Thursday, 26 May 2011

Review: Tales From the Asylum: A Steampunk Compilation (The Last Line, 2010)

Tales From the Asylum is a collection of steampunk short stories, published by small press The Last Line in 2010. I came across the book at the 2010 Bram Stoker Film Festival, where the publishers had a stall. I was intrigued by the overall concept of the book (and more on that below), but also by what the publishers (and one of the authors) told me about the book's conception. The writers involved in the project are all steampunks themselves, and wanted to write a book that reflected what they termed the 'grassroots' of steampunk. Unlike many recent anthologies, which they felt were produced by writers 'trying out a new genre', this collection is intended as a journey into the world of the 'true' steampunk.

Although this is a short story collection, it is not simply an anthology of genre fiction. The stories are linked together by a framing narrative. The 'Asylum' of the title is a crumbling, and somewhat mysterious, mental facility, and the frame story follows Arkwright - a warden of sorts - as he visits the cells of the last ten inmates. Each individual story narrates the circumstances and histories of these 'cases', who, as the blurb on the back states, "can never be released". In between stories, the narration returns to Arkwright, and gives some unsettling hints about the real purpose of the asylum. Arkwright himself appears in one of the stories, deepening the connection between the warden, his charges, and the institution to which they all belong.

The stories included cover a range of sinister material - from vampires and vampire hunters to the malevolent force of nature that is the ocean. The collection begins with Rich Blackett's 'Stargazer', which narrates the story of an airship rigger through a series of transcribed interviews. Andrea Burnett's 'Voices from the Past' offers (somewhat fraudulent) mediums, and Karl Burnett's 'The Toothless Jaw' is a classic Victorian tale of a haunted locket and its effects on all those who come into contact with it. Locations are varied - from the fishing village of L.M. Cooke's 'The Call of the Deep' to the moon (in Herr Doktor's 'Sea of Tranquillity'), and characters range from a would-be vampire hunter (in Matt Adams' 'Blood Hunt') to a rather unsettlingly jovial fellow in Ian Crichton's 'Ghost Ship'.

One of the real strengths of the collection lies not in what the narratives say, but rather in what they don't say. My personal favourite out of the eleven narratives is Arkwright's 'The Hollow Man'. Unlike the other stories, this piece is not framed as the 'history' of a particular inmate. Nor does it begin with any introduction or situation. "Scream!" it begins, and then "I hung in a void, no knowledge of where I was." The lack of any real explanation creates a wonderfully unsettling piece of macabre horror, heightened by the references in the framing narrative to a place where "nothing human had ever passed" and a cell with a bricked-up door.

Similarly, the true purpose and history of the asylum is left, in part, to the reader's imagination. Though there are threads of a story - in the frame story and in some of the pieces themselves - and various references to sinister government forces and committees (including a familiar gentleman whose brother lives in Baker Street), this is handled with some subtlety and opacity.

While I did enjoy all the stories in this collection, I do have a couple of criticisms. The first is that there are quite few issues with editing (spelling and punctuation particularly). However, since I know that the publishers are aware of these, it seems somewhat churlish to dwell on them.

The second issue I have is more to do with my own tastes. While the book is written by steampunks - and having met some of them, I can certainly vouch for this - I'd question just how 'steampunk' some of the stories actually are. Personally, I prefer steampunk fiction that imagines a future world, based on Victorian technology (or some version of this), but not definitively set in this period. While the stories in this collection employ many of the tropes of steampunk - airships, brass rockets and automata all feature - they are quite clearly grounded in the nineteenth-century. Indeed, in the first story, the date of "1898" is given explicitly. Only one of the stories (Rich Blackett's 'Ring of Silence') hints at the more 'fantastical' technology associated with steampunk fiction, with the bodily modifications of Nell Fenton suggesting a sort of future version of Victorian technology.

As such, it might be better to class this collection as 'Victoriana' rather than steampunk per se. Indeed, several of the stories owe a debt to the nineteenth-century writers that are credited as the forerunners of the steampunk genre (H.G. Wells and Jules Verne) or to writers of 'classic' speculative fiction (M.R. James and Edgar Allen Poe) rather than to more recent literary creations. This is not to say that the stories aren't effective, but that they might be better described as tales of the Victorian uncanny.

Nevertheless, there is a real exhuberance and enthusiasm to the collection, which makes it a compelling read. Each writer has put their own stamp on their story, while the framing device gives a pace and movement to the overall narrative. It is fitting that the reader is asked to "follow in Arkwright's footsteps", as this is an apt description of the experience of reading the book. We move from one tale to the next as though following the path the warden takes through the asylum. The end result is something more than a series of stories simply linked by theme.

Overall, I recommend Tales From the Asylum: a book to have at hand for those days where you just fancy a bit of Victorian creepiness.

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