‘Ghosts by Gaslight:
Stories of Steampunk
and Supernatural Suspense’
Edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers
Harper Voyager, $14.99
Yes, it’s another post on semi-steampunkery. I apologize. But this blog is meant to be my thoughts on books, and the books I’m thinking of and am qualified to comment upon are those I’m reading. I refuse to read Charlaine Harris or Stephen King just so I can write about them. Currently I’m reading a lot of steampunk: vaguely Victorian science fiction with its own idiosyncratic technology and alternate history.
What does and doesn’t qualify as steampunk is a matter of opinion, sometimes of contention. As I’ve mentioned before, many novels marketed as steampunk include a supernatural element. Cherie Priest’s “Clockwork Century” books have flesh-eating zombies. Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” books feature vampires and werewolves. As the title suggests, “Ghosts by Gaslight” focuses on ghosts and ghostly phenomenon, which makes more sense than zombies, vampires and shapeshifters because the Victorian Age was the heyday of spiritualism, i.e. table-tipping and speaking with the dead.
In general I prefer my steampunk without the supernatural, but I’m not dogmatic. I dislike Priest, but not solely because of her hungry corpses. Priest’s zombies are created by some unknown gas released as the result of a steampunk machine drilling into the ground. It seems a one-off; the zombies are confined to one walled city, and I don’t believe there are any other instances of a similar gas or zombie infestation elsewhere. Carriger, by contrast, has integrated her vampires and werewolves as full and open citizens of the British Empire. The werewolves are fierce and valued soldiers. The vampires are politicians and counsels. And that they exist may be the what-if element that caused steampunk science to thrive.
Since the title “Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense” spells out that there will be not only ghosts but supernatural elements in these tales, if you are firmly opposed to that, you needn’t purchase the book.
One such reviewer on Amazon.com bought the book ~ or at least read it ~ anyway, and gave it a poor review because of it. Nick Gevers, one of the book’s editors, commented on that poor review, pointing out that some of the seminal steampunk books contained supernatural elements, notably “The Anubis Gates” by Tim Powers.
(Still, professional writers and editors shouldn’t feud with readers online; it seems petty and isn’t necessary. The misspellings in the reviewer’s comments are enough to discredit him.)
I chose to purchase the book anyway for several reasons:
1. 1. Nick Gevers edited “Extraordinary Engines,” the anthology that reintroduced me to steampunk and introduced me to several new steampunk authors, some of whom are in this anthology as well.
2. 2. The Table of Contents included several other favorite writers, including James Morrow, Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg and Lucius Shepard.
3. 3. I like supernatural fiction, too.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, though I sometimes see the obnoxious Amazon reviewer’s point that some of the stories have plenty of supernatural, but little or no science, steam-driven or otherwise.
What really annoyed me about a couple of the stories was that that they were too obvious. The Silverberg tale in particular, “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar,” irked me, containing elements of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” and James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon,” but with nothing of significance new to add. The writing style, and length, did nothing to mitigate against the lack of originality.
But there are more winners than losers. “Christopher Raven” by Theodora Goss was a typical ghost story, no extraneous science at all, but not painful to read. “The Grave Reflection” by Marly Youmans, featuring Nathaniel Hawthorne as a character, was a little long-winded, in the Hawthorne style, but more rewarding.
My favorite story in the anthology was probably the first, “The Iron Shroud” by James Morrow. It does involve ghosts of a sort, but also a couple pieces of steampunk science: an unbreakable substance that can be used to capture spirits as they depart the body, enclosing them in a malleable armor, giving them form and an afterlife on earth as “golems”; and the “science” of vibratology by which the golems’ spirits might be freed. It neatly mixes the supernatural and scientific.
I also greatly enjoyed "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder As Experienced by Sir Magnus Holmes and Almost-Doctor Susan Shrike" by Garth Nix. The Victorian Age was also the time of Sherlock Holmes, and this story introduces a cousin of Holmes who investigates supernatural crimes. Sequels (or a novel) seem, planned, and I look forward to them.
And “Rose Street Attractors” by Lucius Shepard addresses a not-very-often considered aspect of steam punk technology: the vastlv increased amounts of soot from all the coal-burning required to power that technology. A scientist’s device for capturing that soot also attracts things ghostly, including his late sister.