What’s Old Is New Again

Reading should be fun. If it’s not fun, why do it? A few days ago I ordered two 3-book fantasy series from Amazon, both by authors I had never even heard of. That’s taking a chance, but both series looked like they would be fun.

I was not wrong.

Both series are recastings of well-known fantasy/SF from the 19th century. The first books in both series were published in 2017, a couple of years after Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I haven’t read. Possibly the eagle-eyed authors leaped on an emerging trend. Or maybe the brew has been bubbling for longer than that. I don’t read Publisher’s Weekly; how would I know?

Vivian Shaw’s series about Dr. Greta Helsing begins with Strange Practice. Helsing is the granddaughter of Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Count Dracula himself has not yet appeared, but he’s mentioned. I’ve only read the first two books, so I don’t know what’s in store. The story is set in the present day, with cell phones and references to Monty Python; this is not a gothic. Dr. Helsing (her father dropped the “Van”) specializes in treating what she calls “the differently alive” — not just vampires but ghouls, mummies, assorted were-creatures, and so on.

She herself is strictly human, but two of her close friends are vampires. And they’re good guys. There are some bad vamps in book 2, Dreadful Company, but while they’re definitely bad, complete with throwing corpses in the Seine, they’re also sort of pathetically over-the-top MTV vamps. The female vamps wear stiletto heels, and even the males sprinkle themselves with glitter. The mix of horror and whimsy is quite effective. Oh, and the first book ends with a genuine diabolus ex machina, a guest appearance by the devil himself, in a flawless white suit and with beautiful white wings. Even the demons are not bad people.

Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter digs deeper into the yellowing pile of 19th century literature. The alchemist’s daughter herself is Mary Jekyll, daughter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous Doctor Jekyll, and sure enough, Mr. Hyde is lurking nearby. She teams up with Holmes and Watson to track down some really nasty serial killers in 1890s London. Along the way we encounter Renfield (from Dracula), the two monstrous but human creatures assembled a hundred years before by Victor Frankenstein, and some half-animal half-humans created by Dr. Moreau in the novel by H. G. Wells. There are probably other references in the story that I missed; I haven’t quite finished book 1 yet, and I’m wondering about Alice the scullery maid. Do you suppose she could be the Alice?

Goss uses a literary technique I’ve never seen before: All through the text of the story, the women characters (Mary, Justine Frankenstein, Alice, Catherine Moreau, and others) comment directly on the text in asides that are written as if they were dialog in a play. Goss breaks the fourth wall — and yet without breaking the fourth wall. At first it’s disorienting, because you’re reading comments from characters you haven’t yet met. But once you get used to it, it adds an interesting dimension to what is otherwise a fairly standard tale of adventure and horror in Victorian London.

A lot of the novels I start reading, I drop halfway through. The fact that I’m talking about these here rather than throwing them across the room may perhaps indicate that they’re fun to read.

With respect to the recycling of older literary materials, I haven’t quite made up my mind. On the one hand, it gets the novel off to a fast start, and it can be fun decoding the more obscure references. Also, it can lend credibility to what would otherwise be a grotesquely unworkable fantasy premise. If the alchemist’s daughter and the detective she enlists had different names, if Catherine Moreau’s nature as a half-human, half-puma were presented without reference to the Wells novel, I’m pretty sure the book would fall flat.

On the other hand, this trend may represent an impoverishment of pop culture. It’s like when Hollywood does endless sequels. Rather than take a chance on something new, let’s recycle a property that people already know and love.

I’m not sure that’s a problem, though. Homer was recycling the tales of the Trojan War, and undoubtedly adding some new bits of his own devising. This is how mythology works at the cultural level. In the absence of copyright laws, we would surely be seeing a lot more of it — recycled yet new versions of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, for instance. And that might not be a bad thing at all. For now, at least we have Holmes and Watson.

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