As you will have spotted, in the past year or so, starting with the unambiguously titled I Like Darkness, I have increasingly returned in my literary tastes to my dark roots. So it is an honour to be able to talk to a writer and musician who is utterly immersed in the world of Victorian Gothic Horror. Jessica Law is a solo musician, part of a wonderfully avant garde band, a driving force in the Oxford steampunk scene, and an all-around ridiculously talented individual. Her new novel Jack the Re-Animator is a delicious slice of the darkest Gothic Horror, lightly lacquered over with a brush of Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith.
Particular thanks to her for some fascinating insights on how conspiracy theories have taken the place of urban myths, and the changing nature of “the villainous”.
Thank you so much for letting me thumbscrew, er interview, you.
- I have to start by asking you about the research you did for this book.
One of the first things I did was to re-read the classic Gothic Horrors of the 18th – 19th Century – Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray, Dracula, Frankenstein – as well as a lot of other literature of the time – Sherlock Holmes, Wuthering Heights, and the works of HG Wells. From these I absorbed much of what it was like to live in that era – the values, attitudes, technology and ways of life of the everyday person – in a much more organic and intuitive way than simply poring over history books (but don’t worry, I did use those too!)
I think this method informed the language of the book – I wanted the prose to feel like that of a classic Nineteenth Century novel, but without the sesquipedalian long-windedness that plagued a lot of authors of the time (who were often paid by the word, to the detriment of the story: controversially, I’m not a fan of Dickens.)
(This phenomenon also went a long way to explaining the entire chapter in The Picture of Dorian Gray [which was originally serialized] describing the properties of gems, which Oscar Wilde allegedly copied almost word for word from a factual book on the same subject.)
Since the Victorian era has always been a favourite of mine, a lot of my knowledge is ingrained – snippets I’ve absorbed from history lessons, documentaries, museums, and silly bits of trivia I’ve happened upon. Growing up in the Black Country, the heart of the Industrial Revolution, our only real heritage was that of the Victorian era, so anything to do with local history was always based on this period. It wasn’t until I moved to Oxford that I realised not every town is as obsessed with the Victorians as mine was!
My final bit of research was the delightful little book “Boys Will Be Boys” by E.S. Turner. Although misleadingly titled, it offers a very funny and informative round-up of the “Penny Dreadfuls”, sensational detective stories, and other cheap pulp fiction consumed by the populace during the nineteenth century, including the (often less than professional) writing practices of the authors, and the social conditions contributing to their phenomenal popularity at the time.
- There is something endlessly fascinating about late 19thcentury gothic. So much so that the first time I put on a spoken word show I had a speaker who wrote non-fiction about Limehouse Gothic. What is it that makes us quite so fascinated by this particular period and genre?
Simply put, the Victoria Era was just a completely mad period of time! It was a time of great change and upheaval, both technologically and socially, and a breeding ground for eccentrics. Coupled with a morbid obsession with death and spiritualism, it’s no surprise that people are still fascinated by a time when anything seemed possible. Radio 4 comedy troupe The Penny Dreadfuls put it best when they said that any sketch idea, no matter how daft and outlandish, makes sense if you set it in the Victorian era. It’s also a great era to make fun of – the stuffiness and staid morality of the upper classes make a stark contrast to today’s values. It’s the perfect combination of distant enough to seem alien, yet still just about recent enough to be relatable.
The hubris of science, the fascination of death, the thrill of sensationalism – all these aspects combine to make Gothic an enduring genre. We can see the starts of the horror genre it turned into, combined with a delicious nostalgia – and, of course, everyone loves being scared out of their wits! (Also, you can’t fault the costumes.)
One interesting thing I’ve noticed through history is a change in the portrayal of villainy over time. In the Victorian era, it was perfectly normal to assume that a character was villainous simply because they were born evil, and nothing could be done about it. Nowadays, we like a sympathetic villain, often quite charismatic, with a proper motivation for their crime. I’ve tried to include both types of villain in my book.
- You also tap into huge doses of another highly addictive substance – urban mythology. This is a book that appeals to me as much as a fan of Candyman as someone fascinated by tales of the Resurrection Men. Are there any contemporary urban myths that particularly grab you?
The Resurrection Men were real! As was Jack the Ripper, and many other ghouls… that’s what makes them so terrifying!
I find that urban myths nowadays are being replaced by conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios – which provides a telling insight into the faith we have in our future! My Dad is always speculating about how, in a few years’ time, we’ll all be spied on by drones, like some sort of Orwellian nightmare. So I bought him the box set of Black Mirror, which seemed to keep him quiet for a bit.
- The themes of your music clearly overlap with the themes of your writing. Do you find the connections between them helpful or distracting when it comes to the business of actually getting the words down?
I find it extremely helpful. When I have an idea, one of the first thoughts I have is which form it would work best in – a song, a short story, a novel, or even a poem or play. I came up with the idea for Jack the Re-animator the novel about three years ago, but I thought I’d never get round to it, so put it into a song instead. But writing the song allowed me to explore the idea in more depth and discover that I actually had far more material than I thought. So last year I went back to it as a novel – and the song serves as a very useful musical advertisement!
Overall, I find that my music and my writing are all linked – getting the words down in one format spurs me on and helps me to gauge how well it might work in another. Writing a short story about a Dystopian Film Noir version of Narcissus inspired the song “Narcissus under the Knife”. There are a lot of songs I’ve written that I think would make great film scripts (if you know anyone in Hollywood!), and others that just couldn’t work in any other form.
It helps that my other band, The Mechanisms, are a concept band who perform in-character as the space-pirate crew of the starship Aurora! Our gigs are more like a theatrical show, telling an over-arching story, and any ideas we can’t fit into an hour-long show become short stories. The website is full of art and fiction about our characters and the world they inhabit, and this encouraged me to see creativity as fluid and not confined to one particular genre.
- I would have to be daft not to comment on your character names. Looking at just the two protagonists, Isaac Wollenscroft and Adeline Earnshaw we have the slain and resurrected son of Abraham, Frankenstein and the whole history of feminism, Sickert and Jack the Ripper’s chief investigator, and Wuthering Heights. For starters. How many layers of depth are you adding by using such evocative names?
There’s also a Doctor Stevenson, and Ida Gray, and hidden allusions to Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Sometimes the spelling has been altered slightly (I felt that “Wollstonecraft” was just too obvious), but they’re still recognisable to those in the know. I put them in as private asides, really – little nods to fellow Gothic Horror fans, to see how many they could spot.
I knew as soon as I started writing this book that, in order to tell the story properly, the tone of the narrative needed to be serious, with only the occasional use of wry humour. Since my natural writing style veers towards surrealist comedy, I felt as if I was constantly reigning myself in from derailing the book with inappropriate levity. These little references were an outlet, and I feel that the book has certainly benefited from toning down the daftness. It’s deeper, and more substantial – definitely my best novel so far!
- Do you think our fascination with bodies is actually rooted in our desire to understand the soul?
It certainly was at the time the classic Gothic Horrors were written. I think that, for a lot of people, it still is now. But as a qualified Biologist, I find a deeper fascination in the fact that what comprises our “soul” – the essence of who we are – is actually a huge combination of physical things: the structure of the brain, neuronal connections, chemicals and countless other aspects in the body. They’re not separate – they’re one and the same. In studying one, you study the other, and we still have so much to find out. So, yes, I do think so – but in my case, it’s far more scientific than spiritual.
- Both gothic and steampunk are associated with an instantly recognisable and very completely imagined aesthetic. Is that something you find positive, or do you worry that the underlying substance may be lost?
Excellent outfits are always positive! I, for one, would certainly be a lot happier if chaps nowadays still paraded around in dashing Victorian attire. But then, I am slightly odd.
In fact, the aesthetic can act as a point of access to the substance of the genre, which people might not otherwise have found out about. If the underlying substance is lost for some people, it’s far outweighed by the number of people who get drawn in! And for the people to whom it’s nothing more than an art movement, that’s fine too. There’s no one way to enjoy things, and no set “reading list” for a genre or subculture.
As long as people realise that these genres offer an idealised history of the past, and that in many respects (especially in terms of social equality) we actually have it far better nowadays, I think it’s fine. It worries me slightly when Steampunk becomes too patriotic or military – an empire is one thing we don’t want to go back to!
(I still have no idea what genre Jack the Re-animator is, by the way. Since “Gothic Horror” is no longer a widely recognised genre in modern literature, it can’t go into that section of the book shop, and besides, the detective element is equally as strong. The indulgently affectionate attitude to Victoriana could mark it as Steampunk, but the setting is real-world rather than alternate history. Slight elements of the supernatural could place it in the Science Fiction/ Fantasy category, but it doesn’t seem enough – if anyone knows, I would be very grateful to hear from you!)
- What next?
Well, there’s the sequel, which I was already plotting as soon as I’d published the current novel – to the extent that I’ve been waiting impatiently for my friends to finish reading Jack so I can bend their ears about the next one! “Jack the Re-animator” stands alone perfectly well, and may well do so forever, but there are a few ideas that I feel I could explore in more depth. I’ll have to use every fibre of my being not to call it “Jack the Re-animator – Re-animated!” or something equally as droll!
(There’s also Jack the Re-animator the concept album, but that might be getting a little ambitious).
Another idea I’ve been toying with is a Nick Hornby-esque romance entitled “44 Songs”. Inspired by Kate Bush’s prolific output by the age of just 15, the novel follows the tribulations of a successful singer-songwriter who, unbeknown to anyone, wrote all of his songs in a single summer at the age of 14. I want to explore the idea of him coming to the end of his supply of songs, and having no idea whether he’s still able to write as the world-weary adult he is now. It’s something of a departure from anything I’ve written before, so I feel as if I’ll need to do more research about modern life than I did the Victorian era!