Ghosts By Gaslight
Posted by Holly
Steampunk is far and away one of my favorite escapist genres to explore. The playful Victorian aesthetics aside, there is something quite freeing in the retro-futuristic landscape of the worlds it encompasses. It allows for us to play in a setting where things were perhaps a bit more stifling for anyone that wasn’t a white, upper class man, and oftentimes show women who are going against the grain a bit. More recently, a subgenre of steampunk has emerged, that takes the ideas of steampunk, and focuses it less on scienes and gadgets and more on the Gothic horror literature of the Victorian era. This genre is aptly called dreadpunk.
Ghosts By Gaslight is a collection of steampunk horror fiction, falling squarely into the perimeters of dreadpunk. Naturally, I was very excited to see so many things I loved come together into one collection of short stories, as Gothic horror has such a unique charm for me. But did Ghosts By Gaslight manage to meet my hopeful expectations? Unfortunately, the answer is a very strong no.
When I opened the table of contents for this book and saw that there were only three female authors out of twenty, I already felt a tinge of disappointment. After searching the authors online, I confirmed my suspicion that they were, in fact, all white authors also. That’s not to say a mostly-male collection of stories can’t be great steampunk/dreadpunk, but the lack in diversity of voices was a bit of a red flag for me. This didn’t turn me off from the book, and I still plunged in, hoping for eerie, Gothic horror that has a nice “punk” edge to it.
What I got was a collection of mostly men writing almost exclusively about men, with little to no regard for women’s experience whatsoever. What I got was a collection of Gothic fiction that teased at becoming dreadpunk in a few of the stories, but remained mostly a pallid imitation of the writing of the time period. What I got was a consistent stream of sexist, racist, and otherwise terrible portrayals of anyone that wasn’t a white male, with numerous depictions of sexual exploitation. What I got was a painful swell of hope each time I began a new story, only to have it quickly deflated by the story’s end.
In this collection, women are rarely elevated above being portrayed as wives, sisters, prostitutes, or seductive specters. There is literally one story that focuses on women as the central characters, and does not place them only within range of being important to a man’s story. There is only one story. To no one’s surprise, it happens to be one of the very, very few stories written by a woman. This story, titled Christopher Raven, is one of the highlights of the book, but ultimately ends up being more of a supernatural coming of age story than actual horror.
The casual treatment of rape in this collection is something else that needs to be addressed. I’d love to be able to tell you that this book contains no incidents of a man having sex with a woman’s unwilling, unconscious body, without her knowledge of consent, only to have his actions defended by the narrative. In fact, I’d love to be able to say that this only happens once in the book. Unfortunately, there are two separate incidents of this happening; the worse of the two offenders, Why I Was Hanged, even manages to play the ‘she really wanted it all along’ card, despite the woman never learning of what really happened. Bonus points: she ends up pregnant, and a ruined woman. Rose Street Attractors uses the excuse that a ghost has possessed the character’s body, and we should simply accept the act, presumably, because the woman is a prostitute and (of course) in love with the male protagonist.
Another glaring issue comes from the lack of racial diversity in the author pool. While often steampunk stories do center around Victorian England, a backdrop that doesn’t encourage as much diversity, including writers of color could have expanded that further, to other parts of the world, or simply new perspectives that would have enriched the experience. As it is, a decent handful of the writers here tried their hand at using other locations and ideas from other cultures in their stories, sometimes to disastrous effect. The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star has one of the most cringeworthy examples of the “exotic Asian woman” trope I’ve seen in a long time. Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar, a story that is set in India, has no actual people of color in it. At all. Even when they discover an ancient tribe of natives, it’s all strictly white people.
That is not to say that there were only negative or harmful stories in this collection. There were a number of stories that were exciting, eerie, and clever. The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons was by far one of the best stories included; it had a wonderfully whimsical premise hinging on ominous balloons, along with the creeping feeling of dread so important in Gothic horror. The Grave Reflection has an intriguing blend of ghostly presence and romance, which results in a beautiful yet melancholy tale that sticks in your mind after finishing it. Christopher Raven, as mentioned earlier, is a strong entry as a female-centric coming of age story, though lacking in some of the scarier elements.
The problem, on a whole, with this collection is that the voices are merely mimicking Victorian Gothic fiction, without actually doing anything to revitalize it. These stories take place during a time when there were certainly harsh conditions for women and other minorities, but the beauty in steampunk is the allowance to subvert those patriarchal, stifling notions while still appreciating aspects of Victorian culture. Very few of these stories seek to challenge the status quo, essentially removing the “punk” part of the genre from the picture. And while some of the stories achieve a nice rendering of Victorian Gothic fiction, without that aspect, it’s simply parroting antiquated ideas and themes back at a reader that wants more.
I can’t recommend this collection in good conscience. I can, however, urge you to seek out the individual stories that were worthwhile, and to support the women who wrote in this collection. Other than this, all I can say is that the scariest thing this book had to offer was a look into the worldview of white, male authors, and how dehumanizing the experience is to a reader that doesn’t meet both of those qualifications.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5. Half a point for each woman who was given a slot in the collection.
Violence level: Actually quite low. This book at least embraced the idea of ‘dread’ in its gothic settings, and there wasn’t very much explicit violence to speak of. Explicit sexual violence, however, is another story – Why I Was Hanged, Rose Street Attractors, Mysteries of the Old Quarter, and The Summer Palace all contain depictions of sexual assault. I may even be forgetting some.
Scariness level: It was really uneven; some of these stories ended up being just strange pieces of Victorian themed fiction, without much scariness to them. The best entries for their eerie quality: The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons, The Grave Reflection, Music When Soft Voices Die (despite its other problematic aspects).
Bechdel test: One. Story. That is literally the only story, out of twenty, that passes the Bechdel test. I’m beyond a point of disappointment; it’s honestly unacceptable. Christopher Raven is the only story that passes.
Mako Mori test: I’ll hold in my laughter for a brief moment to once again say Christopher Raven passes.