Written by: Emmet O’Cuana
“I knew that much of the “great” literature of the world had, along with the great virtues that made them classics, great flaws. Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Melville, and Twain are splendid examples of this. Examples in poetry are Shakespeare, Milton and Blake.
The ‘ungreat’ literature, the poplit (mystery, romance, adventure, gothic) were put down or ignored by most of the literary critics (and, hence, the intellectuals) on the grounds that they had no merit whatsoever.” – Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip José Farmer
Joe R Lansdale’s afterword to Zeppelins West, which he deprecatingly describes as a sleep-deprived rant, serves up as good a defence of the merit of fantastical literature as you are likely to find. Given that the story itself is a whistle-stop tour of near every classic turn of the century popular fiction author’s works – namechecked in the afterward are Verne, Shelley, Stoker, Burroughs and Wyndham – their creations coexisting in a corroded Steampunk setting, this is not surprising. There is a loving appreciation of the work of these early fantasists much in evidence. It is also possible that the Edgar Rice Burroughs film adaptations starring Doug McClure – the actor who inspired The Simpsons character Troy McClure – inspired certain sequences, but without confirming that with Lansdale himself, I put that impression down to my own foggy memories of seeing the films as a child.
Point is, high and low distinctions between literary genres are given short shrift by Zeppelins West, a story that takes this array of characters and tries to find their humanity. Lansdale describes the work as lightweight, but it has heart, the story coalescing around the author’s typical speckles of grit to produce a pearl.
“For lack of more accurate words,” Hickok said, “It’s alive.”
The notion of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show travelling around the world exhibiting the talents of Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull – here going by Bull and displaying a dry sense of humour that delivers the best laughs of the book – feels like the perfect tribute to Philip José Farmer’s merging of fiction and reality. As Lansdale points out, this is the chap who managed to swing an interview with the Lord of Greystoke himself. Bill Cody in turn exists as a head in a jar, having been unmanned when caught in flagrante delicto, and so has been given an impressive robotic exoskeleton to help perform feats. This set-up is revealed to be a front for Cody’s actual plan, to recover Frankensten’s Monster from a power-mad Shogun, Sokaku Takeda (a significant name for the author, a professed martial artist, as it is taken from the founder of a particular form of jujutsu, Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu).
To describe what happens next would spoil the plot, but as the list of writers from the afterword given above indicates, a number of other familiar characters do in turn appear. The story itself ably mixes humour, sex and sudden outbursts of violence. This is one of Lansdale’s key strengths as a writer of horror, his stories are never one-note digressions into gore and blood. First he makes you care, then laugh and finally tugs hard on your heart strings. Death in Zeppelins West is unexpected and sudden, absent of sentimentality, instead presented with cool sadness and gallows humour.
Steampunk as a genre has a tendency to dismiss a number of class concerns in its reimagining of the development of technology. In part this reflects the dismissive attitude of the time to the working classes who endured the industrial revolution, as illustrated in Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier. The wish-fulfillment of the genre does not allow for such reflections, although thankfully Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and its sequels have offered a corrective. In essence Steampunk explores how different outcomes in resource wars would have affected the society being imagined. Lansdale’s clever stroke in Zeppelins West is to offer up Frankenstein’s Monster as yet another possible resource, desired by a certain renamed H.G. Wells character as a means of becoming a new power in the world. To realize the same dream as Doctor Frankenstein and then mass produce the result. Applying such mercenary thinking to Mary Shelley’s iconic romance is not only an inventive take on Steampunk, but genuinely horrifying.
Again this ‘featherweight’ novel by Lansdale, his words, manages to skip and jump across a blizzard of references without being didactic. As fans of his work know already, Lansdale is fiendishly clever and a great entertainer. Zeppelins West makes its point, but principally has fun, which is what makes it so enjoyable. It is a tribute to the works of early/turn of the century fantastical fiction that draws its descent from Shelley’s 1818 phenomenon. That legacy of writing is lovingly homaged here.
Though it is frankly a tragedy that the proposed comic with Mark Nelson never saw the light of day.