Category: Steampunk

The Secret History of Costumed Heroes Part 1: Victorian Superbeings Invade London

The Secret History of Costumed Heroes Part 1: Victorian Superbeings Invade London

tumblr_lyl9sdm1xy1qcbo9lo1_500Masks and costumes have been a part of human culture since man first began making art. We disguised ourselves as animals with the belief that sympathetic magic would endow us with the physical and mental aspects of these creatures.

I have long been fascinated by werewolf mythology and the origins of the man/wolf hybrid. A major aspect of the werewolf myth is the belief a man  could take on the animal form by wearing it’s skin. I believe that our modern conception of the comic book superhero derives directly from man’s early attempts to harness these natural forces through the donning of masks and costumes.

I want to start this series of articles by looking at the beginnings of our modern fascination with costumed superbeings then branch out in later articles to discuss the broader implications of masked heroes throughout history. We begin this journey in 19th century London. A mecca for Gothic horror writers and the birth place of modern popular culture.

The Real Life League of Extraordinary Gentleman

1837 sees the first appearance of Spring-heeled Jack. If the above picture of Jack looks familiar you are not mistaken. Spring-heeled Jack could easily be mistaken for Batman. The descriptions of Jack parallel Batman in more ways than one. From scaling buildings, to jumping from rooftop to rooftop, Jack was even said to wear a skin tight oilskin suit with a winglike cape, and had metal razors on the end of his fingers. Mike Dash in his article  “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” states that Jane Alsop who spoke to Jack describes him as, “hideously ugly; its eyes blazed red as the coals of hell and its pinched, tight features were topped by a peculiar sort of helmet; the body, meanwhile, was encased in a tightly-fitting, shining suit, and a strange object, resembling a lamp, was strapped to the chest. ” (Dash)

Beyond  some superficial similarity of Jack to Batman (ignoring the lamp on his chest) officials at the time believed Jack to be a gentleman of means who was engaged in a series of nightly pranks. Of course as the legend of Spring-heeled Jack grew so did his array of super powers. From breathing fire, to being able to fly, and shoot beams out of his eyes (that sounds familiar) Jack’s powers grew as his legend did.  Jack was never seen to stop crime and often caused mischief but the idea that a costumed person with super abilities (springs in his heels) certainly did not go unnoticed by fiction writers. Jack was soon the subject of many penny dreadfuls and his legend moved from the streets of London to the pages of popular fiction.

Jack was not the only costumed character running around Victorian London. At the same time that Spring-heeled Jack was terrorizing London another lesser known figure was also on the prowl. Called the “Rossian Bear” and sometimes mistaken for Jack, the bear roamed London in a Bear skin suit frightening those who saw him. He was considered either the same person as Jack or another one of a gang of well off gentlemen who were playing an elaborate game of dress-up on the streets of London at night.

There was also Queen Victoria’s own stalker “The Boy Jones”. Boy Jones was not quite as successful at concealing his identity as the other masked men, but he achieved fame for being able to enter Buckingham Palace repeatedly. “Time after time, he sneaked into Buckingham Palace to spy on her, sit on the throne, and rummage in her private apartments…the Boy Jones had been discovered lurking underneath a sofa in the room next to the one where she (Victoria) slept.” (Bondeson).  Jones had an uncanny ability to use disguise, guile, and his physical prowess to enter one of the most guarded buildings in the British Isles not once but three times often hiding for days before being discovered. Like the others Jones was built up in the press and it was suggested he had some sort of supernatural abilities which allowed him to enter the palace unseen. He was caught and eventually exiled to Australia, but only after another adventure where he was kidnapped by the British Government and forced into service with the navy.

These masked “supermen” in Victoria’s London were more often than not merely criminals and pranksters but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it came to  masked and costumed characters that paraded through the 19th century. In the second part of this article we will examine the many masked men of the American frontier and how that nation owes it’s very existence to a group of masked vigilantes.

 

Works Cited

Dash, Mike. “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” mikedash.com, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.

Bondeson, Jan. “Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The remarkable story of the ‘Boy Jones'” Fortean Times, July,2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.

Seductive Beasts: The Female Werewolf in Victorian Literature


      The most exotic and interesting of all werewolves  must be the female werewolf. While the she-wolf is rare in any period’s literature, she does appear in the Victorian period quite a few times. Her appearance in literature is much rarer than in the oral history of lycanthropy which is full of women changing into wolves at night. When she does appear the she-wolf is often a sexual beast. She uses her dual nature and female charms to ensnare her prey. She is also a vehicle for at least one author to explore feminism and male sexual obsession something that would have been frowned on if it had been written about outside of the peculiar confines of Gothic horror.

 

A Rare Breed? The Female Werewolf

The female werewolf while very uncommon in literature holds a prominent place in myth and folklore. In our modern age when we think of female shape shifters wolves are often the last thing to come to mind. There are literally thousands of popular books depicting women turning into cats or catlike creatures but not wolves; however the female werewolf was much more popular in European mythology than our modern literary and media tradition would suggest. The female werewolf was prevalent in medieval stories and was often a witch that transformed herself with a magical potion. While the witch werewolf hybrid was the most common form of female werewolf it is far from the only type. Just as with males, female werewolves could be created by supernatural curses, deals with the devil, and even wearing the skin of wolves. Women could even turn their unborn children into werewolves by a simple magical spell that makes childbirth painless, “If a female at midnight stretches between four sticks the membrane which envelopes the foal when it is brought forth, and creeps through it, naked, she will bear children without pain; but all the boys will be were-wolves,” (Baring-Gould 80).

The female werewolf  was written about by several 19th century authors such as Clemance Housman and Frederick Marryat.  Housman was a writer, illustrator, and a leading feminist of her day. She wrote stories which fit more in with the traditional folklore than some of the other Gothic horror novelists. Her werewolves are the most interesting of the Victorian period and her exploration of the theme was more thoughtful and thought provoking than any of the other werewolf literature at the time.

 

 White Fell: Feminism, Sexuality, and Duality

The Were-Wolf, by Housman introduces us to the story with very little in the way of context or exposition. We know that it is winter, this is a large farmhouse, and that an extended family lives there. The names of the characters and even their pets give very little away about where or when this is taking place since they are a mix of Norse, Anglo Saxon, and Celtic names. We do know that this story probably takes place before the invention or at least the popularity of firearms as the only weapons used are an ax and a boar spear. Housman seems to have intentionally masked the characters in time and place to give the reader a sense of timelessness. This is important to the story in another way. White Fell, who we discover later is a werewolf, does not surprise the characters with her appearance. In she acts and dresses like a man and this is important for Housman’s underlying narrative. While White Fell is certainly the villain of the piece she also seems to be an extension of Housman’s ideas on feminism. White Fell is the equal to a man on every level. She is obviously a successful huntress. She able to best Christian (one of the two brothers in the story) in a foot race even after the narrative suggests that Christian is almost preternaturally fast. She is also able to outfight Christian and eventually gets the best of him. White Fell seems to represent a ferocious female spirit which can’t be defeated by any normal means.

This is however a Victorian novel and as such the female protagonist must be in some way depraved. Housman is able to get around that Victorian trope in several innovative ways. White Fell is the object of desire by Sweyn. Sweyn is the more beautiful and athletic of a pair of twins. He is only bested in one thing by his twin Christian and that is in the ability to run quickly. It may also be suggested that Christian has a much more keen sense of danger than Sweyn since Sweyn is totally taken in by the “Fell thing” (Housman 27). In Housman’s story it is not the werewolf who is the sexual wanton it is Sweyn. There is no suggestion in the story that Sweyn falls under the sway of the wolf woman by guile or even supernatural methods. No, Sweyn falls for White Fell naturally and because she is beautiful. He will hear no protest by his brother that she is a werewolf and his lust for her blinds him to the truth and to his brother’s concern. The tragedy of the story is not that a werewolf has arrived, but it is the unreasoning lust/love of Sweyn. This lust allows each death in the story as he protects White Fell from all accusations.

Christian from the beginning warns Sweyn and then the entire family that White fell was a supernatural creature but Sweyn convinced them all that Christian had gone mad with jealousy. In the end it was actually Sweyn’s jealousy that doomed them. White Fell is merely a predator doing what any predator would do. She is a monster but she would have had no power over the family if not for a lust that was not her own. Housman created what should be taken as a warning to all men that unreasoning love/lust is destructive.

Housman’s work is one that delves deeply into many issues that were prevalent in her time. Early on she explores the twin concepts of sexuality and feminism. Here she rejects the Victorian norm in which the strong sensual woman is the sexual predator. White Fell is a predator just not a sexual one. Instead she explores the idea that men are the origin of sexual deviancy and furthers her own ideas of feminism through the White Fell character. In fact if the last page of the story was missing this could have well been a story of a strong woman falsely accused of lycanthropy.

 

For Housman the female werewolf in her classic story is a vehicle for her to present a strong feminist inspired female character. White Fell is as competent as any man and had she not been hiding the creature inside herself she would have been the epitome of the perfect confidant woman. It is possible that Housman was telling the world that women had a hidden strength and that men should beware of their own hidden nature. This is an important concept because while White Fell has a dual nature the two male protagonists represent a dual nature of their own. The two men are twins and that alone should suggest this duality. Sweyn is beautiful and well made. The perfect male form but he harbors lust and distrust in his heart. Christian on the other hand is not beautiful and not the equal to his brother but he is pure of heart. Housman creates a modern parable by weaving a tale around three people who are never what they seem on the surface. It is a warning not to trust appearance but to find out the contents of a person’s heart.

Works Cited

Baring-Gould, Sabine (1865). The Book of Werewolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition. New York: Causeway Books, 1973. Print.

Clemence Housman (1896). The Were-Wolf. Web (Project Gutenberg) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13131

 

 

 

“Virgin Land” by Henry Nash Smith: A Starting Point for the American Steampunk Movement

“Virgin Land” by Henry Nash Smith: A Starting Point for the American Steampunk Movement

 

Virgin Land by Henry Nash Smith is not your typical history text. It is not a retelling of the story of the west or the frontier. It is an examination of how Americans view western expansion through the myths, legends, and symbolic culture associated with it. Smith delves into the topic of what the West and the frontier meant to the American psyche. This is not a book which discusses established history but a book about what people believe about their past. This exploration of the American Western experience is important to the burgeoning American Steampunk movement. Currently the movement revolves around the abundance of Victorian and neo-Victorian British literature, dress, and ideology while the American Steam era experience has been to some extent ignored. Henry Nash Smith gives those interested in exploring the mythology of the West and the American experience a place to start.

 

Virgin Land reads much like an anthropology text. Smith gives us an insight into how people develop their own mythology and how this mythology would affect later historical events. The strength of the text lies in its ability to find relations between myth and the realities to which the myths refer. Smith takes the reader through various periods of American mythology relating to the frontier. We begin with the Lewis and Clark expedition and the search for a passage to the Orient and progress through to the ever expanding Mythos of the Wild West. We find not only these myths expressed in terms of superstitions, and folk tales but also in the form of larger than life heroes and heroines who populate the virtually fairy-tale West. Like the Greek and Roman heroes, the frontier was brought to life with stories of men and women whose exploits are beyond those of normal men, and much like Homer the dime novel author brought these stories to the eastern masses.

Each great civilization creates for itself its own mythical past replete with its monsters, heroes and treasure.  Smith’s book sets the stage for what could be called the American mythological past. Not unlike other more ancient civilizations our American origins have been recast into something less history and something more heroic. The great frontier struggles are seen as struggles between good and evil. Often bad men are recast as heroes of the people and not so bad men are recast as their monstrous enemies. The west of American myth is populated with a menagerie of evil red Indians, larger than life mountain men, sure shot cowgirls, spring fed mountain valley paradises, and later even a masked man toting a gun filled with silver bullets. Smith provides anyone interested in the Steampunk movement perfect examples of mythological characters and situations. There is enough here to provide ample fodder for stories, novels, and more.

 

 

Virgin Land “The American West as Symbol and Myth”, By Henry Nash Smith. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

The SteamGoth Anthology Series

The SteamGoth Anthology Series

 

I hate to make blatant plugs for things that I have written or I am involved in, however I will make one exception for the SteamGoth Anthology series.

For those who are not familiar with SteamPunk or SteamGoth this is a great primer into the genre. SteamPunk stories take the Victorian era and add science fiction elements to create an alternate world which is more often than not powered by steam and 19th century science. SteamGoth is the slightly darker half-brother of the SteamPunk movement. SteamGoth incorporates stories set in the same sort of alternate 19th century but these tales are darker and involve magic, or horror. The first book of the series Monsters, Magic, and Machines is linked above (the link is to the amazon page) and was written entirely by scientists and high end computer professionals. The stories run the gauntlet from zombie attacks, the depredation of mad gods, Alien visitations, and even a little fantasy intruding into the uptight world of the Victorian era American South.

Yesterday was the deadline for authors to submit their stories for the second anthology. This second book entitled Sorcery, Steam, and Steel should be out before Christmas and it was written by crowd sourcing from various SteamPunk sites across the web.