What can one say about From Hell? It is an intensely cerebral, thoroughly engrossing book which attempts to reconstruct the events of history using all available information and some conjecture in between. Very little has been fabricated, and much care has been taken to examine critically the secondary sources available on the subject. The subject is, of course, the gruesome Whitechapel murders of 1888. Few serial killers have been so bold and public about their clear misogyny.
One of the most intriguing things about this books is its quixotic portrayal of the killer. Many people might interpret the murder of prostitutes as a crime of sexually repressed passion mixed with some perceived slight made by prostitutes on the whole because of their liberal sexual natures and world views. In this way, to many people, Jack the Ripper is similar to Robert Pickton, who should have been called the “Vancouver Ripper” or “Robert the Ripper” or some other dehumanising name by the press. Writers Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell beg to differ. While the subject of sex is certainly dealt with in a very explicit fashion in From Hell, it becomes quite apparent that the murderer’s motives run far deeper than mere sexual frustration. However, sexual frustration does enter into the mixture of the question “what makes a murderer?”. One of the most clear pieces of conjecture in the piece is the size of the murderers … weapon, shall we say, which is conjectured to be so enormous as to have completely ruined his wedding night. (Yes, boys, size does matter.)
The goal of From Hell is to examine the Whitechapel murders. As Dr. Gull – the anticipated killer – puts it, “A GREAT work must have many sides from which we may consider it.” The most potent side, in my opinion, from which this illustrated penny-dreadful-cum-serial-novel would examine this “great work” is that of its occultic motives. Dr. Gull, like many men in London and indeed around Vancouver today, was a Freemason, and was therefore privy to the mythic/symbolic history of the world from which many of us have hidden our faces. (I could write at quite a length on the foolishness of thinking astrology has any less significance than physics or psychology. There is nothing more humanly powerful than symbol, as the Third Reich will attest, and it does us no end of harm to deny that.)
Anyway, as a result of Dr. Gull’s involvement with the Masons, he is privy to much more information about the construction of London than would be, for example, a coach driver or a police chief without having been inducted into the guild. It is this history that is the subject of chapter four, entitled “What Does God Require of Thee?” which is written almost entirely in verse.
One difference between the film and the book is that the film actual depicts some progress on the part of the police. The book does no such thing. The police are as stumped at the end as they are in the beginning. Everyone who knows exactly what is happening (i.e. all the Masons) knows exactly what is happening, and everyone who hasn’t been informed does not.
The reason for such secrecy is this: it seems Queen Victoria had a rather errant grandson who liked to spend his time on sweet-shop girls and brothel boys. He was married to a sweet shop girl who bore him a daughter, and was later implicated in a male brothel scandal, both of which needed to be quickly covered up. Because the sweet shop girl was acquainted with one of the whores in question, the knowledge of the child could easily have been passed about, if – for example – there were someone in her circle of friends in desperate need of money.
As a result, it is conjectured that Queen Victoria ordered the murders, the Masons covered them up, and that Dr. William Gull – the royal physician – performed the rituals. I find this thinking in astounding coordination with history and architecture. The moral here is clear: learn everything you can, because someone else is already using it against you. The theory of black magick is hammered home in the narrative by the appearance of Aleister Crowley at age fourteen in chapter nine. The lad is sucking on a candy cane (something Crowley was known for himself, if I’m not mistaken) and berates Inspector Abberline for ignoring the possibility of black magick. On page four of chapter nine, the center panel is wholly reminiscent of Crowley’s own photograph appearing on page 768.4 of The Confessions of Aleister Crowley taken just prior to his death. In addition, one of the quotes which opens chapter nine is from this self same book. It is with this kind of referential treatment that Moore and Campbell construct their story, and masterfully.
You know, one thing I noticed in reading this and watching Sweeney Todd is that no one who lived in London at the time seems to have had anything to say regarding the rancidness that was London. I think the closest literature we’ve got to describing the squalid conditions of London at the time in our anthology might be contained in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Burden of Nineveh.” I guess it just goes to show you what a democratic society can produce. Royals have a habit of killing their detractors.
Also, one wonders at the significance for twelve years after the 1900s that these grotesque rituals occurred twelve years before the beginning of the 1900s. Nineteen, after all, is the number of the Sun, as depicted by the Tarot. If Moore’s and Campbell’s discourse on sun deities is accurate (and believe me it is) then this could be extensively significant to 2012.
Anyway, keep watching the skis.
Crowley, Aleister, et al. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. Grant, Kenneth, and John Symonds, eds. Arkana Press: London, 1979. 768.4.