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Alan Moore's 'From Hell' Isn't Just About Jack the Ripper.
A Review and Analysis
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Note: I think this discussion is free of spoilers, but I apologize due to it being hard to tell what a spoiler is in the case of this book.
This book is rather hard to describe.
At first glance, one might think that this is a story about Jack the Ripper and his grisly murders. This is fair enough, because everything within the book relates at least indirectly to the Ripper case - so, in that sense, the book is clearly about Jack the Ripper. This is however most true when looking at the plot, and is slightly less true when you zoom out a little.
You see, Jack the Ripper isn’t exactly what the story is about.
When you look at books closely, you find something that is somewhat obvious, but that is actually a little unintuitive: that there is a difference between plot and ‘what the book is about.’
Not long ago, I found a recording where Alan Moore himself had stressed the difference. I think I remember the example he used: he said that, if you thought that plot was the same thing as ‘what the story is about,’ then you might end up mistakenly saying that Animal Farm is a story about talking animals who take over a farm and who then try to run it. What a cute story. However, while this is a technically accurate description of the book, that isn’t really what Animal Farm is about, is it?
(Pardon me. I said no spoilers, but I may have spoiled chapter 1 or 2 of Animal Farm… or did I?)
If From Hell’s story isn’t about Jack the Ripper, then what is it about? If I had to summarize it, I might venture:
“Alan Moore’s From Hell is a graphic novel that tells a story about those parts of Victorian London revealed when one looks closely at the case of Jack the Ripper. More specifically, it is about that world before the murders, it’s connection to the world long before the murders, and also about the 20th century after the Ripper’s murders - all of which is necessary to fully understand the events of the plot.”
In other words, the story is more about capturing a complete view of London, spread across time. This reframes the book as being slightly more about the place of the murders in history than about the killer and the killings.
This still isn’t entirely descriptive either however, because, from a slightly different angle, the book once again is about the ripper murders, it’s just that…
Yeah, like I said, the book is terribly difficult to describe.
Let me try again:
“In Alan Moore’s From Hell, the plot revolve entirely around the Ripper murders. The storytelling however revolves around the times and places and people in and around the story, being dedicated almost entirely to rendering them in a believable and vivid light - before, during, and after the murders. Yet, at an even higher level, the book is an experiment into imaginative journalistic fiction that focuses on a place.”
I will explain myself on that last point.
The Whitechapel murders were never solved.
Because of that, there is a concept out there of something called “Ripperology,” a silly name given to the obsessive search for answers about those Whitechapel murders. At the end of the book, there is a mini-comic about this called “Dance of the <redacted in case of spoilers> catchers.” In it, Moore describes the world of these theories.
Originally, there was a theory by somebody close to the case, then a variant of a theory, then a variation on a variation, and from this has grown an entire genealogy of invented explanations, many rooting back to the original theories presented by those original people close to the case - due mostly to lack of more reliable sources.
The whole thing is a mess, and into this mess, Alan Moore found himself becoming accidentally stuck - captivated by it all. In the course of researching these subjects for this story, he read over 20 books on the time period and on the theories surrounding those Whitechapel murders. After doing so, he branched his own theory off of one he favoured, added in a dose of intrigue (the work is fiction after all), and made his own (dramatized) contribution to this world of speculations.
When you finish reading the book, you may be shocked at how many pages still remain after the final chapter. There are more than 60 pages of appendices following the end of the story, explaining everything from the clothing in panel 3, to the topic of discussion in panel 5, to the street that panel 7 is taking place on and what that shape in the background is - and that mass of references is present on almost every single page of the book.
Following this is the short comic about “Ripperology” I mentioned above.
The end result of all this is that… you have just read something totally unique that does not cleanly fit into any of your buckets that describe what a book can be, and figuring out what to make of it becomes a bit of a fun activity of its own.
Moore has taken an historical event about which no true conclusions can be confidently made, about which hundreds if not thousands of people have theorized about, and has made a game of creating his own logically sound explanation as a work of fiction!
(This feels entirely different to me than ordinary works of historical fiction, but some may disagree with me here)
Moore elaborates on this imaginative journalistic fiction concept further in his graphic novel Providence, which applies the approach to the life and fiction of Lovecraft. I found it extremely compelling, although there are 2 extremely uncomfortable scenes to be found inside.
Also, I am told that he elaborates on this “look at the story of a place by looking at it over a period of time” in his novel, Voice of the Fire, which is on my shelf waiting for me to finish a stack of short story books… although, maybe I can consider it to be an anthology and include it in my short story research?
The lasting effect this book had on me is this: I want to perhaps research something in such depth one day as to replicate this. To study a history in so much detail that I can insert my own fiction into it and thereby to change the meaning of those old events without contradicting any other known facts in the decades or centuries that followed. To create something so utterly appropriate yet subversive to the real events that you could mistake it for a real secret history.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve visited the local small town history museum so many times this year, over and over, and taken those hundreds of photos of the old buildings, the rocking chairs, the cars, the clothing, the bookshelves, and…
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