From Hell

Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Top Shelf Publications 2000)

Each of my sons gave me a big comic for Christmas. I’ve already posted a note about R Crumb’s Genesis. From Hell, in which Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell tackle Jack the Ripper, makes an interesting companion read. Both books have ample sex, violence and uncanniness. Both deal in multiple versions of the same events. Both feature self portraits by the illustrator that are charmingly at odds with the rest of the book (Crumb on the dust jacket flap in his ‘lounge pants’; Campbell in an Appendix as a gangly stay-at-home dad). And both have notes up the back that exert a fascination of their own.

I’m not particularly fascinated by Jack the Ripper. In my teens I read what must be one of the few books on the subject not mentioned in the appendices of this one, The Identity of Jack the Ripper by Donald McCormick (what’s the good of keeping these records if you can’t trot them out occasionally), in which Jack was revealed to be the Prince of Wales, and that was enough for me. Alan Moore, by contrast, has immersed himself in Ripperology and hammered it into a vast, complex web of story, incorporating court records, newspaper accounts, speculation, rumour, architectural history, literary history, Masonic ritual, unexpected historical connections and just plain invention, with appearances by Queen Victoria, William Blake, William Morris, Aleister Crowley, Hitler’s parents – the list goes on. I can’t say it was a pleasant read, but it’s a very impressive one. Likewise Eddie Campbell’s art (in this book) is rarely pleasant, but it’s darkly powerful. There’s a lot of hatching, and it’s often hard to tell exactly what is being shown – which at he more grisly moments is a great blessing!

I started out reading the main narrative in tandem with the notes that constitute the first appendix, but gave up about a third of the way in, because the plethora of information about sources was slowing the story down terribly. However, it’s good to know how little of the narrative is pure invention on Moore and Campbell’s part, and I’m reasonably sure that without the notes some bits of the story would have remained completely mysterious to me. And there’s one fabulous twist in the tail that would certainly have bypassed me if the last couple of notes (I skipped to the end) hadn’t first told me that the ‘scene on page 23’ was cryptic, second told me to work it out for myself, and third given me a big hint that transformed the meaning of one of the many subplots into something almost redemptive.

In the first few pages, a convenient warning to parents to put the book on a high shelf, there’s a sex scene that exemplifies Eddie Campbell’s genius by managing to be very explicit (by which I mean anatomically specific), not at all soft-focus prurient, and also joyful. This scene is what sets the whole ghastly plot into action, which according to one school of Biblical interpretation brings me back to the similarities to Genesis.

In short, I don’t know who I’d recommend this book to, but it’s very good.

2 responses to “From Hell

  1. It kind of sounds like steam punk. I’ve only known what steam punk is for three days, and now everything sounds like steam punk to me.

    I’d love to read this, but am MUCH too chicken. Have you read The Quincunx by Charles Palliser?


  2. Not so much steam punk as good old Victoriana, I think, Cassandra. Now that you mention it, I don’t remember any steam at all — all the ships have sails, people travel in horse drawn vehicles. Though I htink steam punk devotees probably quite like the book.

    No, I haven’t read The Quincunx, and though I can never be sure about your taste, I don’t think you’d care for From Hell.


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