14 November 2009

Alan Moore's Lost Treasures - #3 in a 6 Part Limited Series

I Keep Coming Back

“Write about a place and you’re cemented to it.” – Alan Moore

It’s Dark in London is an interesting book. Published in 1996 with a grant from the London Arts Board, the anthology purports to “capture (London’s) fundamental essence as exquisite mixture of lofty towers and gutter sleaze, of suburban gentility and urban depravity, of private vices and public philanthropy.” Although relatively obscure, the book, edited by Oscar Zarate, gathered a fairly impressive lineup of Britain’s heavy hitters from the mid-'90s comics scene. In addition to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Melinda Gebbie, Dave McKean, Warren Pleece, Iain Sinclair, Ilya, Carol Swain and several other of England’s prominent creators are featured. The book includes a dozen short stories of varying quality, all coming at the city from different perspectives. Alan Moore’s story, “I Keep Coming Back,” is the book’s end-piece and, without question, its highlight.

Moore’s story is a rare autobiographical piece, a reflection on the recently-completed graphic novel, From Hell, which saw Moore spend nearly a decade researching and meditating on the infamous Jack the Ripper killings. “I Keep Coming Back” reads like a series of hastily dashed off notes, scribbled on a late night train ride home after a strange and unsatisfying night at a pub. Moore had just spent the evening in Whitechapel, filming a BBC2 special about From Hell. The film was shot at the Christ Church in Spitalfields (a photo of Moore on the steps of this Church graces From Hell’s back cover), across the street from the Ten Bells pub, the infamous location of one of the most brutal Ripper killings.

Moore’s reflections of this bittersweet evening are both somber and beautiful. At first, Moore, who manages to seem both strangely detached from the proceedings while simultaneously immersed within them, describes, in brutal terms, his observations about both the Church itself and the unnatural feelings of shooting a documentary about serial murder within its hallowed chambers. Moore’s prose matches its divine setting in the off-handed way he describes the “redundant dry ice fumes and overstated under-light” that the producer has employed to create “stripes of light (that) burn into the uneven floor-stones, unaccustomed to the sun and sensitive as film.”

Throughout the opening pages, Moore seems indifferent about the film. He’s passively willing to go along with the charade for the sake of promoting his book, but derives little pleasure from the experience. After the interview, as the director and film crew huddle to capture a few additional shots, Moore finds himself unexpectedly free and, with a photographer friend, decides to go across the street to the Ten Bells for a pint of ale. Before entering, however, Moore is convinced to pose for another brief photo in front of the pub, and again, his nimble prose reveals a strangely detached man, intellectually distant from the whole affair. As the camera looms ominously before him, Moore recalls in an elegiac tone how the photographer plans to use the shot to “dissolve from the fiction into me, in real life” as if the notion of a writer intertwined with his fictional subject matter is a disturbing prospect.

And indeed, as the small group moves into the pub, Moore’s feelings that the killings he spent so much time writing about still haunt the place like a ghost become painfully apparent. A popular tourist stop by day, the pub moonlights as a venue for “exotic dancers,” and while the “creased-suit city refugees on happy hour” ogle the young dancer, Moore is, at first, taken more with the reactions of these stoic men (“gulls on a fence, all staring in the same direction") than moved by the performance. Deeply cynical, Moore observes with biting candor that “I have never previously understood the face of male lust to be so passionless. So frantically indifferent.”

However, eventually, as his first pint fades into a second, Moore turns his keen eye toward the dancer, unable to avoid her desperate gyrations (“She flails her hair like Glenda Jackson in the film of Marat-Sade”). Once again, Moore stares dispassionately at the anonymous woman while the wheels in his mind begin to dissect her in poetic verse. His descriptions on these few pages are short bursts of creative genius, evidence of Moore’s unparalleled skill at turning a phrase. “The orbit of her dance is fixed upon the lodestone of the metal pillar that supports the roof. Some female pubic hair’s like Cirrus; some fanned out in test-card peacocks tails viewed on a black and white. Hers is an exclamation mark.”

As the night seeps forward, his imagination sufficiently lubricated, Moore begins to project his own knowledge of the Ripper slayings on this unsuspecting woman. After witnessing some old broadsheet photos of the five victims hung up on the wall near the restrooms, Moore wonders if the stripper “lingers, dressed and on her way to her next venue, gazing up into the calm, unknowing ink-blots of their eyes.” For anyone who’s read From Hell, Moore’s underlying message resonates loud and clear. Do others feel the haunting presence of the murder victims as acutely as Moore does, or is the writer “forever cemented” to his subject matter, unable to detach himself from the horror that lingers in the smoky haze?

Unlike any of Alan Moore’s other stories, this particular account resonates with me on a personal level. From 1999 to 2001, I lived in a one-bedroom flat in Whitechapel with my girlfriend (now wife) literally ten minutes by foot from the very pub Moore is writing about. I witnessed daily the groups of “murder tourists,” their cameras poised like weapons, snapping pictures of “the sacred gutters.” I too experienced the conflicted feelings of curiosity and revulsion at the site of these daily mobs. And while I never saw an “exotic dancer” show, I drank several pints at the Ten Bells and walked by the same church dozens of times, often vaguely aware of the history surrounding me, though certainly never as deeply afflicted by the past as Moore clearly is.

Oscar Zarate’s art in this story is scratchy and surreal, muddied and dark. It may not be to everyone’s taste, and certainly Zarate pales in comparison to many of the other artists Moore has worked with (if only Eddie Campbell had illustrated this piece), yet I found Zarate’s thick, inky brushwork to be well-suited to the tone of the story. The artist uses frantic slashes and broad strokes to create heavy, foreboding shadows, while his depiction of the patrons in the pub, the dry stares on their indifferent faces, are perfect reflections of Moore’s grave descriptions. In a few places the artwork feels a little too abstract, and one or two panels require a fair bit of staring to distinguish the exact action being depicted, but the effort required seems to match the slightly drunken, highly introspective nature of Moore’s script.

“I Keep Coming Back” is a sobering look at the after-effects of the creative process. Though he assumed that when he had finished the story, he could finally put the Ripper slayings behind him and move forward, Moore realizes (as both the title and the final line of prose echo) that the past “keeps coming back” to him, or he keeps returning to it, or both. The somber voice of a man coming to the realization that he will be forever haunted by these vicious killings permeates his prose, giving the piece a highly personal feel that is rare in Alan Moore’s writing.

The story is also profoundly beautiful in its use of the English language, always measured and precise in its words, a highlight even among Moore’s considerable body of work. In these 12 pages, Moore wields his pen like a scalpel, cutting to the heart of the complicated mix of emotions he’s feeling throughout the night. For fans of From Hell, “I Keep Coming Back” is an essential epilogue, a rare glimpse behind the curtain, and a hauntingly personal statement from the medium’s best writer reflecting on what is arguably his best novel.

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