‘Jack the Ripper’, the one with the conveniently ascribed name in the wake of a set of horrific killings in Victorian England, the one with bloodied hands and a knife to the cadaver of an unfortunate woman he won’t rest till he’s mutilated every inch of, finds himself transported to a scene at a place of work in the midst of the next century. While going about his slashing and ripping, he looks around and expresses his consternation at the sights he gets, and utters a soliloquy: “Dear God, what is this Aethyr I am come upon? What spirits are these labouring in what heavenly light? No, this is dazzle, but not yet divinity. Nor are these heathen wraiths about me spirits lacking even that vitality. What then? … Are these the days my death shall spare me?… shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?.. with all your shimmering numbers and lights, think not to be inured to history….how would I seem to you? Some antique fiend or penny dreadful horror, yet YOU frighten me! You have not souls, with you I am alone!”
This bit of monologue in Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell’, should serve to summarize the indifference of the generation that ushered in the new century, to the likely legend of the fiend that terrorized late 19th century England. Given the identity of Jack the Ripper has never been established, the question of his relevance may raise more eyebrows when we witness an exotic dancer in the year 1998, slipping out of her thong at a downtown club in London, and swinging to a techno beat ‘Jack Jack!!’
Despite himself, why is the serial killer discussed in literary circles to this day? If the scenes above ever so slightly attempt to bring vividness in the reader, then one must wait till they finish the 576 page reflection on the monstrosity that occurred in Victorian England towards the close of the 19th century. ‘From Hell’ by Alan Moore is easily one of the greatest achievements in the medium of graphic fiction, and a painfully researched one at that. Throughout the book, the one recurring thought in my head was ‘it is a ‘graphic’ novel alright’! Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’ are more accessible and universally revered. His retake on superheroes and vigilantes appealed immensely to the sceptics in us and gave a most plausible interpretation of anarchism. ‘From Hell’ however posits itself on the other end of the spectrum, so to speak. We are not even presented with an anti-hero, but the utter lunacy of a deeply meditative mind. The perpetrator was never apprehended and no one had claimed with conviction to have seen him. What Moore serves us is one of the several versions of the legend, which appears palatable to the reader given the involvement of the royalty in the messy affair. A word on the research. There are exhaustive notes explaining the rationale behind each chapter, and they are anything but blind assumptions about the events.
In Moore’s version, a member of the royal family is smitten by a shop-keeper girl and fathers a child from her. The queen intervenes and gets her surgeon to ensure that the woman doesn’t ever squeal, and save the throne from embarrassment. However one of the woman’s friends, a prostitute who’s creaking under a huge debt, decides to make fast money by blackmailing the royal family with a letter threatening to make the affair public. When the letter reaches the queen, she summons the royal surgeon, William Gull, again. What follows is a series of murders of unprecedented gruesomeness, perpetrated by an individual with deep surgical capabilities. The victims, all belonging to London’s East End, are chopped to pieces, their abdominal organs plucked out. Coupled with varying theories about the identity of the murderer and a largely incompetent Scotland Yard, the menace becomes palpable across Great Britain.
Eddie Campbell’s black and white artwork accentuates the grimness of it all – blood in black still gives the shudders. The lines are sketchy, and for me, they served to heighten the expectation of sombreness from every plate. The language in the book couldn’t be more apt. Queen’s English, cockney accents, colloquialisms, you have it all. As for the narrative, any self-confessed anglophile will be sure to relish the proceedings, though he or she could so much as even begin to realize that a romantic Victorian England is but an illusion. Dr. William Gull’s character is brilliantly crafted – a wretch who talks the most sophisticated language, who displays a keenness for history and the arts, but doesn’t ever let things happen other than on his terms! Some character study this!
While the theory of the identity of Jack the Ripper may be suspect, the story effectively mirrors the moral depravity that was so rampant in the London underbelly during the late19th century. Jack or no Jack, the commentary on evil and politics will continue to be relevant for a long time to come.