Cabinets of Curiosity

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My grandfather called me Snoopy. It was my fondness for rummaging through cobwebby corners of his house that earned me the moniker. No closet went unexplored, no drawer unrifled, no crawl space unprobed.

wunderkammer_ali-stegert_imageby_Kevin_NobleThe attic at Poppy’s house beckoned, otherworldly—icebox cold in winter and oven hot in summer with dust that rimed surfaces like post-apocalyptic frost. One day, nosing into an ivory garment bag, I came face to face with my mother’s wedding gown. Below it, a compact green train case conferred a pair of viciously pointy stilettos in pink silk—both excellent finds that kept me amused (and well dressed) for days. Another exploration unearthed the mother lode, a box labelled, ‘For Alison’ in my late grandmother’s scrawl. Nestled in layers of crumpled newspaper were an old-fangled sugar bowl, milk jug, and trifle bowl. Snooping, I learned, paid off.

wunderkammer_ali-stegert_imageby_timothy_rhyneIn search of more treasures, labelled or otherwise, I ventured due south. Poppy’s basement brimmed with mysteries and monsters, such as the deadly Electric Wringer. “Stand back Snoopy, or she’ll slurp you up, squish you flat as a pancake, and spit you out the back,” Poppy yelled over noise, prodding the mangle with a pole, as if daring it to strike. I stood clear, watching the grinding, sloshing violence of washing day from a safe distance.

It was from that secure vantage point that I discovered the basement’s cave of wonders. Poppy had converted the dark space under the stairs into a display case to hold souvenirs and curios from his globetrotting adventures. Tucked in its shadowy nooks were decades worth of accumulated stuff, dense with memories and oozing my grandfather’s legendary sense of humour. In my seven-year-old mind, I’d hit pay dirt. My mother, ever the modern minimalist, muttered about dust-collecting junk.

Naturally, I wanted to keep everything in Poppy’s fusty cabinet, especially the kitschy ceramic Three Wise Monkeys (macaques) from Japan. To this day, when I come across, ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ my mind beelines to Poppy’s basement. There were ashtrays from cruise ships, beer steins from Bavaria, and Venetian glass beads. Multi-limbed Buddhas from the Orient subleased space to a shocking array of pissing boy figurines and other toilet-themed curios. From Istanbul or Cairo or Timbuktu, a brass oil lamp, dull with tarnish, hinted at a resident genie. But the best curio by far was a tiny corked bottle that held a wisp of yellowed cotton and a tiny nugget, a flake really, of Klondike gold. I begged Poppy shamelessly for that little bottle (no fool was I, even at age seven), but alas, no. It was special—a souvenir from his father-son Alaskan escapade with my Uncle Connie.

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Cabinets of Curiosity

Looking back with adult eyes, I recognise the display shelf for what it really was: my Poppy’s wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities, a rather antiquated hobby. These visual encyclopaedias started as cabinets, but over the centuries they grew into immense collections that stuffed entire chambers full of oddities–dinosaur bones, rare butterflies, saints’ fingers, alchemists’ tools, stuffed animals, mummies, and more.

Wunderkammern (chambers of wonder in German) are first cousins to both the modern museum and the modern sideshow. In the 17th, 18th and early 19th century, European nobles vied to outdo one another with impressive, comprehensive wunderkammern. The collections intermingled science with superstition, as the world grappled with emergent empiricism.

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Part one-upmanship for the über-rich, part scholarly enquiry, the collecting and displaying hobby led to important scientific and cultural advancements. Ole Worm, the Danish scholar and collector who created the Wormianum Museum (1655, shown above), debunked the unicorn tusk trade, showing the tusks (worth a king’s ransom) belonged to male narwhals not mythical creatures. He also disproved the weird but widely held notion that lemmings spontaneously generated and fell from the sky in stormy weather.

Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera, which was heavy on anatomical specimens and pickled foetuses, was intended to shift common people’s superstitions about genetic abnormalities, from devil-spawned monsters or divine punishment to mere accidents of nature.

The Outworking of Imprinted Memories

With the wunderkammer of my childhood imprinted on my psyche, it’s little wonder these eclectic collections continue to fascinate and make regular appearances in my writing. For unknown reasons, my villains tend to be collectors—greedy, predatory amassers of curios, artefacts, and specimens for their wunderkammern. Here are two examples.

In my MG | Gaslamp | Fantasy |Adventure The Temple of Lost Time, Lord Godfrey serves as both Royal Antiquary and Head Henchman. As the king’s advisor on Olden Magic, he leads the quest to find the legendary Temple of Lost Time. Godfrey believes the temple’s magical elixirs will reverse the dying king’s illness. Following fragments of ancient maps, Godfrey sets sail armed with his fully portable Cabinet of Magical Curios. Little does he know, stowed away in the ship’s hold is his nemesis, eleven-year-old Toby, who’s running for his life in search of his missing father…

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In my WIP middle grade | gaslamp |spy school |adventure, The Rarest of Them All, the villain is Baroness Agatha Throttlebairn, a natural scientist, ethnographer and adventuress. Barred by gender from serious academic pursuits, she is relegated to study the fluffier outposts of science that fringe myth and magic. For decades, she scours the globe, mercilessly hunting, and meticulously categorising, preserving, and displaying fey creatures from around the world in her massive, macabre collection, but still none of her male would-be colleagues at the Royal Academy takes her work seriously. Unfortunately for them, a horrific accident on a wildfey safari in Africa has rendered her bewitched … and vindictive. Who can stop this magic-addled menace from unleashing her vast collection of undead fey on the world? This is a job for the Remarkable Girls! Her Majesty’s Secret Society of Remarkable Girls is a clandestine academy for the training of gifted girls from around the Empire in the fine arts of espionage, hand-to-hand combat, and general bad-assery.

It seems I can’t get away from wunderkammern in my writing and in real life:

Curiosity Cabinets for the 21st Century

One of my favourite forms of procrastination is snooping through Pinterest, which is basically a limitless, digital wunderkammer. Pinterest lets me have All The Curios without the dust and storage issues! Yay! I don’t use Pinterest as much as I used to because it’s full of annoying ads nowadays, but the promise of personalised curation remains: Create classifications (boards), hunt for ‘specimens’ (images and content), arrange, display, and share.

The Real McCoy – Melbourne’s Wunderkammer

ODLPd33kQP6rsiRJgSIFwQSo, back in May 2018, I was in Melbourne for KidLitVic, a conference for writers and illustrators of children’s literature. As my writing buddy Kellie Byrnes and I were walking down Lonsdale Street one night, we passed a street level window that made me stop and back up. The window revealed a human skeleton reclining, feet casually crossed, in an antique dentist’s chair. I’d stumbled upon a real cabinet of curiosity! Wunderkammer is delightful and quirky—and it’s situated in a basement, just like my Poppy’s!

Of course I had to go in for a serious bit of snooping through its fabulous displays. (The cabinetry alone is beautiful.) Wunderkammer showcases a variety of curios and natural wonders, including medical & surgical tools, minerals & fossils, insects & butterflies, taxidermy, globes & maps, and ephemera. Items are for sale, and business is delightfully brisk. Many thanks to the fine folks at Wunderkammer, who kindly allowed me to snoop to my heart’s content and take photos. I highly recommend a visit next time you’re in Melbourne: 439 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.

Image Credits:

Interesting Links:

Artist Rosamund Purcell’s recreation of Museum Wormianum is a permanent installation at the Natural History Museum in Denmark. The display includes 40 of the artefacts from Worm’s original Wunderkammer.

Cabinets of Curiosity became quite trendy about five years ago.

My Favourite Five Reads – 2016

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Some people evaluate the passing year in wins; others in sales, gigs, or publications. I have a tradition of summing up a year in titles. Out of the (nearly) fifty books I read in 2016, here is my annual list of best reads.

My Favourite Five

David Copperfield by Charles Dickensdavidcopperfield

I blogged about this one shortly after reading it. (Read it here).

I  confess that I loved  this book so much I was compelled me to buy a special (used) Folio Society edition as a keepsake. (Hey, don’t judge me. I write Victorian fiction. It’s an investment in a resource, right?)

 

JonathanStrangeMrNorrellbySusannaClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell  by Susanna Clarke

Gosh, I loved this book, but it isn’t one I readily thrust into friends’ hands. I’m not entirely sure others will love it as much as I did. It is weird and dark and really long. I put off reading it for years, because its oozing footnotes seemed like they’d be a dreary chore to read. (They weren’t!)

Ultimately, its brilliant premise won me over: What if once upon a time English Magic existed, but it faded into obscurity and is all but forgotten? And what if one man seeks to revive it for the good of the realm?

Mr Norrell is a magician and a pernickety, reclusive man who, after years of rigorous solo study, performs powerful magic that makes him an instant celebrity. Soon the English government is calling on his services to rectify civil disasters and gain military advantage over enemies. English Magic is making a comeback so big he has to take on a student. Enter the charismatic Jonathan Strange, quite a different character altogether. Together, they do great good for England, and all is well until the teacher and the pupil clash.

Susanna Clarke’s world building is extraordinary thanks in part to the footnotes I mentioned. She references a fictitious canon of books of magical scholarship. It’s fascinating how much plausibility and texture this quirky little device added. I listened to the audio version (which was exquisite), and surprisingly the footnotes weren’t a bother at all. (Reviews of the digital version indicated that the footnotes were a nuisance.) In an interview with the New York Magazine, she explains how she achieved such realism in a book about magic. “One way of grounding the magic is by putting in lots of stuff about street lamps, carriages and how difficult it is to get good servants.”

So who is Susanna Clarke? Here are some fascinating facts:

  • JS&MN is her debut novel (but she works in publishing).
  • She put ten years into the manuscript, sometimes fearing she’d never finish it.
  • After two rejections by publishers, Bloomsbury offered her a £1 million advance on an unfinished manuscript! (2003)
  • She (apparently) hasn’t written another novel.

Clarke didn’t have a name for the book’s genre, though there are plenty of possibilities offered, from pastiche to fantasy to alternative history. I believe it is gaslamp fantasy, which means it is an alternative history with a magical twist. (Read about gaslamp fantasy here.) The subplots were intriguing; the characters unforgettable; and the settings vividly eerie in their coldness. Set at the dawn of the Nineteenth Century with the Napoleonic Wars brewing and raging, Lord Byron and Lord Wellington play important parts in the book.

If you’re not up for  a 36-hour audio book or an 800-page book, check out the BBC’s TV mini series. If I haven’t convinced you, consider this article that says Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is “just as magical as Harry Potter.” I’d love to know if you’re as smitten as I am. [For grown-ups (and precocious younger readers who love footnotes)]

The Lie Tree by Frances HardingeTheLieTreebyFrancisHardinge

Winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year, this was another title in my  gaslamp fantasy binge. I’d seen a flurry of articles about Frances Hardinge online, and was intrigued by the woman who wears a fedora for its sense of adventure.  She’s a master storyteller: her writing in The Lie Tree is utterly captivating, the plot is surprising, and the themes are big and important—everything we bookworms hope a book could be.

The protagonist Faith, 14 and stuck in a ‘training corset’, grapples with heady topics: societal conventions and  limitations on women, the discovery of the flaws in her father’s character, the clash of science and religion in Victorian England, and the mob mentality of people. Big ideas, fresh characters, and lovely writing made this one deliciously memorable. [MG]

TimWintoCloudstreetCloudstreet by Tim Winton

I mistook Cloudstreet as an ordinary tragicomical family drama, which didn’t overly excite me even if it’s considered a modern Aussie classic and one of Australia’s favourite books. But when I saw it classified as magical realism, I was instantly intrigued. I knew I had to read it as research for my  WIP Finding Graceland.

The audio version is performed to perfection by Peter Hosking, who brought Tim Winton’s lush writing into full Technicolor splendour. Read it—you’ll never forget the characters or how the book gripped your  heart. [For grown ups]

EchoPamMunozRyanEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I mentioned above I was seeking magical realism books to read, and this was one of them. I loved its light touch, but most of all I was impressed with the book’s beautiful structure.

Echo tells the stories of three young people in the WWII era, who are connected by, well … an enchanted harmonica. Now, as weird as that sounds, it is an amazing tale, full of music and heartbreak, pathos and redemption.The whole thing is bracketed in an original fairy tale. The ending is one of the most satisfying I can remember. Don’t let the harmonica-fairy tale thing throw you. This book is swoon-worthy.  [MG/YA]

Over to You

Have you read any of the titles above? Leave your thoughts in the comments. Happy reading in the coming months!

Image Credit: Ian Schneider, CC0, via Unsplash

Book Review: Gaslamp Anthology

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp FantasyQueen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to Amazon, Gaslamp fantasy is “historical fantasy set in a magical version of the Nineteenth Century.” While its first cousin Steampunk emphasizes mechanics, science and steam power, Gaslamp plays with magical possibilities. Check out my exposé of the genre on Spilling Ink.

This anthology includes spinoffs of Dickens and references to real people of the Victorian era. Queen Vicki herself gets a cameo in at least two stories. One of her prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, stars in The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown while William Morris, textile designer, poet, translator and social activist, takes the stage in the story For the Briar Rose. This is definitely one of those books that whets your thirst for more information. I have a brand new fascination with both Morris and Disraeli and can’t wait to see where these rabbit holes lead me!

I listened to the audio version of this book. It’s one I wish I had read instead. Three of the stories are epistolary, which sometimes doesn’t lend itself to audio. The performance by narrator Kelly Lintz was fine, but it’s a book to dip into again and again. I will probably end up buying a physical copy for my shelves.

My Picks

The list below includes what I felt were the standout stories:

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells

by Delia Sherman (Epistolary – entries in a young Victoria’s diaries as she learns magic)

Phosphorous

by Veronica Schanoes (Some very interesting social history here.)

The Vital Importance of the Superficial

by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stervener (Epistolary, and superbly done.)

A Few Twigs He Left Behind

by Gregory Maguire (A fascinating epilogue of Scrooge)

Maguire’s offering in particular left me hankering for more of his writing (which surprised me because Wicked (the book) was not a big winner with me). I will also seek out works by Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner. Book one of the Tremontaine series has been ordered…

A Funny Little Aside…

I saw a newsworthy post  on Facebook about Australian illustrator Kathleen Jennings, whom I met a couple of months ago at a SCBWI meeting in Brisbane. I have since followed her blog and have become a fan of her gorgeous artwork. She does amazing paper cuts, water colours and pen and ink pieces.  She’s a very talented woman—and super-interesting, too.

So a couple of days ago on FB, I saw that her art was selected for a prestigious New York City art show, Point of Vision: Celebrating Women Artists in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I contacted her to ask if it would be okay to share her news and maybe a photo from her feed with the SCBWI ANZ network. She said yes, but the photos weren’t hers; they belonged to Ellen Kushner.

“No problem,” I said (ignorantly). “I’ll see what I can do.”

A little backstory before I go on: I’ve recently stepped into a new marketing and communications role, so I contacting “Ellen” to seek permission to use the photos was par-for-the-course. I searched for and found Ellen on Facebook and sent her a request. As you do (?)

The next morning on my drive to work, I was listening to my audio version of Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, and a new story started. The Vital Importance of the Superficial by … Ellen Kushner.

Hang on, I thought. Ellen Kushner, like … the lady I messaged last night?

Yep. Oh man. How weird is that? (How weird am I!?)

Anyway, enough with the weirdness. Check out Kathleen’s website. She regularly posts her art and thoughts. Congratulations to her for her achievement of a showing in NYC.

Here are a couple of the covers Kathleen did for Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine Series. Aren’t they gorgeous? I’ve downloaded book one for a little sample.

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Buy the Tremontaine books here (among other places). You can buy Kathleen’s artwork here.

View all my reviews

Genre Exposé: Gaslamp Fantasy

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Steampunk everyone knows. But how about Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, and Clockpunk? Or Gaslamp? These are the specialist terms of the hard-core fantasy-fan. They are all sub-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which are sub-genres of Speculative Fiction.

I love Gaslamp because it combines Historical Fiction with fantastic possibilities. A librarian from the New York Public Library described Gaslamp as “Jane Austen or Charles Dickens meets Harry Potter.” I like that.

lamp-294127_1280Spotlight on Gaslight

When I describe my book The Temple of Lost Time as a Gaslamp fantasy adventure for middle-grade readers, lots of people reply, “I’ve never heard of Gaslamp fantasy.” Maybe not, but I bet you’ve read it! (Read on for a list of classic and popular titles.)

Gaslamp (or Gaslight) is a sub-genre of both fantasy and historical fiction. It is usually set in Regency, Victorian or Edwardian times, and it’s generally set in England or its (former) colonies. It refers to the gas lamps of the time, which cast a peculiar, eerie ambiance. The fascination with faeries and spiritualism in the Nineteenth Century informs the genre. Comic series creator Kaja Foglio coined the term Gaslamp to describe her Girl Genius series.

Gaslamp fiction is often mislabelled as Steampunk, which doesn’t work because the literature lacks a ‘punk’ tone, i.e., disaffected, brash, irreverent. [Some people are quick to point out that much of Steampunk itself isn’t exactly ‘punk’ either, but I’m not going anywhere near that debate!]

Gaslamp incorporates themes, subjects, and tropes that aren’t found in pure fantasy (Tolkien) and faerie (MacDonald). While Steampunk emphasises (mad) science, clockwork mechanics, and steam power, Gaslamp explores magical possibilities and delights in supernatural elements, time-slip, alternate histories, parallel dimensions, etc.

Gaslamp comes in many flavours from dark and broodingly Gothic to swashbuckling and adventuresome, from polite and romantic to sassy and theatrical. It can include romance, espionage, boarding schools, sleuthing, piracy, and more. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Popular Examples of Gaslamp Fantasy

Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed or plan to read:

From the Classics:

  • Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker

Recent Popular Gaslamp Titles:

  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • Drood by Dave Simmons
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  • Kat Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

Fancy A Gaslamp Sampler?

  • Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: a Gaslamp Anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow et al

My Gaslamp Fantasy Series The Toby Fitzroy Chronicles

A little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones…

I can’t wait for the day when my middle grade novel, The Temple of Lost Time, is added to the list of popular Gaslamp titles above. I like to describe it as a little Peter Pan and a lot of Indiana Jones because it’s a swashbuckling, adventure-filled quest laced with magic and danger. Real places and factual personalities mix with imagined characters and fantastical beings. Myths and legends intersect history as my characters sail out of this world into another, a place called Achronos.

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At first, I thought I had written a Steampunk story thanks to one critical scene that involves a pretty cool steam-powered device. However, while editing my third draft, I sadly conceded one scene doesn’t make something Steampunk. Steampunk is a tone, a theme and a philosophy, all rolled into one.

I did some research and concluded that I had the makings of a Gaslamp fantasy. With that bit of understanding, my redrafting became more focused. I rewrote the whole thing with the conventions and aesthetic of Gaslamp uppermost in my mind. My opening scene now shimmers with weird and wonderful possibility. My earlier, rather watery denouement has transformed into something much richer and more fantastic.

Allohistory – When History Becomes a Playground

Like many Gaslamp tales, my story takes place in an alternative Nineteenth Century England. It’s 1853, but Queen Victoria is not on the throne. Instead, I went to the annals history to devise another monarch—one far less benevolent and mild than our Victoria.

Victoria became queen when her uncle, William IV, died without producing a legitimate heir. Uncle Will had nine illegitimate children to his long-standing mistress, stage actress Dorothea Jordan, but his poor wife, Queen Adelaide, was not so fortunate in the motherhood department. She birthed two daughters who died within weeks. Between these girls, there was a miscarriage, and subsequent to the second girl’s death, there were twin boys who were stillborn.

I gave lives to those boys, and named them Augustus and James. I imagined England under the rule of Augustus. With one wave of my writerly wand, a puff of smoke, and a Hey-Presto! the Victorian Era becomes the Augustan Age. Augustus inherits more than the throne, namely the physical feebleness and mental illness of his grandfather, Edward III. What’s more, I made him riddled with paranoia and positively obsessed with the magical possibilities of myths and legends. Old King Augy is not a popular guy. He’s unpredictable and tyrannical, and is hell-bent on cheating death. To do so, he is desperate to find and raid The Temple of Lost Time

That’s all I’ll say for now. Fingers crossed, a publisher will quickly pick up my book so you can find out the rest!

[P.S. I’d love to know what you think, so please leave me a comment!]

More on Genre and Gaslamp Fantasy…

Check out the following resources:

Over to You!

Are you a Gaslamp Fantasy writer or reader? Got a favourite? Share below!

Image Credits

Big Ben Sunset by Graham V Photo, CC BY-NC-ND, 2.0

Vectors are CC0, Public Domain