Dark Tales of London

Edited by Ian Whates

Newcon Press


262pp/£12.99/August 2019

Soot and Steel
Cover by Ian Whates

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The city of London has provided the muse for numerous authors over the years and Ian Whates has collected sixteen dark stories set in the city in Soot and Steel, which celebrates the industrial London often linked to the Victorian period. While nine of the stories were written specifically for Whates's book, the remaining seven were originally published between 1851 and 1922, presenting a dark view of the city which were contemporaneous with the authors. Reviews or reprints are in bold.

Bryony Pearce plays with the idea of capturing a dying person's last breath in a glass jar in "Hunger." This idea has been used by many authors before, not least by Tim Powers in his novel Expiration Date. Pearce's Master Roquetaillade rushes to the side of a young girl as she lay dying in Hyde Park. Unable to save her, he captures her breath and returns to his laboratory and his manservant, Robert. Roquetaillade has clearly been studying the science of people's ding breaths for a long time, but Pearce takes a dark turn as he reveals Roquetaillade's real purpose. The story doesn't really follow up the twist, merely presenting it and letting the reader decide where the stor goes after the twist is presented.

"The Street" by Arthur Morrison is the first reprint in the book. Originally published in 1891, it is less a story than a description of London's East End and the poor who inhabit it. Rather than focus on any individual, Morrison decribes an intentionally anonymous street to drive home how rampant poverty is in the city. At the same time, his depiction isn't entirely bleak, for Morrison shows the humanity of the people living in the squalor he describes. The individuals are merely people trying to move on with their lives in the trying circumstances of the world in which they live.

Reggie Oliver offers a view of life in a Victorian brothel in "A Maze for the Minotaur." Focusing on Mabel, a high end prostitute, the story looks at the attitudes the women who work in the house with her have towards one particular client who they call the minotaur because of his strange peccadillos. The story opens with a news item about the Minotaur's actual identity and his disappearance and what follows is a look at his treatment of the women. Mabel clearly is more than she initially appears and there is an horrific aspect to the story, but it becomes apparent that the horror is not where it originally seems to stem, but from another source, which at the same time makes the story more and less horrific that it seems on the surface.

"The Phantom Model (A Wapping Romance)" is an exploration of the need for an artistic muse by Hume Nisbet. Algar Gray is an artist preparing to work on a painting of Dante's great love, Beatrice. Determining that his normal model isn't appropriate, a friend guides him to London's Wapping where he spots and is smitten by his new muse, a drunk who is more than willing to pose for Gray for the price of gin, although Gray is more than willing to spend more on her in an attempt to raise her station. She, in turns, sells of his largesse to keep herself in liquor demonstrating the one-way direction of the muse and that she is as willing to use him as he is using her. Not necessarily a cautionary tale, it does offer another bleak look at Victorian London.

While Victorian London has a tendency to garner stories of despair and horror, the history of London dates back to Roman times. Rose Biggin sets her story in 1762, when "The Ghost of Cock Lane" made its appearances on a small street in Smithfield, resulting in accusation so murder against William Kent, whose common law wife, Fanny, had died on smallpox. Biggin retells the story, setting her action at a sceance during which Kent is accused his his wife's murder. Drawing on the actual history of the event, Biggin has Dr. Samuel Johnson look into the possibility of the ghost's existence and its claims that Fanny was poisoned by arsenic. Biggin does a good job bringing Kent to life, focusing on the story through his eyes and therefore his insistance of innocence.

There is a long tradition of nannies in British literature and Juliet E. McKenna introduces Charlotte as her own represntative of the position in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." Rather than being tied to any individual family of children, Charlotte moves from house to house throughout the day teaching young children for pennies. While Charlotte seems to enjoy working with the various children, she also realizes her job is somewhat precarious. Many see her as too young (and see her neighbor, Miss Lewes, as too old, so when a chimney sweep's assistant points her in the direction of an employment agency that could potentially help her, she seriously considers them. McKenna plays with the tradition of nannies, hinting that the best nannies are not quite what they seem and that Charlotte may be one of their number.

The earliest story in the book is "The Watercress Girl," dating to 1851. Just as Morrison's "The Street" focused on the plight of the working poor forty years later, Henry Mayhew's story makes that the issue of poverty personal, and therefore served as a a more effective depiction of the cost the poor must pay and the lack of hope their lives have. Mayhew focuses on an eight year old girl and the daily routine she has of selling watercress to people. It isn't much of a life, but it is what allows her to live from day today and if the girl sounds much older than her years, it is indicative of how quickly her circumstances have forced her to grow up.

While many people have explored the surface of London, David Rix sends his characters beneath the streets of the city in "Queen Rat." Eschewing the London tube, which first opened in 1863, Rix explores the unintended consequences of the works of Joseph Bazagette, who redesigned the London sewage system to avoid sending the city's effluvia directly into the Thames. Unfortunately, in the world of Rix's Queen Rat, that modernization also worked to destroy both the economy of the poorer classes who scrounged in the sewers for lost treasures and others who had turned their backs on the surface world to live beneath, an issue which exists to this day in the form of gentrification forcing out those who have found their own society.

Writing in 1902, George Gissing offers up "Christopherson," the story of a down-on-his-luck bookcollector named W.R. Christopherson that has some echoes of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," published three years later. In this case, Christopherson had to sell off most of his collection years earlier and he haunts second hand bookshops in London looking for books that once belonged to him, which is how he meets the narrator. His rented rooms are overtaken by the books he still has and he doesn't work, leaving that to his wife, despite how much in pains him to see her have to work. Eventually he is given a choice between living for free in the country where he and his wife would be caretakers for her cousin or remaining in London with his books. Gissing shows how Christopherson's obsession gets in the way of his relationship with his wife and the struggle he feels as he comes to realize what his selfishness is doing to her.

One of Victorian London's most famous fictitious residents is Sherlock Holmes, and so it should come as no surprise that one of the stories in Soot and Steel is an Holmesian pastiche, although Paul di Filippo makes things his own by having the narrator by the Baker Street Irregular Wiggins rather than Dr. Watson in "From The Casebook of Master Wiggins, Esq." The different viewpoint offers an interesting take on Holmes, with Watson being relegated to a support role and Holmes being seen with a sense of hero worship. Wiggins is also given his own agenda that comes into play, sometimes subservient to the tasks he must undertake for Holmes.

Terry Grimwood offers a letter from Prince Albert to a friend of his in Germany detailing some early incidents during his marriage to Queen Victoria in "Albert and the Engine of Albion." Although it begins with a reference to Edward Oxford's attempt to assassinate Victoria on June 10, 1840, the letter quickly turns to the events of a ball in which Queen Victoria fell under the glamour of some sort of faerie king. Grimwood plays around with th eideas of an eternal London as well as Albert attempts to rescue Victoria (and therefore England) from the court of the faerie king in a story that may be show the most elements of fantasy of any of the works in Soot and Steel.

E.F. Benson may be best known for writing the Mapp and Lucia stories, but his "In the Tube" offers up a ghost story surrounding an incident on that took place at the Piccadilly Circus tube station. The story takes the format of the narrator being told of the strange by a friend, the idea being that the distance between the reader and the person to whom the events occured make it seem more likely. In this case, however, that removal doesn't add to the story about the ghost of a man who fell in front of the subway train. Similarly, the decision to have the narrator only relate the final discovery rather than make it himself, lessens the story's impact.

T.G. Jackson offers a ghost story in "A Romance of the Piccadilly Line." George Markham is a neer-do-well whose father cuts him out of his will on the eve of dying, but a strange chance, the death of his father's solicitor by a subway on the Piccadilly line results in George acquiring the codicil to his father's will before it can be registered. Jackson follows the legal wranglings as lawyers and executors argue that despite the desires of the elder Markham, which are known from a draft of the codicil, without an executed version, the older will still should be enforced. While the lawyer's and George's brother hashed out the situation, George remained aloof, knowing he had the codicil in his possession. Even as he finds himself haunted by his father's lawyer, the morality play continues to play out with just the right amount of supernatural impingement.

While many of the stories are set during Victorian times, Susan Boulton elects to set "Blood and Bone" during the London Blitz in 1940. She opens with a look at the German bombers who are planning on making an attack in an attempt to destroy St. Paul's Cathedral, spends most of her time with Claire, an American photographer whose goal is to get that one photograph that will make her famous, and finally looks at Luke, who is helping battle the fires caused by the various bombs dropped by the Germans. Although there is a linkage between the three points of view in the story, Boulton never fully pulls them together to provide a payoff.

Morrison returns for a second story, or perhaps a vignette, entitled "Behind the Shade." Just as his earlier piece focused on a single street in London's east end and the humanity of those who lived there, "Behind the Shade: focuses on a single street in the East End, but in this case it focuses on the one family that is different from the others. Their house isn't the same cookie cutter type as the others. THe difference in the design of their house immediately makes their neighbors suspicious of them and means that anything they try to do is seen as putting on airs. In many ways, "Behind the Shade" is the reverse of the congenial humanity exhibited in "The Street."

While most of the stories in Soot and Steel are Victorian is setting, or at least in feel, Paul StJohn Mackintosh offers up a modern tale in "Southall Tantra." This means that Mackintosh's London is much more multicultural than any of the other London's exhibited in the novel. Derek Clare, an art student, finds himself the object of Anika Chowdhury's interest. Chowdhury sees the work Clare is studying and offers to help him expand his horizons with some of the research she's done into Indian culture, particularly the Indian goddess Chhinnamastra, whose iconography is in line with Clare's own research. While the sharing of cultures is intriguing, the end of the story is predictable and feels as if it should lead to something beyond where Mackintosh chose to end it.

Soot and Steel offers a view of London rooted in the Victorian era, although a few stories range afield, from "The Ghost of Cock Lane" to "Southall Tantra." For the most part it is an eternal city, with roots far into the past and changes which, while existing in the form of the establishment of the tube and sewers, but those are seen as impingements on the traditional London rather than advancements. When the tube is depicted, it is almost a malevolent force, killing at least one person who falls unders its wheels when it appears in the Victorian era. The different stories, especially those that were contemporary, offer a variety of points of view, although the similarity of period tends to limit the breadth of the volume.

Bryony Pearce Hunger
Arthur Morrison A Street (originally published in 1891)
Reggie Oliver A Maze for the Minotaur
Hume Nisbet The Phantom Model (A Wapping Romance) (originally published in 1894)
Rose Biggin The Ghost of Cock Lane
Juliet E. McKenna The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
Henry Mayhew Watercress Girl (originally published in 1851)
David Rix Queen Rat
George Gissing Christopherson (originally published in 1902)
Paul di Filippo From The Casebook of Master Wiggins, Esq
Terry Grimwood Albert and the Engine of Albion
E.F. Benson In the Tube (originally published in 1922)
T.G. Jackson A Romance of the Piccadilly Line (originally published in 1919)
Susan Boulton Blood and Bone
Arthur Morrison Behind the Shade (originally published in 1894)
Paul StJohn Mackintosh Southall Tantra
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