Monday, April 12, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Bram Stoker, Vampires, and the Undead

One of the more common storylines cropping up in contemporary steampunk involves those creatures commonly thought of as Undead -- Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies. There are sometimes also ghosts, but that appears to be somewhat less common (unless you're blending genres such as paranormal and steampunk).

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, a Hugo and Nebula Award nominee, includes creatures called "rotters," a form of zombie created when the Boneshaker drill of the title destroyed the underground of downtown Seattle and sent a heavy gaseous poison spewing into the air.

Bram Stoker's Urban Gothic novel, Dracula, was the preeminent late Victorian work to use the undead in a steampunk-esque fashion. The ancient vampire of the title traveled from the Transylvanian countryside to the middle of London and the abandoned Carfax near an insane asylum run by Dr. John Seward.

What's most interesting about Dracula is that it's organized as an epistolary novel -- the story itself is told through the journal entries and diaries of the several protagonists, interspersed with "news clippings" that Stoker includes to relate events not witnessed by any of the narrators.

Dracula, for those who might not know the story, tells the tale of the battle waged against the Transylvanian vampire of the same name, as he wreaks havoc through the urban fog of London. Stoker succeeds via his narrators of conjuring up a sense of the terror they face when they battle this ancient evil that threatens them and the rest of the "teeming millions" of London.

To Steampunk, the story of Dracula offers up noble heroes and implacable villains that use a blend of science and superstition to make their cases. Dracula depends on superstition and people's natural fear of the unknown to create terror in the people in London. Some later interpretations of Dracula present his evil as sensual instead of the sort of Gothic psychological terror that Stoker succeeds in crafting. Van Helsing uses science, after a fashion, to battle against Dracula and train the others to do the same.

Beyond that though, we Steampunk authors are also witness to the strong Victorian ethos that threads through this novel. The men and women are brave and socially conscious, with the "stiff upper lip" that seems to be the byword of British heroes and heroines (especially the Victorian ones). This hearkens to the Victorian-era heroes of traditional Steampunk, who act with courage no matter what the terror around them.

Tomorrow: Scientific Romances and High Victorian Technology


Christine Danek said...

This is one of my favorite books. Thanks for the post!

Adam Heine said...

This was one of my favorite books too (I think I've even reread it, which is rare). I love the way it was written and the sense of Victorian London (and foreign Transylvania) that comes through it.

Susan R. Mills said...

Great book! This post made me want to read it again.

JournoMich said...

You make me want to reread this. I am partial to Shelley's Frankenstein, but I forget about Dracula as a book--because there are so many movies! For shame.

Did you like 'The Historian?'


Matthew Delman said...

Christine --

It's one of my all-time favorite stories, period. Even through all the film adaptations.

Adam --

If there's a single work that can be said to encapsulate Urban Gothic, I think Bram Stoker drove a stake clear through the heart of the matter with Dracula. This, Dorian Grey, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde have endured for very good reasons.

Susan --

I loved the book even more when reading it for this post.

Michele --

I haven't actually read The Historian. Had I known it was about Vlad Tepes, I would've picked it up quick-like without a second thought. Now I definitely will!

Joshua McCune said...

I've really got to check out this Boneshaker you keep mentioning :) -- like a subliminal message.

Matthew Delman said...

Bane --

Well it did get nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, so you know it's got to be good. You might also enjoy Cherie Priest's other books -- Four and Twenty Blackbirds and its sequels are prime examples of Southern Gothic.

And you know I only give this much press to good stories. ;)

Joshua McCune said...

Yeah, HaNA books are hard to beat. And thanks for the other suggestions -- Southern Gothic doesn't get enough play, IMO.

L. T. Host said...

As someone who professed to love all things Victorian (and most things Gothic), I am therefore ashamed to admit this is another classic I have yet to read. Time to start crackin'!

L. T. Host said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephanie Thornton said...

I think I'd be willing to pick up these classics. I'm kind of vampired out- there's just too many of them on the shelves these days!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Vampires and Steampunk? What is the world coming to?

But Van you're talking.

Can't wait for tommorrow's post! :)

Adam Heine said...

I still need to read Dorian Grey. Everything I know about that story, I learned from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.