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Steampunk was born as literary genre, with precursors such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells among its main influencers. In any case, may the works of additional coetaneous authors become inspirational? Gothic novel, Romantic movement, early science fiction?
Let’s go back to the rainy summer of 1816, for example, when the gathering of Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva gave shape to a couple of masterpieces:
- ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ (first published on 1st January 1818), an epistolary work resulting of unorthodox experiments: physics and chemistry in shape of galvanism.
- ‘The Vampyre’, a short story first published in the New Monthly Magazine with the false attribution “A Tale by Lord Byron” on 1st April 1819. John William Polidori is considered the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre of fantasy fiction, transforming the vampire from a character in folklore into an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society. ‘The Vampyre’ is the precedent of ‘Carmilla’ by Sheridan Le Fanu (first published in 1871) and ‘Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood’ by James Malcolm Rymer (first appeared in 1845-47 as a series of cheap pamphlets of the kind then known as “penny dreadfuls” and published in book form in 1847), that inspired the famous ‘Dracula’ depicted by Bram Stoker.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, authors such as Henry Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells wrote many tales in which fantastic creatures threatened the British Empire. Invasion literature was at a peak.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886) had such an impact that it has become a part of the language, with the very phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ coming to mean a person who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next. In a time when the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis, the work is commonly associated with the rare mental condition often spuriously called ‘split personality’ (dissociative identity disorder in Psychiatry), where there exists more than one distinct personality within the same body. This story represents a concept in Victorian culture, that of the inner conflict of humanity’s sense of good and evil: this novella has been interpreted as an examination of the duality of human nature and that the failure to accept this tension results in the evil being projected onto others. The influence of ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is clear in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890), the only published novel by this author; with a strong Faustian theme, it deals with topics such as aestheticism, influence and responsibility.
And what about the legacy of the American author, poet, editor and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe? He is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. Many of his works are generally considered part of the dark romanticism genre and were early translated by the French author Charles Baudelaire. Poe wrote many short stories that addressed mesmerism, as ‘Mesmeric Revelation’, and the short story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (first published in 1842) has always exerted a kind of mechanical fascination over me.
Charles Baudelaire, for his part, dedicated his most famous work, ‘Les Fleurs du mal’ (‘The Flowers of Evil’, 1857), to the changing nature of beauty in modern, industrializing Paris during the 19th century. Baudelaire’s prose-poetry influenced a whole generation of poets including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé among many others.
We could travel even into early 20th century to rescue the cosmic horror of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Themes such as forbidden knowledge, risk of a scientific era or civilization under threat are characteristic of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ or ‘The Colour Out of Space’.
As you can see science and technology, cherished by steampunkers, and the occult and esoteric that seduce goths can be easily linked… and this leads us to the next point. Literature is only the beginning. We can go far beyond, as science met supernatural during the Victorian era.