The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock
Nostalgia is a rather curious emotional response to a current stimulus or event. Like Pavlov’s dog, we seem to have programmed ourselves to take pleasure in recalling past events. This is not to say we find today’s realities unpleasant and wish to escape. It’s simply that something triggers our memories of past events. It can be coming across an old photograph or a snatch of music half-heard on the radio. Perhaps a casual word in conversation or revisiting a place we knew well as children throws us back in time. No matter what the stimulus, the result is a mixture of faint romanticism and some melancholy, i.e. fairly powerful emotions associated with pleasure are tinged with sadness and a sense of loss. The evocation of the past is strong. We have a sense of “truth” but there’s also a slightly gratuitous and shallow feeling. In our more rational moments, we acknowledge our memories are gilded. That’s it’s convenient to remember the good stuff and push the bad into the deeper recesses of memory.
As I approach the end of my days, I find myself caught in two quite different waves of nostalgia. One is the more conventional sense that there were many aspects of my life as a child and young adult that were positive and constructive. While I would not want to return to that time — there were too many hardships — I miss the sense of innocence that came from growing up in an information bubble. Today the world intrudes in our lives at every point with mass media and the internet competing for our attention, passing on both substantive and trivial news of the latest events from around the world. I’m not sure that the culture of childhood today is giving the young a chance to develop their full potential. The result of this first stage nostalgia is that I’m profoundly relieved to be old and therefore no longer caught up in the lives of the ephemeral Mayflies who declare themselves “adults” before they have had the chance to understand the benefits of remaining young.
The other form of nostalgia flows from the emotional constructs I formed as a child. Even in those days, I was an obsessive reader, ploughing relentlessly through both British and American fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. At that time, my mind was filled with a sense of wonder that the recent past had been so exciting. My memories of this childhood nostalgia for all things Victorian and Edwardian create significant emotional responses to modern subgenres like steampunk. This second tier response reinforces my more general nostalgia for “the past”. I’m therefore predisposed to like modern authors like Tim Powers and James P Blaylock because they are playing with the mythology of the past. Their interests and sensibilities overlap the remembered fictional worlds from Dickens to the penny dreadfuls, from Jack London to the pulps. Yes, it’s actually a false nostalgia, but I enjoy revisiting it every now and again.
The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock (Titan Books, 2013) continues the saga of Langdon St James and his battle with Dr Ignacio Narbondo. Although I dislike the publishers’ labelling conventions, it’s actually useful to list the different features of this novel. Insofar as it contains real-world characters like Arthur Conan Doyle and, offstage, Gladstone, we might choose to think of this as being alternate history. It nicely captures the time when London was in a ferment because of the activities of the Fenians and the anarchists. Set in 1883, the world was reeling from the Phoenix Park murders and Gladstone was under pressure to repeal the Irish coercion laws. This book produces a complex plot to destabilise the government and evict Gladstone from power. It’s a great success as a Victorian political thriller. As a second strand, it’s steampunk. History tells us that, in 1883, Gaston Tissandier made the first electric-powered flight in a dirigible. In this book, we have a sophisticated electric motor and steering system for an airship which flies around London. There’s also some interesting technology for using coal dust as an explosive with portable systems for deploying the dust in suspension and then igniting it. Then we have a supernatural element which cloaks the conventional adventure in fantasy motley. Put simply our evil genius has developed a system for trapping the soul in the skull upon death. He plans an explosive release of the trapped spirit which should force open a door. Who can say where the door will lead nor, if it opened in Hell, what might come through into the human realm. We’re also treated to various other supernatural phenomena in Victorian style with references to table-turning, Planchette boards and other forms of spirit-based communication and foretelling.
Overall, it’s a beautifully constructed adventure novel in the Edwardian style. In spirit, it reminds me of thrillers by Sapper (pseudonym of H C McNeile) although, this being a modern book, we get better written female characters and none of the cultural baggage that would make a real period book less than acceptable to modern readers, i.e. the disparaging views of the minorities, the ghastly sexism and the increasingly virulent fascism that came to characterise so much of the fiction written between the wars. From this you will understand this is not a Dickensian novel. Although set in Victorian England, we have a sanitised version of life in and around London. This is very much a “fantasy” version of the capital as befits the steampunk subgenre. We can’t have revolutionary scientific advances against too dark a background. The book is intended as adventure and not a political satire or a realistic depiction of life in some of the more dangerous parts of the capital. That we can have a young Arthur Conan Doyle fighting alongside Langdon St James is simply part of the fun. As you would expect, there’s mayhem and death, political skullduggery and a threatened supernatural armageddon. But it’s all told with breathless excitement and regular edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers.
All of which should signal my immense enjoyment. Although I might cavil at one or two of the vocabulary choices, this is a remarkably sustained piece of writing in a period style suitable for modern sensibilities. I was entranced. That it’s all magnificent nonsense simply adds to the fun of it all. No matter what your age or predisposition to nostalgia, The Aylesford Skull is a book you should read.
For a review of another book by James B Blaylock, see Zeuglodon.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.