Mustering a Dickensian array of characters and historical detail, Moore’s self-described “melodrama” ultimately encompasses murder, magic, architecture, Freemasonry, homosexuality, incest, medicine, time, the press, and the royal family—in addition to walk-ons by such contemporary cultural luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, the Elephant Man, and others. Through a virtually cinematic sense of place, Moore and Campbell convey the brutal reality of street prostitution in late-19th-century London: the cold cheap rooms, alcohol, and biscuits paid for at three pence a fuck (the infamous “thrupenny upright”).
Bleak life interfaces with political conspiracy when a friend of a prostitute is impregnated by Queen Victoria’s grandson. The prostitute threatens to go public with that information unless she’s paid 10 pounds hush money. The Crown’s damage control arrives in the form of Sir William Withey Gull, a highly ranked Freemason and royal physician. In addition to keeping the girl and her three friends quiet, he avails himself of the opportunity to reassert patriarchal order through a series of savage though surgically precise acts of murder. Part metaphysical mystery and part early police procedural, From Hell aims to explain the violence men have historically directed toward women. Its scariest chapters are those in which Sir Gull waxes philosophical on the Dionysian architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, whose Christian churches, with their Freemasonic and pagan overtones, loomed large in London’s 19th-century cityscape. For Gull, these buildings represent “the war ‘twixt sun and moon,” with London’s architecture mapping patriarchy’s struggle to overcome a matriarchal heritage that extends back to when Brutus of Troy seized Britain in the name of the moon goddess Diana. Gull is obsessed by London’s phallic obelisks and overpowering churches, which displaced earlier pagan symbology. “You see,” declares Gull to his henchman, Netley, “man’s pattern of control grows faint amidst the tumult of these times. . . . The ancient symbols must be REINFORCED. . . lest we should fall before the scythe-wheeled chariots of some new Boadicea; perish on Diana’s altars, reinstated and impatient for her reckoning.”
Moore’s writing is complemented by Campbell’s often staggeringly effective black-and-white renditions of stiff-backed Victorians swimming against the tide of history (as his parents discuss his future, young William Gull eviscerates a mouse; elsewhere, the queen mother disappears into Rothko-esque fields of gray). His beautifully proportioned pages create a dark rhythm of line and panel that fuses perfectly with Moore’s sense of living myth. As drab as late-19th-century London must have been, Campbell uncovers the concealed andoften highly erotic energy lying just below its surface, and From Hell burns with this secret, tragic knowledge.