Writing on architecture is not like history or poetry. History is captivating to the reader from its very nature, for it holds out the hope of various novelties. Poetry, with its measures and metrical feet, its refinement in the arrangement of words, and the delivery in verse of the sentiments expressed by the several characters to one another, delights the feeling of the reader, and leads him smoothly on to the very end of the work.
But this cannot be the case with architectural treatises, because those terms which originate in the peculiar needs of the art, give rise to obscurity of ideas from the unusual nature of the language. Hence, while the things themselves are not well known, and their names not in common use, if besides this the principles are described in a very diffuse fashion without any attempt at conciseness and explanation in a few pellucid sentences, such fullness and amplitude of treatment will only be a hindrance, and will give the reader nothing but indefinite notions.
Therefore, when I mention obscure terms, and the symmetrical proportions of members of buildings I shall give bride explanations, so that they may be committed to memory, for thus expressed, the mind will be enabled to understand them more easily.
THE TEN BOOKS ON ARCHITECTURE by VITRUVIUS
(1st Century BC, Harvard University Press, 1914)
When people ask me what From Hell is about, I usually say that it's about Jack the Ripper, but not really. For me it's about architecture. Inspired by Douglas Adams' idea that crimes must be solved holistically, Alan Moore wrote his finest work across the span of seven years. During this time he attempted to solve the great mysteries of Victorian London, engaging in deep research that always seems to empty out into architecture and the deep structure of London as a (hole)y city.
From Hell is not a mystery novel in the more traditional sense. We know who the killer is within the first hundred pages and we can peek at his motivations and upbringing. Rather, the mystery is more esoteric and peeked at in small ways through both the killer's experience and through the extensive appendix of information included after the story is over. We are asked to consider the question: What is the fourth dimension?
Fourth dimensional patterns within Eternity's monolith would.. seem merely random events to third-dimensional percipients, events rising towards inevitable convergence like an archway's lines. Let us say something peculiar happens in 1788… a century later, related events take place. Then again, 50 years later. Then 25 years, then 12. An invisible curve rising through the centuries. Can history then be said to have an architecture? The notion is most glorious and most horrible.
Misogyny & Sexuality
"Symbols have power, Netley… Power enough to turn even a stomach such as yours… or to deliver half this planet's population into slavery."
Obviously the Whitechapel murders were crimes against women, but we can somehow trace the roots of this situational misogyny to ancient times and the creation of the modern nation in London through stories of druids and queens.
Masonic struggles are cast into the light of eons of "magic" geared towards securing patriarchal controls in society. From the rape of Boadicea and her daughters to the strategic use of obelisks to contain female superiority (rape!), the ripper himself considers his slaughtering prostitutes as a continuation of this Londonesque ritual narrative.
The women themselves in this book are vast and complex. Victoria herself is portrayed as cold and ruthless and secluded and emotional. The Whitechapel women all have histories and stories of their fall from grace and we see how they get by - selling themselves for four pence a john, bedding down in doss houses with a rope stretched across their chest like a line of fish, alcoholism, etc. They pine over lost children and admire the sunlight through a glass of beer. Female homosocial and homosexual situations feature in their lives as sources of support and solidarity, but most importantly they see men as the Ripper himself sees them: as slavers, thugs, rapists, and uncaring thugs.
The male characters in the story constantly belittle and deride the female sex, calling them tarts and whores, shoving them off as two dimensional and subhuman pawns in day to day existence. Even when confronted with the body of his mother, one character simply says "Poor mother… I have forgiven you for what you have done to me." A working-class man plays accomplice to the Ripper, highlighting problems with class solidarity when it comes to gendered issues. Even a policeman attempts a relationship with a victim, only to drop pretenses when she abandons him. Instead of continuing to view her as unfortunate and helpless, she is now simply a "tart". Male homosexuality is presented in the story, but only as a reaction to misogyny - homosexuality between men is presented as a preferred alternative to dealing with the "lesser sex". Male homosocial spaces are sinister and dark, contrasted with female spaces that are presented as defensive and reactionary to rampant Victorian misogyny.
We are constantly confronted with the stark class realities of Victorian London. Of course, the Ripper is a wealthy aristocrat professional and he preys on dejected working-class women. The murders begin when the Whitechapel women attempt to blackmail the Crown, challenging it on its own principles and hypocrisy. For the mere sum of 10 pounds, they are all sentenced to die. Not over money, but to assert class superiority. The working class - and especially the working woman - is expected to know its place.
Marxism and socialism is mentioned frequently. One of the more famous murder scenes is interspersed with a character reciting the poem "Love is Enough" by William Morris. Another chapter begins with every other panel showing scenes from the prostitute-to-be-murdered's life as contrasted to the comfortable luxury of the Ripper.
Importantly, a major chapter features a tour of London between the Ripper and his accomplice, a working-class coachman. The Ripper goes on and on in detail, elucidating scholarly ideas that the illiterate coachman is unable to follow, revealing his motives simply because he understands the coachman cannot understand him.
There is even tension between the bourgeois and capital class, as illustrated by the relationship of the police versus the perpetrators, the conspiracy and the masons. The bourgeois actors are literally paid off to protect and sustain the upper class actors involved.
"He knew that madmen are but prisoners of war, and had no fear of madness, for he knew its glory, knew its power." - Sir William Gull
Of course, the story is rife with apocrypha and ritual. Each murder unlocks a different series of visions out of chronological timespace, culminating with the death of the Ripper and his visions and experiences therein. Adolph Hitler was conceived during the Whitechapel murders, and a great many British serial killers were inspired by Jack the Ripper lore. Aleister Crowley has a cameo (you really have to keep an eye out on the cameos!) and the Ripper pays many visits to Joseph Merrick (the elephant man) as he views him as a sort of avatar of the Hindu god Ganesh. The story is steeped in Masonic ritual and history. The mysticism is my favorite aspect of the story and I don't want to give too much away. You should really read this book!
There are other aspects to this work I have failed to highlight - antisemitism, race and immigrant tension, relationship between citizen and state, imperialism at home and abroad, gentrification, etc. But I don't want to steal all the fun! If you've read it, please be sure to comment on parts you find interesting and aspects you want to explore. Maybe even add to what I've already written, because goodness knows I don't want to spend five hours working on this!
From Hell is a masterful tapestry of well-researched storytelling. Alan Moore once said something like: it's not what you know, it's how many connections you see. In this way, I can never really get sick of rereading From Hell. Since I moved to London I'm rereading it to get a sense of geography and history as well as the Victorian aesthetic. I'm on Chapter Six and would love to read along with y'all. There is a PDF copy floating around or else feel free to pick up a copy at your local library or used book store.
A NOTE ON THE 2001 JOHNNY DEPP ADAPTATION: It blows! It has nothing to do whatsoever with the graphic novel. Alan Moore has distanced himself completely from all film adaptations of his work, so please give the graphic novel a chance!