Where Magic meets Science: Victorians and the paranormal

The Victorians loved magic in their books, so much so that Victorian literature has shaped how we read and think about fantasy and the paranormal today. William Hope Hodgson invented the occult detective and cosmic horror, Bram Stoker brought the modern vampire into being with Dracula, and the massively best-selling The Sorrows of Satan pits the Prince of Darkness against the first and worst Mary Sue in literature. (Spoiler: he loses. I’ve written about this book, the Victorian Twilight, elsewhere, so I will just say here that I’m not taking any responsibility for anyone incautious enough to read it.)

But there’s something very special about Victorian fantasy, which is the way magic exists through – in fact, is – science. Dr Frankenstein births his creature as a scientific experiment. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is based round the discovery of a personality-splitting chemical formula. Trilby, one of the few books to inspire a hat, uses hypnotism as a means of forcing someone into international stardom and sexual thraldom (which is way more interesting than making a student think he’s a chicken).

Arthur C Clarke famously said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ In Victorian England, most of the technology must have seemed like that. Trains could go so fast, passengers might suffocate! The air was full of tiny invisible killing machines that caused diseases! You could turn on a switch and make light! Words could fly through empty air, without wires, and come out on paper or even as sound! So why shouldn’t there be other amazing things out there too?

In the Victorian era, ‘animal magnetism’ was widely recognised as a universal principle of something through which everything in the universe is interconnected. The – I’m not sure of the word here, discoverer or inventor or simply ‘guy who made it up’ – was Franz Mesmer (as in mesmerism). He called it a ‘universal fluid’, and a lot of people believed in it. The magnificently named Baron von Reichenbach propounded a similar underlying principle of the universe, a force that a small proportion of individuals could control, with a light side and a dark side. He called it ‘Odic Force’. (If backwards he talked, know I do not.) And Thomas Edison – yes, that Thomas Edison – was sufficiently convinced by his version of a mysterious undetectable force carrying power through the air that he even drafted a patent for an ‘etheric telegraph’.

I went with Edison. In my Victorian England, it’s called etheric force, and it carries magic. I’m sure Baron von Yoda would have approved.

Find out how that works in The Magpie Lord, out now. The sequel A Case of Possession comes out on 28 January and I’ll be running a giveaway in a few days. A free short story, Interlude with Tattoos, set between books 1 and 2, is available now from Smashwords.

Oh,  and incidentally, The Magpie Lord got some votes in the Goodreads Members Choice Awards. Thank you if yours was one!

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