Column: Retronomicon: Why “Night of the Ripper” Is So Much Better than “From Hell”

Bloch, Robert. Night of the Ripper. Tor Books (May 1986). ISBN: 13-978-0812500707. USD $3.99.

For better or worse (my personal vote being for “worse”), Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell, and the completely off-kilter movie that it inspired, threatens to be the final word on the subject of Jack the Ripper. While it is often said that the book is better than the movie, I would argue that, in this particular instance, both are a mess. The film goes for sensationalistic thrills that are just bad history through and through. The graphic novel is an engaging-enough read for the most part, but goes off on far too many occult tangents to be satisfying.

Worse yet, every last chapter of the work is weighed down by people, places, and events which makes the first appendix all but necessary. Why is it necessary? Because it has to explain, well, everything that is happening on the page so that it makes sense to the average reader. I’m sorry, but when you need Cliff Notes to be able to follow along with a story, the writer has messed up somewhere. These days, I would say that the only redeeming feature of From Hell is its second appendix, entitled “Dance of the Gull Catchers.” This brief comic strip documentary/commentary traces the history of the development of Jack the Ripper suspects and points out the ultimate futility of such speculation.

To my mind, the worst sin that From Hell ever committed was to obscure an important part of the life’s work of Robert Bloch. Jack the Ripper was a lifelong obsession for this Lovecraft protégé, whether one is talking about his short story, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” the classic Star Trek episode “Wolf In the Fold,” or even his brief introductory note in Saucy Jack’s voice at the front of Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Elseworlds prototype graphic novel, Gotham By Gaslight. Today, we’re going to look at his final statement on the subject, the novel Night of the Ripper.

We start off with a nurse-in-training Eva Sloane taking a stroll of London at night circa August 5, FromHell-moore-campbell-w622-h3501888. It sets the mood of the rest of the novel brilliantly, as well as introducing us to some of the local slang in the form of a thought process (Bloch makes it plain that Eva, a country vicar’s daughter, would not have been familiar with some of the terms before coming to London). Even without Saucy Jack on these streets, the place is hellish enough in its squalor, casual vice, and poverty. We get some intriguing hints about Jack’s imminent arrival on the stage at the chapter’s close.

Then, in our next chapter, we are introduced to our protagonist Mark Robinson, an American medical student in London for the express purpose of studying English procedures (and also a classmate of H.H. Mudgen, the model for Bloch’s serial killer in American Gothic). We get a more in-depth intro to the contemporary slang and scene through a conversation with his mentor, Dr. Albert Trebor, at the Angel and Crown Public House.

In Chapter Three, we’re introduced to our first dead body in the space of two pages (For those of you keeping score at home, it took Moore and Campbell four chapters and many more pages to get the same point). The subsequent chapters (which jump around in their viewpoints quite a bit) are crowned with historical epigrams of various grisly deaths from other places and times, many of them much, much more gruesome and numerous than the Ripper slayings.

It strikes me that Bloch was making a point about keeping perspective on where the deaths of all the Ripper’s victims fall on the scale of atrocities. The legend has become bigger than the facts (a point that Moore also makes in Dance of the Gull Catchers), though Bloch also does not flinch from the gory details that are the hallmark of the Ripper’s kills. He even takes a jab at those perennial critics who talk up how works like his are responsible for inspiring violence in his closing note: “And while the author is fully accountable for any imaginary violence in these pages, he is, regrettably, not responsible for the nightly news.”

As events progress, Mark finds himself more and more compelled, out of an overriding sense of justice, to get to the bottom of the Ripper murders. That puts him in the company of Inspector Frederick Abberline, the man in charge of the Ripper investigation. Do kindly forget the Johnny Depp version you saw in the movie (who was an amalgam of Abberline and another player that I will introduce shortly, Robert James Lees; Depp resembled the actual Abberline’s physical appearance the same way that Gordon Levitt-Pitt resembles Rush Limbaugh).

If Bloch is any guide, the historical Abberline was a highly put-upon and frustrated copper who just wanted to do his job, but had a stomach ulcer to show for how far he wasn’t getting. But his Oliver Hardy appearance masked a good policeman’s instincts and one gets the impression that he was sincerely dedicated to getting to the bottom of the matter, whatever effect it had on his career.

However, Abberline kept getting hamstrung by both the lack of solid answers and bureaucratic interference from his superiors, in particular Sir Charles Warren, London’s police commissioner. Anyone who has watched HBO’s excellent crime drama The Wire will find some ugly parallels between that show’s institutional dysfunction and the ones that keep showing up in the London police department. Damn near all his superiors seem to vacillate between complete disinterest (The newly appointed assistant police commissioner actually went on vacation in Switzerland for health reasons (!) when the first Ripper killings took place) and self-absorbed concern on how it will impact their careers. No one incident in the novel epitomizes that more than Chapter 25, when Sir Charles tries using bloodhounds to track Jack, with disastrous results that Abberline foresees from the beginning.

Of course, this being Victorian Era London, the odd historical personage is to be expected and it’s nightOfTheRipperBloch776-w622-h350no surprise that Bloch includes several that Moore and Campbell would later use themselves in From Hell. I’ve mentioned Robert James Lees, a spirit medium who became involved in the investigation and led Abberline to the doorstep of one of the most popular suspects for the crime, Dr. William Gull, Physician in Ordinary to Queen Victoria.

Bloch also throws in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who had just written “A Study In Scarlet,” the first of his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the year before), Oscar Wilde (my all-time favorite source for witty putdowns and hard-earned wisdom), and John Merrick AKA the Elephant Man (truly one of the most tragic stories in the history of the human race, albeit one that had a somewhat happy ending).

As I read Bloch’s depiction of these famous Victorians, I found myself getting more and more irritated by Moore’s take on the same in From Hell. Robert James Lees is an excellent case in point. When Moore explained in his appendix that he basically called Lees’ ability as a medium a fraud based on nothing but his own gut reaction, I got severely annoyed (That feeling intensified when I read in this book about how Lees turned down an offer from the Queen herself to officially enter her service, in favor of occult research, after supposedly putting her in touch with her long-dead and still-beloved Prince Albert). If you’re going to use people who actually lived, then stay as close to the actual history and character of the person as you can.

Bloch depicts Lees as a human funnel for things and insights that he barely understands, if at all, which is true of most real psychics I’ve run across. He’s been toughened by the jibes that he has taken for his gift and wants to use it to do good, but concedes that maybe having his sort of ability is not so good. Bloch even has him say a paraphrase of the first line of Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” that certainly fits.

As for Dr. William Gull, the actual Jack the Ripper in From Hell (I must give Moore full credit for saying publicly that he was likely slandering the poor man, who discovered the illness of anorexia), he comes off less as a criminal mastermind and more of a bitter old medical man whose body had betrayed him in the form of a stroke. His well-documented antagonism toward Lees is shown here (I wonder if he hated Lees even more for turning down Her Majesty’s offer of service, something that Gull himself would likely never have done in the same position) which comes in the form of nasty bluster that dissipates in the face of Abberline’s keen questioning.

Moore mainly uses Wilde and Merrick as props, the former for mere window dressing and the latter for some occult connotations with Ganesha, the elephant-headed Indian god who is the breaker down of obstacles. Here, Bloch does us the favor of focusing on the humanity of both. In a private conversation with Abberline, Wilde puts aside the witty remarks that are his trademark to show a man who also had a wife and children that he loved enough to want to protect from the horrors that the Ripper represented. In an equally private conversation with Mark, Merrick’s grace in the face of his graceless body, his deep love and appreciation of the things that he has, and keen intelligence and insight are deeply moving to read. As a bonus, both even have information that propels the plot forward.

Of course, the question of any story about Jack the Ripper is whodunit? Bloch does an excellent job of seamlessly inserting into the text every theory and suspect that has cropped up in Ripperology, frequently with heavy hints that this is the real answer.

That even includes the race-baiting theory of a Jew being responsible for the killing, which givesfromhellfilm-w622-h350 him an excuse to insert the thought processes of one Jewish boatman for an amusing rant against the idiocy of goyim, littered with lots of Yiddish terms that the reader can figure out on their own. One treasured line that I took from that was “Sergeant Thicke – he was the one who took him in. A good name for that shmuck – thick in the body and thick in the head.”

As to the answer that Bloch comes up with, I’ll only say two things about it. First, it is a conspiracy, albeit much smaller than is usually associated with this case. Second, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else has ever suggested anything quite like this answer.

It seems like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time bashing Alan Moore throughout the course of this review. Believe me when I say that it’s nothing personal. I have all the respect in the world for Mr. Moore, who made the Swamp Thing into a true horror staple, gave us the ultimate Joker story in The Killing Joke, and destroyed my notions of what kind of stories comics could tell forever with Watchmen. Even better, he wound up creating a line of four books at the turn of the 21st century under the heading of ‘America’s Best Comics’ that I still treasure to this day. He is, in my estimation, a prodigious talent … but a talent still worthy of clear-eyed, critical comment.

Bloch provided him and every other writer who ever cared to make Jack the Ripper a topic for a story a clear blueprint on how to do it right. This final novel of the man who will forever be associated with the novel Psycho has minimum mess and fuss, gets to its points quickly, and is able to help its readers slip into the setting of late 19th century London effortlessly. In a just world, Night of the Ripper would have been the work that got adapted and revered, even as it educated the public about the ins and outs of Jack the Ripper. As it stands, it lies as dead as Mary Kelley, waiting to be rediscovered.

About JHaney

J. Keith Haney was born in Misawa, Japan, but has lived most of his life in the state of Tennessee. His favourite all-time film is the original Clash of the Titans, mainly for the Ray Harryhausen monsters. Due to that film, he got a college-level book on World Mythology when he was nine, of which he memorized the Greek section by age 12. His first encounter with Lovecraft (though he didn't know it at the time) was the original Ghostbusters, which he saw in its original theatrical release. In addition to all things Lovecraft, he is an old-school gamer, history buff and fierce advocate for the steampunk genre. He enjoyed his first professional sale and publication in 2010 with his steampunk short story, "Grand Guginol", which can be found at Short Story Me!. His favourite all-time Lovecraft story is "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath", which he considers an important, forgotten forerunner to Tolkein's Lord of the Rings saga.

JHaneyColumn: Retronomicon: Why “Night of the Ripper” Is So Much Better than “From Hell”