Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Ghosts By Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers. [Review]
I find that sometimes the only way I can process an anthology is by reading and evaluating each story individually, and then determining an average score for the work as a whole. In this case, there were seventeen stories, and each could earn a score of up to five points. With 85 points available, my final score for this anthology is 61, or an average of 3.59, which I have rounded up to a four star rating in my Goodreads account. Each story is evaluated below, with the score I gave it, accompanied by my rationale.
I will admit that my score is biased by my disappointment that this collection doesn’t have a much better developed steampunk sensibility. I understand that steampunk wasn’t the sole focus of the stories that were gathered, but if an editor puts this on the cover then I expect to see these themes and tropes appear. Instead, I feel like the victim of a bait and switch, where I’m told I’m going to get something, and then feel duped. All of these stories could be described as supernatural suspense or horror stories, and it doesn’t make sense to me that the steampunk label was applied for what ends up being less than half of the collection. I feel like this descriptor was added because steampunk is gaining a large following of fans that are hungry for this genre and will eagerly buy this kind of literature. I am left somewhat angry and baffled that a better anthology wasn't assembled by editors who write in this genre and should know better.
In the stories where the steampunk label does apply, it certainly isn’t because of airships, corsets, or cogs! In these narratives the steampunk is focused within the themes of technology, and the effect technology has on humanity, as well as how this changes the individual or society. Honestly, I feel the word ‘horror’ belongs on this cover, not ‘steampunk,’ and I wish that this is what the editors had done. I may or may not have purchased the book, but if I had, I would at least feel better about my final decision. Despite this, there are some fine stories that can be considered steampunk in this anthology, and it is these stories that saved this anthology for me (they've been highlighted in yellow for convenience).
The Iron Shroud (James Morrow): (This story is 21 pages, and takes place in Germany.) This story is told through a combination of first person narrative and diary entries, and revolves around a scientist, Jonathan Hobwright, a ‘vibratologist’ who is offered a large amount of money to travel to southwestern Germany to investigate the scientific experiments of a mad scientist. The scientist has killed by his creations, and his family is afraid they will be next. Will Hobwright be able to free the ‘nonentities,’ or is he the next victim?
This story explores immortality and the possibility of life after death, especially when death can be controlled by science. Sadly, the narrative was a bit difficult to follow, which might be the result of a deliberate attempt by the author to have the reader experience Hobwright’s disorientation, but it simply comes across as obscure and frustrating. The steampunk factor isn’t very great, and is limited to the mad scientist’s machine that he uses to gold plate his victims and transform them into immortal nonentities, or slaves. I gave this story a 3 star rating for overall steampunk and difficulty of the narrative.
Music, When Soft Voices Die (Peter S. Beagle): (This story 26 pages, and takes place in England.) Beagle hasn’t written steampunk before, and this first attempt is actually quite good. This third person omniscient story revolves around four roommates share a home: Vodran (copyist), Scheuch (bank clerk), Griffith (waiter), and Angelos (second-year medical student). Angelos is denied a true medical education because he is Jewish, but he tinkers and designs gadgets while he attends the university, which keeps him fairly entertained. One day, Angelos is working on a machine he thinks will allow people to communicate wirelessly over large distances, but as time goes by he discovers that all of the voices are that of people in great pain. Their Turkish property manager comes by to collect the rent and immediately knows that Angelos has used technology to achieve something terrible: Will magic be able to cure the problem technology has created?
I thought this was an interesting story because of the multi-cultural and retro-futuristic technology, which incorporates the spiritualism Victorians were engrossed with. Beagle creates a modified history that was interesting, and incorporated the Turkish elements in a clever fashion. The more I think about this story, the more I like it for its fit into the steampunk genre. This story earned 5 stars for overall steampunk and elegance of the narrative, and is one of my favorites in the anthology.
The Shaddowwes Box (Terry Dowling): (11 pages, and takes place in England.) The narrative begins after Queen Victoria’s death, and her son Edward VII is on the throne. Lucas Salteri is the first person narrator, a tomb raider who is betrayed my Minchin, Benedick, and Kray on a tomb raiding trip to Egypt. Salteri assumes another identity and lures these men to his home, where they marvel at the automatons called ‘manikins’ that look like the mummies from Maspero’s 1881 DB320 cache from Deir el-Bahir. There are manikins in the “better klatsches and salons mecaniques off Fleet Street,” and the men are lulled into believing that Salteri is simply a technology savvy Egyptologist who has found a way to improve on the science to create more realistic machines. Once he has the men in his home, however, he reveals a special device that owes nothing to technology.
I never did discover exactly what the horror of the device is, but it doesn’t seem necessary to the ghost story. This is a revenge narrative, and revenge seems to be achieved. High marks for the adventure narrative and mystery, but the steampunk is subdued in this story. I gave this story a score of 4 stars for overall steampunk and ghost story elements.
The Curious Curse of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder (Garth Nix): (13 pages, and takes place in England.) There’s a mysterious murder in a park, and the sergeant calls for Sherlock Holmes, but gets Sir Magnus Holmes, Sherlock’s second cousin somewhat removed. It turns out there are supernatural forces involved, and Sherlock thinks his young cousin, who is currently a resident of Bedlam, is the perfect man for the job. Magnus and his “keeper” Miss Susan Shrike are, indeed, the perfect people for the job, but the greater mystery is who (or what) is Magnus?
Although this story lacks overt steampunk elements achieved through machinery, the suspense is well developed and the gaslight drama is very well done. As far as I’m concerned, the means Miss Shrike uses to control Magnus is all the technology this story needs, and it caught my imagination and interest. This story wins my “story I would most like to see as a novel” award for this anthology, and is easily my favorite of the collection. There’s delightful ambiguity and intriguing questions, and I would love to see this story expanded to reveal more about Magnus and Susan’s relationship, and well as how Magnus copes with his supernatural abilities. I gave this story 5 stars for overall interest and the supernatural elements used.
Why I Was Hanged (Gene Wolfe): (16 pages, takes place in England.) This is the account is the first person written narrative of Brooks, who is hanged for killing his master. Prior to his death, he summons his barrister and has the whole, sordid tale committed to paper so that future generations will know why he killed his master. Brooks tells the story of how he came to be hired as a manservant to a young man, and travels with him to the family home in the country. While there, he is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who claims that her human self is soon to be slain (since ghosts are not constrained by time, she is travelling back to the time of her death to ask him to rescue her). Is this a rescue attempt, or something more diabolical?
There is some nice suspense to the story, but even the rereading of it doesn’t make full sense. Miss Landon is either a cunning genius, or the plot elements feel contrived and convenient. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and suspense.
The Proving of Smollett Standforth (Margo Lanagan): (11 pages, takes place in rural England.) A young boy is sent into service with a family and, because of his size, he is given a small attic room. The room is haunted, and the ghost of young woman who rushes across the room initially scares the boy and causes him to lose sleep, but isn’t harmful. But then the ghost starts insisting that the boy take an item from her, and the more nights he endures this process, the more damage it does to his physical body. He suffers this in silence until he hears that his younger brother will be coming to stay, and will have to share his room with him. Will the boy determine a way to defeat the ghost, or will his brother become her next victim?
This story is a traditional gothic yarn, and there really was nothing surprising or unexpected about the narrative. There is no steampunk, and the suspense elements don’t save it from being a simple short story. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and low level of suspense.
The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star (Sean Williams): (22 pages, takes place in England.) This is the account of Dr. John Wesley Michaels, who was involved with a bizarre case, and records the written personal testament of Hugh Gordon on the eve of his execution. Gordon, an aeronautical engineer, has been found guilty of murdering his wife Margaret, and Michaels has been brought in to interview him prior to his execution. Gordon tells of scientific experiments that reveal the ability to travel between worlds, and he meets a mysterious woman named Abiha, who detects his experimentation and decides to visit him. But then Margaret is murdered and Gordon is seriously injured; is there a greater conspiracy by Abiha’s people to discredit him in order to keep their existence secret, or is Gordon deranged by a delusion?
This was not one of my favorite stories in this selection, but it was definitely a mixture of steampunk and gaslight, as the cover of the anthology claims. I found Williams’ story to be mildly reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, with its Princess of Mars. I gave this story 5 stars for effective use of steampunk and the way it explores Victorian fascination with spiritualism.
Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar (Robert Silverberg): (18 pages.) This narrative is the written personal testament of events as recorded by one of the characters long after the fact. The story takes place in India, and is inspired by the stories of Rudyard Kipling. A team of four civil servants are working to engineer roads and other public works in the Indian countryside when one of them, Smithers, returns with news that he heard something in the desert that makes it sound as though there are people living in the harsh Thar. The leader of the team, Yule, insists that his two engineers, Smithers and Brewster, go and investigate this phenomenon. Brewster returns alone looking like he’s aged a decade or more, with news of a fantastic tribe that lives in the middle of the desert, isolated from the rest of the world, and completely disconnected. What is this place Smithers discovered, and what has happened to him there?
This story has no steampunk elements beyond the profession of the characters. There is some suspense, but the character development is so shallow that I didn’t really like or worry about the characters, or care what happens to them. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and mild suspense.
The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons (John Langan): (21 pages.) This story takes place in New York and revolves around the spiritualism that was popular there in the 1850’s (though the story is set in 1888). Mark Coleman is an American author who has lived abroad for most of his life abroad before returning home as a middle aged man. He becomes curious about a spiritualist who has mysterious balloons that have been written about extensively. On the train to his destination he meets a married couple; the husband is dying, and seeks to make his last days more comfortable by visiting Mr. Dunn, the same man who owns the balloons Coleman wants to see. But things don’t well for the ill man, and his wife begs Coleman to please help her get her husband away from Dunn, who is refusing to let them leave.
This story is high on the gothic factor, and the steampunk is nonexistent. Not sure what more to say, except that there’s lots of internal storytelling, and it doesn’t seem to move the plot beyond explaining some events outside of the story. The mystery of the balloons is only partially explained, and this limited the suspense. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and the multiple digressions within the story.
Face to Face (John Harwood): (10 pages, takes place in England.) Maurice Trevelyan and the narrator, Laura, have known each other for a long time, and their relationship has never become a romance because Maurice has a tragedy in his past. Maurice and Laura’s story becomes the framefor Trevelyan’s explanation for what happened to the young woman he loved, Claire. Claire was married to an older man to gain security for her family after her father died, and the marriage was an unhappy one. When Claire attempted to leave her husband, he threatened her with taking away their child and leaving her mother and sisters destitute. After Claire’s daughter suffers a fatal illness, Claire writes a manuscript, and then dies with her daughter’s body in her arms. Shortly thereafter, her husband dies as well under mysterious circumstances. Trevelyan has kept Claire’s manuscript for decades, but has never read it. Did the manuscript have anything to do with these deaths, and is there such a thing as a book that can kill the reader?
This is another gothic read that was only mildly suspenseful. The narrative is short, but attempts to tell the story of two couples, and the story ran out before I developed empathy for any of the characters. I give this story 3 stars for no steampunk and general lack of interest.
Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism (Richard Harland): (19 pages, takes place in England/English analog.) A 13 year-old is suffering from crippling nightmares and his parents take him to a research center that promises to cure him. When they arrive they discover that the scientist has a machine that he is using to “pull” the bad dreams out of his patients. It turns out that the aspects of the personality that are pulled out of the patients become trapped in the machine, and cause the machine to act out the horrible acts in the minds of the patients it has been used to treat. Can the young man make his parents and the mad scientist listen to his claims that the machine is haunted before it overpowers and kills its creator?
This story is clearly a steampunk story, especially because it examines the question of the role of technology in our lives and the degree to which we are being changed by it. I also appreciated that Harland managed to incorporate supernatural suspense into his narrative. This is one of my top three favorite stories in the collection, and I gave it 5 stars for its steampunk elements and well-written narrative.
The Grave Reflection (Marly Youmans): (19 pages, takes place in rural America/Eastern seaboard). This story is a narrative of events that is written down and discovered by a family member many years later in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this story within a story, the author describes an event in which he is summoned to his friend’s house. The friend is a twin, and his brother has recently died. The only problem is the friend is now being haunted by his dead twin in every reflective surface in the house. Will the two men find a way to dismiss the ghostly apparition before the living twin goes insane?
There wasn’t much suspense in this story, and the narrative unravels in a quiet and uninteresting way. It was an interesting story, and I understand the inspiration and its role, but there was no steampunk and only barely any suspense. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and the mild suspense of the narrative.
Christopher Raven (Theodora Goss): (16 pages, takes place in rural England.) Four women convene at their childhood school for an alumnae event, and discuss what happened in their final year of school, when they were haunted by the ghost of a poet who once loved the lady of the house. All women recall powerful dreams in which the reenacted portions of the ghosts’ romance, including erotic events. They revisit their discovery the poet was murdered by the lady’s husband, and that she killed her husband in revenge and had their house turned into a school for girls as an act of revenge. The friends part ways, possibly for the last time, but are they really free of their haunting?
This is a ghost story and, as such, it was interesting but not exciting. It felt like the women were simply retreading their childhood memories for the benefit of the reader, and they don’t arrive at any new conclusions that might have made this story more complex and ambiguous. I felt this was a somewhat thin premise for telling a story that is supposed to have suspense or additional energy. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and acceptable narrative.
Rose Street Attractors (Lucius Shepard): (55 pages, takes place in London.) Samuel Prothero is an alienist (a Victorian psychiatrist, when the science was still new) who is hired by inventor Jeffrey Richmond. Richmond was very close to his sister until her murder three years prior, and has devoted himself to an invention that will clean London’s foul air and improve the quality of life. He builds four ‘attractors’ to collect carbon particles and dispose of them, but one has malfunctioned and is collecting the spirits of those who have not crossed to the other side, including the spirit of Richmond’s sister. Richmond wants Prothero to attempt contact with his sister, and to solve the mystery of her murder. But there’s a bigger mystery in Richmond’s house and the real question becomes will Prothero become the murderer’s next victim?
This story is the longest in the book, by far, and I wonder why this author was given so much space when better known authors wrote stories that were less than twenty pages. Nonetheless, this is definitely a steampunk story, and it is one of the strongest additions of this type in the anthology. Not my favorite, but it definitely belongs in this collection. I gave it 4 stars for steampunk elements and overall themes within the story.
Blackwood’s Baby (Laird Barron): (30 pages, takes place near Seattle.) Hunters from all over the world receive a summons to attend a big game hunt in the United States, with the prize as nearly priceless gun and S10,000. After arriving at the hunting lodge, however, main character Luke Honey discovers that the hunt is a cover for something far more sinister.
This story felt, to me anyway, like a blend of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” with a twist Edgar Allen Poe’s horror was known for, and this may be why I didn’t like this story at all. Barron’s story would more accurately be described as horror and, as such, it doesn’t seem to have a place in an anthology described as “stories of steampunk and supernatural suspense.” Also, this story takes place as late as the 1920’s, which makes the feeling that this story doesn’t belong in this anthology even stronger. I gave it 3 stars for lack of steampunk and incorrect placement in this anthology as this was more of a horror story.
Mysteries of the Old Quarter (Paul Park): (19 pages, takes place in New Orleans.) French scientist Dr. Philippe Delorme is recruited to give lectures on the use of electricity on human anatomy in New Orleans and discovers that his patron has hired him under false pretenses. Monsieur Maubusson lost his daughter under tragic circumstances, and he wants Delorme to use his knowledge of electricity to reanimate her long enough to find out if she was murdered and, if so, by whom. Although he’s initially reluctant, Delorme is persuaded to take up the case. But the scientist has ghosts of his own, and they may have followed him across the sea.
This is ghost story in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. I didn’t like the epistolary nature of this story at all because it fractures the narrative so much that it’s difficult to determine what is pertinent and what is a piece of casual information. I can tolerate having to piece together the clues to come to a conclusion, but there was so much work involved in this that I forgot what I was supposed to care when I arrived at the end. I give this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and fractured nature of the story.
Summer Palace (Jeffrey Ford): (21 pages, takes place in an alternate reality or world.) In this story within a story the narrator tells of discovering the notes of a Physiognomist (something like a police officer, I think) named Cley in the ruins of Well-Built City. After the narrator dries out the notes, he reads individual episodes to his friends during evening get-togethers. On one particular night the narrator shares Cley’s report of his visit to a rural estate to look into a murder. The caretaker of the estate has died under mysterious circumstances, and Cley has been sent because the man’s family claims there is there is a ghost who is responsible. The estate, which belongs to Cley’s superior, has secrets, and the real question becomes whether or not Cley will be able to solve the murder without being caught in these secrets.
This was another story I felt was misplaced within this anthology. “Summer Palace” is a prequel within Ford’s Well-Built City Trilogy, and is more a work of science fiction. It was a little difficult to follow, because there are a plentitude of titles, names, and places that this short story isn’t enough to explain, and I don’t recognize the series “Summer Palace” is based on. Outside of the ghostly presence, I don’t see how this story fits in with any of the remaining sixteen tales, all of which happen on Earth and are placed between 1860 and 1925. It was an odd way to finish the anthology, and I’m left somewhat bewildered by its inclusion. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and questionable placement in this anthology.