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Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense Paperback – September 6, 2011
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The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
“[A] collection of the eerie and fantastic.” (Washington Post)
“Devotees of M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood will relish this superior anthology of original stories…. It seems almost unfair to single out individual works when all 18 are superb and will be cherished by steampunk and horror fans alike.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
Seventeen all-new tales emulating, or re-creating, the ambience of classic Victorian supernatural suspense....impressive work....more than a mere exercise in nostalgia.” (Kirkus Reviews)
Ghosts By Gaslight is a triumph of a themed anthology. Among the hundred or so books I have read this year, this one is my favorite. Acquire it at all costs. Highly recommended. (Cemetery Dance Magazine)
From the Back Cover
Seventeen all-new stories illuminate the steampunk world of fog and fear!
Modern masters of the supernatural weave their magic to revitalize the chilling Victorian and Edwardian ghostly tale: here are haunted houses, arcane inventions, spirits reaching across the centuries, ghosts in the machine, fateful revelations, gaslit streets scarcely keeping the dark at bay, and other twisted variations on the immortal classics that frighten us still.
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Lovers of the classic Victorian/Edwardian ghost story will find much to like in Ghosts by Gaslight, a generally excellent collection featuring names like Margo Lanagan, Laird Barron, Garth Nix and Robert Silverberg. It is, as other reviews have mentioned, slightly lighter on the "steampunk" than the subtitle suggests -- there are certainly no bloody big airships. if that's your expectation. However, the spirit of limitless invention and curiousity that pervaded the era hangs like London fog over the book, and the supernatural disruptions here generally occur as result of humanity's hubris, of meddling with forces beyond our ken in our hunger for invention, discovery and dominance.
So . . . I'm going to start by being contrary: GbG contains plenty for the steampunk set: loads of mysterious clanking machines, menacing automata, eerie floating constructions, and far-out communication devices -- some of them downright terrifying. In Richard Harland's "Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism," a miraculous nightmare-removal machine reaches critical mass. An inventor working on wireless communication taps into a distressing uncanny signal in Peter S. Beagle's melancholy "Music, When Soft Voices Die." And in Lucius Shepard's novella-length "Rose Street Attractors," a peculiar scientist builds rooftop machines intended to improve London's filthy air. Curiously, they trap revenants rather than smog. And among them is his mysteriously murdered fiancée.
The collection also features plenty of Victorian supernatural staples like that ghostly lady bent on revenge; for starters, there's a dead twin in the mirror in "The Grave Reflection," by Marly Youmans. An unscrupulous spiritualist is after more than his patients' money in John Langan's uncanny "The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons." A brave and resourceful young hero struggles with a supernatural curse and his own (vividly drawn!) terror in "The Proving of Smollett Standforth" by Margo Lanagan; and we see the brutal consequences of challenging the alien wild, in the bloody and cleverly-named hunting yarn, Laird Barron's "Blackwood's Baby."
On the lighter side, Garth Nix cross-breeds Conan Doyle with R.L. Stevenson, adding just a touch of Lovecraft, to gruesome yet hilarious effect in "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder." And in "The Summer Palace" (set in the world of his Well-Built City Trilogy), Jeffery Ford's irascible bizarro-world Sherlock, Physiognimist Cley, faces off with a malignant drug-induced spectre, all the while controlling the unbearable urge to murder his witless partner, Chibbins.
Anthologies are often uneven by their nature (and there is at least one story here that just didn't do it for me), but Ghosts by Gaslight works: a rich tapestry, diverse in style yet thematically cohesive. So glad I picked this one up . . . it's a keeper.
You will find this fluency in all the stories. There were a couple that didn't make such a great impact, in my opinion. However,
this book is well worth reading, as most stories were riveting, and most enjoyable.
As the editors observe in their introduction, the popular image of the Victorian era has as much to do with gentleman scientists as with shadowy specters, and it's no surprise that several of the ghostly manifestations here are linked to experiments gone wrong. In James Morrow's "The Iron Shroud," a story whose ghosts have a perfect steampunk twist, an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the soul at death turns a promising inventor into a cruel tyrant. Sean Williams records how the study of mystical transformation leads to haunting, and murder, when Dr. Hugh Gordon encounters "The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star." And in "Mysteries of the Old Quarter," an atmospheric epistolary story of old New Orleans, research into communication with the dead gradually reveals an old personal tragedy.
Victorian colonialism, with its putative distinction between British rationalism and "Eastern" superstition, drives other stories. Robert Silverberg's "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar" subtly reflects the prejudices of race, class, and gender in a story about the secrets of the Great Indian Desert. Peter S. Beagle's "Music, When Soft Voices Die" posits an alternate history of relations between the British and Ottoman Empires, adding a further note of confused melancholy to a story of isolation and grief in which four socially awkward residents of a rooming house tap into something beyond their ken. And in "The Shaddowes Box," the ever-brilliant Terry Dowling builds on the discovery and exploitation of Egyptian mummies to explore the power of unmitigated darkness over the human mind.
Victoria may have been queen of the British Empire, but the Victorian era was a worldwide phenomenon, and several stories with non-European settings add a dash of variety to the anthology. John Langan's "The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons" has a title that might sound parodic, but there's nothing funny in its meditation on terminal illness, regret, and Dunn's rather upsetting creations. In "The Grave Reflection," Marly Youmans uses Nathaniel Hawthorne as a character in a sequence of events reminiscent of the author's own darkly romantic allegories. Laird Barron's "Blackwood's Baby," set at a hunting lodge in post-WWI Washington State and subtly linked to one of his earlier stories, is furthest in tone and setting from the Victorian/Edwardian model, but so intense is its air of harshness, strangeness, and inexplicable human impulses that there can be no cause for complaint.
While most of these tales are quite dark and serious, a couple have a delightful comic edge. Garth Nix's "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder" introduces an eccentric sleuth of the supernatural with unusual powers and the female medical student who keeps him under control. Their banter is so sharp, and the story's final line so tantalizing, that one can only hope Nix will revisit these characters. Jeffrey Ford's "The Summer Palace," on the other hand, is revisiting established characters, from his Well-Built City trilogy. I'm not familiar with those novels, but after reading this darkly hilarious social satire with a magical flavor, I intend to seek them out.
The names already mentioned will have given some sense of how distinguished is the anthology's author list. From established masters like Gene Wolfe and Lucius Shepard to rising talents like Margo Lanagan and Theodora Goss, the rest of the contributors are equally impressive, and while one or two of the stories are less powerful than the rest (the homage to Hawthorne in "The Grave Reflection" is somewhat awkwardly achieved, and "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar" suffers from an excess of straightforwardness), all are well-crafted and evocative of traditional ghostliness. Perhaps the standout is John Harwood's "Face to Face," which like all great ghost stories achieves heights of terror so subtly that one can hardly say how it was done, unless by simple mastery of language. The conceit of "Face to Face" is a familiar one, but Harwood breathes new life into it, as all the writers in Ghosts by Gaslight do, reinvigorating the nineteenth-century strange story in high style. Whether your tastes in horror are classical or contemporary, you can't afford to miss this anthology.