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Voice Of The Fire 104

Posted by timothy
from the ooh-make-it-stop-oooh dept.
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.
Voice Of The Fire
author Alan Moore
pages 336
publisher Top Shelf Productions
rating 8/10
reviewer Simoniker
ISBN 1891830449
summary In a story full of lust, madness, and ecstasy, we meet twelve distinctive characters that lived in the same region of central England in the span of six thousand years.

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.

[There's plenty more about Moore at the comprehensive Alan Moore Fan Site, and the Alan Moore Yahoo group is both knowledgeable and friendly.]


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Voice Of The Fire

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  • Formidable? Hmm... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Nick of NSTime (597712) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:10PM (#8411203)
    "Formidable" is an interesting way to describe prose. I'm not sure if I'd be willing to tackle something labeled as formidable (Joyce's Finnegan's Wake comes to mind). I guess from the review, I don't really get if the book is worth trudging through. What is its captivation?
    • by Issue9mm (97360) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:43PM (#8411502)
      I haven't read this, but if it's anything like other "formidable" works, it could be that he's referring to a barrier to entry. For example, in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman", you have to get into a certain frame of mind, which if you're coming off of dissimilar works, or aren't familiar with his style of writing, can be a "formidable" challenge.

      The captivation is that once you've entered that realm, and passed that roadblock, you're treated to a wonderfully captivating story that makes you genuinely pissed off when it's over, not because of the ending, just because you want more.

      -9mm-
    • You haven't seen "formidable" prose until you've attempted to read Hegel's Phenomonology of Spirit(Mind in some translations). That redifines "formidable" because I've read the whole thing four times and I still don't know what the f*ck Hegel is trying to say, at least specifically.
      • Joyce still beats Hegel.

        When I'm done with Hegel, I may not understand his point, may not remember what I just read, and almost certainly will be at a loss at why I was reading it in the first place.

        However, that's far behind from 'Ulysses' where I find myself in the same situation around page 40, only to stop and say "f*ck this, let's start over again"... four times too.

        That's not to say it's unsurmountable; I just have my doubts it is technically readable. By the fifth time you just get to a point wher
    • Moore is less (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Zhe Mappel (607548)
      I'm skeptical, too. I love Moore's shorter work but not the lengthy From Hell, a kitchen sink for everything that even remotely interested him about the Ripper data. He's a master in miniature; he can be a tyrant in maximalism.
  • by eggoeater (704775) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:10PM (#8411208) Journal
    Six Thousand Years?!?!?
    Neal Stephenson, eat your heart out.
    • It's sure got 24 beat for time.

      Can you imagine how screwed up Jack Bauer would be if he took that long to find a Presidential assassin/rogue nuclear device/killer virus? And can you imagine how torturous watching the scenes with his wife/daughter/girlfriend/whoever being inept and all girlie woud be if they lasted a few centuries each? You'd kill yourself before the next episode...
    • Maybe I'm wrong, I have only the review to go on, but it sounds similar in style (and maybe concept) to Poul Anderson's "The Boat Of A Million Years [amazon.com]"
  • Hey!!! (Score:5, Funny)

    by TopShelf (92521) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:10PM (#8411209) Homepage Journal
    That publishing company is infringing on my Slashdot nic! Somebody get me a lawyer, ASAP!
  • by trix_e (202696) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:10PM (#8411211)
    "if you can wade through the occasional story featuring difficult prose"

    Are you referring to the book or your review?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:10PM (#8411213)
    Alan Moore is a cinematic genius who doesn't care whos toes he steps on. From George Bush to Charlton Heston, Alan Moore shows them for what they are, bigoted, rich white men!

    Oh wait, that's Michael Moore. My bad.
  • Kudos! (Score:5, Funny)

    by gpinzone (531794) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:13PM (#8411239) Homepage Journal
    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.

    Finally. A review that doesn't assume we're all super sci-fi geeks and explains who the person is and why we should care about them.
    • Indeed.

      Watchmen and From Hell are graphic novels I keep coming back to at least once or twice a year.

      Why? This [generationterrorists.com] is why.

      • by Anonymous Coward
        ...of course that page was missing my all-time favourite Watchmen quote:

        "Stood in firelight, sweltering bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone... Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear ch

        • After reading Watchmen and Crisis of the Infinte Earths, I found a proposal [hoboes.com] for a new crossover, sort of ragnarok of superheroes. Some people guess that Kingdom Come was inspired by this proposal, which was not accepted (but it is still copyright of DC.

          House of Steel...you can't get cooler than that.
        • "Hey, you remember that guy? The one who pretended to be a super-villain so he could get beaten up?"

          "Oh, you mean Captain Carnage. Hahaha! He was one for the books"

          "You're telling me! I remember, I caught him coming out of this jewelers. I didn't know what his racket was. I start hitting him and I think 'Jeez! He's breathin funny. Does he have asthma?'" (laughing)

          "He tried that with me, only I'd heard about him so I just walked away. He followed me down the street ... broad daylight, right? Saying 'punis
  • Interesting... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by OgdEnigmaX (535667) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:14PM (#8411259)
    This sounds a lot, at least on the surface, like Ernest Rutherfurd's London [amazon.co.uk], a novel (in this case spanning 2000 years) that tracks the development of the eponymous city and a few families thereabouts. It's a good read, provided you don't have to finish it on a deadline.
    • I'm reading that book right now! You're right too. Don't try to read it on a deadline. I want to finish it but I've been reading it in bits and pieces since December.
  • by stratjakt (596332) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:15PM (#8411266) Journal
    This is the single greatest piece of literature I've read in recent years. The subtle interplay of the esoteric vs the prolific, the intertwining of melodic paradigms, the juggernaut of the plot had me in trepidations!

    A+++! Highly recommended if you enjoy calibrating fiction that redefines genres even as it spans them.

    I also like his comic books.
  • by bcolflesh (710514) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:19PM (#8411294) Homepage
  • Formidable Prose (Score:5, Informative)

    by SPrintF (95561) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:23PM (#8411333) Homepage
    The first chapter, set around 6000 BC, is difficult to get into initially because of the unusual "voice" that Moore's narrator uses. Still, it's worth persisting, because the first chapter is the best of the bunch.

    Most of the book is quite good, but the last chapter (written in Moore's own voice) is far, far too self-indulgent (and, frankly, uninteresting) to be worth reading.

    It's a good book, but not in the same class as, say, Neil Gaiman's writing.
    • Re:Formidable Prose (Score:5, Interesting)

      by nicky_d (92174) on Friday February 27, 2004 @05:17PM (#8411794) Homepage
      I understand what you're saying there, but the last chapter was in fact very interesting to me, because I was born in, and live in, Northampton. Of course, the whole book is interesting in that respect, but the last chapter brings the whole novel home as Moore writes up the streets and sites you see every day (while hinting at those elements you *don't* see every day).

      An important point, of course, is that a similar novel could be written for your town, for any town. We're admittedly lucky that we had Moore to write Northampton's. A good book, worth your time.
    • I'd catch Moore on "Prisoners of Gravity" whenever possible, and I just loved listening to the guy. Unlike Gaiman, who would spout the worst sort of cliched philosophies about writing, fantasy, and human nature -- I could guess what each new "revelation" would be -- Moore had a fascinating take on most aspects of humankind. That and the basso, heavily-accented voice, giant beard and eyes, and expressive mannerisms made for quite the interviews. He's a character. I still can't help but hear his (actual) voic
  • by GillBates0 (664202) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:24PM (#8411338) Homepage Journal
    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.

    [snip]

    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

    from the ooh-make-it-stop-oooh dept.
    Read on for GillBates0's review:

    There's no question about it - this site is formidable. It is formidable in its complexity, formidable in the connective leaps it expects you to make between stories and comments, and most of all, it can be formidable in its prose. Before I even read Slashdot, I'd heard that the first FP comment of the site is enough to put many casual readers off, and that's not far wrong. The rants of a typical Slashdotter -- 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 2004. 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 group-think strong.

    But what is Slashdot really about? Well, the anonymous character on the site, and almost certainly the most important, is Anonymous Coward itself, looming large over every single character's experience. This is something that CmdrTaco 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 AC.

    Thanks for the applause *bow*

  • Also by Moore (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ajs (35943) <ajs@@@ajs...com> on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:24PM (#8411342) Homepage Journal
    Moore is VERY prolific, and just about anything he has done will have a certain depth of field that makes it worth exploring. I recommend:
    • Supreme -- It's the disilation of everything "Superman", but with a distinctly self-aware narative and art.
    • Top 10 -- Comics of done the multiverse thing to death, and it's the standard explanation for a world "just like ours", but with super-heroes. Moore speculates on what the extreme endpoint of this sort of fantasy story-telling is by describing a world where EVERYONE (and their pets) are supers. It then follows the pain that this causes for one particular metropolitan police dept.
    • Tom Strong -- The 50s all over again. This is the sense-of-wonder storytelling you thought was dead.
    • V for Vendetta -- Not to everyone's liking, but if you have never had anarchy as a political point of view explained to you, it suits as a starter. Don't try to take it as the ONLY viewpoint on anarchy however.
    What he does best is re-interpret various aspects of the comics genre to write his own stories that feel new and interesting, even though you know all the players (in Watchmen, for example, he was simply pulling from golden age heroes that DC had just acquired rights for).

    Ellis [slashdot.org] does this same sort of thing in Authority and Planetary, and to a lesser extent in the non-super-heroic Transmetropolitan which is brilliant, and you should read it ASAP!
    • BUT... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by hcduvall (549304) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:44PM (#8411520)
      Coinciding with his fifitieth birthday, he's also said that he's retired.

      And I'd like to pipe in with Promethea. Its not everyone's cup of tea, being an extended look into Moore magical theories, but its very interesting, and has one of the best artists (JH Williams) in the business who continually astounds me with what he does with layouts and illustration and style switching...
    • Re:Also by Moore (Score:5, Interesting)

      by frankie (91710) on Friday February 27, 2004 @05:03PM (#8411676) Journal

      Hey, don't forget Miracleman (aka Marvelman) [continuitypages.com]!

      By the end of book three (Olympus) I was completely blown away, and realized that I would never again be able to suspend my disbelief regarding ordinary infinite-series superhero comics (X-Men, Superman, etc, which go on and on and on yet nothing important ever changes). How can a world possibly contain living, walking gods and not be changed irrevocably? Alan Moore likes to tell big stories [google.com] with endings, and for that I thank him.
    • Comics of done the multiverse thing to death

      Mistaking "pique" for "peak", as is common on Slashdot, borders on excusable simply because "pique" is not a very common word anymore. Failing to distinguish between "of" and "have" ought to be a source of profound shame.
      • I wasn't mistaking any word for have, it was a simple typo, and get over yourself unless you're signing up to proof-read my Slashdot postings, gratis.
  • by ZipR (584654) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:29PM (#8411390)
    Top Shelf Comix, if you prefer to not deal with B&N. They have signed copies too! http://www.topshelfcomix.com/
  • by hcduvall (549304) on Friday February 27, 2004 @04:53PM (#8411586)
    Namely, and very simplistically, catalogueing the very interesting things that happen in time in the space, and mapping out ideas like they're places.

    I think the Moore comic that best illustrates it is Snakes and Ladders, with Eddie Campbell (always mention the artist!) which is a comic version of a performance piece he did. From Hell's more mystical bits (namely, the long carriage ride through london history) is another great example of it, again with Eddie Campbell.

    Anyone with interest in the Alan Moore should read the verbose extended version of his Onionavclub interview, where I almost understood it.
  • Hmmm (Score:3, Funny)

    by pHatidic (163975) on Friday February 27, 2004 @05:24PM (#8411861)
    Slashdot now says its political correct to call comic books graphical novels...What next, them making us call text adventures interactive fiction? Oh... Wait...
    • Re:Hmmm (Score:2, Insightful)

      by kimota (136493)
      Let me wax pedantic: when they are in trade paperback (or even hardcover) form and have an ISBN, call them graphic novels. When they're 32 (or so) pages and have a magazine cover, call them comic books.

      Moore's work, like that of so many other comic book writers of the last decade or so, has readily lent itself to being collected in one trade paperback volume. (Many writers explicitly compose their storylines for this, since it's aparently one of the most lucrative aspects of the comics industry right now.)
  • Can anyone confirm for me whether Alan Moore was Alec Trench in that great old 2000AD one-off in-joke?

    Alec Trench was the "frustrated unappreciated writer" who--IIRC- it was QUITE a while ago (prog 100 or thereabouts?)-- attempted to leap to his death with his typewriter chained round his neck and then headed off to seek his fortune and reward for true worth in America, silhouetted against the horizon in the last panel, shaking his fist at the unappreciative ingrates he was leaving behind. Beardy, wild
  • Hah! I work in Northampton at the moment. It's a fairly unprepossessing little place. I'm tempted to seek out the book, just to see what there is about the town that I might be missing (it does seem to have slightly more than its fair share of peripatetic basket-cases, certainly...).
  • " 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. "

    hell I'm from Northampton, what's all this "*intentionally* limited lanaguage" crap? Language full stop is a minor miracle for us Northamptonians, so you boffins can fuck off and leave us alone.
  • No, seriously. Consider the book Ulverton [amazon.com]. It's a story about a village that spans centuries in a series of 12 chapters, each set in a different time, each connected to the others through various common elements, with each chapter having a different principal character who is the narrator. Ulverton was written in 1992 and is excellent if you can get hold of it.

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