Friday, April 9, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Urban Gothic and Terror in the City

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, England and much of Europe could still be considered mostly agrarian. Sure there were cottage industries here and there, but nothing anywhere near the smoke-belching monstrosities that we see in the late Victorian Era. In the 1830s, that all started to change. Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837, and would reign until 1901. This Victorian Age saw dozens, perhaps hundreds, of scientific and industrial advancements.

This also meant that more people lived in the cities and towns of the British and American countryside. Literature changed its focus in this time frame as well -- from the isolated castles and manor houses of the English and European countryside to the terrors inherent in the cityscape. Darkened alleys, urban fog, murders in the night and thieves who'd beat you to snatch your money became the ways to craft terror in readers.

The horror of the city became the new focus in the industrial and post-industrial literature. British authors such as Charles Dickens and G.W.M. Reynolds helped found this style, while others like Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde pushed it into its own form. In Bleak House (1854), Dickens introduced the "urban fog" that became such a prominent facet of Urban Gothic.

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds." (Bleak House, Chapter 1)
Dickens continues for a few more paragraphs about the fog, as Dickens is wont to do, but it serves to give you the image of the citizens of London stumbling and bumbling their way through fog thicker than the thickest cloud. This is the environment of Urban Gothic.

Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) exemplified the Urban Gothic of the late Victorian era. Dracula brings ancient terror from the countryside of Transylvania to smack in the center of London, Dorian Grey explores how far a man is willing to go to preserve his own beauty, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is yet another example of Science Gone Wrong and what havoc man's creations can wreak in the city.

The major influences on this style, and particularly on Urban Gothic in the latter part of the Victorian era, included Freud's views on the human mind, the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, the theory of a "hidden city," and Darwin's views on Natural Selection. London was a primary focus of this early Urban Gothic movement, but it eventually came to other cities, such as Paris, with the 1909-10 serial publication of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.

Some contemporary novels fall under this category -- Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls utilize New Orleans as a setting for their Urban Gothic stories, for example, and Frank Miller's Batman, Daredevil, and Sin City graphic novels also make use of similar themes.

Steampunk owes Urban Gothic a debt for taking the dark mysteries of nature and crafting new horrors inside the cityscape. Industrialization equals cities, which means slums and darkness under the shining gleam of powerful technologies. Much of steampunk takes place in ruined cityscapes, where thieves and brigands rule the night while people try to live their lives in the daytime. Sometimes the heroes must traverse these ruined or pestilent cities, or are stuck inside them and must work against the horrors they face (think Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters or Boneshaker by Cherie Priest).

Monday: Bram Stoker, Vampires, and the Undead


Elisabeth Black said...

This is an awesome series.

"Dickens continues for a few more paragraphs about the fog, as Dickens is wont to do" - haha! Bleak House is one of my favorite books.

Matthew Delman said...

Beth --

Thank you, kindly. I love Dickens's stuff, by the way, but my reaction upon reading that section was "really? you're talking about fog for five whole paragraphs?!"

I mean, I know he was getting paid by the word, but that's slightly ridiculous.

Jm Diaz said...

A magnificent post! I enjoy a good Urban Gothic or steampunk inspired story from time to time, and often find myself involved in the setting more than I had anticipated. Sadly, I'm not all that well read in these areas, but that is a problem which I can remedy.

I found your blog via Michelle Ermath's blog (Souther City Mysteries). Always good to make the acquaintance of a writer with a good head on his shoulders. ;)

L. T. Host said...

I loooooove the old Gothic lit. No mention of Poe though-- doesn't he count? Or is he more horror than Gothic?

Matthew Delman said...

Jm --

Thank you for the kind words, sir. I enjoyed the commentary on there and am glad you found something to enjoy here.

L.T. --

I know I told you this earlier, but I'll post it here for others' benefit: Poe is part of a Gothic subgenre called American Gothic because he was, well, American. This was a more direct influence on Southern Gothic writers like Faulkner than Steampunk; though I can see American steampunkers being influenced by that.

Adam Heine said...

"Dickens continues for a few more paragraphs about the fog..."

I don't care who he is, there is no way he'd get published like that today.

This is really cool information. I always wrote steampunk to be like Miyazaki (ironically), but you're reminding me of all the old, old stories I used to love. Looking forward to Bram Stoker.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

I have got to read Dracula one of these days.

You mentioned a theory of a hidden city--do you have more information on that? I've never heard of it, I don't think.

Matthew Delman said...

Adam --

I find it amusing the number of forerunning authors who wouldn't have gotten published today. They were very much products of their times, and that's why they did so well I think. Someone writing like Dickens now wouldn't be published because that's not what the times we live in requires.

Miyazaki and the steampunk animes are an interesting addition to the genre. The Japanese take on what started as a Western genre is always fascinating to see -- helps that I adore most of Japanese culture.

Clare --

The "hidden city" refers to the seedy underbelly of society: your cutpurses, brigands, streetwalkers and pimps, drug pushers -- really all the people who we know exist but don't see on a day-to-day basis. For the traditional steampunk era, think the Whitechapel district of London during the Jack the Ripper murders. Any area that could be considered a "slum" is part of the hidden city.

ggray said...

WOW! What a brilliant piece! I love the way you've traced steampunk and urban dark fantasy back to its long and tangled roots. And as a huge fan of Poppy Z. Brite, glad you mentioned Lost Souls. You research and insights offer steampunk and urban dark fantasy writers many more valuable resources to pull on when layering their writing.
In addition to the writers who pushed the boundaries writing about the industrial age, and even though he wrote much later, I read that J.R.R. Tolkien's, Lord of the Rings was written as he dealt with his fears on how indstrialization was brutalizing the British countryside, in addition to his commentaries on World War.