Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: Ghosts by Gaslight, ed. Jack Dann and Nick Gevers


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 fiancĂ©e.

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.

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