Ghosts by Gaslight
Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense
EDITED BY JACK DANN AND NICK GEVERS
In memory of Kage Baker
Contents Cover Title Page Dedication ? Introduction James Morrow - The Iron Shroud Peter S. Beagle - Music, When Soft Voices Die Terry Dowling - The Shaddowwes Box Garth Nix - The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder Gene Wolfe - Why I Was Hanged Margo Lanagan - The Proving of Smollett Standforth Sean Williams - The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star Robert Silverberg - Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar John Langan - The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons John Harwood - Face to Face Richard Harland - Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism Marly Youmans - The Grave Reflection Theodora Goss - Christopher Raven Lucius Shepard - Rose Street Attractors Laird Barron - Blackwood’s Baby Paul Park - Mysteries of the Old Quarter Jeffrey Ford - The Summer Palace ? About the Editors Credits Copyright Copyright Acknowledgments About the Publisher
GHOSTS BY GASLIGHT.
Those three words neatly summarize a great paradox of the Victorian age.
After all, the time of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) was by its own declaration an age ofspreading enlightenment—the growth of literacy; the rapid introduction of mass-manufacturingtechnology; the propagation of humane values; the termination of the slave trade; legislationto curb cruelties inherent in industrial labor; and, on a literal level, the provision of evermore illumination to Britain’s (and America’s) cities, first by means of gas lighting, thenwith electricity. Let there be light! And yet even as the darkness of the streets and of someforms of economic deprivation was alleviated, the ghosts imagined by the population multiplied.Old fears, old phantoms and bogeys, old conceptions of bad luck and supernatural revengecombined with new wraiths and monsters born of the torments of social change and ideologicalawakening; and from the far corners of the British Empire returning soldiers, administrators,traders, travelers, and missionaries imported foreign narratives of yet more apprehension:accounts of Arabian Nights djinns, Transylvanian vampires, accursed rajahs, Chinese phantasms,West Indian duppies, and African totems. Real-life terrors like the depredations of Jack theRipper mingled in the popular fancy with these improbable but direly potent materials; and inresponse, even as some Victorian fiction described hopeful or apocalyptic technologicaladvance, many other tales brooded on the fantastic and the ominously irrational. The purposefullight of extrapolation competed with the looming darkness of the horrid.
This anthology pays innovative tribute to both of those streams of Victorian storytelling: thescientific romance and the classic ghost story, as they matured through the Great WhiteMother’s reign and in that of her rotund and jocular son Edward VII, before the outbreak ofWorld War I in 1914 brought shattering disillusionments. After all, a century later,speculative fiction continues to honor the two forms: steampunk novels and stories regularlyrecapture (and recomplicate) the gadget-encrusted early science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, while leading horror and dark fantasy authors (many of them represented in this book)pay recurrent homage to the ghostly tale. So .?.?.
Why not a feast of fine new stories, filled with the pleasurable disquiet of things that gobump in the night and, at times, the thrills of sinister, arcane machinery as well? Perhaps theparadox of Victorian superstition-amidst-enlightenment can be resolved by way of this mixture;and anyway, the results are bound to be extremely entertaining. Thus Ghosts by Gaslight, in
which seventeen of the best contemporary writers of supernatural fiction revisit the world offog and fear that our ancestors knew only too well, on both sides of the Atlantic.
AS YOU’LL SEE reflected in many of the stories in the present volume, the Victorian/Edwardianperiod’s fiction of the fantastic and the ominously irrational sometimes went far beyondinstilling simple fright and awe. During the heyday of the classic ghost story in thenineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were plenty of sensationalistic (and ephemeral)writers whose contributions to the many fiction magazines were all about cheap, garish effects;but their efforts were counterweighed by more profound, psychologically penetrating tales fromsuch major literary names as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, WilkieCollins, Mrs. Gaskell, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Robert Louis Stevenson,Walter de la Mare, Mrs. Oliphant, and Ambrose Bierce—and many writing in languages other thanEnglish. These authors were not slumming in a superficial popular genre; they had quite seriousintent. And they were joined in this by inspired specialists in the supernatural, some of whomremain well known today for their spooky brilliance: J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, BramStoker, Vernon Lee, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson. Henry and M. R.James (no relations), in their very different efforts like “The Turn of the Screw” and “Oh,Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” employed ghosts and other phantoms of the nocturnalhours to cast light on the interior of the human psyche; this was the collective goal. In thehands of all these practitioners, ghosts signified aspects of the mentalities of those stillliving: a man visiting a haunted house was in a real sense haunting it himself, witnessingapparitions that echoed the proceedings of his own subconscious. Just as the emerging
discipline of psychiatry was beginning to probe the subtle, contradictory workings of the humanbrain, the Victorian and Edwardian canons of the ghostly were projecting upon the printed pageflickering specters of our repressed desires and our most terrible impulses. The ghost, in thefinal analysis, is very often Us. And likewise the vampire, the werewolf, and the many furtherdoppelgängers embodied in literary nightmares.
with many a fresh twist. Ghost stories areThis approach continues in Ghosts by Gaslight,
gothic fictions, in that their objective landscapes—old manor houses, creepy backwoods, artgalleries where the portraits stare out more purposefully than usual—are also intenselysubjective. When Laird Barron’s hunters range the monstrous Washington wilderness in homage toAlgernon Blackwood’s menacing panoramas of haunted Nature, and when John Langan’s Henry-Jamesian protagonist ventures into far more settled but still eerie precincts back east, theyare going home to themselves, to self-knowledge. Such knowledge can be utterly horrifying,merely disturbing, subtly discombobulating, quietly domestic, or even somewhat antic. But ofwhatever color, it is revealing of what we have not been able, or willing, to realize aboutourselves. So the part of that is ghostly is about its afflicted charactersGhosts by Gaslight
staring into the mirror, at their grave reflections, amidst cries of terror and looming shadesof night.
But what of the gaslight, which can help to dispel the darkness? The “scientific romances” ofWells, Verne, and others anticipated future times—often very near futures—in which expandingfrontiers of knowledge would deliver to humankind, or privileged sections of humankind,enormously increased power over Nature. These were Promethean fictions that expected theprodigious leaps of innovation already being experienced (from horse-drawn carts and carriagesto widespread railways in just a generation! from cities of dangerous shadow to modernmetropolises with brightly lit streets in just a few years! from crude telegraphy to radio inalmost no time!) to continue, to the point where submarines would patrol effortlessly thegreatest depths of the sea, airships would wander the skies with serene impunity, and the firstspacecraft, propelled by giant cannon or miraculous Cavorite, would allow swift visits to themoon. Human beings would at last ascend beyond their cruel enslavement to the earth’s surface,the cycle of the seasons, and the harsh laws of economics. Society would alter radically:utopias were glimpsed in many stories of this kind, whether socialist, anarchist, arcadian, oraristocratic. Grand visions indeed, promising so much .?.?. And yet Prometheus suffereddreadfully for bestowing the gift of fire upon mankind; and the scientific romancers were onlytoo conscious of the perilous downside of technology run amok. For every victorious adventurethere was a waiting catastrophe: the world devastated by novel weapons, political tyrannyaugmented with new instruments of oppression, aliens invading, Homo sapiens speciating into
warring tribes of hominids. Early science fiction indeed illuminated the future, but blackclouds of war and chaos cast warning shadows across the prospect. Current steampunk writingreflects this balance faithfully: in the stories that follow are to be found such things asdeath in well-built cities, gear-shifting mummies, ghosts in Faraday cages, the dark matter ofballoons, and, of course, machines .?.?. machines that trap nightmares, machines that trapghosts, machines that trap and enslave souls.
GASLIGHT AND ITS successor, electrical lighting, lit up immense panoramas for the Victoriansand Edwardians, in real life, in reason, and in the imagination. Indeed, the ghost story, as aform of psychological fiction, was a part of the general enlightenment, inasmuch as it shone atorch on the nature of the psyche, permitting expanded understanding of how we ourselves work.Equally, the vast threats unveiled by the scientific romance were necessary, instructivepremonitions of the imminent upheavals of world war, revolution, and economic depression. Weneed light to see our ghosts by, even if it is merely some sort of ectoplasmic refulgence.Ghosts of the past and ghosts from the future unite in the chilling glow of this anthology,extending wisdom as well as fright, fateful comprehension as well as blind terror; and all inhighly entertaining form, in some cases as pure fuliginous horror, in others as awestruckobservation, or as yearning towards otherworldly radiance, or as cunning satirical fun.
So let there be light .?.?. and ghosts yet to be revealed.
—JACK DANN AND NICK GEVERS
Shortly after his seventh birthday, James Morrow dictated a loopy fantasy called “The Story ofthe Dog Family” to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Uponreaching adulthood, the author again endeavored to write fiction, eventually winning two NebulaAwards, two World Fantasy Awards, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the Grand Prix del’Imaginaire. Recent projects include a postmodern historical epic, The Last Witchfinder,
praised by the New York Times for fusing “storytelling, showmanship and provocative book-clubbait,” and a phantasmagoric tragicomedy, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, which NPR called “an
ingenious riff on Frankenstein.” Jim’s most recent book is a stand-alone novella, Shambling
set in 1945 and dramatizing the US Navy’s attempts to leverage a JapaneseTowards Hiroshima,
surrender via a biological weapon that strangely anticipates Godzilla.
The Iron Shroud
JONATHAN HOBBWRIGHT CANNOT discourse upon the formic thoughts that flicker through the minds ofants, and he is similarly ignorant concerning the psyches of locusts, toads, moles, apes, andbishops, but he can tell you what it’s like to be in hell. The abyss has become his fixedabode. Perdition is now his permanent address.
Although Jonathan’s eyes deliver only muddy and monochromatic images, his ears have acquiredan uncommon acuity. Encapsulated head to toe in damnation’s carapace, he can hear thethrobbing heart of a nearby rat, the caw of a proximate raven, the hiss of an immediate snake.
Not only is the abyss acoustically opulent, it is temporally egalitarian. Here every second iscommensurate with a minute, every minute with an hour, every hour with an aeon. Has he beenimmured for a week? A month? A year? Is he reciting to himself the tenth successive account ofhis incarceration? The hundredth? The thousandth?
Listen carefully, Jonathan Hobbwright. Attend to every word emerging from the gossamer gates ofyour phantom mouth. Perhaps on this retelling you will discover some reason not to abandonhope. Even in hell stranger things have happened.
IT IS AT the funeral of his mentor and friend, the illustrious Alastair Wohlmeth, that Jonathanmeets the woman whose impeccable intentions are to become the paving-stones on his road toperdition. By the terms of Dr. Wohlmeth’s last will and testament, the service is churchlessand austere: a graveside gathering in Saint Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Oxford, not so very far fromWadham College, where Wohlmeth wrought most of his scientific breakthroughs. Per the deadman’s prescription, the party is limited to his one true protégé—Jonathan—plus his valet,his beloved but dull-witted sister, his three most promising apprentices, and the RightReverend Mr. Torrance.
As the vicar mutters the incantation by which an Englishman once again becomes synonymous withashes and dust, the mourners contemplate the corpse. Dr. Wohlmeth’s earthly remains lie withinan open coffin suspended above the grave, its oblong form casting a jagged shadow across thecavity like the gnomon on an immense sundial. The inscription on the stone is singularly spare:A. F. Wohlmeth, 1803–1881.
To assert that Alastair Wohlmeth was a latter-day Prometheus would not, in Jonathan’s view,distort the truth. Just as the mythic Titan stole fire from the gods, so did Wohlmethappropriate from nature some of her most obscure principles, transforming them into his ownprivate science, the nascent sphere of knowledge he called vibratology. This new field was forits discoverer a fundamentally esoteric realm, to be explored in a manner reminiscent of theancient Pythagoreans practicing their cultish geometry. Of course, when the outside worldrealized that Wohlmeth’s quest had yielded a practical invention—a tuning fork capable ofcracking the thickest crystal and pulverizing the strongest metal—the British Society ofEngineers urged him to patent the device and establish a corporation dedicated to itscommercial exploitation. One particularly aggressive B.S.E. member, a demolitions expert namedCardigan, wanted to market the Wohlmeth Resonator as “an earthquake in a satchel-case,” amiraculous implement auguring a day when “the dredging of canals, the blasting of mines, theshattering of battlements, and the moving of mountains will be accomplished with the wave of awand.” To Dr. Wohlmeth’s eternal credit, or so Jonathan constructed the matter, he resistedall such blandishments. Until the day he died, Wohlmeth forbade his disciples to discuss theresonator in any but the most opaque mathematical terms, confining the conversation toquarterlies concerned solely with theoretical harmonics. The technical periodicals, meanwhile,remained as bereft of articles about the tuning fork as they did of lyric poetry.
Contrary to Wohlmeth’s wishes, a ninth mourner has appeared at the service, a parchment-skinned crone in a black-hooded mantle. Her features, Jonathan notes, partake as much of thegeological as the anatomical. Her brow is a crag, her nose a promontory, her lower lip aprotuberant shelf of rock. With impassive eyes she watches while the sexton, a nimble scarecrownamed Foote, leans over the open coffin and, in accordance with the deceased genius’s desires,
lays a resonator on the frozen bosom, wrapping the stiff fingers around the shank, so that indeath Dr. Wohlmeth assumes the demeanor of a sacristan clutching a broom-sized crucifix. Aninstant later the sexton’s assistants—the blockish Garber and the scrawny Osmond—set the lidon the coffin and nail it in place. Foote works the windlass, lowering Wohlmeth to his finalresting place. Taking up their spades, Garber and Osmond return the dirt whence it came, theclods striking the coffin lid with percussive thumps, even as the crone approaches Jonathan.
“Dr. Hobbwright, I presume?” she says in a viscous German accent. “Vibratologistextraordinaire?”
“Not nearly so extraordinaire as Alastair Wohlmeth.”
Reaching into her canvas sack, the crone produces the January, April, and July issues ofOscillation Dynamics for 1879. “But you published articles in all these, ja?”
“It was a good year for me,” Jonathan replies, nodding. “No fewer than five of my projectscame to fruition.”
“But 1881 will be even better.” The crone’s voice suggests a corroded piccolo played by aconsumptive. “Before the month is out, you will bring peace and freedom to a myriad unjustlyimprisoned souls.” From her sack she withdraws a leather-bound volume inscribed with the wordsJournal of Baron Gustav Nachtstein. “I am Countess Helga Nachtstein. Thirty years ago I gavebirth to the author of this confession, my beloved Gustav, destined for an untimely end—moreuntimely, even, than the fate of his father, killed in a duel when Gustav was only ten.”
“My heart goes out to you,” Jonathan says.
The Countess sighs extravagantly, doubling the furrows of her crenellated brow. “The sins ofthe sons are visited on the mothers. Please believe me when I say that Gustav Nachtstein was asbrilliant a scientist as your Dr. Wohlmeth. Alas, his investigations took him to a dark place,and in consequence many innocent beings have spent the past eleven years locked in an earthlypurgatory. Just when I’d begun to despair of their liberation, I happened upon my son’scollection of scientific periodicals. The fact that the inventor of the Wohlmeth Resonator isno longer among the living has not dampened my expectations, for I assume you can lay yourhands on such a machine and bear it to the site of the tragedy.”
“As consideration I can offer one thousand English pounds.” The Countess presses her son’sdiary into Jonathan’s uncertain grasp. “Open his journal to the entry of August the sixth,1870, and you will find an initial payment of two hundred pounds, plus the first-class railwaytickets that will take you from London to Freiburg to the village of Tübinhausen—and fromthere to Castle Kralkovnik in the Schwarzwald. May I assume that a week will suffice for you toput your affairs in order?”
Cracking the spine of the Baron’s journal, Jonathan retrieves an envelope containing thepromised bank notes and train tickets. “I must confess, Countess, I’m perplexed by yourpresumption.” He glances toward the grave, noting that the crater is now sealed. The mournerslinger beside the mound, each locked in contemplations doubtless ranging from cherishedmemories of Dr. Wohlmeth to wonderment over who among them will next feel the Reaper’s scytheto curiosity concerning the location of the nearest public house. “Does it not occur to youthat I may have better things to do with my time than extirpating your son’s transgressions?”
By way of reply, the Countess produces from her sack a tinted daguerreotype of a young woman.“I am not the only one to experience remorse over Gustav’s imprudence. My granddaughter Lotteis also in pain, tormented by her failure to warn her father away from his project. Havingrecently extricated herself from an ill-advised engagement, she is presently in residence atthe castle. The thought of meeting the renowned Dr. Hobbwright has fired her with ananticipation bordering on exhilaration.”
JONATHAN SPENDS THE remainder of the afternoon in the Queen’s Lane Coffee-House, perusing theBaron’s confession. Shortly after four o’clock, he finishes reading the last entry, thenslams the volume closed. If this fantastic chronicle can be believed, then the evil that Gustav
Nachtstein perpetrated was of so plenary an intensity as to demand his immediate intervention.
He will go to the Black Forest, bearing a tuning fork and collateral voltaic piles. He willredeem the damned souls of Castle Kralkovnik. But even if their plight had not stirredJonathan, the case would still entail two puissant facts: ?1,000 is the precise sum by which acompetent vibratologist might continue Dr. Wohlmeth’s work on a scale befitting its worth, andnever in his life has Jonathan beheld a creature so lovely as Fräulein Lotte Nachtstein.
15 March 1868
After many arduous years of research into the dubious science of spiritualism, I have reachedsix conclusions concerning so-called ghosts.
1. There is no great beyond—no stable realm where carefree phantoms gambol while awaitingcommuniqués from turban-topped clairvoyants sitting in candlelit parlors surrounded by thedearly departed’s loved ones. Show me a medium, and I’ll show you a mountebank. Give me afilament of ectoplasm, and I’ll return a strand of taffy.
2. There is life after death.
3. Once a specter has elected to vacate its fleshly premises, no ordinary barrier of stone ormetal will impede its journey. A willful phantom can easily escape a Pharaoh’s tomb, apotentate’s mausoleum, or a lead casket buried six feet underground.
4. With each passing instant, yet another quantum of a specter’s incorporeal substancescatters in all directions. Once dissipated, a ghost can never reassemble itself. The post-mortem condition is evanescent in the extreme, not to be envied by anyone possessing an ounceof joie de vivre.
5. Despite the radical discontinuity between the two planes, a specter may, under certain rarecircumstances, access the material world prior to total dissolution—hence the occasionalcredible account of a ghost performing a boon for the living. A deceased child places herfavorite doll on her mother’s dresser. A departed suitor posts a letter declaring eternaldevotion to his beloved. A phantom dog barks one last time, warning his master away from a
bridge on the point of collapse.
6. In theory a competent scientist should be able at the moment of death to encapsulate aperson’s spectral shade in some spiritually impermeable substance, thus canceling thedissipation process and creating a kind of immortal soul. The question I intend to explore maybe framed as follows. Do the laws of nature permit the synthesis of an alloy so dense as totrap an emergent ghost, yet sufficiently pliant that the creature will be free to move about?
17 May 1868
For the past two months I have not left my laboratory. I am surrounded by the music of science:burbling flasks, bubbling retorts, moaning generators, humming rectifiers. Von Helmholtz,Mendeleyev, and the rest—my alleged peers—will doubtless aver that my quest partakes more ofa discredited alchemy than a tenable chemistry. When I go to publish my results, they’llinsist with a sneer, I would do better submitting the paper to the Proceedings of the
Paracelsus Society than to the Cambridge Journal of Molecularism. Let the intellectual midgets
have their fun with me. Let the ignoramuses scoff. Where angels fear to tread, Baron Nachtstein
rushes in—and one day the dead will extol him for it.
If all goes well, by this time tomorrow I shall be holding in my hand a lump of the vitalmaterial. I intend to call it bezalelite, in honor of Judah Löew ben Bezalel, the medievalrabbi from Prague who fashioned a man of clay, giving the creature life by incising on its browthe Hebrew word Emeth—that is, truth.
Although Judah Löew’s golem was a faithful servant and protector of the ghetto, the rabbi wasnaturally obliged to prevent it from working on the Sabbath, a simple matter of effacing thefirst letter of Emeth, the Aleph, leaving Mem and Taw, characters that spell Meth—death. Butone fateful Friday evening Löew forgot to disable his brainchild. In consequence of thisinadvertent sacrilege, the golem ran amok all day Saturday, and so, come Sunday, the heartsick
rabbi dutifully ground the thing to dust.