Whenever I explain Steampunk to the uninitiated I always find that I have to say, “oh yeah, and also…” at least 4 times to try to encompass everything the genre/aesthetic can cover. I can always get them on board when I go from Jules Verne to punking technology, but then I have to back up and include all of the supernatural creatures that also make regular appearances in Steampunk literature and I often get raised eyebrows in response. But if you know the time period, ghosts, ghouls and other things that go bump in the night fit in directly with the trends of the era.
Ghost stories appear in the folklore of countries all over the world, but ghosts as we think of them today in America and the UK where the majority of Steampunk stories occur have their roots in Spiritualism. Some people treated Spiritualism like a religion, and others viewed it more as a science but either way it is based on the belief that spirits are hanging around waiting to have conversations with the living, and they do so by knocking on tables, moving around objects, and occasionally even taking mediums clothes off. They speak through people who claim a supernatural ability or through the use of hypnotized volunteers (and very rarely say “wooooOOOOoooo”). I learned most of what I know about the Spiritualist movement from a wonderful and funny book by my favorite non-fiction writer and former Wired magazine columnist, Mary Roach. She has written several books worth reading, but for the skinny on communicating (or pretending to communicate) with the dead, you must read Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.
Many notable historical Brits like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Vicky herself were taken in by the “evidence” of spirits among us. But, most folks point to a happening in New York in 1848 where two sisters supposedly contacted a ghost as the beginning. Four years later, mediums started popping up in England and conducting seances. By the late Victorian period many people claimed to have communicated with the dead, and women dominated the medium business. In a time when class division and a clearly patriarchal society predominated, Spiritualism was movement that crossed these boundaries and brought people from all walks of life into its fold. There were even pamphlets, newspapers and public spectacles for the spiritually-inclined during the 1860s.
One popular thing to do during private parlor sessions was to contact famous people, and Charles Dickens (who died in 1870) was one of the most popular spirits to contact. In addition to speaking through the mouths of mediums, ghosts would sometimes also use a typewriter or the like to pen a message from the beyond. Dickens died before he finished his last novel, and in 1873 an American author claimed to have been contacted by his spirit who dictated the ending of the novel. I wonder if this is the origin of the term “ghost writer?”
Ever heard of ectoplasm? Think of the goo left behind by Slimer from the Ghostbusters. Some folks believed that ghosts could leave a trail of the stuff, or that mediums would extrude it as evidence of spirit possession. Ewwwwww.
For more fun facts about this “spirited” movement, check out the articles on Victoria Web.
That’s right, there was another Sherlock Holmes movie that came out around the same time as the Robert Downey Jr. movie I reviewed last week. Didn’t hear about it? I am not at all surprised.
I am a huge fan of what I call “shitty-good” movies (pardon my language, but it is utterly appropriate!) These are films that you can’t help but laugh at even though they are not meant to be comedies. The Mister and I spend a lot our time wading through the sea of crappy movies out there giving them the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. That is to say, we crack wise throughout at the terrible special effects, mediocre writing, atrocious acting and blatant continuity errors, often aided by a glass or two of our favorite adult beverages. (If you aren’t familiar with MST3K but you also enjoy terrible old movies, you MUST find them on youtube. They were shot near my hometown in MN and aired until 1999.)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, which is the first role for Ben Syder (“Robert” Sherlock Holmes. Yes, you read right, apparently his name is really Robert) and also features Torchwoods’ Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) as Watson, is just such a movie. It falls firmly into both the mockbuster (a low-budget film piggy-backing the publicity of a better-known movie) and Steampunk camps. I decided to watch it as part of my Halloween Extravaganza this month, both because I am working on my Sherlock Holmes article for Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London and because it promised me a plot full of monsters. As a Sherlock Holmes film it pretty much failed miserably, but as a movie centered on futuristic technology in the Victorian era it deserves a mention.
The story begins when a sailing ship is taken out by a Kraken-like tentacled monster. In the next scene, we get to see a dinosaur inexplicably interrupt a rendezvous with a lady of the night. So monsters, check. Sherlock is tortured by the fate that befell his brother Thorpe (yep, they didn’t even bother to get his brother’s name right), who became paralyzed after he was shot while trying to foil a bank robbery several years earlier. So ‘punking’ literature, check. After some watered-down deductions, Holmes and Watson (in the least well-fitting waistcoat of all time) find their way to a country estate where they discover the monsters are actually automatons crafted by a thoroughly ticked off Thorpe (Dominic Keating), who is bent on revenge against London, the city that forgot him, and his former partner, Inspector Lestrade. He uses his (okay, pretty awesome) mechanical dragon to wreak havoc on the masses while another automaton delivers a bomb straight to the gates of Buckingham palace. Oh yeah, and there is totally a hot air balloon/helicopter hybrid vs. mechadragon fight scene.
As I said before, this is not a “good” movie by any stretch, but it is a campy movie with undeniably Steampunk tendencies. This is definitely a popcorn movie, that is, if the shaky camera work they use to signify an action sequence doesn’t make you seasick first.
It is currently available on American Netflix, but can anyone tell me if you can get it in Britain?
I admit it, I am actually wiggling in anticipation of how awesome Steam Tour is going to be. I booked all my shows for Ed Fringe, ordered my Britrail pass and I am dreaming of all the delicious pub grub in my future.
So here’s the plan for week 1:
۞ Jekyll and Hyde
Main Theatre @ Spotlites @ The Merchants’ Hall
- Sat 9 August, 21:30
And after the performance, let’s meet up for a cocktail at the Jekyll and Hyde Pub nearby! I’ll wear my goggles so you can find me, and I’ll bring some “My Other Beep Beep is a Whoosh” airship stickers along for purchase, just one pound per awesome bumper sticker to show off your steamy side 🙂
۞ Victorian Vices – Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls
Niddry – theSpace Above @ theSpace on Niddry St
- Mon 11 August, 18:00
۞ Victorian Vices – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Niddry – theSpace Above @ theSpace on Niddry St
- Mon 11 August, 20:00
۞ Whisky Tasting
Bennet’s Bar @ Bennets Bar
- Tue 12 August, 14:00
۞ Dolls of New Albion: A Steampunk Opera
Venue 45 @ theSpace @ Venue45
Clockwork Hart Productions
- Tue 12 August, 22:45
۞ 21st Century Poe: Moyamensing
The Vault @ Paradise in The Vault
- Wed 13 August, 17:50
۞ City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour
Outside St. Giles Cathedral @ Black City of the Dead Signs
Black Hart Entertainment
- Wed 13 August, 21:00
۞ Arthur Conan Doyle Experience
The Sanctuary @ Arthur Conan Doyle Centre
Arthur Conan Doyle Centre
- Thu 14 August, 14:00 (x2)
۞ Morgan & West: Parlour Tricks
KingDome @ Pleasance Dome
Corrie McGuire for Objective Talent U
- Thu 14 August, 19:00
Upstairs @ Greenside @ Nicolson Square
The Egg Theatre Company
- Fri 15 August, 10:20
Pleasance Beyond @ Pleasance Courtyard
Action To The Word
- Fri 15 August, 21:20
Arthur Conan Doyle Experience is a talk about Edinburgh’s famous son, delivered in a magnificent example of an original Victorian town house which commemorates this great man of literature. Author of Sherlock Holmes – but what else is he famous for?
|Group||Arthur Conan Doyle Centre|
|Venue||Arthur Conan Doyle Centre |
|Date||Aug 12, 14, 19, 21, 26|
|Country of Origin||United Kingdom – Scotland|
Get more info at the Edfringe website.