simoniker writes "Alan Moore is probably best known as the writer of some of the best graphic novels of all time - Watchmen, From Hell, and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to name but three. But he's also written a prose novel - a sprawling, epoch-spanning paean to his home town of Northampton, England, in the form of Voice Of The Fire, a book originally released in the UK in 1996 in paperback only, and now debuting in the States via a revamped, hardcover version from Top Shelf Productions. So with twelve separate stories and twelve major characters in this 'magical history tour' (as Neil Gaiman describes it in the introduction) spanning six thousand years, how does the book measure up to the seminal comics canon Moore has established?" Read on for the rest of simoniker's review.
There's no question about it - this book is formidable. It is formidable in its complexity, formidable in the connective leaps it expects you to make between stories and eras, and most of all, it can be formidable in its prose. Before I even read Voice Of The Fire, I'd heard that the first chapter of the book is enough to put many casual readers off, and that's not far wrong. The story of a cave-boy called Hob -- confused, immature, possibly mentally deficient, and alone in a world of freedom, love, and, potentially, disaster -- is written in intentionally limited language that the less sharp members of mankind might be imagined to use in 4000 BC. It's not an easy read; this segment is a struggle to decode at times, but the rewards are significant, because the emotions are powerful, and the story strong.
The novel's twelve stories are woven together, but only loosely. Sometimes consecutive stories interact with each other by way of common locations, characters, or themes, as historical figures tell their stories in the first-person, one by one, from the aforementioned Hob to an inevitable conclusion in the present day. But generally, the stories don't actually interact. Some of the most memorable tales, such as the first-person tale of a severed head on a pike circa 1607, or the treacherous dealings of a lecherous court judge from centuries past, have absolutely nothing in common except for the general geographical location. But they share exceptional writing, a self-contained message, and an odd sense of foreboding hovering over the entire proceedings, like someone or something is watching over every single sin committed.
And, let it be said, there are a surfeit of sins -- violence, and senseless murder, and lust, and witchcraft, and plenty left over. But that's how real history is -- bloody. Or, at least, that's how Moore wants us to believe history is, and there's clearly been significant research into many of the real-life historical figures whose lives are embroidered and colorized in Voice of the Fire. There's no doubt that some passages are tricky to digest, particularly those with odd language such as 'The Sun Looks Pale Upon The Wall,' the haunting 1841-set meanderings of another poor citizen who's not quite there. However, if you can wade through the occasional story featuring difficult prose, dense layout and strange language, the rewards can be significant. Plus, the gorgeous new full-page color illustrations/photos, courtesy Jose Villarrubia, add a little visceral flavor to the mix no matter how dense the prose.
Comparisons in terms of genre or content are tricky, though, among the stories that make up this book. What Moore definitely shares with the writer of the introduction to this new version, Neil Gaiman, is a sense of myth, of half-remembered deities and supernatural forces existing in the real world, as Gaiman depicts in American Gods . But Moore's supernatural forces are much more shamanic, much darker, and largely less substantial, except for a truly scary vision unearthed from a medieval burial chamber.
As for Moore's previous work, in as much as Promethea is a set of musings on his faith in the mystical, Voice Of The Fire gives those mystical feelings a more sinister edge and spreads them out over centuries. And it might be said that From Hell contains some similar ideas about the mystical significance of geography. But Voice Of The Fire draws no easy comparison even to Moore's own work -- being in a different medium, and focusing on the place he's lived all his life, it's much more personal than much of his other material, almost as if the dark places of his home town's past are being passed down to him.
Moore spent five years writing this book, and even refers to that torturous stretch in the final chapter, which is written by him in the first-person, in which he ties his experiences of Northampton's history to the stories. A daring move, to be sure, and one that Moore himself admits puts him close to the edge, as he muses:
'There are some weak points on the borderlines of fact and fabrication, crossing where the veil between what is and what is not rends easily. ... Walk through the walls into the landscape of the words, become one more first-person character within the narrative's bizarre procession... Obviously, this is a course of action not without its dangers... always the risk of a surprise ending with the ticket to St. Andrew's Mental Hospital.'
But what is Voice Of The Fire really about? Well, the thirteenth character in the novel, and almost certainly the most important, is the town of Northampton itself, looming large over every single character's experience. This is something that Moore has dealt with before -- there's a moment in the massive, monochrome, mystical From Hell where there's an odd 'flash forward' moment - contemporary office buildings intruding on the goings-on of 19th Century London. The same idea of geography subsuming history is true for Voice Of The Fire -- that the people are not a permanent fixture; the location is the only sure thing. Time layers burial ground on murder site on shiny new office development until there's such an odd mixture of old, new, and indescribable that some kind of sinister magic is created.
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