I’ll be the first to admit that this is an odd book to read over the Christmas holiday, but Alan Moore’s From Hell is a deeply thought provoking graphic novel. I finished it almost two weeks ago and I’m still turning it over in my head. From Hell presents the theory that the Jack the Ripper murders were actually part of a joint royal-Freemason cover up, perpetrated by Sir William Gull.
The theory presented by From Hell posits that Queen Victoria’s grandson has made a secret marriage with a lower class woman and had a child with her. A group of prostitutes find out about it and decide to blackmail the grandson’s friend. The blackmail plot works its way up the pipeline until the Queen orders her personal physician to take care of it. Gull does, in spectacular and psychotic fashion, to “send a message” so that no one will try anything like this again. The murders seem to trigger some latent madness in Gull, because while the murders become increasingly horrific, the message never seems to get sent in the way it was intended. Gull disappears into Masonic visions and dies, in this version, in an asylum.
Plotwise, the book follows the chronology of the murders. It’s told from multiple perspectives. We get Gull’s angle. We get Inspector Abberline’s perspective. And we get the perspectives of some of the Ripper’s victims, which are gutwrenching to read because you know precisely what’s going to happen to them. You want to reach inside the book and warn them, get them to safety. Gull’s narrative is hard to read, for more that one reason. The less obvious one is that when he gets to theorizing and expounding, he pretty much disappears up his own ass. Abberline’s narrative, for me, was a lot more enjoyable to read.
Abberline is a bulldog of a detective and pretty much honest, which is impressive considering all pressure around him and considering what the rest of the Metropolitan Police are like. When I read Patricia Cornwell’s nonfiction book about the Ripper, Portrait of a Killer, I pondered on how difficult it would be to investigate serial murders in pre-forensic times. As Moore notes in his appendix, the police had to rely on witness testimony for the most part. Fingerprints weren’t even used at the time. Investigators have a hard enough time now solving serial murders. In 1888, it would have been well nigh impossible unless you caught the killer in the act. I can understand why they weren’t solved at the time because they didn’t even have a concept of the psychology of a serial murderer.
I want to say a word about the artwork. One might think that having this particular tale illustrated would make it too horrific to read. But Campbell’s work is fairly restrained–apart from the sex that crops up in the narrative. But when it comes to the murders, Campbell shies away from being completely explicit. (For which I am deeply, grateful.) It’s still pretty awful, but not as awful as the actual crime scene photographs. Even after more than a century, those are bad enough to make me nauseous.
Moore really did his homework. It’s impressive the way that he dovetails his story to the history. The appendices at the back are just as fascinating as the novel itself. As I read them, the theory sounded like the Ripper murders might actually have happened this way. I’m still unconvinced personally. There’s just too much, well, frenzy, to the murders. There’s no symbolism in them. They sounded, and still do, to me like sheer butchery. This was the only false note for me in the book, where the elegantly constructed theory runs up against the brutality of the actual Ripper murders. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert. I know more about the Ripper murders than I really want to. So for me, From Hell remains a fascinating theory.