Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore

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“History is a heat,” says Alan Moore at the end of his first novel, Voice of the Fire, when the author takes centre stage to add his own voice to those of his characters. History is a heat, and fire is its agent, the element that provides a connecting thread between the twelve people whose voices comprise the text of the book. Late last year I was asked to design a new cover for Voice of the Fire which will be published by Knockabout in a 25th anniversary edition later this year. I’d read the book when it was first published, and even saw Alan read some of the opening chapter in 1993 at an event at the Arts Theatre Club in Soho. That event, which took place on November 5th, was titled “Treason and Plot”, and the pages from the work-in-progress novel had been collected from the offices of Gollancz after Alan left the unfinished manuscript of Yuggoth Cultures—which he was supposed to be reading from that evening—in the back of a cab. I was in London that day to talk to Alan about illustrating Yuggoth Cultures, so to find myself illustrating Voice of the Fire many years later feels a little like being caught by one of the acausal connecting threads that he weaves through his novel.

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The first edition: design by Gary Day-Ellison, illustration by Robert Mason. The photo on the left shows Thomas Tresham’s Triangular Lodge, a folly outside Northampton encoded with references to the Holy Trinity via a profusion of triangles and tripartite details. Tresham’s Lodge is described in the Gunpowder Plot chapter of Alan’s novel; the triangles on my cover may be taken as a reference to this.

November is the dominant month in Voice of the Fire, and the ritual fires of November 5th are one of many recurrent motifs. The novel’s twelve characters live in Alan’s home town of Northampton at different periods of history, from 4000 BC to 1995, a span of time that charts the town’s foundation and growth, taking in the Viking invasions, the Roman occupation, the Crusades, the treason and plot of Guy Fawkes and his conspirators, witch trials, the poet John Clare, and Alan himself. A lot of history and a wealth of incident to try and symbolise in a cover design. Author and publisher both liked the stylised outline of a horned head that Robert Mason painted on the cover of the first edition, a reference to the opening chapter of the novel in which a Neolithic shaman performs a ritual that marks the land as the site of the future town. I liked the original cover but felt it made the novel seem too much like something by Henry Treece or Alan Garner, with no indication of more recent history. A stained-glass window seemed like a good solution to the problem of how to bring together so many disparate elements into a single design. Stained-glass windows are often things from the distant past still visible in the present day, and they have the additional convenience of being a single container for many small pictorial details.

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It’s Bonfire Night on the back cover.

My design doesn’t attempt to illustrate all the characters or events from the novel but shows the more salient moments together with smaller details, some of which (the noose, for example) appear in multiple chapters. The horned shaman is at the centre of the design which radiates out from his ritual fire. I avoided making the window design too much like a church window; the book contains many references to churches and Christian history but there’s also a strong pagan element in many of the chapters. Magic, in the occult sense, is a recurrent thread, and Alan’s favourite Elizabethan magus, Dr. John Dee, is present (albeit offstage) in the Angel Language chapter. To acknowledge this I placed an inscription in Enochian—Dee’s “Angel Language”—underneath the title. There’s more magic in the font used for the title and author’s name, Albertus, which was named after Albertus Magnus, a philosopher and theologian often described as an alchemist. The main reason to use Albertus is for its timeless styling and its readability, an important quality for such a busy cover design; the font is a common one on London street signs.

The creature with the floppy ears in the lower centre is another recurrent motif, the sinister “shagfoal”, or Black Dog, whose presence is a sign of the darker energies that seem to thrive in that part of the world. Black Dogs appear in folklore all over Britain but there are few pictorial examples to be found in old texts. I based my hound on the “Straunge and terrible Wunder” depicted in 1577 on the title page of Abraham Fleming’s account of the Black Dog of Bungay. Other details are more obvious for those who read the novel so I won’t spell out everything here. If you haven’t read it then I’d urge you to do so, it’s one of Alan Moore’s major works, and a book I’m hoping might receive more attention than it did in 1996 when Gollancz only saw fit to publish it in paperback. Voice of the Fire will be published by Knockabout in May in paperback and a limited edition hardback which will include a card signed by the author. Top Shelf will be doing something similar for the US but I don’t think they’ve announced any dates or other details as yet. Anyone looking for further information is advised to keep an eye on the Knockabout news page or the publisher’s social media accounts.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Blake Video
The Cardinal and the Corpse
Mapping the Boroughs
Tresham’s Trinities
The Triangular Lodge again
Art is magic. Magic is art.
Alan Moore: Storyteller
Alan Moore: Tisser l’invisible
Dodgem Logic #4
The Triangular Lodge

Mapping the Boroughs

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Alan Moore’s magnum opus, Jerusalem, is published today so I can talk at last about my small involvement with this huge novel. The request came through just before Christmas last year: Alan and his publishers, Knockabout Comics, wished to know whether I could create a map for the endpapers of the book. Not a flat street plan, but a bird’s eye view (in isometric or axonometric projection) of the now-demolished area of Northampton known as the Boroughs. The area still exists today under this name but Jerusalem concentrates on the region as it was when Alan was living there as a child: a dense labyrinth of houses, shops and a few small factories dating back to the 19th century, with many older buildings among them. This was the oldest area of the town, having originally grown up around Northampton Castle, a structure that was demolished gradually over the past few hundred years. Some of the street names in the Boroughs recall this history: Castle Street, Fort Street, Moat Street, Castle Terrace, etc.

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Compton Street a few years before demolition.

I immediately agreed to the request, of course, while swallowing heavily at what I was sure would be a demanding task. Looking at the crude street plan that Tony from Knockabout sent through, and examining the available maps on local history websites, it was evident that this was going to be a difficult technical challenge. Difficult, but not impossible if I could get hold of accurate maps of the area, which is what I did shortly after the Christmas break.

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The Boroughs mapped by Ordnance Survey, 1899.

There’s a wonderful publishing company, Alan Godfrey Maps, that specialises in reprinting old Ordnance Survey charts of Britain for use by genealogists and local historians. I’ve had some of their maps of Manchester city centre for years, so I knew they’d be ideal if they covered the relevant area of the town. Fortunately for my purposes, they publish two 1899 25-inch-to-the-mile maps of Northampton town centre which cover the whole of the Boroughs. When the maps arrived I scanned them at high-resolution then stitched them together; the top of the Boroughs extends onto the lower part of the map of northern Northampton. After scanning, it was a case of tracing all the streets and the outline of every single building in the area in order to create a plan that was much more accurate than any of the vague plans available online.

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When I began work I had the idea of widening all of the streets in order to have legible street names running along the roads, a common practice among mapmakers who draw city plans. (The map of New York City that Alan and Dave Gibbons used when creating Watchmen is a good example.) However, widening the roads (or diminishing the scale of the buildings) would have risked important landmarks appearing too small, and there were other potential problems looming, so I decided to play safe and keep to the map scale.

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The biggest headache after solving the accuracy of the roads and buildings was what to do about the roofs. It wasn’t too difficult to elevate the ground plan once I had it tilted at a suitable angle: the elevation was achieved by making about 12 copies of the ground plan which are stacked one on top of the other. The first layer was run through the bas relief filter in Photoshop in order to give it some depth and shadow. This had the result of shadowing the building walls so they resembled solid three-dimensional blocks when enough layers were stacked together.

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So all the streets and buildings are accurate up to a point. One inaccuracy is that all the buildings except for the churches are the same height, something that was unavoidable without invention. And there’s no representation of the slight hills which raise the streets in places. As for the roofs, these are mostly speculation. I’d thought at first that I might be able to save time by copying and pasting a generic roof shape but the streets are too meandering, and the building plans are too varied. The only solution was to put a copy of the roofless map into Illustrator then draw every single part of every single roof by hand: over 4500 vector pieces in all. By examining Google’s satellite pictures of the undemolished fringes of the old Boroughs I was able to guess how the some of the roofs might have worked together. At the beginning of the novel there’s repeated mention of the word “angles” (and its confusion with “angels”) so it now seems fitting that I spent the best part of a week drawing so many angles on the map. It would have been nice to also put chimneys on each house, and doors and windows (and add fences and pavements…), but if I’d started doing that I’d probably be finishing the work about now. Louis Bretez spent two years drawing the Turgot Map of Paris; I had deadlines pressing so had to get mine finished in five weeks.

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The map is based on the area as it was in 1899 but some of the landmarks are anachronisms. Alan’s story covers the past and present of the area so The Destructor, for example, wasn’t built until the 1920s. This is the building with the smoking chimney, one of several “municipal destructors” (incinerators) built around Britain at the time. The high-rise blocks of Beaumont Court and Claremont Court are even more out-of-time, having been built in 1962. It’s not so obvious from the printed map but these have a slightly ghostly presence since they don’t fit into the streets of the older Boroughs at all. Beaumont Court was built across Scarletwell Street so if you visit the area today you’ll find a block of flats at the end of a street that used to run from the houses where Alan grew up (on St Andrew’s Road) down to the Mayorhold.

A tough assignment, then, but it worked out in the end. It’s been an immense honour being asked to contribute to such a major novel.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Maps of Midtown Manhattan
The Turgot Map of Paris
Art is magic. Magic is art.
Alan Moore: Storyteller
Alan Moore: Tisser l’invisible
Dodgem Logic #4