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Extraordinarily Dark Gentlemen

by Tony Richards


Let’s call our dark fantasy writer Fred.

So, Fred the Fantasy Writer is being interviewed, and he gets asked the inevitable question: “Which writers have influenced you the most?”

If he’s younger then he’ll answer Stephen King, Clive Barker and the like. If he’s a little older then Ray Bradbury will always get a mention, along with Robert Bloch and – if Fred has any real taste at all – Fritz Leiber. In other words, we see our genre as having its original roots in the pulps of the Thirties, and then flourishing in the big commercial novels of the Seventies and Eighties.

But then Fred goes along to see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s nothing much at all. A popcorn movie. A pleasantly mindless way of killing a couple of hours. But the script, from the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, includes one interesting premise, practically a literary conceit. All its characters have been drawn out of novels from a much earlier age. There is Alan Quartermain from Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Captain Nemo from Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Mina Harker from Dracula, Wells’ Invisible Man, Stephenson’s Jekyll-Hyde, and Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Conan-Doyle’s Moriarty – rather unoriginally – also shows up, and there are strong references to Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and Poe’s Murders on the Rue Morgue.

And Fred staggers out of the theatre thinking: “My God, I’ve read all of those books – in fact, I read most of them when I was still a kid!”

At which point Fred starts to wonder what his real influences are.

Can it possibly be that the modern day incarnation of the dark fantasy genre actually grew, not out of the pulps at all, but out of the Victorian age? The straight-laced, stuffy Victorian age with its Empire and its stern, prudish morality?

But stop and think about it for a moment. We’re going – not commercially but certainly creatively – through a high point at the moment, with new independent outlets appearing all over the place and wild talents like Graham Joyce and Chris Fowler and dozens like them firing off in directions previously unimaginable. What has brought this on? Writers, just like any other people, are influenced by what’s happening in the world around them. And the two salient facts about the world at the moment are that – one – it’s changing at a startling pace, and – two – it’s getting dangerous. Our fiction reflects this. And the same was true in Victorian times.

We’re still going through the electronic revolution at the moment, and quite possibly always will be. But our Victorian forebears were enduring one even more startling simply because it had no precedent. The Industrial Revolution changed at least the Western World forever in a scant few decades. Turned us from an agricultural to an urban society. Altered irretrievably the way we lived and worked and even thought. And the British Victorians were at the forefront of all that, the Western Europeans coming close behind. How could writers not respond?

As for dangerous? Well, you have to fight pretty hard to keep hold of an Empire. And, though there’d always been bandits, the urbanisation of England brought its society face-to-face with a new breed, the street criminal. Gentlemen, extraordinary or otherwise, went about armed at night in London, for very good reason. Beneath the prissy surface, there was darkness aplenty for authors to feed on. This too was the era, after all, of the Ripper, slain prostitutes, and unimaginable poverty. Charles Dickens – author of the world’s most famous ghost story – understood this all too well.

New horizons were opening up then, and at the same time new hazards being encountered or guessed at. The fact that we – and the French – owned Empires in the first place had its part to play as well. A century earlier, would travel to Africa or the Indian subcontinent have been so commonplace a concept? And if there, why not to new dimensions, or the future, or even the stars? Kipling spent a good deal of time delving around India, and was inspired himself to write several supernatural tales – there’s even a dark mysticism at the heart of Kim.

Here’s the oddest thing of all about the Victorians, though. Technologically the world around them was expanding very fast, but physically it was shrinking at pretty much the same rate, whole sections of the globe, new cultures and philosophies, becoming more and more accessible. And yet minds and attitudes back home were largely shrinking too. The bawdy old England of previous centuries suddenly buttoned its fly and then stapled it shut. The term ‘Victorian values’ still puts a shiver down any spine that does not terminate at its top end with a blue rinse. Which brings us back almost to where we started – why did an age renowned for its small-mindedness produce such a large handful of very open ones?

Because – in the opinion of at least one of Fred’s colleagues – the writing of dark fantasy, supernatural fiction, horror, call it what you will, is in large part an act of intellectual rebellion. A refusal to accept received wisdom or be tied down by consensus and the workaday mundane. Fantasy writers set up barricades from behind which to attack the so-called ‘normal’ world, and then can’t be found there because they’ve wandered off to build another.

And …? Bram Stoker actually was part of the blue rinse brigade, and it shows through very badly to the detriment of his great opus. Wells certainly wasn’t though, neither was Poe, and as for Wilde …

Could it be, as it has been so often since then, that they opted to cloak themselves in the garments of our genre to, amongst other things, avoid the censor? (Okay, Dorian Gray still upset a lot of people, but then Wilde could offend them just by sneezing). Look at the dark sexuality in the work of one of their contemporaries, Sheridan le Fanu. Had it not appeared as vampire fiction then might le Fanu have received the same kind of pillorying poor Arthur Schnitzler took in later years? Dark fantasy is never taken half as seriously as supposed ‘literary fiction’ – that’s a two-edged sword that denies the writer proper respect but allows him extra freedoms.

Going back to the film, it’s notable that a grown-up Tom Sawyer also puts in an appearance. And was there ever a Victorian more querulous, less accepting of set values, than good Mr. Clemens? Who wrote an amount of fantasy as well, when you think about it.

So the next time Fred gets interviewed and asked about the influences on his work, he might just change his reply to: “Well, this answer might surprise you, but …”

Extraordinary really.






This article first appeared in 2005 in Here & Now Issue 5/6.

Copyright © Tony Richards 2005.



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