Review: From Hell

From Hell
From Hell by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is there to say about this magisterial work of Alan Moore’s? It must rate right up there with his best work, though as I dislike ‘top n‘ lists I will make no effort to rank it. But let me say what it is not. It is not a thriller, like the deplorable film supposedly based upon it, as we already know pretty well all the secrets about the conspiracy and who the Ripper was within the first few pages. It isn’t slasher porn either. There is a looming mood of violence, and the book pulls no punches when it comes to the death and dismemberment of the victims and yet, as I shall discuss further below, from the most gruesome moment of the entire book comes one of its greatest high-points.

What we get is a prolonged meditation on late Victorian London, in which the story of the Ripper is essentially an incidental, the mcguffin used to set the action in motion. We get a leisurely look at the lives of all strata of society at all levels from the horror of Whitechapel’s dispossessed all the way up to royalty, all of them moving like fish through the water, as unaware as fish are of the horror looming above them that casts a fateful darkness over them; a horror so vast that in comparison the Ripper was nothing. For in 1888 something else was born, a thing that created the twentieth century’s darkest bruise.

And Moore links this into his plot. For, if his story is about anything, it is about the spiritual journey of the man we know from the outset is the Ripper. He starts out as merely a good servant of the Crown doing that which he has been asked, but he finds that his task of death leads him to contact with a deep spiritual truth to which he comes closer and closer, until with his final murder, as we see him searching through what had been a woman he suddenly experiences an amazing epiphany, in which moment Moore suggests the entire modern world was born of his actions. Future murderers and megadeath are all the children of the Ripper, unleashed by his desecration of the fundamental mystery of humanity.

But the judgement is not easy, as the Ripper does appear to finally achieve some kind of perfection, and it is clear that his motives are far from being murderous. From the outset, when he takes us on a guided tour of London’s sacred geometry, his goal is always the inner truth, which he finds by searching in the innermost bodies of women in search of the source of all. Moore’s genius lies precisely in the fact that this character is both a monster and profoundly human, insane and yet all too understandable, fiendish and yet the most truly God-fearing person in the entire massive edifice.

Thus Moore shows us the central paradox at the heart of humanity. That which can bring forth Hawksmoor churches and Sickert’s paintings, and the glorious vision of God near the end of the book, can also bring forth an Ian Brady or the ultimate monster whom the five women die in the processing of giving birth to.

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