Steampunk runs a wide gamut of themes, usually drawing inspiration from the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells along with the pulp fiction that was famous for it’s prolific nature and low quality in the Victorian era. In many ways it is a retro genre, as much about evoking the feel of those days than about trying to tell a particular brand of story. So steampunk has a tendency to wander far afield. Where fantasy, mystery and science fiction are usually thought of as mostly separate genres, steampunk has a tendency to mix all three liberally.
But there’s one other genre that frequently, but not always makes its way into steampunk stories: Horror.
Not just any horror, either, but horror based on the madness-exploring works of H.P. Lovecraft. One such book is S.M. Peters Whitechapel Gods.
Before we dive into that, a brief explanation of Lovecraftian fiction, also known as cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is designed to induce fear through the idea that humanity is in the grips of uncaring and impersonal forces beyond the ability of men to understand or have any lasting effect on. These forces are usually personified as old and powerful aliens from the depths of space (hence the term ‘cosmic’), the most well-known being Cthulhu. Any attempt to come to grips with these forces, and in many cases even just seeing them, drives people mad. They leave readers with the impression that, with the exception of a few well trained experts who can hold insanity at bay, if only for a time, humanity has no choice but to accept eventual destruction. Their only choice is whether they will approach it in ignorance or insanity.
Cosmic horror tends to be popular among geeks (but not this one) and scientists (they’re not the same thing), but doesn’t enjoy much acceptance in the mainstream, which already has newspapers and MSNBC presenting much the same themes.
So wait, if I don’t enjoy cosmic horror much, why am I recommending Whitechapel Gods to you?
Well, mostly because it manages to dodge most of the failings of the cosmic genre while reveling in the trappings. For those of you that have never heard of it, Whitechapel is a part of London (which means that, unlike the other two steampunk stories I’ve mentioned, this Victorian era fantasy actually takes place in Victorian London!) However, unlike the real Whitechapel, the Whitechapel created by Peters is totally cut off from the rest of London, and England as a whole. Within its walls, Baron Atlas Hume rules with the aid of his steam powered robotic enforces, the Boiler Men and his majordomo, John Scared.
In addition to being the ruler, Baron Hume is the high priest of a dark cult that worships the horrific cosmic beings Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock, and assists them in the Great Work that will ultimately Destroy The Earth (okay, that last part is never actually said anywhere, but it’s implied.) Each of these strange, mechanical “gods” claims a priesthood from among the general populace, known as Black Cloaks (for Mama Engine) and Gold Cloaks (for Grandfather Clock).
Oh, and there might be some normal people running around trying to overthrow the Baron and his gods and restore Whitechapel to London proper.
What sets Whitechapel Gods apart from most of cosmic fiction is that it makes humanity an active participant in the story and avoids sidelining its villains. One of the biggest problems of cosmic horror is the way it tries to present epic threats to the safety of humanity while the majority of humanity remains in ignorance of the threat. Cosmic horror implies that this makes humanity ignorant chumps, with the exception of the chosen handful who have the strength of will to look extinction in the face and realize they’re doomed.
On the other hand, in Whitechapel Gods humanity actively participates in either advancing or preventing the outcome of the story. First and foremost is Baron Hume, who lays the foundation for the altered Whitechapel of his own free will. Following in his footsteps come the armies of Cloaks who read his words and trust his gods. Behind them all lurks John Scared, who pursues his own twisted ends and opposing them is the very Crown of England and its agents, plus many of the common people of Whitechapel itself.
Since the typical Lovecraftian horror drives men insane just by being around, it’s really very hard to describe them in the pages of a book. Any title that tries and succeeds is likely to have a hard time finding a publisher. As a result, we tend to hear people talking about these things an awful lot, but they never do anything of note (except possibly being seen by one of the characters and thus driving them insane). There’s a whole lot of build up without a lot of payoff and the villains of cosmic horror wind up being not the entities the stories are about, but the humans who destroy themselves trying to understand them.
Whitechapel Gods presents us with entities that are much more active and thus, much more sinister. Just the presence of Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock causes a disease known as the clacks, a disease that slowly morphs parts of the victim’s body into machinery. Grandfather Clock can see through the faces of clocks and watches, and spies on the people of Whitechapel to keep them in line. Mama Engine will not let her priests die, no matter what happens to them. While not present in the way the other characters are, the cosmic horrors of Whitechapel Gods are just as present and just as horrible as the human villains of the book, putting them several steps ahead of most other Lovecraftian creatures.
Now if all there was to Whitechapel Gods were a great story of creepy aliens plotting to destroy the world from the heart of Victorian London I’m not sure the book would be worth recommending. But with the addition of a solidly written hero’s journey and a slew of surprising and well rendered human protagonists, Peters does an excellent job of giving you people to root for as well. With subtle questions about what it takes to be a leader in hard times woven throughout, the tale offers food for thought as well.
Many books show you humanity at its best. But if you like fiction that takes a stab at showing how humanity can show its best even in the face of things that should be beyond it, Whitechapel Gods is a title worth checking out.