"The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack," steampunk by Mark Hodder

(Courtesy Of Pyr - Courtesy Of Pyr)
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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, October 21, 2010


By Mark Hodder

Pyr. 373 pp. Paperback, $16

Late October initiates the great reading season of the year. From now until Christmas, the evenings lengthen, the grass and the garden settle down for a long winter's nap, and the cool temperatures invite country walks and neighborhood strolls, followed by warming drinks. It's flannel-shirt and wool-blanket weather, the time for ghost stories, leisurely historical novels and swashbuckling tales of adventurous derring-do.

"The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack" neatly blends all three of those autumn book requirements. Set in 1861 London, it takes for its heroes Sir Richard Francis Burton -- the formidable 19th-century explorer, linguist and scholar -- and the young Algernon Charles Swinburne, the diminutive Pre-Raphaelite poet (and masochist). With a special commission as king's agents from his majesty King Albert, the two friends soon emerge as the era's dynamic crime-fighting duo, yet another version of Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.

King Albert? Whatever happened to Queen Victoria? Alas, that young monarch was assassinated by a mysterious gunman in 1840. As a consequence, the 19th century and the British Empire are no longer quite as we remember them from high school history books. In fact, we've entered the fabulous and always entertaining realm of classic steampunk.

Just as much of today's horror fiction is vampire-driven, one major branch of modern fantasy -- in novels, "cosplay" (costume play), gaming and comics -- is obsessed with an alternate 19th century, one in which the inventions and mad scientists of Jules Verne, the tweedy science fiction of H.G. Wells and the gaslight romances of Arthur Conan Doyle have been mixed and remixed. In steampunk fiction, a count from Transylvania might win the hand of Queen Victoria (see Kim Newman's "Anno Dracula"); Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace actually do invent the computer (see William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's "The Difference Engine"); and heroes like Allan Quatermain and Captain Nemo combat Martian invaders (see Alan Moore's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," Vol. 2). If you remember it, the cult science fictional television series "The Wild Wild West" clearly possessed a proto-steampunk feel. So does the alternate England of Philip Pullman's young-adult series "The Golden Compass" and its sequels. By stretching a bit, one can even add the recent vogue for mash-ups, in which classic fiction is reimagined with a horrifying twist: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" or "Android Karenina."

In "The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack," gentlemen still wear top hats, carry sticks and visit their clubs; young ladies are expected to observe the Victorian proprieties; Limehouse is dirty and dangerous; and the London fog rolls in thicker than ever. But there are also flying rotorchairs, specially bred dogs who deliver the mail, mechanical litter-crabs to devour the street's refuse. Chimney sweeps ply their trade, but they belong to a strange guild headed by an unseen figure named the Beetle. Because of his facial treatments and life-extension surgery, the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, resembles a wax dummy from Madame Tussaud's. A young Irish newsboy, with a gift for quips and repartee, is named Oscar Wilde.

As the book opens, Richard Burton learns that his fellow explorer, former friend and current enemy John Hanning Speke, has apparently attempted suicide. Having blown off half his head and been rushed to a hospital, Speke isn't expected to live -- but that night he is mysteriously spirited away. By whom? The hospital staff has been mesmerized and told to forget everything they have seen. But Burton soon realizes that there is some connection between Speke's abductors and the rumors about strangely predatory criminals, dressed in scarlet cloaks and hoods, who have been slashing throats and kidnapping young boys in the East End. When the artist Gustave Doré -- making drawings of London's underclass -- glimpses one, he sketches what appears to be a "loup-garou," a werewolf.

Even more unsettling, however, is the sudden reappearance of Spring Heeled Jack. Long held to be an urban myth, he is very real to the teenage girls whose clothes he tears away. Burton first glimpses him late at night, in an alley filled with a billowing white vapor: "The steam parted and from it sprang a bizarre apparition: a massively long-legged shape -- like a carnival stilt-walker -- a long, dark cloak flapping from its hunched shoulders, bolts of lightning crackling around its body and head. . . . Was it human, this thing? Its head was large, black, and shiny, with an aura of blue flame crawling around it. Red eyes peered at him maliciously. White teeth shone in a lipless grin."

The creature addresses Burton and tells him "to stay out of it" and "stop organising forces against me! It's not what you're meant to be doing! Your destiny lies elsewhere. Do you understand?" In fact, Burton doesn't have the least inkling of what the creature is talking about. But most readers will already begin to guess that Spring Heeled Jack is . . .

Well, I shouldn't say, should I?

As the action proceeds, Burton roams London in disguise -- as an old seaman or a Sikh -- and the dapper Swinburne goes undercover among the chimney sweeps, and the strange happenings increase. Could Spring Heeled Jack have some connection with the Libertine movement founded by Henry de la Poer Beresford, a.k.a. the Mad Marquess, or with the Technologists, a scientific league formed by the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the eugenicist Francis Galton, the medical genius Florence Nightingale and the great scientist Charles Darwin?

Mark Hodder's "The Strange Case of Spring Heeled Jack" is apparently the first of a series of adventures involving Burton and Swinburne. As fantasy, the novel doesn't really break new ground, given that the plot combines elements from notable works by Robert A. Heinlein, H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, among others. But if you're looking for a cold night's entertainment, this high-spirited mix of fact and fancy will do quite nicely, quite nicely indeed.

Dirda will be away for six weeks. His Thursday reviews in Style will resume Dec. 9.

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