Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This was a delightful quick read: five spooky stories, with brief introduction and conclusion to bookend. Carroll’s illustration style is lovely – I almost want to say simple, but deceptively so, for sure. She communicates a lot of emotion. I am reminded of the graphic versions of Gaiman’s work. I loved the woman “with starry eyes,” and indeed there were tiny little stars in her pupils.

These tales are deliciously unnerving, creepy, and enigmatic – it’s not always clear that there is something to be scared of in the end, but there sure might be. There’s a lot of question of who to trust, of things that go bump in the night and come out of the woods (as “most strange things do”). Friendships and familial relationships are perhaps less stable and trustworthy than they first appear. There might be monsters, after all. Houses and spaces hold nasty potential. I’ve decided to call these stories dark fairy tales; they definitely recall that style and the traditional setting (and at least one is a clear reference).

This is the kind of horror that is just deeply fun, and in this graphic format, even sumptuous. There are multiple spreads that I could see hanging on the wall. I love the idea of keeping this around for quick, easy, luxurious, high-impact reads. Carroll deserves her accolades. I’d buy another volume of this work in a minute.


Rating: 8 teeth.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut Her Body and Other Parties are both highly varied – in length, form, and style – and also absolutely related. They each handle gender in our real world, including issues of body image, sexuality, violence, lust, and family structures, but frequently do so by calling in supernatural forces, post-apocalypses, fairy tales or other fictional reference points. These are narratives to get completely lost and absorbed in, not necessarily pleasant reading, but compelling.

“The Husband Stitch” starts the collection off, and is why I own it: my friend Vince teaches it and I’ve heard him talk about it several times. It is a quite discomfiting story of a woman’s life from girlhood on, including her marriage and motherhood to a boy. It’s about gender expectations, and it feels true to our world, which is why it’s so uncomfortable. It also makes reference to the classic urban myth/horror story about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck – remember that one?

“Inventory” lists the narrator’s partners, of different genders, over the years, until the reader understands that in her world there has been a global pandemic that has all but wiped out the human population. (This was published in 2017, but yes, it feels creepily familiar, like The Stand.) I think it counts as what Suzanne Paola calls a life-rolled-up. I like it very much, in this case, the spooky outer world that it shows at an off-angle while ostensibly focusing on sexual/romantic relationships.

“Mothers” sees a woman showing up on her former lover’s doorstep with a baby, which she deposits, saying “She’s yours.” The trick is that the partner is also a woman, who has imagined their life together as mothers many times, but simultaneously comforted herself that it wasn’t possible for them to make a baby. This central riddle is never solved; by the end, it doesn’t feel like it matters. It’s an interesting thought experiment. The passage about “the major and minor arcana of our little religion” pleased me greatly.

“Especially Heinous,” the longest story in this collection, I felt was the weakest of the collection. I like both the form and the frame: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” it offers very short synopses of 272 episodes of that show, seasons 1-12. I have watched this show some; as a person mostly ignorant of pop culture references like this, it was gratifying to know the subtext. But it didn’t really work out for me. This alternate version of Benson and Stabler have themselves an alternate version, Henson and Abler, sort of evil doppelgängers who muck up their cases and relationships. It’s otherworldly, paranormal, and weird (none of which I shy away from!) but somehow didn’t come together. Maybe the large number of short pieces didn’t hold together for this many pages. I definitely got bogged down here and reading became a bit of a task.

But then things came right back together again. “Real Women Have Bodies” sees a world with another, different epidemic, in which women sort of… fade out, and become invisible. But where do they go? Our female protagonist works in a high-end dress shop, and finds herself in a relationship with another woman, and both wind up in a position to witness the ways in which women change and are disregarded. (No metaphor here, I’m sure.) It’s lovely and haunting, which could be said about the whole collection.

“Eight Bites” is another perfectly apt observation of the world, in which a woman gets gastric bypass surgery – the last of her sisters to do so – and thereby horrifies and enrages her daughter, who rejects the societal bullying that gets us here in the first place.

“The Resident” features a writer heading to an artists’ residency where she struggles to relate to others, eventually finding herself humiliated – again. This story has a neat trick at its conclusion.

And finally, “Difficult at Parties” (a phrase that echoes from an earlier story) depicts the aftermath of a trauma. Not for the first time, this story is so realistic and painful that it is hard to read, but also spellbinding and crystalline.

NPR‘s Annalisa Quinn states that this book is “full of outlandish myths that somehow catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing wouldn’t.” I’m glad I read that line; it helps me to think about this kind of writing – fabulist realism, perhaps – as defamiliarization. Making our very own familiar world strange helps us to see it more clearly.

I’ll be thinking about these stories for some time. Machado has a gift. Keep your eyes open for her later memoir, In the Dream House. Also, thanks Vince for the recommendation.


Rating: 8 dresses.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

I cannot recommend this to you enough: find something that you believe in, right down deep in the depths of your silvery plumage, and then throw your heart at it, blood and valves and veins and all. Because I did this, the world, though brambled and frothing at the mouth, looked more vibrant; blues were bluer, and even the fetid puddles that collected under rusting cars tasted as sweet as summer wine.

I have so much to say about this book, but in trying to avoid spoilers I think much of it should remain unsaid here.

Hollow Kingdom is set in contemporary Seattle, and its protagonist and most-of-the-time narrator is a domesticated crow. (Chapters do alternate perspectives, so we get a handful of other voices – very colorful ones that make enormous contributions, and come from all over the world. But our star keeps the mic for the majority of these pages.) His name is S.T., which is short for Shit Turd (naturally), and he has enjoyed a good life with his human, Big Jim, and a bloodhound named Dennis with a deathly fear of windshield wipers and alpacas. The book begins “after,” however, and S.T. is here to tell us what happened to Big Jim and his neighbors: we meet the beloved human only in past tense. He got sick and started acting strangely (more strangely than usual), and then his eyeball fell out, and then things went from bad to worse. Eventually S.T. is forced to venture out of the home and into the wider world, where he’ll have to interact with wild crows, for whom he feels mostly contempt, as well as many other forms of nature, likewise distasteful. And he takes Dennis with him, although he feels a similar disdain for the (not so bright) dog, at least at first. S.T. mostly knows the outside world from television and the opinionated Big Jim. And now he’s up against the worst of times with his limited knowledge and his distrust of the natural world – which may be all that’s left.

Among many remarkable features of this unusual novel, I enjoyed S.T.’s voice: salty, foul-mouthed, neurotic, loyal, loving, admiring of humans (whom he calls MoFos – Big Jim’s influence again) and their inventions, sarcastic, self-deprecating and hilarious. He hates penguins (“hambeast-bellied egg timers”) and says of Dennis, “Man’s best friend indeed. More like man’s neediest parasite that would trade you for a bull-penis dog chewy at the drop of a hat.” Squirrels are “five-star sexual deviants” (borne out by later events). The other voices that occasionally interweave with S.T.’s chapters are equally singular, apt, and surprising: there is a Scottish cow named Angus, a young camel in Dubai, and an irascible, tyrannical cat right there in Seattle, among others. (Genghis Cat thinks of his humans as Mediocre Servants, or “dildo-nosed potatoes.”) A very large part of S.T.’s ongoing struggle is wrapped up in his confusions about identity: unmistakably crow, he believes himself to be an honorary MoFo, meant to be human but trapped in black feathers; in the new world, though, he’s going to have to make new allegiances with those who look more like himself. His relationship with Dennis likewise evolves: he begins scornful of the bloodhound’s apparently lesser intellect, but their partnership deepens in tough times, and he discovers that even if Dennis does not talk like the crow does (and as most animals in this world do), he may have a lot to offer. The lessons abound, but Hollow Kingdom never loses its joyful, wacky ridiculousness, even as it gains in wisdom and profundity. Sounds like a hell of a thing, right? This is an unusual and startling book from the first pages, and keeps on surprising to the end.

I also marveled at how many notes I made as I read. I generally make a few notes, but this tight-packed bookmark with overflow onto the other side is rare.

Many of those notes I will not be sharing here because I’m avoiding spoilers. But I can point out that S.T. has a vocabulary: I had to look up formicary, synanthropic, fuliginous, voltaic, collacine, pedipalp, myotonic, and chatoyant. I also loved his use of so many collective nouns: clowder of cats, murmuration of starlings, collacine of maggots, quarrel of sparrows, and of course the constant reference to S.T.’s own murder (of crows) – these are just a few. I’m a big fan of collective nouns.

Hollow Kingdom approaches a few commonly-occurring incidents in literature (which I am still not naming here) with truly fresh eyes. The voice of a domesticated crow navigating an identity crisis in the context of a wider-world crisis is new and inventive. This book is filled with tragedy, but is simultaneously hilarious, hopeful, even joyful.

Trust, it turned out, was a very beautiful and fragile thing with a taste like wild raspberries and experienced only by the very brave.

There are Big Thoughts alongside toilet humor, and commentary on the importance of relationships even in the most bizarrely changing world imaginable. Lots to love. Buxton has a rare and fascinating mind and I love the weird voices she’s created here; I’ll definitely look for more from her.


Rating: 8 Cheetos.

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

This quick read combines Snow White (the classic fairy tale) with still more horror, in graphic novel form, with story by Neil Gaiman and beautiful, intricate illustrations by Colleen Doran in the style of Harry Clarke. Gaiman’s version subverts the classic tale to star an evil stepdaughter, and moves away from a children’s story (to the extent that these fairy tales ever are that to begin with!), with sex as well as scariness. Doran’s art is jewel-toned, detailed, evocative, and yes, sexy and scary by turns. The book is hard-covered, slim and gorgeous; I enjoyed every minute on a chilly rainy evening, and again the next day, skimming for both plot details and visual ones. Gaiman’s storytelling (down to word choice) is exquisite, and Doran’s work (which I was not familiar with) is equally so. Again, it is a short book, but a beautiful one which I will revisit. Think of it as a gift option for the fans of dark fairy tales in your life! Sinister and delicious.


Rating: 8 bridges.

did not finish: Horns by Joe Hill (audio)

Horns is a horror novel by Joe Hill, son of the horror novel empire of the world, and author of Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2. So I had high hopes, and indeed was moving along smoothly enough, feeling engaged and interested, until about the halfway point of this audiobook’s 14 hours.

This is the story of Iggy Perrish, who wakes up at the beginning of the book with dim memories of the night before, and horns growing out of his temples. His (apparently perfect) girlfriend was brutally raped and murdered a year prior, and although Ig was never proven guilty or innocent, his community assumes his guilt; this, on top of his loss, has quite ruined his life. When the newly horned Ig encounters anyone at all, they go into a sort of trance of perfect honesty, mindlessly confessing their worst desires and asking his permission to act them out. He’s become sort of everyone’s personal demon. Then the story flashes back to when he first met the late girlfriend, ten years previous, when they were just kids; and occasionally forward, to later in their relationship; and back to the horned present, where adult Ig tries to figure out what to do with his horns and unwanted magical powers, and solve the mystery of his girlfriend’s murder.

This was intriguing, if often awful. It’s a horror novel. And I have a taste for the occasional horror novel, as evidenced by previous Hill and King novels I’ve enjoyed; I certainly have a high tolerance for graphic violence and horrific acts in fiction, as evidenced by the fiction I love by Connelly, Child, James Lee Burke and others. I was okay with Ig’s sad story right up until a scene involving a decapitated snake, bullying, and a nasty nickname. It’s weird what will turn me off. (I’ve noticed before that it’s often cruelty to animals.) But there was a moment, listening to this book, and hearing the bleating of the bullies, when I just really didn’t want to hear any more. So I turned it off.

Fred Berman’s narration was a solid performance, I guess, which is to say often off-putting in the way that this scene was off-putting – as Hill intended? I know that sounds like faint praise. Berman does different voices and accents that I found effective; the effect was not pleasant. I wonder if I would have tolerated this book better on the page.

No accounting for what works for me. I thought I had a stronger stomach for the awful than this! But Hill wins this round? Or loses? As ever, your mileage may vary.


Rating: think I’ll skip this one and leave it at ‘DNF.’

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s that time again: due to life in general and reading-related issues, I’m taking us back to two posts a week for the foreseeable. They will appear on Mondays and Fridays. Sorry & thanks for your continued interest!


Not sure what prompted me to take in this classic – it might have been The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

randomly chosen atmospheric cover (I read a free ebook from Project Gutenberg)

I didn’t have a terribly successful read, but now I know. I’m going to say that this one didn’t age as well as some writers of James’s era. Two central concerns are sentences and what we fear. First, James’s habit of complex syntax and copious strung-together clauses drove me nuts. I found it quite distracting and frequently had to reread to follow the logic of comma-packed sentences. Check out this completely typical (not extreme) example:

At the hour I now speak of she had joined me, under pressure, on the terrace, where, with the lapse of the season, the afternoon sun was now agreeable; and we sat there together while, before us, at a distance, but within call if we wished, the children strolled to and fro in one of their most manageable moods.

There’s a style there that just doesn’t work for me, and I’ll wager works for few modern readers.

Perhaps more importantly, though, even after I’d puzzled through the sentences: The Turn of the Screw is a horror story, but it no longer horrifies. Reading this book was like waiting for the jump scare that never comes. [Spoilers follow, although I’ll not share the ending.] A governess takes charge of two charming children at an impressive country estate: the little girl who is supposed to be her pupil, and the slightly older boy sort of by accident, when he is expelled from boarding school. Our protagonist can’t understand why, because he (like his sister) is perfect, angelic, cherubic, just the sweetest and smartest etc., etc. But then she has a few sinister sightings of two individuals, man and woman, who turn out to be the ghosts, respectively, of a former servant and the last governess. These two committed the incredible sin of having a romantic and sexual relationship even though they were not only unmarried but (gasp) of different social backgrounds. The idea of who is a “gentleman” (and how we can tell by looking at him) is of great importance. Perhaps you can imagine that this just doesn’t impress me; I couldn’t muster any outrage.

The ghosts have some sort of influence over our dear angelic children, who thereby become sinister by association, although they don’t actually do anything bad beyond wandering around unsupervised. This is no Orphan. In general, ho hum.

(There is also an interesting bit of story-within-the-story here: we open with a bunch of Victorians at a country home for a long weekend, where the governess’s story itself is introduced and then read aloud. I’m always intrigued by this narrative device. We never return to the country weekend, so it doesn’t perhaps do the work it might have done for this book.)

My friend Vince teaches a class on horror films and literature, and he could speak to all of this more effectively than I can, but I recall him saying something about how different eras in horror reflect what we feared at a societal level at each point in time. Here, James is clearly concerned with the innocence of children (and the terrifying lack thereof), and class distinctions. That’s my fairly surface-level read, and frankly, it’s as deep as I feel motivated to go. My friend Liz points out that Stephen King has “ruined” (depending on your position) all the horror that came before, by figuring how how to really terrify us. She’s probably right, too. She cites Frankenstein: the modern reader approaches that classic novel looking for a fright that just never surfaces. I’d say that’s a finer novel than this one, though.

Somewhat in James’s defense, I did finish this novella, after faltering in the middle, because I wanted to see what happened. That’s good for something. The ending held a note of some profundity. Still can’t recommend it, except as an act of completionism, if you want to get a good historical grasp of this genre. Next challenge: what horror story of a similar era is still scary?


Rating: 6 commas, which (on theme) might be one too many, but credit for James’s long influence.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

This is a difficult book to review. I want to use lots of superlatives, and I want to rate it a 10, but with a big asterisk, because I think it should come with a warning label of some kind. I am no longer sure where I got this recommendation from, but I missed a major headline: this is a horror novel, and a truly horrifying one of those, too. I had grasped it as fantasy, which is not wrong but it’s not all. So let me start off here: this is an excellent, mindbending, outstanding novel, but it is likely to upset even hard-to-upset readers (I consider myself one of these). Also, I want you to go in spoiler-free, which makes this review even harder to write.

Shelf Awareness’s review begins:

The Changeling is Victor LaValle’s version of the marshmallow test: forgo the quick thrill of a mass-market mystery/horror and be patient as the author genially paces you through 120 pages of buildup, and you’ll receive the kind of shock that fairy tales are made of.

and I think that part is well done. (I’m not a fan of the rest of it, which gets one important detail wrong and includes a spoiler, and that’s why it’s not linked here. Please avoid spoilers.) Truly, part of why I was so shocked is that those first 100+ pages are so delightful and unhorrifying. LaValle lulled me with the completely realistic, imperfect but sweet story of our protagonist, Apollo, beginning with his parents (white father from Syracuse, Black mother a Ugandan immigrant) and their romance in New York City, Apollo’s birth, and his father’s disappearance when the boy is quite young. Apollo grows up quickly to become a used book dealer (in the best of times, a rare book dealer, but you take what you can get), a kind and driven man. He in turn enjoys his own romance with Emma, a librarian and profoundly independent woman. These are complicated and nuanced people we really like and root for. Their first child, in an unlikely turn, is delivered on a stalled and stranded A train, underground, by Apollo and a few motley fellow passengers; but he is born healthy. Emma appears to suffer from a severe postpartum depression, however. And then things take a strange, strange turn.

I love the characters: Apollo, his mother Lillian, Emma the badass librarian, her sister Kim, her old friend Nichelle. Apollo’s best friend and fellow book dealer, Patrice, is a delightful giant of a man, an Iraqi War veteran with a great sense of humor and a hobbyist’s interest in computers. They’re all fully developed, with small background details that make them real humans rather than types. That these characters are Black is not the point of the book and rarely needs pointing out, except when it very much does (“you and me are two black men sitting in a minivan in the middle of the road in the middle of White Ass, Long Island,” Patrice reminds Apollo. Time to go). That full realization of characters, the round shape of them, applies to the general setting in time and place as well. I can tell that LaValle is an author who knows things about these characters and this world that didn’t make it into the pages; they’re complete like that. It’s a wonderful story to sink into for these reasons. There is commentary on fatherhood: Apollo’s continuing reckoning with his own absent father (and related nightmares), and his role as proud father himself. The passage about New Dads and how they are different from Old Dads is priceless, and self-deprecating: “New Dads do half the housework (really more like 35 percent, but that’s still so much better than zero).”

And then there’s the horror story – which is fantasy and fairy tale too. It’s a delight, actually. I just didn’t have my seatbelt buckled up for it. And if the idea of harm coming to children is a trigger point for you, fair warning here. (Fairy tales can be pretty awful in this regard, to be fair.) When things go south for Apollo, he will have to step out of the modern Queens that he knows and into something more ancient, awful, elemental. “For a moment he pawed through the contents [of his suitcase]: a mattock, some clothes, a children’s book, and a gravestone. This was how you packed for a trip to another world, not another borough.” Just put your seatbelt on.

I am deeply impressed with LaValle’s skills and have just added to my purchase list all of his books: three more novels, a story collection, a novella, and a comic. I’m completely sold. I was horrified! But it was worth every minute for this transporting read.


Rating: 10 moldy hardcovers, but be careful.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred is interesting to me in several ways. First, Octavia Butler stands out as a Black woman in a genre – science fiction – that is still awfully short on non-men and non-white writers, and was practically devoid of either when she began publishing scifi in the 1970s. This novel, her bestselling and I think best-known, might be more easily classified as fantasy than scifi, although I’m not going to get caught up in that labels argument. (I’ve tagged it as horror, here, too.) Either way, it is also very much realism and well based in history. Our protagonist, Dana, is a modern 1970s Black woman who suddenly finds herself time-traveled into the 1810s. “Time travel was science fiction in nineteen seventy-six. In eighteen nineteen–Rufus was right–it was sheer insanity.” Rufus is a young red-headed boy who she quickly understands has the (unwitting) ability to “call” her to his time when he is in danger; she seems bound to protect him. Because… it turns out he is her ancestor.

So we have the grandfather paradox, which ironically was just the other day explained to me by the character Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. Rufus grows into a deeply problematic white man and slaveowner, but she must preserve his life, even facilitate his relationship with the enslaved woman Alice who will bear his children, to ensure her own birth. Talk about tough subject matter and moral relativism. Back “home” in the 1970s, Dana is married to a white man, one of the good ones, named Kevin. But even the good ones may turn out to be a little troubling, especially when Kevin manages to get transported back in time with his wife. In the 1800s, Kevin can help protect Dana by posing as her master, but that only leads to more lines to be blurred.

This scifi/fantasy plot draws heavily on history. My paperback edition includes a critical essay at the back by Robert Crossley, who points out that Kindred is a sort of fictional memoir, following the traditions of slave narratives, which Butler studied closely. Aside from the time travel element, this story could be considered strict realism. And the time travel could be considered a literalization of a more metaphoric need to enter into another time – one far less distant than we are sometimes tempted to feel – and understand it better, because the forces of racism (and sexism) are alive and well. (While race is the forefront issue here, gender is absolutely at play as well, in the dynamics within slavery as well as the modern marriage of Dana and Kevin, among other places.)

Butler’s skills are on display. Dana’s first-person narrative voice is compelling and immediate; we experience panic, fear, rage, helplessness, and more along with her. Her relationships with Kevin and with Rufus, with Alice and with other enslaved people, are complex; the society of slaves offers a few apparent ‘types’ which Butler then immediately complicates, and Dana’s own biases are exposed in the process.

Topically, this is an important book to read and to think about. ‘Purely’ as a novel, it’s a hell of a ride, fast-paced and high-stakes and absorbing. Dana’s voice is compelling and intimate; she’s flawed and complicated and completely believable. It’s one of those stories it’s hard to look away from. Butler’s reputation is well deserved.


Rating: 8 aspirins.

Night Rooms: Essays by Gina Nutt

These 18 essays about gender, horror, grief and much more are thought-provoking, discomfiting and lovely.

Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms is a startling collection of 18 essays ruminating on life experiences, cultural tropes and horror films, examining questions of gender, fear and grief. Fragmented in form, but firmly interconnected, these essays refuse to look away. Nutt’s prose is lyrical, provocative, intimate and intelligent.

“I used to imagine wanting someone alive would revive them, if caught right after dying.” This opening line establishes one of Nutt’s main subjects: the deaths of loved ones and how people do (or don’t) handle them. She wants to find “a balance between mourning and moving on. How does it look to not be so enamored with the image of the final girl–the one who survives–that we forget, or disavow, our dead (selves).” That final girl of horror movies is objectified: a symbol, a survivor, part of a lineage.

Nutt (Wilderness Champion) is also a poet, and has a way with a simple line in brief scenes and observations: in grief or depression, “time pulls thick, opaque as taffy.” “I am making this [darkness] a buoy.” Her voice is vulnerable and frank. Repeatedly she describes a cultural artifact rather than naming it, so it is recognizable to most readers, but made unfamiliar: “the cartoon mouse dressed in a red sorcerer’s cloak and a pointy violet hat with white stars on it.” Quoted sources are named in footnotes, but those only paraphrased are not, so that different readers will find themselves involved to different degrees–as is true with the cultural artifacts themselves.

Haunted houses, horror flicks with sharks in them, ghost stories and slasher films meet beauty pageants, ballet lessons, sexual explorations and home dĂ©cor to question what it is about the macabre that fascinates. Although subtitled as “essays,” Night Rooms feels more like it contains chapters, which make reference to one another as much as within themselves. The deaths that occupy the narrator in the book’s beginning are relevant again at its close. Indeed, while these essays are fragmented, cinematic in flashes of image, sound and feeling, they are equally fragments of the whole. Together, these pieces form an experience that is sensory, intellectual and emotional, illuminating difficult and even uncomfortable truths.

Part personal reflection and part cultural study, this unusual collection will haunt readers, in the best ways.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 insects framed in flight.

From Hell: Master Edition by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From this list of horror novels (linked from Shelf Awareness, and thank you for that), I found From Hell, which has been a wild ride. It’s a graphic novel, it’s historical fiction, and yes, it’s horror, but none of these terms suffice. The master edition I invested in was totally worth it for the 40-page appendix (in tiny type) explicating every smallest point of the novel itself, and detailing all the research involved, where fact meets fiction, and Moore’s reasoning behind the conclusions he’s drawn. The meticulous and thoroughly-explained research was its own gripping story, and Moore’s voice in that appendix is frequently hilarious – when’s the last time I laughed out loud at an appendix?! – self-deprecating, clever, and smart. I marvel at what feels to me like rather a new form. (The only comparison, obviously, is the Maus books.)

The novel itself is a fictionalized version of the Jack the Ripper murders, their investigation, and the conclusion(s) drawn and not drawn in 1888 and the years that follow. I entered this reading not knowing much about Jack the Ripper – I knew he was a historical serial killer in London who targeted poor sex workers, did terrible things to them, and was never caught; I think I would have figured his victims at five. That’s about it. I’m not at all sure that a reader more knowledgeable of these events would be a better reader of this work; I had plenty to help me along with the included appendix, although I think I would often have been lost without it. At least, I would have missed many of the subtler references. I strongly recommend the master edition for this reason. On the other hand, with nearly 600 pages, this large-format, hardback work is indeed a phonebook, and I confess I had a few physical difficulties with it: not only size and weight, but somewhat hard-to-read printing (both the tiny-print appendix and the hand-lettered graphic novel) on glossy pages that threw some glare. I had to use more light than I usually do to read. Totally worth it, though.

Jack the Ripper is an interesting case, because it’s very well-known (even if you know as little as I did, you’ve certainly heard of it), but not well-understood. As Moore lays out here, there have been umpteen theories and suspects offered, but few solid conclusions; and now too much time has passed, and we’ll never know who really dunit. There is also something tantalizing about the time period (late nineteenth century) and the intersections of historical figures, of which Moore takes full advantage – those opportunities are clearly part of what’s drawn him to this subject matter. As he writes in a second (graphic) appendix, sort of a meta-narrative about JtR history and research and the birth process of this book, Moore was in 1988 “thinking seriously about writing something lengthy on a murder. The Whitechapel killings aren’t even considered. Too played-out. Too obvious.” And yet here we are.

It is one of Moore’s theses that “in many ways, the 1880s contain the seeds of the twentieth century, not only in terms of politics and technology, but also in the fields of art and philosophy as well. The suggestion that the 1880s embody the essence of the twentieth century, along with the attendant notion that the Whitechapel murders embody the essence of the 1880s, is central to From Hell.” Indeed, this is not just a fictionalized account of a series of brutal murders (and the conspiracies and power structures that executed them), but a carefully research account of 1880s English society, including the roles played by the royals, the Freemasons, law enforcement, medicine and technology, homophobia, misogyny, and economic forces. It is a broad investigation into history across traditional academic disciplinary lines (which is a special love of mine), and again, that appendix makes it a rich study to dip into, leaving me with high confidence in the facts that serve as structure to this fiction. It is broad and rich in concept, too, part ghost story and philosophical probe. There are depths to be plumbed here; a person could write a dissertation on this surprising book.

There’s plots and there’s plots!

I’ve been writing about Alan Moore as if he’s the author of this book – because I understand that he’s the storyteller, and clearly he’s the voice of the appendix. The other listed author is Eddie Campbell, who I understand is responsible for the graphic art itself. He is referred to in the appendix as a separate entity, often humorously: “I have decided to ignore the increasingly surly protests of my co-author, Brisbane’s own Mr. Campbell, and make Victoria herself the instigator of events.” Notably, Campbell is credited for fastidious research for his visuals: “Suffice it to say that any adequate appendix listing Eddie’s sources in the way that I am listing mine would be twice as long as this current monstrosity, which in itself looks set to end up twice as long as the work to which it refers.” The appendix’s self-deprecations amuse me. “[There is another source] to which I would refer the interested reader (I assume there’s only one of you).” I am very open to the occasional self-reference, as when a character in the story predicts: “Mark my words, in ‘undred years there’ll still be cunts like ‘im, wrapping these killings up in supernatural twaddle, making a living out of murder…” and the appendix: “Abberline’s eerily precognitive comments are my own invention. They are also, in their way, a form of shamefaced apology from one currently making part of his living wrapping up miserable little killings in supernatural twaddle. Sometimes, after all you’ve done for them, your characters just turn on you.” You get the point: I am tickled by this narrative voice, and tickled by the research narrative in itself. I can scarcely imagine this book without Moore’s appended guidance; I wouldn’t have gotten half as much out of it.

The novel is horrifying, as is appropriate for its subject matter. It is complex in its explanation of the murders, conspiracies, investigations and cover-ups, including that supernatural angle. I think it’s a hell of a wild ride in itself, but it was the additional material that made this one a complete standout for me personally.


Rating: 9 points of research, decision, and imagination.
%d bloggers like this: