Steampunk inspiration and resources

Scholarship, Editorials and Opinions

Invasion Literature: Paranoia, War and Jingoism — The Pop Culture Museum

Origins In this world where we have had a rise in xenophobia and jingoism I’ve been thinking back to a peculiar trend in literature dating back to the 19th century here we have the story of Invasion Literature. Often the period of Invasion Literature covers from between 1871 to the outbreak of the First World […]

via Invasion Literature: Paranoia, War and Jingoism — The Pop Culture Museum


Has Steampunk Steam-Peaked???

Hiya Gearheads

As I comb the innumerable Steampunk websites that have closed down in order to find those few genuinely active people for my resources page, it is making me pretty depressed. It feels like half the sites I go to  are either sitting idle without new material for a year or two, or have their closing announcement right there on the front page. What’s even worse are the trolls who think it’s fun to post nasty comments about how “Steampunk is dead” on those announcements.

How is Steampunk’s Pulse Rate These Days?

As I look through my own website stats, I am sorry to report that Year 3 will probably fall short of Year 2’s readership. My normal summer lull is even lull-ier than in previous years even though my peaks in the winter and spring were at an all-time high. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this has more to do with my trickle of posts while I get my life together rather than anything to do with Steampunk as a whole, but it isn’t a good sign. (Though on a happier note, this site just passed 3,000 followers!)

On the other hand, when I searched Amazon for “Steampunk Books 2016” I got a listing of over 2,900 titles. I’m sure some of the things in that list aren’t actually books, but it certainly gives me hope. When I looked at the “Hot New Releases” section for Steampunk, there were 15 out of the top 20 coming out in just August alone! I also have been contacted recently by several new Steampunk authors who are looking for reviews, so I don’t think that the literature at least is going anywhere anytime soon.

 

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Teapot Racing at the International Steampunk Symposium

 

IMG_8520Then, there are the conventions. I don’t know the exact numbers for either Steampunk World’s Fair or the International Steampunk Symposium that I attended this year, but Steampunk certainly didn’t seem “dead” at those events! (Unless of course I was surrounded by zombies…) Thousands of people went to these and other conventions all over the country, not to mention the world, in 2016 alone. And at these cons, hundreds of vendors sold their wares and dozens of bands played Steampunk-themed music. Yep, no resuscitation needed there!

 

I also decided to also take a quick mosey through YouTube. When you search for Steampunk there, you get a whopping 844,400 results! Of course, the stuff on YouTube doesn’t go anywhere just like the websites, so many of these could be outdated. On the other hand, does a fantastic short film have to be “new” to be great? Does a step-by-step guide to modifying your nerf gun really need to be updated? Not so much. Alright, videos devoted to Steampunk? Check.

Oh yeah, and of course there was Steampunked, a TV show for Steampunk artisans, just last year.

The Reports of my Death have been Greatly Exaggerated…

Based on these findings, I’d say that Steampunk is alive and well, and trolls just gonna troll no matter what. The biggest trend I have seen in Steampunk lately is to make it more inclusive. Collections like the upcoming Steampunk Universe will feature a number of stories about people who are considered “other” and the way steam technology effects their lives. I’ve attended a panel on the ethical treatment of women in science fiction, and it is clearly a topic near and dear to the hearts of many. And of course, the push to break out of the bounds of the English-speaking sphere and include the rest of the world’s cultures and settings in Steampunk stories.

And let’s not forget, 2017 will mark the 30th Anniversary of the word Steampunk. I expect we will see a resurgence of interest as this special anniversary is celebrated across the world and I hope you will join in on all the fun!

I’ll be putting out a formal call for submissions later this year, but to celebrate Steampunk’s birthday I want to throw a little party. I’ll be looking for folks who are interested in doing guests posts for the celebration and (fingers crossed) an anthology of short stories, so if you are a writer keep your eyes open for the submission windows.

What do you think, is Steampunk slowing down? Leave a comment!

 


Resources for the Writer in all of Us

I am currently undergoing an editorial apprenticeship with the head editor at Rambunctious Ramblings Publishing Inc, so that I will not only be an author with them, I will also eventually rise to the rank of Editor. I have already had some great discussions with Kat Hutson, who works for RRPI as well as her own editing firm, KLH Createworks, and I have found a few resources on my own as well. I thought I’d pass on these websites so you can unlock your inner editor, and make your own stories, blog posts, and games look polished and professional.

writermeme2KLH CreateWorks

Kat is an editor by trade, but also an author in her own right. She writes a great blog on topics such as Adding Levity Versus Writing Comedy and tips about the formatting an editor will want to see.

Writer’s Digest

Though this is also a (pretty expensive) print magazine as well, I have found some very good articles on their website. They feature contributions by agents, writers, publishers, and editors on a range of topics such as how to overcome writer’s block and best practices when querying an agent. There are also pieces like “Breaking Into True Crime: Ann Rule’s 9 Tips for Studying Courtroom Trials” and other genre-specific tips for a varied range of writers and their interests.

Find a Writer’s Group or Book Club

Publishing my book is still a long way off, but I have already been getting benefits by being a part of the RRPI team; namely, I get to be a part of a writing support group! I have made lots of new friends and we are already trading pages and insights to make everyone’s stories stronger. If you have never been a part of a book club or writing group, I highly recommend it. Even finding people who want to read the same books as you and talk about them will help you as a writer, and you can work yourself up to feeling comfortable enough to share your own work someday. The best writers are the best readers! Obviously, not all groups are created equal, but it is worth the effort to find the people who share your interests. This can be small and local, or big and centralized, such as Scribophile.

Do you have a favorite website or resource that you use when you are writing? We’d love to hear about it! Plus, if you have a story to share, feel free to send it to me at ForWhomTheGearTurns@gmail.com and I will add it to my gallery of reader contributions at the end of the month.

 


How to Punk Your Steam: Make it Yourself

Steampunk and the Maker Movement go hand in hand. If you aren’t familiar with the latter, here is an excerpt from a USA Today article in 2014:

Across the country, “makerspaces” are popping up to satisfy demand for affordable access to industrial tools and shared work spaces. These massive fabrication facilities are like a cross between a business incubator and a manufacturing plant, with sprinklings of academia and community spirit thrown in for good measure… The secret appeal of these places is not simply the low-cost access to powerful tools and studio spaces, but also the community of entrepreneurs, marketers, hired hands and general go-getters who coexist under the same roof. Don’t know how to weld? Take a class, learn the basics, build a product and market it — all in the same building. (Read more)

People with different skillsets and abilities are coming together to celebrate the satisfaction and process of making something with your own two hands; and these creations often carry the Steampunk aesthetic. The industrial arts of today and the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s are a match made in heaven!

Found on Maskworld.com

Found on Maskworld.com

On so many fronts, Steampunk is a maker-led movement. Not just in the world of arts; prop-makers, costumers, and Indie writers, to name a few, are taking the bull by the horns and doing what they love. You only have to look as far as the Maker Faires that occur all over the country, or the specifically retro-futuristic event, The Steampunk and Maker Fair. So, rather than trying to devote just a single post in the How to Punk Your Steam series to this fantastic DIY movement, I will be spending the entire month of February bringing you resources to help you make your own dreams a reality in whatever medium you love.

If you have pictures or info about anything you have made yourself that you want to share please don’t hesitate to send an email to forwhomthegearturns@gmail.com. I would love to post a gallery of creations by readers at the end of the month!

Have a whimsical day


How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.3: Make it Travel Through Time (Paradoxes and Pitfalls)

Alright, now that we got all of that boring science and “reality” out of the, it is time to move onto the fun parts of time travel. But, before we can explore the repercussions of time travel, we have to take a look at our understanding of time itself. Namely, is there a single timeline or infinite possibilities? (This is of course assuming that time is linear at all, but that is a much bigger discussion for another… time.)

There Can Be Only One!

So, let’s say there is just one timeline. One classic example of the danger here is called The Grandfather Paradox. A time traveler goes back in time and accidentally kills his own ancestor, thus ending the family line. He can’t return to his present, because he will no longer exist. The only way for him to ensure that the family line continues is to impregnate his grandmother, thus becoming his own grandfather. Personally, I find this particular thought experiment a bit silly considering that we know how DNA and the transference of genetic material works. If the time traveler did in fact kill his grandfather, impregnating his grandmother would not result in an exact copy of himself two generations later. Conversely, if killing his grandfather were to cause him to never be born, then he would cease to exist the same moment that his grandfather’s heart stopped beating, and wouldn’t have time to woo his nana (ewww). If he did not immediately blink out of existence, I suppose that grandpappy might have had some of his little swimmers on ice, but that would really be the only way around it.

Timeline 3But here is the thing about linear time, in a universe with only a single timeline, every decision that is ever made, has ever been made, will ever be made, is already certain. That may seem like a bit of a leap, but think about it this way. Your present is someone else’s past (let’s call her Amber), and someone else’s future (who will be known as Zoe). To Amber, the time at which you are reading this article is the future, and seems uncertain and full of possibilities. But, from Zoe’s perspective, the events of the past are set in stone, immutable and measurable. The “truth” of these events could be obscured, but the events themselves happened the way that they happened. And Zoe’s present is someone else’s past, and so on and so on. In this case, the act of time traveling is moving up or down along this single line and the actions that take place there have happened, are happening, and did happen, already.

Some authors and movie makers get this right. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, Harry and Hermione end up going back in time a few hours to save Harry’s godfather. During the first time through these three hours, a few mysterious things happen. Rocks fly through Hagrid’s window, alerting the teen wizards of the Minister’s approach. Later, a howl in the distance distracts the werewolf that is attacking them, thus leading it out into the forest and saving the kids. When Harry and Hermione go back and revisit these events, Hermione realizes that it must of been she who threw the rocks and made the howling sound. She acts because she knows that she has already acted. Another series that does a lot with teleportation and time travel and handles it brilliantly are the “Dragonriders of Pern” books by mother and son team, Ann and Todd McCaffrey. If you have never read these books and are looking for a world that straddles fantasy and science fiction to fall into, I highly recommend them.

To Infinity, and Beyond!

multiversetheoryThe other side of this cosmic coin is the idea that there is one timeline for every choice made by every person who has ever lived, because reality splits based on these untraveled roads. There is world where you had strawberry jam on your toast this morning, and another where you had grape jelly. If that sounds daunting, keep this in mind: people are not special. If we follow this idea to its logical extension then there has to be a new branch of existence for decisions made by the human race, then there must one for every dog, fish, amoeba, and atom that makes up the known (and unknown) universe.

So let’s bring our time traveler into this scenario. He travels back in time, or he doesn’t. He makes it to the right time, or he doesn’t. He eats a cheese sandwich, or he doesn’t. While choking on the cheese sandwich he steps on a man’s foot, or he doesn’t. This man is his grandfather, or he isn’t. The man is angry, or he isn’t. They draw pistols at dawn, or they don’t. The time traveler kills his grandfather, or he doesn’t. Not to mention what anyone is wearing that day, whether they put on after shave, kissed their kids goodbye, or put on their pants starting with the left or the right.

For the sake of stories, people don’t generally roll with this notion to the extent that I just demonstrated, because it gets confusing and weird and bogged down in details about pants. Some people only focus life-changing events or big decisions, such as where to go to college or missing the train where you would have met the love of your life. They figure the stuff about pants will probably work itself out, and amounts to very little in the grand scheme of things, and they are probably right. It mattered very little what I was wearing or what I had for breakfast the day that my husband’s eyes met mine across the crowded lecture hall, but the fact that I signed up for a class so far outside my major made all the difference.

But, let us return to our time traveler. We can’t totally abandon everything in the multi-verse, because some choices DO make a big impact. In the case of the traveler, the fact that he traveled through time at all is a huge deal. It seems safe to assume that ripping the fabric of space and time asunder would be enough to create a new branch of the timeline. Next, killing grandpa (let’s call him Mr. Smith) would definitely count as a big deal, at which point time would bifurcate again. Aright, so in this one branch of time where the traveler went into the past Mr. Smith is dead. But, this is still linear time we are talking about here and the split between time travel and no time travel occurred AFTER the events in Mr. Smith’s day, so the time traveler would be safe from disappearing. Instead, there would be a whole new branch of time that snapped into existence to reflect the absence of Mr. Smith.

3103879_700bSo, the time traveler will not blink out of existence. In fact, even if he went back to when the most advanced creature on the planet was a reptile and killed them all, he would still exist in the multi-verse. The biggest issue, then, becomes picking out the right timeline to land in after the trip is over.

Back to the Present

Please do not mistake these ruminations for lack of love or respect for time travel tales. I enjoy them precisely because they make me think about things like this. The idea of visiting another timeline where the choices were all different is an exciting train of thought, and exploring these meanderings through time in stories is a unique way to navigate an examination of the human condition. In a way, traveling into the distant future is a way to cheat death. Traveling into the past allows an opportunity to see our roots and find out more about what brought us here in the first place. We experience the present so clearly, looking for a way to bring the past or future into such focus is not just understandable, but laudable.

I mentioned it in Part 1 of this article, but for people interested in time travel, I cannot recommend The Time Traveler’s Almanac enough. It is an incredible collection that spans over a century of the best short stories around.

Until next time…

Read Part 1

Read Part 2


How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.2: Make it Travel Through Time (Rewind)

Hindsight being 20/20 and all, I am sure there has been some time in your life when you wished your older and wiser self could travel back in time and warn your younger self to avoid a or just to give encouragement that things will eventually look up. As grown-ups, we know that the drama of high school quickly falls away after graduation, and that college life undergoes the same treatment within a few years of moving into the working world. But, in our limited conception of time we are always going to see what is in front of us as the sharpest, strongest, most important thing that is happening and will happen.

My personal time travel wish isn’t much. If I could, I would take a peek at my future just 6 months from now. By then, I will know where my husband accepts a job, where we will be moving off to next, if I was accepted to any MFA programs, and/or if we are really going to embark on this whole being a parent thing I keep hearing so much about. Of course, as we discussed last time, I will get there eventually no matter what I do, because we are always traveling into the future. The tricky part would be getting back to “now” after I took my peek.

Backing Up

Moving forward in time is supported by scientific experimentation and pretty straightforward math (by professional mathematician standards anyway), but going in reverse is a lot trickier. Once again, much of this article is adapted from an essay by Stan Love, who tells his readers that he learned most of what he knows about traveling backward in time from Kip Thorne, so if you want all the details, check out Thorne’s book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. 

There are actually several theoretical methods for creating a time machine, there just hasn’t been any way to test it. And there likely won’t be any way to test it for hundreds, if not thousands of years. But, waiting is no fun, and a good imagination is great replacement for hard facts, so let’s move on to the theories. Now, bear with me, I am not a physicist nor a mathematician, but this is all weird and wonderful food for thought.

One theory involves an infinitely long cylinder. We are not just talking about the width of the known universe here, this would be infinity. Apparently, physics allows that if this cylinder existed, and was turning at nearly the speed of light, then vehicles moving through it would be able to make specific flight paths to the location they left, but at an earlier time. The best part? We may not even have to build this infinite cylinder ourselves. There is room within our current understanding of physics for a naturally occurring structure with these properties to already exist. It is a “linear black hole”, also known as a cosmic string.

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This is not to be confused with a wormhole, which would be a tunnel created by the connection of two black holes. In general, this theoretical mode of travel (also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge) is most often associated with moving faster than light speed over great distances, it is also related to time travel. In General Relativity, Einstein shows that space and time are two aspects of the same thing. You cannot mess with one without influencing the other. So, an astronaut traveling through a wormhole that is essentially warping space, will also experience a shift in time as well. If one could manipulate the wormhole to pick you up and spit you out relatively close in space (think like a big C shape with the earth being embraced by the arms), then you return to Earth, you could theoretically travel back (or forward) in time. The catch? You can’t ever travel back farther in time that when the wormhole was established, because you need an end to come out of. But, people living far enough into the future could take a jaunt back to meet their great-great-greats.

Alright, so we have a couple theories that involve black holes, which do exist. But, there is that whole spagettifcation problem that came up last time. Black holes are made of incredibly destructive forces that pull things apart atom by atom, so even if a wormhole existed and we could make it point where we wanted, how would we survive the trip? Black holes are extremely unstable, and any tunnel created by joining two of them would be likely to collapse at any moment. We would need to use something that is emptier than a vacuum and lighter than nothing to counteract the effects of the gravity well. Sound impossible? Nope.

casimir-effect-overviewThrough something called the Casimir effect, it is actually possible to create negative pressure. There is a long explanation that has to do with making photons do weird things between materials that are poor conductors, but just take my word for it. If one were to construct two spheres, one inside of the other, out of these poorly conducting materials, and trap photons between the two layers, the photons outside the spheres would cause this negative pressure to occur. Granted, it has only been measured in extremely tiny increments, BUT, it has been measured.

But, as I said, hard science can only take us so far. The implications and intellectual appeal of time travel has very little to do with physics in the end. So, for the final installment of this How to Punk Your Steam article, I will be looking at time travel paradoxes and how to resolve them.

Part 1: Fast Forward

 


How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.1: Make it Travel Through Time (Fast Forward)

Do you remember the first time you had a crush? Well, how about an author-crush? That’s what I call it when I find an author whose work I enjoy so much that I feel compelled to read his or her entire collected works. In recent years, this has included Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, but it all started with Kurt Vonnegut. I vividly remember the experience of reading Slaughterhouse 5 in high school, and within a year I had read every one of his 14 novels. Not only was Slaughterhouse 5 a gateway to science fiction in general and Vonnegut specifically, but it was my first exposure to time travel in literature.

SH5In Vonnegut’s story, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time.” He does not travel to the far flung past nor the distant future. Instead, he is able to travel along his own timeline, from birth to death, and is doomed to do so forever. For the reader, the story takes one through different events in his life, but not in a linear fashion, and he always returns to the same experience. He and his platoon were trapped in a slaughterhouse during the bombing of Dresden in WWII (like Vonnegut himself), and he finds himself reliving this trauma over and over again. Pilgrim makes these journeys within his own body, he is not watching the events of his life unfold from outside himself. Rather, he re-visits scenes from his life but is powerless to change them.

rod-taylor-time-machine (1)When a person mentions time travel, this is not what usually comes to mind. Generally, we think of a person climbing into a contraption such as the one in H. G. Wells‘ classic The Time Machine and riding their way through time, their own body unchanged. This may happen purely out of curiosity, but as often as not the goal is to avert a disaster. In some earlier installments of this series I discussed alternate histories and making your story futuristic, so it might seem like there isn’t anything left to say about time. I may have discussed the past and the future, but that still leaves us with the mechanics of time travel.

For my birthday in 2013, I received an incredible collection of short stories called The Time Traveler’s Almanac. This tome, numbering a whopping 948 pages, was edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (of The Steampunk Bible fame), and contains the best of the best when it comes to time travel fiction. In addition to tales written by notables such as Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov, there are very interesting essays that divide the sections. The information in this article is largely adapted from “Time Travel in Theory and Practice” by Stan Love.

Moving Forward

We are all traveling through time, it is simply in one direction at a uniform speed of 3600 seconds per hour. This doesn’t sound nearly as fun as it is to imagine a quick jaunt to the Jurassic or popping over to 2300 for a cup of hydroponic super coffee. This is the stuff the imagination, of science fiction. But, hard science does offer some interesting tidbits about what we could expect from time travel with the knowledge we already have.

a2435a1c-cb94-490c-c15f-0ac7c7e61ab1Albert Einstein offers us two theories concerning traveling forward through time, a General one and a Special one. General Relativity has to do with the interaction between extremely massive objects and smaller ones that are trying to escape their gravitational pull. Now, assuming that your ship can move at just barely slower than the speed of light, and you are trying to get away from say, a black hole or a neutron star, time acts really funny. Inside the ship, time will slow down, at least as it appears to an outside observer. If you get too close, the tidal forces of the black hole will tear you apart. The side of the ship facing the gravitational force would experience a stronger pull than the other side, and stretch away from the other side of the ship, causing the whole thing to elongate. This phenomenon has the delightful name of “spagettification” or “the noodle effect.” The side closer to the gravitation force will also experience time slightly differently (due to gravitational time dilation) than the side that is farther away, and both of these are different than what the outside observer experiences.

Black-Hole-buchi-neri-divoratori-m9wctksxoda99agmfnd7uhouhedq8i5phvhs8vkh4o

When I learned about Special Relativity, I was in a delightful class with the nickname of “Physics for Poets” (the more lyrical counterpart to “Rocks for Jocks”). My professor was a long-since tenured, adorable old man who wrote and illustrated his own text book, which meant stick figures and rudimentary rockets. He explained the classic Twin Paradox of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe (and later their sister Roe, but we only need the first two for this theory). This thought experiment has been part of the discussion of physics since the early 1900s, and will remain a thought experiment until we are able to travel at near light-speed.

Alright, so there are twins named Moe and Joe. Moe gets into a rocket ship, and Joe stays behind on Earth. As Moe’s rocket approaches near light-speed, Joe checks in with a telescope. Moe will appear to be moving in slow motion from Joe’s outside vantage point. Moe’s clock will tick at a slower rate than Joe’s, and the wavelengths of the light source in her rocket will shift toward the red end of the spectrum (because they are being made longer through the noodle effect). When Moe returns to Earth, she will have experienced a fraction of the Earth-time that Joe did, and so Joe will be older.  There is a lot of math and experimentation with super small objects to back this up, and you are welcome to explore that further on your own if you are really into facts and figures, but the stick figures and kindly old professor was good enough for me.

So, in theory it is totally possible to move quickly into the future, but so far we haven’t come even close to reaching the speed required to try it out with a human being. A person would have to get up to about 300,000 km/second in order to do this, and so far we have not discovered an energy source capable of generating this much energy. And frankly, if we did, I doubt we would use it to hurtle someone into the future. Because, like I said, we are already moving into the future all the time.

Later this week, we will take a look at the scientific implications of moving backwards through time, so stay tuned for part 10.2 of the How to Punk Your Steam series.


How to Punk Your Steam Part 9.1: Make it Scary

On display at the Museum of London

On display at the Museum of London

The world is a much safer place now than it ever was for our ancestors, and yet studies show that modern day people are extremely fearful. Despite the lack of wild beasties waiting to pounce, the taming of most diseases, and the relative comfort we enjoy, we are afraid. In a large part, this is due to the media and the way it over-reports tragedy in exchange for higher ratings. This is not a new phenomenon, but because of our unprecedented access to news sources on account of television and the internet, the problem has continued to grow. Likewise, it was not at all uncommon during the Steam era for newspapers and periodicals to do exactly the same thing to their readers, and the general public could be whipped into a frenzy by a few carefully chosen words. One famous example of this is the media hoopla over Jack the Ripper, but there were other stories that got blown up and disseminated by the media and word of mouth.

Urban Legends

  1. Spring-heeled Jack. He was first sighted in 1837 in London, and people claimed to have seen this strange figure for at least a decade to come. He supposedly attacked young women, breathed fire and could leap over tall fences in a single bound. Read more
  2. Animals in the Sewers. Rumors of alligators in New York City’s sewers still persist to this day, but did you know this wasn’t the only city supposedly overrun with subterranean inhabitants? London was apparently infested with “The Black Sewer Swine of Hampstead.” Rumors of these little piggies ensued for years, and were even mentioned in an article in the Daily Telegraph in 1859. If given the choice, I am sure we’d all rather meet a pig in the sewer than a gator.
  3. Visions of Crises. It was not uncommon for a person to report that they had received a vision of a tragedy as it occurred even if they were in another part of the city. The newspapers would print their accounts of unaccountable panic and sightings of apparitions, and the public would eat it up.
  4. Doppelgangers. What if there was someone out there who looked and sounded just like you, but were bent on your destruction? This was a real fear for 19th century Londoners, who would give accounts of chasing themselves through the streets or blaming their double for their own wrong-doing.
  5. “New Humans.” After Charles Darwin’s treatise was released, many people began to believe in (and fear) the next step in human evolution. Some believed that humans and animals could be combined to make frightening creatures, such as the ones who populated The Island of Doctor Moreau. 
  6. Death by Garroting. In 1862, a man named Hugh Pilkington was strangled during a mugging on his way home one night. Soon, the story grew into a fervor as people feared a band of men roaming the streets and killing people at will.
  7. Big Cats (or Dogs) Roaming the Countryside. Starting in the middle of the 1800’s, people began reporting sightings of large, black predators. Some described something like a black panther, while others reported seeing a huge black dog. The latter tales inspired the Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

As you can see, the supernatural only comes to play in a few of these examples. There were lots of things that people feared that were rooted in the mundane or in science (at least, science as they understood it then) and this made them susceptible to exaggeration by the media.

1874maneating_thumbThere were pranksters who played on these fears, as well as the media’s willingness to disseminate them, who helped to fan the flames as well. For instance, Mark Twain successfully hid a critique of utility companies in a story of murder and mayhem in 1863. A fiction by reporter Edmund Spencer about a man-eating tree in Madagascar circulated for years before it was revealed as a hoax. In 1874, residents of New York panicked as they read an account of zoo animals escaping and running rampant across the city, but the fine print at the bottom revealed it to be completely fabricated. The author, Thomas Connery, wrote the article to bring attention to the appalling conditions of zoo animals. If you are interested in reading about more hoaxes, you should check out the website for the Museum of Hoaxes.

There are many urban legends that I learned as a child or teen that are utterly false. For instance, “Daddy Longlegs” spiders are not extremely venomous, a tooth will not dissolve in a glass of Coke, and there is no man with a hook for a hand waiting to attack teenagers on date night. Yet, these stories persist. One can only conclude that humans like to be scared, disturbed and titillated by these types of strange tales, and this was no different in the past. Steampunk works can play on the fears that were actually reported, but there is ample space to create a new horror and support it by the same means as the Victorian-era pranksters. Rumor mills and the media spread fear better than any other means, and our capacity to believe these stories in the absence or proof, or even in the presence of proof to the contrary, is a testament to how much we delight in fright.