The track is wider, coming up by way of valley’s edge. How many dead men’s feet does it demand to make it so? It is a fury and misery to think of being one day in my grave and yet this track still here. Its deep ruts, older than our great-fathers. Its flood pools, all the frightening straightness of its like, still here. Still here.
Voice of the Fire is illustrious
children’s picture book author Alan Moore’s first and, so far, only foray into the world of unillustrated writing. As a huge fan of Moore’s other work — I’ve read everything from Watchmen to Lost Girls — I was excited to read it. I bought it for my brother’s birthday as an excuse, and then read it first. Such are the perks of elder siblinghood.
The book is something of a short story collection, but that best flavour of which wherein the stories are united by a central theme, character or premise. In this instance, it’s Moore’s lovely English hometown of Northampton. Some of the twelve tall tales Moore tells include:
- Hob’s Hog, set in 5000 BC and following the escapades of a dim neolithic lad outcast from his tribe after his mother’s death;
- Angel Language, set in the 1700s and revolving around a lecherous lawyer come to Kendal to try a sheep thief; and
- I Travel in Suspenders, a stream-of-consciousness retelling by Alfred Rouse of the murder was found guilty of and executed for in 1931.
It should perhaps go without saying with Moore, but Voice of the Fire is not an easy book to get into. One must only read the first lines of the first chapter, Hob’s Hog:
A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where grass is colding on I’s feet and wetting they.
The longest story of the book (by quite a margin) continues in this vein, narrated as it is from the point-of-view of a mentally lacking neolithic youth, who is unable to tell dreams from reality, speaks exclusively in the present tense and lacks even the first vestiges of a comprehensive vocabulary. Long before he meets, in common with the protagonists of the following chapters, his tragic end, you have fully accustomed to the language and will be appreciative of its novel poetry, but there is no denying that it’s not an inviting way to start a book.
The second story, The Cremation Fields, is set in 2,500 BC and follows a far more traditional style. It follows a scheming career criminal who murders the daughter of a village wise man, in the hopes of impersonating her to discover the secret of the dying man’s presumably treasure-filled tunnels. Suffice it to say, she receives her comeuppance in the end, but in life she is — also in common with the vast majority of the other characters — a reprehensible creature.
After these two lengthier stories, the remaining ones are drastically shorter. This is no criticism of the book, as for some stories that don’t work as well, such as the POV-of-Francis-Tresham’s-severed-head-on-a-pole chapter Confessions of a Mask, the shortened length is a blessing, and for the others I am at a loss for how they could have been extended without weakening themselves.
As possibly evidenced by the aforementioned chapter, and by the possession of even a passing similarity with Moore’s other work, the book is not without its weirdness. After reading Lost Girls, I was struck by a scene in Hob’s Hog wherein the protagonist receives what I can only describe as a
hairjob, and after that was acutely aware of further weird sex scenes as they emerged. And emerge they did. I suppose, through the lesbian-couple-being-burnt-at-the-stake-for-witchcraft story Partners in Knitting, Voice of the Fire can lay claim to certainly the most poetically vivid description of a girl weeing in a field I have ever, and presume shall ever, read:
[…] and one afternoon I watched her piddle in the cowslips, closed my eyes upon the wavering skewer of plaited gold that bored a sopping hole there in the soil beneath her, but heard still its pittering music and saw yet its braided stream within my thoughts.
Perhaps I’ve missed the point of all the sex though. As the same character later opines:
How is that the pleasant, simple thing of knobs in notches might provoke such scorn, and shame, and misery? Why must we take our being’s sweetest part and make it yet another flint on which to gouge ourselves?
But what is the work, as a whole, about? When Moore’s brother asks him the same question in the final chapter (Moore features in the final chapter of the book as himself, talking about writing the book — I’ll get to it), he replies with a long esoteric answer about it being about
the whispers on dead men’s lips, and other such Mooreisms. More succinctly, it’s about stories. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that get passed down through the generations, the stories that reflect little of the reality. Whether it’s the elderly nun in November Saints witnessing the true death of St. Ragenar, raped by Vikings whilst renouncing Christianity to try and save his life, or Rouse’s self-delusion leading to his chapter-ending certainty that the jury are
buying it, there is a large gulf between fact and fiction.
But Moore is a purveyor of fiction. In the final chapter, Phipps’ Fire Escape, he starts by staring at the closing line of the preceding chapter blinking on his computer screen. He wonders whether Rouse’s wife worked in a sweetshop, as he has just claimed, or some other kind of shop, but ultimately declares the question moot. It doesn’t matter, BCuse this isn’t Ms Rouse — this is a character in a book. Any similarities to a real person, living or dead, are purely coincidental, regardless of how much they aren’t.
It is fitting (and very, very Mooresian) that the end of the final chapter involves Alan Moore fighting to flee from being absorbed into the book held in your hands, by the very act of having written himself into it, the closing of the chapter sealing his fate of fictionality. A chapter that initially feels like an anticlimax, being the author fannying about with his brother and girlfriend, ends as an encapsulation of the whole book — the perfect climax. That the journey there is filled by so many other tales of questionable (but irrelevant) historicity is just a cherry on top.
The book also contains pre-chapter frontispieces by José Villarrubia, and if ever there was an image that defined
Mooresian, it is this one for Phipps’ Fire Escape: