The fourth installment of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s From Hell: Master Edition contains chapters six and seven of the saga. Chapter six introduces us to Fred Abberline of Great Scotland Yard. The case of the murder of Polly Nichols falls in his hands and he’s not happy about it. It’s been fourteen years since Abberline climbed out of his beat in Whitechapel and he does not want to return there. To hear him describe it to Inspector Godley, it is the very pit of hell itself: “Hell’s about right. I’ve seen it all ‘ere lad. Alligators waddling through the shit in the gutters; Albinos being led around on chains… I’ve stepped over kids, no more than nine, having it off in broad daylight, probably with their sisters.” Given the title of our work (a reference to one of the later Jack the Ripper letters), this seems apropos.
The degradation and poverty are of course the factors that have contributed to the state of affairs in Whitechapel. As Abberline spends time there, images of Nichols’ corpse, laid out on the coroner’s table, haunt his mind and despite his reservations, Abberline ends up sympathizing with the denizens of the impoverished neighbourhood. Abberline is somebody who’s trying to climb the social rungs of the middle class but in Moore’s hands, he’s basically a decent man which makes him the only real decent character in the story: Gull, Netley, Abberline’s superior Charles Warren, Sickert, the prostitutes who become Gull’s victims, and the various smaller characters are all quite flawed. Despite his basic decency, Abberline is destined to also be swept up in the tide of Victorian hypocrisy and empire – we remember meeting him as an old man during the prologue and his foreshadowing comments about his own complicity in the cover-up.
What I really like about chapter six is that it works methodically through the days in September, 1888, that follow Polly Nichols’ death. The calendar leaves turn as do the leaves on the trees. Abberline makes his slow and uneventful progress: attending the inquest, going to church, meeting the relatives of the deceased, looking into some travelling Native Americans (whom he prejudicially and erroneously suspects). Moore does a really good job of cataloguing the uneventful details in the wake of an eventful murder, employing the consistent nine panel grid and chapters that reflect the days passing to underline the monotony of it all, giving definition to his portrait of Victorian society – the real subject of this literary study.
Towards the end of the chapter, Moore invents a fictional meeting between Abberline and Marie Kelly; they meet in a pub, The Ten Bells, and exchange a few kind words over a drink. Abberline unburdens himself without divulging his true profession and reason for being back in Whitechapel (he tells Marie that he is a saddle maker like his father). It’s a nice moment underscored by irony as both Abberline and Kelly are wrapped up on different ends of Gull’s mission to commit ritual murder. Abberline has spent much of the chapter trying to figure out and understand the motives of the unknown assailant, only to come up short. Kelly offers to sleep with Abberline if he’s a mind to but Abberline only wants company and conversation, making him a rare bird in the environs, and the two seem to respond warmly to each other and perhaps Abberline’s disgust and disconnection with Whitechapel has thawed somewhat.
Chapter seven features the death of Annie Chapman, Gull’s next victim. Annie, the stout belligerent woman of our company, is the prostitute we have least sympathized with. In the past, she has been hard, bitter, bullying and belittling other women when they are down in their cups. In this chapter, we are made to feel pity for Annie before Gull and Netley catch up with her: she is constantly sick, unable to make enough money to pay for her ‘doss’ (the poorest person’s lodging), she does not have two coins to rub together and her only client is a pensioner that she bathes and performs minor sexual favours for. She gets progressively more sick, stumbling through streets, leaning on pillars, and begging for scraps of charity before accepting Netley and Gull’s offer.
There are other threads that continue throughout this chapter. Abberline continues to make his investigations, not getting anywhere. He meets with Marie Kelly at the pub again and talks in metaphorical terms about his case which does not open, yet scares him as to what could be inside should it open. Since Kelly is under the impression that he is a saddle maker, she assumes he’s talking about a real leather case. A Sargent Thick is determined that a leather worker called John Pizer is the assailant – he claims that Pizer is ‘Leather Apron’, the rumoured nickname of a popular suspect. He cannot make the charge stick and Abberline finds out, after some rooting around, that this is part of a scheme to earn fast bonuses based upon the speedy conviction of (innocent) suspects. Meanwhile, a Mr. Best, a journalist or editor for a tabloid newspaper, decides to ‘help’ or ‘catalyze’ the progression of events he can write upon by penning a false letter to the police. It is this letter, colourful and jumped up and ridiculous, that gives birth to the name ‘Jack the Ripper’, the moniker with which Best closes the ridiculous letter. According to Moore’s notes after the chapter, this was the journalist responsible for most of the fraudulent letters written from ‘Jack the Ripper’s’ point of view.
Other threads are also followed. A very guilty and worried Walter Sickert tries to get a message to Marie Kelly about the fate awaiting them (keep in mind that he’s connected to the Royals and Queen Victoria has commanded Gull to get rid of the women who wrote the blackmail note to Sickert) by trying to get word through a common acquaintance called Kate Eddowes. This will undoubtedly prove ineffective – the women who signed their names to the note believe that it is the Nichol mob that is hunting them as punishment for not paying the extortion money demanded of them. Also, there is the progression of Gull’s series of visions, once again striking just before Gull kills Chapman (what Moore refers to as the ‘aura phase’ in serial-killing-ese in the notes).
This particular vision involves him looking through a window they pass by before entering the yard where the killing takes place. Through the window, he sees a man looking back and decor from what appears to be the nineteen fifties or sixties, a mid-century TV in the background and a poster of Marilyn Monroe on the wall. Gull is amazed and confused. According to the notes, this is based on a series of ghost impressions a man called Mr. Chapman experienced at various points throughout his life when looking out that window from the inside. Moore has both parties look and stare at each other, creating the kind of eerie wormhole through time that will come to characterize one of the themes of this and Moore’s later work.