The “Jack the Ripper” murders of the 1880s in London have long held the imagination of popular culture in both England, where they occurred, and the United States, where a fair number of people hold a fascination with famous serial killers. The graphic novel From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, proved to be an interesting read this Halloween season for these very reasons. It would probably be a stretch to define it as work of horror, but there are certain elements present that make it a prime example of unsettling and weird fiction.
Moore uses his fictionalized telling of the murders of several prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London to posit a theory about who Jack the Ripper may have been. It would be impossible to talk about all of the truly massive cast of characters in this graphic novel, but two certainly stand out: Sir William Gull and Fred Abberline (Spoilers ahead). Gull is the royal physician to Queen Victoria and a high-ranking member of the Freemasons in London. After her grandson has an illegitimate child, Victoria tasks Gull with essentially making the problem go away. Thus begins the action of the story, as Gull sets out to kill the women who know about the scandal in order to protect the royal family. However, he also begins to see the murders as a spiritual experience, having visions of the future during which we as modern readers know to be actual truth.
One of the interesting aspects of Gull is that he appears to be completely insane, but also seems to gain an understanding of how time and existence truly function through his experiences. He is by far the most intriguing character in the novel. His thoughts concerning mysticism and philosophy are bizarre yet totally engrossing. He is also the definitive source of horror in the plot, as he relishes the killing of his victims, doing so in grizzly fashion; if you are squeamish, it might be best to avoid these parts, as the artist Campbell draws these scenes in vivid detail. Abberline, who I won’t talk about as much, is a detective assigned to the Whitechapel murders. He brings an opposite viewpoint to the crimes from Gull in that he is unaware of the larger conspiracy he is actually investigating. He appears as an everyman of sorts, struggling through his own personal life while also dealing with gruesome violence on a regular basis.
Moore has done a fine job here of weaving a complex tale from the “Jack the Ripper” legend. He examines Victorian society on several different levels, one that is displayed as corrupt and rotten below a shiny veneer of enlightenment and progress. The conspiracy protecting the brutal actions of Gull, who himself is a member of a fairly strange secret society, permeates an eerie atmosphere throughout the work. In a way, it is the stuff of cosmic horror, where most people are completely unaware that they have no control over the happenings of their world; however, the only monsters here are all too human, which can prove even more frightening upon further reflection. The artwork of Campbell, all in black and white and intricately detailed, compliments the terrors of the story well. It is a dark and gritty tale with flourishes of wonder, and you see that in every panel.
If you are interested in adding graphic novels such as this into your regular reading rotation, there is a fine collection of choices right here in McWherter Library. Be sure to visit the Sandbox, on the first floor next to the Circulation Desk in the Rotunda, to see what is available for checkout. Whether it be Marvel superheroes, a series such as Y: The Last Man or The Sandman, or classics of the form such as Persepolis and Maus, there may be something on the shelves that piques your interest.