The best of the Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes: Olaf K. Abelsen

Abelsen, Olaf K. Olaf K. Abelsen was created by “Max Schraut,” the pseudonym of Walther Kabel (Harald Harst, Nic Pratt, Rockheart, Three Vigilantes, Fred Walker), and appeared in the German pulp Olaf K. Abelsen – Abseits der Alltagswege #1-50 (1929-1933). Olaf K. Abelsen is a Wanted Man. A Swede, he escapes from prison and becomes a wandering adventurer, fighting for justice in Scandinavia and around the world despite being pursued by the policemen of all nations. Abelsen’s only companion is his faithful hound, although Abelsen does befriend and encourage the Three Vigilantes. Olaf K. Abelsen is notable for the imaginative, colorful stories, which convey a Sense of Wonder unusual even for the heftromanes. Abelsen encounters an undead Brain in a Jar and a Lost Race of Incas still living underneath Chile. In “The Fires of Eternity,” Olaf K. Abelsen #26, Abelsen travels into the subterranean world of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, which in this case is underneath Guatemala and Honduras. Abelsen is sometimes assisted by Professor Allison. Abelsen appears in stories with titles like “The Road to Nowhere,” “The Devil’s Farm,” “The Holy Smile,” and “Solid Tears.”

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The best of the Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes: Abdahalla-Fan

Hi there. For lack of anything better to do, and by way of promoting my long-forthcoming (by the end of the year, I’m promised) The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (from P.S. Publishing, remember), I’m going to be reprinting here the best, most interesting, most colorful or historically important entries from the Encyclopedia, one a day, until the book is published. So out of 6400+ entries, you’ll be getting a few hundred, but the choicest few hundred. To begin with:

Abdahalla-Fan. Abdahalla-Fan was created by Jesús de Aragón (Hugo de Marignac, Four Spaniards, Spanish Engineer) and appeared in the Spanish novel Los Piratas del Aire (1929). Abdahalla-Fan is a Yellow Peril. In 1927 all of India is threatened by the malign Abdahalla-Fan. He commands an airship in the form of a green dragon, and his co-pilot is a gorilla. He even kidnaps the beautiful Englishwoman Dorina from Bombay and subjects her to “cruel vexations.” Fortunately, the heroic English pilot Lord Ewerard Gleenmore is on the case, and pursues Abdahalla-Fan to the summit of Mt. Everest, where he meets his doom.

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The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, now available as an ebook!

So, as some–most?–of you are aware, a decade ago (!) MonkeyBrain Books published my The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. It sold well–sold out, through its print run–and has since become a collector’s item. (Seriously, look at the prices!)

Unfortunately, the book is too big, and the production costs too much, to make reprinting the book worthwhile for publishers. So…I’ve put the book up on Amazon Kindle, as an ebook, which you can buy here. It’s not the same as a physical copy, admittedly, but, hey, Fantastic Victoriana, available once again, and for only $9.99!

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First chapter of my current novel.

The working title for the novel is The Datong Incident, which I’m describing as an anti-imperialist steampunk-spy-romance novel. Any feedback is of course welcome.

Occupied Peking
Sunday, May 2, 1902

The sad, dull silence of a depopulated country enveloped the riders as their horses plodded through the mud. The road wound through stands of cedars and willows, and the wind blew leaves and branches into the faces of the riders, who were so intent on finally seeing Peking, the Celestial City, that they did not notice. The fine rain, lightly falling from the grey sky, was borne on northern winds so dry that the drops barely wet the riders’ cloaks. They had been riding for hours and were beyond casual speech.

The lead rider, a British cavalry officer, suddenly stood in his stirrups and cried, “Peking! There!” He pointed at a distant mass obscured by mist, a city wall of unthinkable size.

The riders spurred their horses forward, but as they drew closer to the wall and its details revealed themselves they slowed their horses again until they were walking almost hesitantly. The wall, gloomy in the grey morning’s half-light, stretched endlessly in each direction. Seen closely, it was a dead black structure of frightening scale, higher than what any of them had conceived of as possible.

It began to snow, and the wind picked up, blowing flakes and dirt and dust in random gusts.

The riders stopped in front of the shattered gates. Despite the cold and the snow, none made an effort to ride into the city. The empty solitude of the miles leading to Peking had been bad and preyed on their nerves, but this was worse. The ground at the base of the walls, ravaged by days of shelling and aerial bombing, was an uneven carpet of churned earth and bodies and still-smouldering machines, all covered with the eternal black ash that was what most of Peking had been reduced to. Atop every remaining battlement or shell hole crows stared balefully at the riders, cawing at them and waiting for them to leave so that they could resume their lunch.

The abrupt appearance of Peking, after so many hours peering through fog and rain, had disconcerted the riders, but the silence and feeling of being alone oppressed them. At length they resumed riding through the broken arches of the wall, hoping to see some sign of life, some movement or color inside the city.

Beyond the arches were the ruins of the two triple gates and the five-storey towers which had formerly surmounted them. Once, they had been made of the strongest stone and crafted into impregnability through the effort of countless laborers. Now they were broken rubble, scored with burn marks and coated with ash. One tower had been brought down in the fall of one of the French Fusils Aerienne, and now the airship lay sprawled across what was left of the tower, a giant aluminum and steel corpse in a world of decaying fleshy bodies.

As the group rode through the rubble of the gates and arches, along the winding path cleared by the steam shovels and Movers, the dust and ash, black as coal, grew deeper, enveloping the horses’ hooves and coating all it touched. Silently the riders entered the city, a land of silent desolation, ruin and ashes, out to the horizon. In the distance, at what had been the major intersections–Legation Street and Great Eastern Street, Custom Street and Tung Ch’ang–Sentinels stood. Beneath them their crews huddled against the cold, their gloves and coats dull black with coal dust.

Besides the Sentinels and their human crews, the only signs of life were a few squalid beggars shivering in corners, their tattered blue rags no comfort against the cold, and a few dogs recently grown fat on Chinese corpses. Everything else was rubbish and smoke. The small gray bricks out of which so much of Peking had been built were strewn everywhere, countless thousands of them. The small houses and ancient walls and palaces of the city were now only ash-covered piles of debris. Fire and shell and aerial bombs and Allied machinery had reduced the tidy decorous order of the city to chaos and abomination.

The riders slowly steered their horses toward what had been the Imperial City. The gloomy, silent monotony which follows every apocalyptic fire was broken only by the rare glimpse of porcelain or cloisonné peeking through the eternal ash. A Russian “Yaga Hut” leaned against one wall, its iron chicken legs all that remained of the mobile gun platform. In an inner square near a chapel was what was left of a Japanese “Archer Boy.” Only the end of its bow and its quiver were visible, all else destroyed or submerged beneath the universal little gray bricks.

The riders stopped in front of the pulverized stone of what had been the Tiananmen Gate. The labyrinth of smoking ruin which had been the Imperial City after the Allied assault was finished was in the process of being cleared out–in the distance gangs of coolies and the occasional steam shovel and land-mover were laboriously moving rubble–but orders had come down from London: the ruins of Tiananmen were to remain, as a monument to the dead white hostages and as a reminder to the Chinese what their rebellion had led to.

One of the riders, a man in the uniform of a captain in the Army, nodded at the others, and they rode ahead into the city, leaving one man behind. He wore civilian clothing and a somber expression.

In a quiet voice the captain said, “Have you considered the Director’s offer?”

The other man said, “Yes, sir. I’m inclined not to accept it. I’m flattered, but–“


“Well, sir…as you know, I’m now a father, and while Elizabeth understood my being away from home before, it seems to me unfair to make her raise Anna by herself. And, frankly, sir, I’d like to be home to raise her myself. I can do my job from London nearly as well as from Berlin.”

“I understand. We’ve only the one, May and I, but I wouldn’t trade my time with Alastair for anything. Nonetheless…”

The other man’s face remained impassive. “Yes, sir?”

“We need you here. We’re going to be staying, and–“ He waited for the other man’s reaction, but got none. He remained as neutral as ever. “And so are the rest of the Allies. It’s been decided, by the Prime Minister and his colleagues in Moscow and Tokyo and Berlin and Washington, that China is too valuable to be governed by the Chinese.”

He paused, examined his surroundings to make sure that they no Chinese were within earshot, and said in a lowered voice, “Much too valuable. So much so that the Partition will never last. You know as well as I do that there will be another war here, soon, this time between the Allies themselves. It may start here, it may start in Europe, but it is coming, and it will take place here more than anywhere else, over China. And India. And all the colonies out here. Great Britain cannot lose this war. We cannot. But if we are to win, we need good men watching our enemies. And you are one of our best.”

The other man looked at the broken pieces of what had been a massive stone lion. He picked up a piece which had been its nose and wiped the ash from it. After a moment, he replaced it.

The captain said, “I understand your reluctance, Hall, but…your country is calling. Will you respond?”

“Yes, sir.”

The captain chose to ignore the note of resignation in the other man’s voice. “Excellent! I’ve been authorized to promote you to Lieutenant, effective immediately–I’m sure your wife will appreciate the extra money in her pay envelope.” He nudged the hind quarters of the stone lion. “Tch. Waste of good stone. Typical of the Chinese. Overdone and underthought.”

“I’m to serve here, sir?”

“Good lord, no. No, after it’s rebuilt Peking will remain the capital, but I want you in Shanghai. I think you’ll be of more use to us there. China’s not like Germany. Too big to be centrally governed, and too independent. Lots going on away from the capital. ‘The mountains are high, the emperor is far away,’ isn’t that what they say? No, McKelvie will be stationed here. You’re for Shanghai. More to be learned here from commerce than government, I think.”

The captain looked around, nodded, and mounted his horse. “I’ll have your orders wired to you as soon as I return to the Union Jack. Take a month to visit your wife, then report to headquarters in London. We’ve much work to do here and not a lot of time to do it in.”

A shadow passed over the two men, and they reflexively looked upward. One of the British patrol aerostats was making its rounds, leaving a contrail of coal smoke behind it. The aerostat’s Indian crew cheerfully waved to the two men.

The captain ignored them. His last words to Hall, before riding into what had been the Imperial City, were “It’s a new century, Hall, but our enemies remain the same. Remember that.”

Hall’s, “Yes, sir” went unheard as the captain rode off. Hall watched the captain thread his way through the rubble, then rode into the city, looking for his friends.

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My paper from Readercon.

By request, the paper I presented at Readercon:

“Thesis and Antithesis, but not Synthesis: The Gothic in post-Frankenstein, pre-Wells 19th century Science Fiction”

In this talk I’ll be exploring, briefly, the influence of the Gothic form on science fiction published in the United States and the United Kingdom after Frankenstein’s publication in 1818 and before the beginning of H.G. Wells’ career in 1893.

But before I begin to discuss the influence of the Gothic it’s necessary to define the Gothic—no small task for a genre as complex as the Gothic was. The following is a bit long, but “Gothic” is a term much thrown about without actually being accurately understood or described, so a more lengthy definition is necessary.

The Gothic began in the 18th century as the synthesis of a number of diverse pre-existing elements: a rise in scholarly and popular interest in antiquity; the horror-inflected and horror-producing graveyard poetry of earlier in the century; the rise in Jacobinism, the propaganda of the French Revolution, and the philosophy of the rights of the individual; Romanticism, especially its defiance of authority, whether political or literary, its reaction to neo-Classic rationalism and logic, and its avoidance of death and decay through an artificial control of the unexpected; the influence of the Burkean aesthetic of the sublime and the picturesque; sentimental literature, the Cult of Sensibility, and the German Sturm und Drang; conservative nationalism and Protestantism reacting to developments on the Continent, including secret societies, Catholicism, and the movement for Catholic emancipation in England.

All of these elements fed into Gothic literature, which more or less began in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. A few novels written in the 1750s have substantial Gothic elements, but Otranto is the first true Gothic novel, and it provided a blueprint for the genre. But although there were a number of imitations of Otranto, especially in women’s periodicals, the reading audience’s appreciation for the Gothic genre did not become a craze for it until the 1794 publication of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. The publication two years later of M.G. Lewis’ The Monk provided writers with the second of two models which would dominate the genre: the Radcliffean, female-centered, rational Gothic, and the Lewisian, male-centered, supernatural Gothic. The Gothic novel was the dominant genre of the late 1790s and early 1800s, which were chaotic years in which domestic unrest and fears of invasion from abroad shaped political and cultural life, and the literary market was flooded with a mass of fiction which rejected direct engagement with the activities of contemporary life in favour of geographcally and historically remote actions.

Production of the Gothic novel peaked around 1810. What followed was a decline in production, the occasional pointed satire, and a final late efflorescence in 1820, with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. By 1830 the Gothic novel, as created by Horace Walpole, was dead, killed by the historical novel and changing literary tastes. The motifs and themes of the genre diffused through mainstream literature, in novels like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and appeared overtly in other genres like the Sensation novel of the 1850s and 1860s, but novels specifically in the Gothic mode were few. There was a temporary revival in the 1830s following Harrison Ainsworth’s imitation Gothic Rookwood, and a smaller one in the penny bloods of the 1840s, but it was not until the final decades of the century that the Gothic returned, reinterpreted for the fin-de-siècle by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson (in Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Bram Stoker (in Dracula), and Oscar Wilde (in The Portrait of Dorian Grey).

The Gothic quickly developed a set of stock devices, motifs, and settings. These included: ancient architecture, usually a castle, usually supposed to be haunted; inside the castle were hidden passageways, sliding panels, trap-doors, deserted wings, darkened staircases, and paintings of great significance to the central mystery of the story; beneath the castle were dungeons and claustrophobic tunnels; weather operated either as omen or as the objective correlative of the protagonist or villain; messages were delivered in dreams; high-pitched emotions abounded, including swoons and fits. The supernatural terrifying was an accepted part of life; the clergy, nearly always Catholic, was corrupt; patriarchal figures were revealed to be tyrants; a device, from birthmark to miniature, was crucial in the resolution of the plot. Innocent heroines were pursued by evil men intent on rape and/or murder, action took place at night and in remote, archaic locations, the past returns to haunt the present. The common tone of the novel was of suspense, emotional, intellectual, and physical. Confrontation with the taboo, a form of the Romantic sublime. The pathetic fallacy, chiaroscuro, and foreign exoticism. Wild mysterious landscapes such as bleak moors and mountainous locales as allegories of the main male protagonist. Men: inherited powers or status; solitary and egocentric; flawed w/deep psychological problems; obsessive; anti-hero who appeals yet repulses. Motifs of transcending boundaries (barbaric/civilized, mortality/immortality, order/disorder, pleasure/pain, inside/outside, dream/reality); fear, foreboding, and tension to evoke pleasurable terror in reader; multiple narratives; the Faust motif–forbidden knowledge or power; the tension between scientific and supernatural. Within the antiquated or seemingly antiquated space or a combination of such spaces are hidden some secrets form the past, sometimes the recent past, that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise. Obsessive doubling between characters, scenarios, milieus and events.

However, it must be stressed that thematically there are two different types of Gothics, not one, and that to describe them as being one way, as “Gothics in the Monk Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe tradition”–is both incorrect and, worse, unhelpful.

Traditionally critics have attempted to divide the Gothic into binary/oppositional categories. The most common interpretation of the Gothic is that stories in the genre can be divided into “male” or female.” (Though this judgment is often based on the sex of the writer, it is no postmodern critical gimmick: even during the 18th century the Gothic was thought of in sexual, gendered terms). Many of the Gothics’ writers were women, and the genre had a large female readership. During the mid-18th century the novel was thought of as the province of men, but the Gothic changed this perception, so that before the rise of the historical novel in the 1820s the novel was thought to have been feminized by the Gothic. But for many decades Gothics were classified as male or female, usually depending on the sex of the story’s author, although a simplistic classification of the Gothic into male-vs-female based on the sex of the author quickly breaks down. Radcliffe, responding to Lewis, wrote a male Gothic, The Italian, with Vincentio, the novel’s protagonist, as the subject of the coming-of-age story. Other female writers wrote male Gothics while male writers wrote female Gothics. Although most female Gothics were written by women and most male Gothics were written by men, this was by no means a constant.

The female Gothic is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story for the female protagonist, with Sensibility–the superiority of emotions and emotional responses to logic and rational thought–as a dominant concern and with a male authority figure as the story’s villain. Conversely the male Gothic puts a male figure at the center of a story of social, sexual, and/or religious transgression and usually reduces the heroine to the status of object, to be sexually and physically threatened, rescued, and married. In the words of critic Mary Ellen Snodgrass, the male Gothic “often victimizes and graphically brutalizes heroines as a source of titillation and voyeuristic fascination. In contrast to the male preference for wantonness, the female Gothic reflects concern for the powerlessness and male domination of heroines within the rigid gender restrictions of society and church.” Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was one of the earliest and was the most influential of the female Gothics. Lewis’ The Monk was a powerful response to Udolpho and is the quintessential male Gothic. The male Gothic came to dominate the genre, after Lewis, and it is the male Gothic which most critics describe and privilege, as more daring and experimental, but the female Gothic persisted until the genre’s end, and offered a marked alternative to the male Gothic. So an equivalence of the male Gothic with the Gothic itself is in error.

This binary categorization of the Gothic into male and female is important to keep in mind when discussing the influence of the Gothic on 19th century science fiction. Both types of Gothics were influential on science fiction—see Brian Aldiss’ argument that science fiction is “is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.” But which type of Gothic needs qualifying. Frankenstein–one of the foremost male Gothics–has, obviously, been heavily influential on the science fiction which followed it in the 20th and 21st centuries. But Frankenstein was not influential on 19th century science fiction. Nor was the male Gothic–which is what Frankenstein is. It was the female Gothic which was primarily influential on the science fiction of the 19th century, until the appearance of H.G. Wells.

Now, science fiction during the 19th century can usefully be separated into three periods: the pre-Frankenstein years of proto-science fiction, up to 1818, which aren’t relevant here; 1819 to 1862, from the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the advent of Jules Verne; and 1863 to 1893, from the publication of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to the beginning of H.G. Wells’ career as a science fiction writer.

Most histories of science fiction gloss over the period between Shelley and Verne. But as a brief investigation shows, there was science fiction published during those decades: over seventy novels and short stories, with a further thirty-six Lost Race novels and short stories. While dwarfed by the amount of science fiction published from Verne to Wells (over 500 novels and short stories from 1863 to 1893) it is still a decent amount of data to base conclusions on.

During this time period, to quote from the Clute Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “the main elements which eventually, in varying proportions, became melded into sf are as follows: (1) the Fantastic Voyage; (2) the Utopia (along with the Dystopia); (3) the conte philosophique, or Philosophical Tale, and Satire); (4) the Gothic; (5) the Technological and Sociological Anticipation, especially as it developed into the US tradition of the tale of Invention in the dime novels. As with sf, these constituent genres are not generically pure.” (As an aside, note that with the exception of the Gothic these elements, and the stories with them, do not demonstrate the lack of influence of Shelley or Poe; what was being created during this time period were works influenced by earlier literary genres and movements–including the Gothic itself).

As Brian Stableford wrote, “The fantastic voyage is one of the oldest literary forms, and remains one of the basic frameworks for the casting of literary fantasies. Of the prose forms extant before the development of the novel in the eighteenth century, the fantastic voyage is the most important in the ancestry of sf.” And one of the central elements of the fantastic voyage, whether in proto-sf, or Vernean voyages extraordinaire, is the “sense of wonder,” the effect of a fictional, transcendent conceptual breakthrough on the reader. The notion of the “sense of wonder” is a 20th century one, adopted in the 1940s by science fiction fans and applied initially to pulp science fiction. But the sense of wonder is present in much 19th century science fiction as well in the Fantastic Voyages, albeit perhaps not the conscious intention of these writers. The readerly sense of wonder surely was aroused by stories of utopias, of fantastic voyages, of technological anticipations. The authorial intent was most likely impressionismus, the quality in art of evoking emotions and impressions in the eyes and minds of the readers, with a sense of wonder being one of several desired emotions aroused in readers. The sense of wonder may not have been articulated by writers or readers during the 19th century with regard to science fiction–and indeed the use of the phrase “sense of wonder” only takes off in the 1860s, during the advent of Verneanism–but it was surely there, even and especially during the Verne years.

The sense of wonder takes its cues from the Gothic and the Gothic’s Burkean sublime. Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher, wrote in 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a treatise on aesthetics. In it he separated the sublime and the beautiful into two separate categories: the beautiful being the aesthetically well-formed and pleasing, the sublime being that which arouses in us the heights of emotion. This idea of the sublime was not original to Burke; it was part of an 18th century debate about the impact on readers and viewers of certain dramatic or powerful manifestations of nature–towering mountains, storms, avalanches, etc–or the supernatural–demons, angels, ghosts. Writers and philosophers during the 18th century were increasingly interested in how minds work, and these discussions of aesthetics were another way of talking about the operation of our minds.

Burke’s contribution to the debate was to link the sublime, and its concern with powerfully affecting phenomena, to terror–the sublime was an awe-inspiring grandeur which overwhelms the senses. Anne Radcliffe, the most influential of the Gothic novelists for her The Mysteries of Udolpho, would take Burke’s idea of the sublime and use it as a basis to categorize Gothics. She divided the Gothic into the Terror Gothic and the Horror Gothic. The Terror Gothic made use of the Burkean sublime, and “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life;” the Terror Gothic is what Radcliffe saw herself writing. The Horror Gothic, by contrast, what Radcliffe saw as the types of Gothics written by Matthew Lewis of The Monk, takes those faculties and “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”

“Expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” Radcliffe, via Burke, intended this sensation to arise from terror. But you can see how the sensation of exhilaration, of the soul expanding and the senses reaching a high degree of life, can also arise from the sense of wonder. The sense of wonder, in other words, is the Burkean sublime, but arising from non-horror/terror literature–from science fiction.

Utopias pre-exist the Gothic, of course, and the utopias of the 19th century, both pre-Verne and those appearing during the Vernean years, were hearkening to an earlier tradition. Utopias are both good places, and ideal societies, yet at the same time ones that do not exist—desirable but unattainable. In utopian fictions this is reflected in the society’s location, almost invariably remote or well-insulated from the actual world to which it proposes an alternative. Dystopias, meanwhile, are a much more recent development, one which became common in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and usually involve a critique of existing social conditions or political systems highlighted by the visit of an outsider.

The Gothic is not usually understood to be a part of the utopian genre—if anything, the Gothic, with its pre-present setting, might be seen as a contra-utopia or anti-utopia. But the utopia and its negative counterpart, the dystopia, play an important part of the Gothic, and in their way are influential on the later utopias and dystopias of the century.

In the male Gothic, the dystopia is common—it is any setting in which the author portrays in Brian Stableford’s words “a hypothetical society containing images of worlds worse than our own.” In the male Gothic, these hypothetical societies worse than our own are the Gothic structures, the crumbling castles, the convents, the towers or dungeons, each a cyst-like enclosure in reality filled with its own awful inhabitants, rituals, and torments for the female protagonist—the outsider who visits and critiques the society. In the female Gothic the utopia is common. These ideal societies are not structures but places: “smiling Edens,” rural pastorals, or desert islands. The female Gothic, as a bildungsroman, forces the female protagonist to leave the utopia as part of the coming-of-age process, but the protagonist, and the reader, is always aware that a return to utopia is possible, even with the protagonist’s maturation and loss of innocence.

In a broader sense, both the Gothic and the utopia or dystopia offer a break from reality, what Gothic scholar Patrick Brantlinger calls “a radical disjunction from the actual.” The utopian and dystopian break from reality is obvious; both are showing what could be rather than what is. The Gothic uses a set of literary conventions that subjectify events, emphasizing their own break from reality: frame-tale narrations, the use of unreliable narrators, the doppelganger or ghostly, demonic alter ego; and metaphors that liken events to demonic possessions or to lunacy. These are the conventions of the inward journey, in which the Gothic romance becomes an analogue for a nightmare or a delirious dream vision. Of course, in the male Gothic, the protagonist does not awaken from his dream and does not escape from dystopia; the awfulness of the nightmare becomes the protagonist’s reality. In the female Gothic, the protagonist does ultimately awaken, to a better reality if not a return to Utopia itself.

The conte philosophique, the Philosophical tale, is the genre of 19th century science fiction with which the Gothic has the least to do, both as source material and as influence. Philosophical questions are out of place in the Gothic, which both male and female has a strong philosophical, religious, and/or moral underpinning, one which is acted upon and followed or defied rather than debated. There is no room in the Gothic for a questioning of good and evil; not only is there no time for questioning in the story, but to call the definitions of good and evil into question is to hold up the assumptions of the story to examination, and thereby weaken or even ridicule the story’s finales and conclusions.

And satire, the holding up of vice and follies to ridicule, is something that is turned on the Gothic rather than used by the Gothic. The most famous case of a satire of the Gothic is of course Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 and 1799, but published in 1817; in Northanger Abbey the conventions of the Gothic, from the female protagonist to Gothic enclosure, are satirized and, in the gentle Austenian way, used as a source of humor.

Tales of technological and sociological anticipation were common in 19th century science fiction, both during the pre-Vernean years and during the Vernean years. As in 21st century science fiction, 19th century tales of technological and sociological anticipation varied thematically, although interestingly Mary Shelley, so influential on 20th century tales of technological anticipation, was not influential on 19th century tales of technological anticipation. I realize that by saying this I’m detracting from the prestige of and negating the influence of Readercon’s special guest, but it is true. If anything, it was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales of scientific experimentation and technological anticipation–“the Birthmark,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” “Rappacini’s Daughter”–which were influential on later writers of the century.

Throughout the century these stories stressed the rational, stressed cause and effect and experimentation and the scientific method.

Now, it might be thought that–despite the existence of Frankenstein–the Gothic and science fiction are fundamentally at odds. Science fiction’s stress upon the rational, and the Gothic’s assertion of the irrational over the rational, take two fundamentally different positions. But, once again, there are two kinds of Gothics, the male and the female, and it is the male Gothic, with its triumphant supernaturalism, which asserts the irrational over the rational. The female Gothic resolutely reveals its purportedly supernatural events as having a logical, materialist origin. (This, by the way, is why Scooby Doo is ultimately a female Gothic).

It is in this respect that the Gothic was influential on 19th century stories of technological anticipation. Much science fiction of the 20th and 21st century is fundamentally irrational, about a rejection of or a symbolic putting to sleep of reason, which fits the male Gothic–both are forms of apocalyptic nightmare fantasy characterized by themes of demonic possession and monstrous distortion. But 19th century science fiction didn’t follow that approach. As mentioned, fantastic voyages and utopias and philosophical tales and technological/sociological anticipation were the common forms in 19th century. These stories were Gothic-like assertions of the rational, the scientific, the material, over the supernatural–the scientist as exorcist rather than mad scientist. There were some mad scientists, to be certain, but even with the popularity of Frankenstein, mad scientists from later in the century often carried his influence lightly and were much more influenced by the genres in which they appeared. The mad scientist who detective Tom Fox captures, in John Bennett’s casebook (proto-police procedural) Tom Fox; or, the Revelations of a Detective (1860), has the broad outlines of a Frankensteinian mad scientist, but his experiments on cats, dogs, children, and prostitutes are more indicative of insanity than mad science and also show Bennett’s concern for the effects of poverty on the poor. Lord Manningtree, the mad scientist in Charles Ross’ penny dreadful Fanny White (1865), is Victor von Frankenstein’s opposite: an insane, wicked, lust-filled obsessive who poisons dogs as a way to perfect his toxic formulae. Manningtree is an almost archetypal Depraved Dreadful (the explicit, gorey penny bloods or penny dreadfuls) villain rather than a Frankensteinian Gothic anti-hero. But much more common were scientists in the century who had rational, moral philosophies, just like the female Gothic.

The last common form of pre-Vernean science fiction, as defined in the Clute Encyclopedia, is the Gothic. As mentioned, it is the female Gothic that was primarily influential on Gothic science fiction during these years, with three aspects of the female Gothic being particularly reflected in science fiction: the treatment of the individual, the state of consciousness, and science fiction’s necrophilia.

The individual is contested domain in the Gothics. Indeed, the Gothics, both male and female, can be seen as one long argument about the French revolution and its stress on the rights of the individual. The male Gothic, with its hero-villain overreachers, condemns the latter notion, while the female Gothic–though generally seen as more conservative than the “transgressive” and “experimental” male Gothic–ultimately do not punish challengers of authority. The male Gothic is the story of a male protagonist’s social transgression–in Frankenstein’s case, transgression against the laws of both man and God–and of the protagonist’s punishment for these transgressions, and his extermination for the transgression or his reversion to socially accepted norms. The male Gothic punishes the individual for his acts of individualism. But the female Gothic is usually a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, about a female protagonist, and her individualism is tested but ultimately proved sound by the events of the story, which usually ends with a happily-ever-after. The female Gothic, in other words, validates the individualism that the male Gothic condemns.

Much of 20th and 21st century science fiction does not condemn the individual so much as portray it as being threatened with eradication, by industrial technology and the institutions of mass society. There is a definite strain, dominant at times, of the anti-Promethean, the anti-utopian, the pessimistic, the anti-scientific. But this is not the case with 19th century science fiction, which follows the model of the female Gothic in validating individualism. Mary Shelley’s fictions express a reaction against the Promethean radicalism of her husband, and of her father and mother–William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft–as well. The fate of Shelley’s “modern Prometheus” is the reverse of the fate of the mythological liberator depicted in Prometheus Unbound. But the fiction of Verne, and of Poe and the other major science fiction writers of the era, emphasize the individual’s triumphs and importance, whether as scientists or, in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, witnesses to dystopias.

I mentioned earlier, in discussing utopias, the Gothic literary conventions that make reality subjective and emphasize the Gothic’s own departure from consensus reality: frame-tale narrations, the use of unreliable narrators, the doppelganger or ghostly, demonic alter ego; and metaphors that liken events to demonic possessions or to lunacy. The Gothic scholar Patrick Brantlinger writes that the “central message of the Gothic romance form” is “internal disaster, the disintegration of a mind, the coming loose from the real world that is madness or death or both.” Like so many other male critics Brantlinger makes the mistake here of assuming that the male Gothic is the only Gothic; what he says is accurate of the male Gothic but not of the female Gothic, in which the mind, threatened with disintegration by the trappings and plot machinery of the Gothic, is ultimately reintegrated, re-secured to the real world, and healed by the extermination of the illness that is the male antagonist.

Brantlinger’s statement is in regards to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which he sees as no less science fictional than Ray Bradbury’s story “Usher II,” and he goes on to say that Poe, Shelley, and Wells, “have in common…the conventions of Gothic and also Goya’s paradox, or the perception that at some extreme limit reason turns into its opposite; into nightmare, delirium, ruin.” True of Roderick Usher; true of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Moreau; but not true of the numerous scientists of the pre-Verne and Verne years to whom reason, at its limit, is simply more reasonable–that experimentation does not lead to an extreme limit of madness but simply to more vivid results. The male Gothic mind, like the most famous fictional scientists of the 19th century, disintegrates on contact with the imagination–a trial by fire survived by the protagonists of the female Gothic and by the far more numerous but less well-known colleagues of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Moreau.

The German social psychologist Erich Fromm defined necrophilia as “the passion to destroy life and the attraction to all that is dead, decaying, and purely mechanical” and linked it to Poe’s fiction. A common critical response is to broaden this and to identify necrophilia in this form to Gothic fantasies. Brantlinger–him again–writes that “in common with Gothic, science fiction is a form of fantasy that expresses necrophiliac impulses in various ways. Often–in dystopias, for example–science fiction issues warnings about these tendencies (dehumanization, destructive technology, ecological catastrophes). More often it just expresses them without exploration of their meaning and hence without criticizing them.”

Once again, this is true, as far as it goes, about the male Gothic and about 20th and 21st century science fiction–Brantlinger specifically mentions Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind–but not about the female Gothic or about 19th century science fiction. The female Gothic is not necrophilia, but biophilia; the protagonists of the female Gothic strive to survive the threats posed by the male antagonist, to exist, to ultimately conquer and become adults. In the female Gothic that which is dead, decaying, and purely mechanical is loathesome, not attractive–and the supernatural does not exist; that which is dead and decaying pose no threat to the living, only the living do. Again, here is the difference between the horror Gothic, which provides dread, contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates the intellect, and the terror Gothic, which is based on actual physical realities (rather than supernatural ones) and which provides an elevating sensation.

As for 19th century science fiction, well, Brantlinger writes that “the diabolic hero of the Gothic himself exhibits vampiric or necrophiliac traits, and that the mad scientists and technicians in science fiction often do so as well, though the necrophiliac tendencies of the genre are more widely evident in the pattern of subordinating people to machinery, the organic to the inorganic, life to death.” True, again, of Frankenstein and Moreau; not true of their colleagues, who shackle science to the cause of life and whose purposes are biophiliac, not necrophiliac. These necrophiliac tendencies are irrational or even actively anti-rational and regressive–but pre-Verne science fiction is generally progressive and pro-rational. Mad scientists and examples of intellect as danger are few and far between; progressive scientists, those whose thoughts and experiments provide advances, are common.

So far, so good about the Gothic’s influence on 19th century science fiction. But then we come to the Verne years, when the influence of the Gothic waned, only later being picked up by H.G. Wells. These are the years of the antithesis of the Gothic of my talk’s title. There are nine basic categories of science fiction during this time period: the View of the Future, tales of Scientific Experimentation, Fantastic Voyages, Future Wars, Trips Into Space, Utopias, Lost Race, Edisonades, and miscellaneous. As Peter Nicholls writes, “despite the comparative lack of well?remembered names among the authors of sf in that period, it is now clear that the last three decades of the nineteenth century were the seed?bed for the modern genre. Wells did not spring from nowhere; he refined an existing tradition.” But by this time the existing tradition was so varied–and remember that in these years appear works as diverse as Dorking’s Battle of London, Rosney’s “Les Xipehuz,” and Hudson’s A Crystal Age–that the influence of the Gothic on science fiction was lessened and in some cases minimal. The science fiction of this era would draw on different and newer traditions than the science fiction of the pre-Verne years, and address different concerns. The Gothic and the Future War story have little in common,  nor does the Lost Race story and the Gothic. It isn’t until Wells in the mid-1890s that the Gothic would again be influential–but this time it would be the male Gothic rather than the female Gothic.

However, there was one category of science fiction in which the Gothic was influential: the Edisonade. Indeed, the culmination of the 19th century’s interaction with the Gothic came with the publication of the Edisonades in the 1880s and 1890s. The Edisonade, coined by critic John Clute after the Robinsonade, can be defined simply enough: it is a story in which a young American male invents a form of transportation and uses it to travel to uncivilized parts of America or the world, to enrich himself, and to punish the enemies of the United States, whether domestic or foreign. The Edisonades were almost entirely an American creation and appeared in dime novels as serials and as complete novels. They were the single largest category of dime novel science fiction and were the direct ancestors not only of 20th century boys’ fiction characters like Tom Swift but also of early 20th century science fiction, especially in the pulps. (The Edisonades are also among the most morally reprehensible works of fiction of the 19th century, on a par with the dime novels the Confederacy published to glorify slavery).

In every significant way the Edisonades are the anti-Gothic–are the culmination of the Vernean antithesis to the Gothic–the reaction of science fiction to the Gothic by becoming a negative image of it.

One of the primary motifs of the Gothic is the intrusion of the past into the present, whether in the form of family secrets, crumbling castles, ancient secret societies, or of traditional supernatural figures. This intrusion is true of both female and male Gothic, and holds equally true across national boundaries–something not always the case with Russian and German Gothics as opposed to English and American Gothics. The past holds the present in thrall, until either the protagonist is defeated (in the male Gothic) or the protagonist liberates herself from the peril of the past (in the female Gothic).

In the Edisonade, the present intrudes into the past: the male inventor–very much the modern, post-Verne figure of the engineer/inventor–uses modern technology, in the form of fantastic steam- and electric-powered vehicles and weapons, to pillage the past. Edward S. Ellis’ Johnny Brainerd kills Native Americans and mines a lode of gold. Philip Reade’s Tom Edison, Jr., helps an Indian prince recover his family treasure, a quest that takes him to ancient locations in Scotland, India, and the Ugandan Mountains of the Moon. Luis Senarens’ Frank Reade, Jr. finds a Lost Race of “original Hebrews” and loots an Aztec temple.

The Gothic is about violence and the wilderness lurking beneath the veneer of civilization. In the Edisonade the engineer/inventor expands the civilized frontier, wiping out the frontier’s  uncivilized inhabitants, dispatching the wilderness, and quelling its violence. In Peter Nicholls’ words, the Gothic “was probably given impetus at the beginning of the nineteenth century by science itself becoming remystified through all the work being done on the strange forces of electromagnetism.” The Edisonade uses demystified science, in the form of steam and electricity to work wonders; the majority of the Edisonades were written after Thomas Edison enabled the standard delivery of electricity to customers. The male Gothic is about the male protagonist’s social transgression; the Edisonade is about the male protagonist’s expanding the rules of society (in the form of modern exploitive capitalism) into areas where the rules hadn’t applied before. The female Gothic is about the pursuit of a female figure by a sexually or physically threatening male figure; the Edisonade is almost always a male figure, almost always the one doing the pursuing, almost always the master of a situation rather than a potential or real victim of it. The Gothic is about the alien and the monstrous bursting in on us from the outside. In the Edisonade it is the protagonist who is monstrous and doing the bursting.

As the Edisonade was gathering steam, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared, and by the mid-1890s, with the work of Oscar Wilde and H.G. Wells, the male Gothic had become influential again, and would remain so throughout the next century. But it was the female Gothic which reigned supreme in the 19th century, and which still provides an alternative vision of what the Gothic can be.

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The Victorians 101 Table of Contents

The following is the table of contents for the book I’ve been working on for the past year, a user’s guide to the Victorian canon of great books. Its original title was The Victorians for Freshmen but I’ve decided on The Victorians 101 as being less limiting–ideally everyone, not just freshmen, will be able to enjoy my book and learn something from it.

Table of Contents

Introduction                                       Page 4
L’Assommoir                                      Page 6
Barchester Towers                           Page 10
Barry Lyndon                                     Page 14
Bleak House                                        Page 16
The Charterhouse of Parma            Page 21
Coningsby                                           Page 24
The Count of Monte Cristo              Page 28
Diana of the Crossways                   Page 32
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde                   Page 35
Dracula                                                Page 39
East Lynne                                          Page 43
The Egoist                                           Page 47
Emma                                                  Page 50
Frankenstein                                      Page 56
The Gothic                                          Page 60
Great Expectations                           Page 64
Heavenly Twins                                 Page 67
Huckleberry Finn                               Page 70
The Hunchback of Notre Dame       Page 73
The Invisible Man                               Page 76
Jane Eyre                                             Page 79
Jude the Obscure                                Page 84
Kidnapped                                            Page 88
Kim                                                        Page 91
Lady Audley’s Secret                          Page 95
The Last Days of Pompeii                  Page 98
The Last of the Mohicans                  Page 101
Little Women                                       Page 106
Lorna Doone                                        Page 111
Madame Bovary                                 Page 116
Marius the Epicurean                         Page 119
Mary Barton                                        Page 122
Middlemarch                                        Page 125
Les Miserables                                     Page 129
Miss Marjoribanks                              Page 132
Moby Dick                                            Page 135
The Moonstone                                   Page 138
Nana                                                      Page 142
New Grub Street                                 Page 146
The New Woman                                  Page 149
North and South                                  Page 152
Pelham                                                   Page 155
Père Goriot                                            Page 159
Portrait of a Lady                                 Page 164
The Picture of Dorian Gray                 Page 168
Pride and Prejudice                               Page 171
The Red and the Black                          Page 176
Romanticism                                           Page 179
Salammbô                                              Page 182
The Scarlet Letter                                 Page 185
The Sensation Novel                              Page 188
She                                                           Page 191
Silas Marner                                          Page 195
Sister Carrie                                           Page 197
The Sorrows of Satan                          Page 200
Tess of the d’Urbervilles                       Page 204
The Three Musketeers                         Page 207
The Time Machine                                Page 209
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea    Page 212
Under Two Flags                                   Page 216
Vanity Fair                                              Page 220
Waverley                                                 Page 224
The Way We Live Now                         Page 228
The Woman in White                             Page 231
Wuthering Heights                                 Page 235

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My Readercon schedule.

Readercon, for those who don’t know, is one of the premier conventions for literary science fiction in the world. And this year, much to my squeeing glee, I’ve been asked to be on some panels, which I’ve only been wanting all of my adult life. So, yeah, I’m thrilled to be doing these:

Friday: 3:00 PM    G    Speculative Fiction and World War I. John Clute, Felix Gilman, Victoria Janssen (leader), Jess Nevins, Graham Sleight, Sonya Taaffe. On 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and World War I began. Hugo Gernsback had not yet named science fiction at the time, but proto-SF stories inspired by the war exist, many early SF writers would draw inspiration from their experiences of the wartime era, and alternate history stories of WWI are numerous. WWI had a tremendous effect on fantasy and horror stories as well, with surrealist, expressionist, and apocalyptic modes flourishing alongside tales of lost arcadias. Looking back 100 years later, how did WWI shape the readers and writers of speculative fiction and the genre as a whole?

Friday: 4:00 PM    ENL    The Immediate Influence of Mary Shelley . F. Brett Cox (leader), Andrea Hairston, Theodore Krulik, Jess Nevins, Diane Weinstein. At least since Brian Aldiss’s history of the genre, Billion Year Spree, it’s been a commonplace that Mary Shelley founded modern science fiction by writing Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). But instead of talking in general terms about her influence on science fiction, this panel focuses specifically on the works that came immediately afterwards. How much did Mary Shelley influence 19th-century science fiction? What individual works, and what trends, stemmed from her pioneering visions?

Friday: 9:00 PM    ENL    The Gothic in 19th-century Science Fiction. Jess Nevins. Jess Nevins will describe the influence of the Gothic on 19th-century science fiction. The dominant genre at the turn of the 19th century, the Gothic would peak in 1820 and then dwindle away until it became, in John Sutherland’s words, little more than a minor byway of Victorian fiction, returning only at the end of the century. Yet its tropes, motifs, and plot elements were highly influential on the science fiction of the century, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1819) and the anti-Gothic Edisonades.

Saturday: 10:00 AM    CO    Fictionmags. John Clute, Jess Nevins, Gordon Van Gelder (leader). The listserv Fictionmags has been in existence since 1999. Formed by David Pringle, ex-editor of Interzone, its formal remit is the study of all fiction-bearing magazines throughout history. Featuring approximately 175 members at any one time, it boasts such luminaries as Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, Barry Malzberg, John Clute, Paul DiFilippo, and Scott Edelman. This panel will discuss Fictionmags and the resources it provides.

I hope to see you there!

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Where I’ll be, in person and in print, in the near future.

I’ll be paneling at Readercon, in Burlington, Mass., July 10-13. I’ll be doing several panels, but in particular I’ll be doing a special one-man show on the influence of the Gothic on 19th century science fiction. So if you’re anywhere near Burlington and are interested in the best darn literary science fiction convention in the world, drop on by!

I’ll be paneling at ArmadilloCon, in Austin, TX, July 25-27. I’ll be doing a number of panels there, but no one-man shows. But if you’re anywhere near Austin and are interested in a very good regional sf con, drop on by!

The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction will be published on Oct. 1. For it I wrote a chapter on the pulps, emphasizing the fact (underappreciated by critics and scholars) that more science fiction appeared outside the science fiction pulps than inside the sf pulps. I’m proud of this chapter; it’s not a discourse-changer, but it adds some new information to the discussion of the history of sf during the pulp era, and I think it deserves to be read widely.

The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes–hey, remember that?–is due out from P.S. Publishing in the U.K. in the fall or winter–when I know the exact publication date I’ll post it here. Clocking in at a whopping 1674 manuscript pages (that’s 768,000+ words) and appearing in four volumes, The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes will be the world’s largest and best guide to the series characters of global popular culture from 1902 to 1945, covering pulp magazines, slick magazines, films, novels, radio serials, newspaper serials, and plays. A sequel to my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, Pulp Heroes represents a decade of work on my part, and I’m proud of it.

The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana will be appearing as an eBook sometime in the next year, published by Cheeky Frawg. When I know more I’ll post it here.

The book I’m working on now, The Victorians For Freshmen (alternative title, Victorians 101), should be finished by August, which means my agent should be sending it out to publishers in the fall, which means–I trust–that it will be sold in the fall or winter and appear in the fall or winter of 2015. The Victorians for Freshmen is a guide to the 19th century novels that freshmen (or those taking “The Victorians 101″) are usually assigned to read, and combines plot summaries with personal impressions and critical insight. Basically, if you’ve read my Fantastic Victorianaand there’s a sample entry here if you’re curious–you’ll be acquainted with my approach. But for Victorians for Freshmen I’m not covering 19th century genre work, I’m covering the canon of literature, everyone from Austen to Zola, from Trollope’s Barchester Towers to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I think the book will be both entertaining and informative, and of value to both students and adults.

My novel, Filial Devotion, has made it to the semi-finals of the Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, with the finalists being announced tomorrow, June 13th. I don’t think the novel will make it that far–basically, I have faith in the novel as readable and fun, but I don’t think it’s the sort of outstanding work that makes it to the finalist level–so after tomorrow I intend to add some needed material to the novel and then start pitching it to publishers, ideally with an eye for publication sometime in the next year or two (or three). (Filial Devotion is about an 18th century Chinese ship’s captain whose father’s soul is stolen by an evil eunuch sorcerer, forcing the ship’s captain to go to extreme lengths, including a trip to Hell, to retrieve the soul. The elevator pitch is, “What if Patrick O’Brian and Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain had a love child.”)

Once I finish Victorians for Freshmen I’ll be done with non-fiction work and will be concentrating solely on fiction, so there will be more novels to come. I’ll talk about them here when they’re ready.

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Marie Corelli and The Sorrows of Satan

from my forthcoming The Victorians for Freshmen:

The Sorrows of Satan. The Sorrows of Satan was written by Marie Corelli and was published in 1895. Corelli (1855-1924) was one of Great Britain’s top authors at her peak–John Sutherland calls her “the bestselling of all Victorian authors”–although she was critically scorned. The Sorrows of Satan is generally seen as her best and most typical work.

The Sorrows of Satan is about Geoffrey Temple, a starving, struggling novelist. At the very end of his resources, he receives a bequest of £5 million from a relative he didn’t know he had, at the same time being introduced to Prince Lucio Rimanez. (SPOILER: Prince Rimanez is Satan). Rimanez informally adopts Temple, giving him advice and loaning him money while also treating him to endless lectures about the nature of reality, the reality of society and human nature, and so on. Rimanez tells Temple how to get his book published (use his new wealth) and “boomed,” or talked up by reviewers (essentially bribe the reviewers), and Rimanez introduces Temple to the cold society beauty Lady Sibyl Elton. Elton describes herself as corrupted by New Woman novels and by modern society, but she agrees to marry Temple anyhow. Secretly, Elton lusts after Rimanez and offers herself to him, but when this is revealed she poisons herself. Temple despairs, and then discovers that Rimanez is actually Satan, and that what has transpired is one long temptation. Temple is tempted to commit suicide, but ultimately decides not to, and his wealth then evaporates. Temple’s salvation in all of this is the brilliant young author, Mavis Clare, who is loathed by the critics but enormously popular with readers of all rank and nationality. She is also the last, best hope for Western civilization, and the ultimate redemption of Rimanez.

Marie Corelli was a unique author–unique for the Victorians and for ours. A best-seller who was a critical punching bag, a successful woman who scorned her feminist contemporaries (and especially the New Woman), an author, popular with all classes, whose work is poisonous with class resentment, both up and down, a conservative whose work is actually reactionary, Corelli is an object lesson for readers and critics. But which lesson is to be learned?

The problem for both readers and critics is the impossibility of separating Corelli from her work. For some authors this is no bad thing; who among us would not prefer to think of Jane Austen as someone out of Emma or Pride and Prejudice, as someone with that sparkling wit and compassionate insight into humanity? For some authors this is a blatant mistake–what could we possibly assume about Emily Brontë based on Wuthering Heights that was not cruel and remote? And for some authors, an inability to separate them from their work hints at truths–some palatable, some not–about those authors; in all likelihood Ouida little knew how much she was saying about herself when she wrote Under Two Flags.

Marie Corelli falls into the latter category. Reading The Sorrows of Satan, it becomes impossible for readers not to see the real Marie Corelli in every resentful word, and to view the novel as a cri de mauvais coeur more than just a dispassionately created work. For those who are just readers, this is not an insuperable problem. They can just note this and carry on reading. But for critics, or those forced to write papers (or indeed book entries) or simply think in a critical and elevated fashion about Corelli and The Sorrows of Satan, it adds an additional and thorny complication.

The only choice, it would seem, is to treat them at the same time, and to note that in discussing the one you discuss the other. Corelli more than any other Victorian author is her work, and the flaws of her work correspond to the flaws in her personality.

The Sorrows of Satan is readable, and competent work. That must be admitted before all else. The tens of thousands who rabidly consumed Corelli’s work would not have put up with anything else, nor could a successful writer–and she was quite successful–be a success without readability. There is a certain style in the fiction of the 1890s, to be found in stories in magazines as well as in novels, which hasn’t aged badly or much, and which today can still be read with pleasure. Corelli partially partakes of that style, in Satan, so that the dialogue does not seem particularly dated and the descriptions are acceptable. So the reader who takes on The Sorrows of Satan will put forth less effort than, say, in reading Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. The Sorrows of Satan is the work of a professional.

And a woman of imagination. Even Corelli’s harshest critics freely admit that her fantastikal work, her science fiction and her fantasies (like Satan), are exuberant in their free-wheeling deployment of fantastikal tropes. (Witness the ghastly fate of Lady Sibyl’s mother and the glee with which Corelli describes it, or indeed the entire ascension scene at the end of Satan). In another time Corelli might have been a writer of science fiction romance, although she could hardly have been more successful at that than she already was.

But competence and imagination only take a writer so far, and there is much about Corelli that a reader has to put up with, if they must read The Sorrows of Satan.

Like Bulwer-Lytton, Corelli has a fatal weakness for the long aside, and like Bulwer-Lytton (in his occult work, not The Last Days of Pompeii or Pelham) these asides too often contain over-written philosophical ramblings and religious lectures. Such screeds do date, and quickly, and today make for tedious reading–not at all what Corelli intended or how her audience considered them. Her dialogue often shades into monologues during which the veil between author and narrative grows very thin indeed.

It is a traditionally sexist criticism to complain that a woman’s work is “over-emotional”–as if men do not fall prey to that and do not have their own surfeit of emotion. So say instead that Satan is full of highly-strung emotion and sentiment. The mood and pitch could not be higher, nor could the pathos be more melodramatically expressed. One critic aptly described her as possessing “an intense, emotive imagination almost totally uninhibited by considerations of style, taste, or factual reality.”

Nor does the content of The Sorrows of Satan redeem it. The criticisms of Satan are numerous, and writing them down can resemble the writing of a grocery list. Nonetheless, any fair reading of Satan leads to making of such a list.

Perhaps the largest flaw in Satan’s content is the person of Mavis Clare. Clare, a pure higher being than ordinary humans, perfect in every way, is Corelli’s fictional stand-in (even the initials are the same), but beyond that, Clare is Corelli’s “Mary Sue.” In fiction written by amateurs or first time writers, whether published in fan magazines, vanity presses, or on the Internet as “fan fiction,” stories written by fans featuring characters from their favorite books, television shows, or movies, a common phenomenon is the Mary Sue character. A Mary Sue character is an idealized stand-in for the author, and is tougher, smarter, cooler, nicer, sweeter, more charming, more capable, and more skilled than the established characters, and becomes worshiped by them. Although Mary Sues appeared in 19th century magazine stories written by teenagers, as in stories where a teenaged girl saves a sleeping Indian chief from being mauled by a bear or is raised by Indians and becomes their leader, the traditional modern Mary Sue appears in Star Trek fan fiction, where a new ensign on the starship Enterprise is a better pilot than Captain Kirk, smarter than Spock, and makes both fall in love with her. Mavis Clare is Corelli’s Mary Sue.

Satan was a score-keeping exercise on Corelli’s part–the list of newspapers Mavis Clare has her dogs rip apart correspond to the newspapers which had reviewed her badly–but is a tightly-wound one, without a sense of humor (it’s doubtful that Corelli herself had one) or an ability to look inside itself in any way. Corelli notably lacked not only any ability of introspection or self-awareness, but was prey to her own delusions, delusions of grandeur and genius. Satan is one long affirmation of both.

Satan is also a deeply, and unpleasantly, conservative work. The two are not synonymous, of course, but Satan displays Corelli’s worst reactionary instincts. The novel is anti-feminist and anti-New Woman: “The self-degrading creatures who delineate their fictional heroines as wallowing in unchastity, and who write freely on subjects which men would hesitate to name, are unnatural hybrids of no-sex.” Corelli’s fetish for royalty is on display in Satan, but so is her poisonous sense of class grievance, her loathing of those below her and her hatred of those above her. Too, Corelli’s distaste for all readers but her own shines through. Scorn and abuse are heaped upon publishers, critics, and readers while Corelli simultaneously congratulates herself and her readers on being too intelligent to fall for the lies of those publishers and critics and wiser than other readers. Lastly, accompanying the novel’s strident moralism and nebulous, vague mysticism is an anti-intellectualism and an equation of the Decadent authors and readers (and the naturalists, and the French) with moral and intellectual depravity.

The last word here on Corelli is left to two critics of hers. Louis James:

Corelli saw herself as fulfilling a mission to assert `the underlying spiritual quality of life as it really is’, and her work was widely quoted by both fashionable and popular preachers. Her success points to an undoubted thirst for religious literature. She also made it comfortable: the only evil was that willed by man, and every reader had the power for spiritual growth towards total goodness. She embodied this message in fiction that is vulgar in the fullest sense, clichéd, melodramatic, uninformed; yet with an imaginative flair, theatricality, and self-conviction that ultimately defies criticism by literary conventions.

And Brian Stableford:

Marie Corelli presumably owed her success to the fact that she was prepared to expose to the world the silly sophistry by which she tried to shore up her religious faith with borrowed jargon, supplemented by her narcissistic fantasies of being more suited for the company of angels than mere men. Unabashed by the savage derision of more sensible folk, she heroically took this crusade into an imaginative terra incognita which no one else has ever dared explore. The astonishing, if temporary, success of her works demonstrates that her expression of her own delusions and aspirations were capable of soothing, at least in some small measure, the distress of millions of her contemporaries.

The Sorrows of Satan is not representative of anything but Corelli (she was never a joiner, instead insisting that others join her). It does, however, represent her exceptionally well–a representation that she would have regretted, had she but known.

For Further Research:
Casey, Janet Gallignani. “Mary Mackay.” British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880-1914: The Romantic Tradition. Ed. William F. Naufftus. (Gale, 1995).
Gannon, Christine. “Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan: Literary Professionalism and the Female Author as Priest.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 v56n3 (Summer 2013).
James, Louis. “Marie Corelli: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. (St. James Press, 1994).
Loufbourow, Lili. “Gollum’s Mother: On Marie Corelli.” Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb. 13, 2013.
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. “Marie Corelli & her Occult Tales.”
Stableford, Brian. “Marie Corelli: Overview.” St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers. Ed. David Pringle. (St. James Press, 1996).

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Another chapter completed.

Seem to be settling into a solid daily rhythm of 1500 words or so, which is nothing compared to a John Scalzi but, hey, I do what I can.

I: had the detective finish interviewing the newspaper reporter and then grill the local crimelord.

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