Voice of the Fire

By Alan Moore

Top Shelf Productions, 2004, ISBN 1-891830-44-9; 336 Pages, Hardcover $26.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Ismo Santala

In “Postscript to The Name of the Rose,” Umberto Eco notes that so many diverse cultures have invested the rose with significance for so many centuries, that as a symbol, it has become practically void of meaning. But what is the metaphoric weight of a single flower to that of one of the four elements? In the course of Voice of the Fire, the element’s true nature proves to be ever-evasive yet constantly radiant, at times even brilliant.
Originally published in 1996 in the UK, comics writer Alan Moore’s first novel has recently been given its American debut by Top Shelf. Forsaking a continual narrative and spanning some 6000 years, the novel consists of twelve chapters, all of which are set in or around the English city of Northampton during the month of November. As Northampton has been Moore’s hometown for the duration of his life, and November the month of his birth, Voice of the Fire can be taken as a piece of “site-specific” writing in which Moore seeks to get a firmer grasp on the history of the city and his own life. He goes about this psychogeographical experiment by delving into the strata of local legend and history from 4000 BCE to 1995, picking up uncanny details and strange connections along the way.
The origins of this unusual novel most certainly lie in Moore’s 1994 decision to become a magician (think Aleister Crowley or Austin Osman Spare), and Voice of the Fire is one of his first works to directly reflect the impact of that choice. Although it is impossible to summarize Moore’s complex beliefs in a single statement, it is useful to note that for Moore, magic is a way to explore questions about the nature of creativity: What is happening to the artist when he is creating art? What kind of sources are being tapped into during the act of creation? Questions like these are at the heart of the novel, and Moore explores them with his usual ingenuity.
However, since the history of magic and witchcraft is also the history of secrecy and persecution, the novel presents an array of characters trying to understand both their experiences with the supernatural as well as the reactions of the people around them. The encounters range from the comparably mundane to the utterly fantastic – from a fisherman who discovers that the whole population of his village has disappeared without a trace, to witches who conjure up imps to do their bidding.
In his best comics, Moore combines fascinating stories with complex structural arrangements, always careful that his formal innovation remains a crucial aspect of the entire work – readability and coherence are never sacrificed for the sake of a clever gimmick. Watchmen, for instance, uses shifting time frames and parallel narratives, gathering momentum by simultaneously developing numerous related stories across space and time. From Hell revisits the “Jack the Ripper” murders by drawing from a stockpile of relatively ordinary historical characters and occurrences and fusing them into patterns of great narrative force. And while Moore arguably took comics to a “new level” in terms of technique, his work is also known for its blend of heart, wit, and intelligence, and many of his characters have made unforgettable impressions in the mind of his readers.
Above anything else, Moore’s best comics function on the level of literature, and this is the reason that Voice of the Fire succeeds as a novel: the formal fireworks permitted by any one medium never constitute his only point of interest. Although he joggles time frames and bases many of his stories upon elaborate premises, Moore’s main fascination in Voice of the Fire, rests upon our human conception of the world – how it has become increasingly more familiar to us, while at the same time retaining an innate sense of mystery.

The first two stories, which are also the longest ones in the book, introduce the overall intent of the work. In “Hob’s Hog,” a young boy learns for the first time that shamans like the Hob-man truly exist, their aura of power derived from a place outside the normal boundaries of the world:

She is now say of stick-head men, and of they saying-path. [...] Say she, for make this saying-path they stick-head men is want of a strongness and a queer glean that is not hind-whiles in of they. A strongness that come from other world, in neath of dirt, where is they spirit walk.

The second story, called “The Cremation Fields,” features a young trickster who manages to get herself close to a dying “cunning-man.” While patiently waiting for the old man to reveal the location of his treasure, she listens to his troubles in persuading his child to accept the duties of the shaman. The opinions of the cunning-man’s son go on to show that magic has been old-fashioned for a terribly long time – even in 2500 BCE:

Garn will not take up the task, and sets a face against his duty. Says he’s not a cunning-man and makes work as metal-monger, which he thinks a craft more fitted to our time. He says he does not care to know the old and secret ways. We cannot talk save that we quarrel, so we do not talk at all.

By suggesting that life’s mysteries far outweigh the accumulated knowledge of any human being, Hob and layman alike, the conclusion of the story sets the tone for the tales to come. In this light, Voice of the Fire becomes a series of initiations, twelve licks of the flame occurring at the same time.
Despite the obvious changes in character and incident, such a structure still contains the potential for monotony; but Moore is attuned to this danger, and consequentially varies the tempo and texture of his narrative. His prose is both rich and precise, largely rid of the purple excess found in his early comics such as Swamp Thing. Still, Moore is a passionate wordsmith who enjoys the richness of language – whether drawing together an extended mesh of metaphors or describing the minute details of his setting, his forceful style can approach sensory bombardment; a quality that owes something to the prose of Iain Sinclair. But even if Moore may be a spendthrift of words, he’s far closer to a lavisher than a wastrel. For example, here is how the narrator of “The Head of Diocletian,” a Roman official who has been sent to Britain to investigate cases of coin forgery, gives his first impressions of London and its denizens:

When I came to Londinium a half-year since, I thought it hunched and squalid, breeding ugly humours, pestilences in amongst the jetties and the narrow yards, pooled urine yellowing there where the cobbles dip. The locals, hulking Trinovante fishermen or shifty Cantiaci traders, had a pleasing insularity, despite their sullenness. They kept amongst their own kind and made little fuss, yet fresh from home I thought the city Hades; they its fiends and chimaera.

In another chapter, a pair of witches are being burned alive in the year 1705; one of them relates their shared history, and reaches an epiphany of sorts:

Beneath the base of every flame there is a still, clear absence; a mysterious gap between the death of substance and the birth of light, with time itself suspended in this void of transformation, this pause between two elements. I understand it now, that there has only ever been one fire, that blazed before the world began and shall not be put out until the world is done. I see my fellows in the flame, the unborn and the dead.

At the moment of her death, the witch’s final words are words of fire.
Though the general atmosphere of the novel verges between dread and transcendence, humor plays a major role in the proceedings, sometimes even taking the center stage. This is certainly the case with “Confessions of a Mask,” in which a head on a spike receives a new neighbor. “Did you know, Sir, there is something in your eye?” he, a freshly decapitated head, asks his more careworn companion, whose laconic reply is: “Yes, I did. Unless I am mistaken, it’s a lump of coal.”

Voice of the Fire aligns itself with Moore’s other magical “works” of the period, particularly his performances with the grandiosely named The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels. As he makes evident through these works, the essential assumption behind magic is that an overlay of meaningful symbolism can be assigned to the world. These symbols in turn can be used to build up a conceptual structure which somehow yields results that couldn’t be reached as easily (or at all) by other means. Like religion, philosophy, and other systems of thought, magic tries to strike a balance between so-called reality and its kaleidoscopic distortions. But the thing that seems to separate magic (or at least certain types of magical thinking) from most other models of thought is its willingness to revise its foundations and practices. Magic revels in the complexities of human experience, and doesn’t consider all that ragtag data in the back of our heads as a nuisance. Rather, magic welcomes the distortions and paradoxes that form such a considerable part of the human consciousness, and tries to turn these notions into something truly worthwhile.
In numerous interviews over the past several years, Moore has stressed the close relationship he perceives as existing between magic and art. In fact, Moore sees the two as completely intermingled, and this is precisely what is interesting about his writing, the public manifestations of his magical thinking. In Moore’s recent work, one individual’s flexible set of tools for dealing with the relation between reality and consciousness produces a series of elegant signs and symbols, an artistic clockwork connecting the individual to the universe. A working becomes a work of art, and the unsuspecting reader is none the wiser.
By telling twelve tales centered around the element of fire, Moore has embraced the myriad potential meanings it evokes in the reader’s imagination. After all, it’s just the matter of a jump-cut from the fire beneath a cauldron to the burning pyre of a witch hunt, or from the purifying white light of Pentecost to the tormenting flames of hell. Indeed, this contrary pairing of the extreme states of purification and torment seems to be something that Moore is aiming at in Voice of the Fire: to relay in prose the white heat of life.

As a nice touch, the Top Shelf edition of Voice of the Fire includes thirteen color plates by digital artist José Villarrubia. His illustrations further the novel’s atmosphere, as well as avoid the two major pitfalls of book illustration. First, the use of artwork is not excessive, and thus doesn’t shift the reader’s attention away from the novel itself. And second, Villarrubia’s images do not attempt to subvert the reader’s imagination by somehow presenting a more “authoritative” visualization of Moore’s suggestive prose.

–Ismo Santala
27 February 2004

Additional Information

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Email Ismo Santala at: ismo.santala@uta.fi

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