Alan Moore,
Voice of the Fire
(Victor Gollancz, 1999;
Top Shelf, 2003)

Alan Moore's already made a name for himself as a writer. But his stories so far have been collaborative efforts, filtered through the lens of cooperative artists into the cultural ghetto of comic books. With Voice of the Fire he makes his debut solo performance, letting his words stand out without the filters of artist and letterer to alter the tone.

The fantastic history of Northampton told through heartbeat moments of human lives through their eras, Voice of the Fire may give Moore a chance to stretch his writer's muscles, but it's unlikely to bring him a much wider audience. Moore is clearly out to enjoy himself first of all, and makes some daring plays with what could be straightforward biographies. The first and last stories, most likely to catch a browser's eye, are also the most peculiar and least compelling. "Hob's Hog" is a noble experiment, to be sure, a valiant attempt to capture a sort of contemptible stupidity mixed with gentle madness of a Stone Age innocent, but after a brief while a story told with such a wandering eye and weak direction grows more boring than challenging. The concluding "Phipps' Fire Escape, AD 1995" is not only experimental, but delves into the direly overworked regions of a tale about a writer's inspiration. Full of interesting notes on the town of Northampton, it would make a good afterword. But this extended ode to the town feels weak and incomplete after an entire book's worth of tales that makes the area seem the living, hungry thing.

But in between the two rather disappointing bookend stories are some excellent bits of fiction, stories that hover on the fevered sightline between realistic and fantastic. Great supernatural black dogs, for some reason called shagfoals, roam the countryside without ever being a crucial part of the story. There are some truly magical moments in each of the stories. At the same time, nothing ever happens that could be considered definitely impossible. Talking heads, fire that burns but brings no pain, a lame woman healed by a dead saint -- all are easily explained as nothing more than human misunderstanding, a hallucination to soften the end of life, a dream brought on by a guilty conscience or, at most, a creative interpretation of basic facts, an ideal wondering about life after death or the mysteries of religious thought. Harder to dismiss is the growing personality of the town of Northampton, the bit of land that folds all the stories into its uncaring history.

The tales of Voice of the Fire are best taken in individual doses. Read too closely, they take on the tone of a manifesto, making the author's hand and voice ring too clearly in what should be, here of all collections, the individual voice of the story. The town is made of all the lives that flash through the pages, and more besides, but no single life is of much importance. Moments of personal glory are rare, lives worth having even more so, and the endless grimness of it all can deaden the impact of the sharper tales. The more sympathetic characters are precious, not only for their novelty value, but because those bits of humanity highlight the crush of ages and inhumanity of the town, the two characters through all the ages of Northampton.

Voice of The Fire isn't an easy read, or a lighthearted experience. It has the immersive power of a fever dream, and the bleak outlook of the grimmest fairy tales. But for what it wrings out of a reader, it returns something grand: the sensation of having lived a dozen lives in a few hundred pages, and seen the turn of ages even the finest science can only see at a far remove. It's a worthwhile investment of time and self for anyone willing to step into the circle of the firelight.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 14 May 2005

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