Holmesian Musings and Ripping Yarns -- Book Review of 'I, Ripper' by Stephen Hunter; Q&A with editors of 'Steampunk Cthulhu'

October 30, 2015

 

Holmesian Musings and Ripping Yarns

‘I, Ripper’ engaging but flawed

Film critic and novelist Stephen Hunter is best known for writing spy/techno thrillers with an emphasis on firearms – sort of a Tom Clancy focused on guns instead of submarines and missiles. ‘Point of Impact,’ which the first book in his Bob Lee Swagger series, served as the basis for the Mark Wahlberg film ‘The Shooter.’

He seems like an odd choice for a novel about Jack the Ripper. But he does surprisingly well with his most recent book ‘I, Ripper,’ which mixes fact and fiction while providing an interesting account of the legendary 1888 Whitechapel murders. Unfortunately, greatness eludes it.

The book is divided between the diaries of the Ripper (whose identity is not revealed until the climax), a reporter named Jeb and a London prostitute. The prostitute’s diary, which could potentially have provided a fresh angle to the story, is sadly given relative short thrift.

Jeb is a reporter with relatively low self-esteem for a thriller, which does make him seem more three-dimensional as a protagonist. His full name is given late in the story and provides a double-twist to the book.

One of the more interesting elements here is that much of the Ripper’s personae is a media construct. “Ripperologists” may enjoy that particular element of the story.

Jeb, who actually makes up the name “Jack the Ripper” before the killer adopts it for himself, sets out to solve the case. He teams with Thomas Dare, who is a language expert and an apparent genius.

The pair develop a Holmes/Watson relationship. The constant references to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ which is the story that introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world, become tiresome after a while.

Hunter admirably attempts the writing styles that the three narratives demand. The motive behind the crimes is also interesting. But the climax stretches credibility and seems like something out of a bad Hammer Studios movie from the 60s’.

Hunter openly acknowledges where he tampers with the facts regarding the case in the book’s afterword. He also provides a great bibliography that is a boon to anyone interested in the Ripper.

Be warned – the book contains graphic details of the crime and descriptions of sex. This is definitely not a book for kids.

 

Q&A with the editors of 'Steampunk Cthulhu'

In 2014, Chaosium released the anthology 'Steampunk Cthulhu' -- a subgenre-specific take on the Cthulhu Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft. Editors Glynn Owen Barrass and Brian M. Sammons spoke with Geeksagogo about their book.

 

Geeksagogo: How did the idea for this book develop?

 

Glynn Owen Barrass: We are both long time fans of the Steampunk genre, as we are of the Cthulhu Mythos. Brian wanted to do a mash-up of the two genres, and asked me if I wanted to help him create it, as a sort of companion book to our first editorial collaboration for the publisher, the book Eldritch Chrome. There have always been elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror and alternative history in the Steampunk genre, and there were a few Cthulhu Mythos stories dabbling in Steampunk, but our book was the first Steampunk Cthulhu collection.

 

Brian M. Sammons: I’ve had this idea kicking around in my skull for some time now. I think since the Cthulhu Mythos is eternal, has always been, and will always be, that you can add it to almost any setting and genre. And some just seem so right, like Steampunk. That genre has a lot of positivity going for it. A sort of “look at the wonderful things we can do and just imagine what tomorrow brings” kind of feel. No, that’s not universal, there is dark steampunk, but what we wanted to do was to take that “future is bright” idea and ram it face first into the bleak hopelessness of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. In Lovecraft’s world, the future is a very cold and dark place. No matter what you do, a happy ending just isn’t in the cards. So that juxtaposition is really what we were going for here.

 

Geeksagogo: Who are the writers involved?

 

Glynn Owen Barrass: We had open call submissions for this book, and the authors that made the final cut were a mixture of writers well known and unknown. They are: Jeffrey Thomas, Adam Bolivar, Carrie Cuinn, Edward M. Erdelac, William Meikle, John Goodrich, Lee Clark Zumpe, D.J. Tyrer, Christine Morgan, Christopher M. Geeson, Thana Niveau, Leigh Kimmel, Josh Reynolds, D.L. Snell, Robert Neilson, Pete Rawlik. Also, we two editors collaborated on a story, ‘Fall of an Empire.’

 

Brian M. Sammons: As Glynn said, this was an open door submission, and the amount of stories we read for it was pretty colossal. It also means that every story in this book had to beat out a lot of great ones, so it really is the best of the best.

 

Geeksagogo: How many stories are in it?

 

Glynn Owen Barrass: Seventeen in total, stories that we found were the best from over a hundred submissions.

 

Brian M. Sammons: I want to say it was well over a hundred submissions. I just remember reading and reading and reading stories for this. Interesting tid bit about Steampunk Cthulhu: this book was original set to be 100,000 words long. Now that’s a very respectable size for any book. But we had so many great stories for it that I went to the publisher, Chaosium, and begged them to increase the size of the anthology. They agreed and the book ended up being 130,000 words long, allowing us to squeeze in a few more stories, but we still had to say no to a bunch of good ones just for lack of space.

 

Geeksagogo: How did the writers reconcile the sort-of optimism of Steampunk with the pessimism of the Cthulhu Mythos?

 

Glynn Owen Barrass: Easily, and skilfully! Rather than the Victorian era being one of innovation and exploration, our writers had those innovations lead to terrible discoveries, the explorations leading to horror and destruction.

 

Brian M. Sammons: that’s exactly what we were looking for with this book, so the authors that were able to do that the best were the ones that made it into the book. That was the challenge we put to them, and most rose up to it admirably.

 

Geeksagogo: What is the appeal of the Victorian Era, in your opinion? And what about Steampunk?

 

Brian M. Sammons: The Victorian Era is historic, it’s much different than our world today, but it’s not too far in the past to be unidentifiable to most. We can see the beginnings of our world in theirs and the holdouts of the “old world” still around the edges. It was also the last great period of exploration into the uncharted corners of our world, at least by “civilized men.” Yes, those were ironic quotation marks. As for Steampunk, it could be because it’s the bookend to another popular genre: cyberpunk. Or it could be that era’s air of scientific wonder and growth taken to sci-fi extremes. Or if could be none of that and what do I know? 

 

Glynn Owen Barrass: Part of the appeal to me is that the Victorian era has a very distinct style to it. Yes there are the visual staples when many people think about the era, such as top hats, monocles, handlebar moustaches and corsets (usually not together!), but to me the style is at its best through its fiction, Sherlock Holmes, hunting criminals through the mist shrouded streets of London, or Professor Challenger exploring strange and exotic new worlds. Our writers did a fine job of emulating this style, which is something we are very proud of.

 

Geeksagogo: Will there be an RPG supplement based off this theme?

 

Brian M. Sammons: Well Chaosium already has a Gaslight (i.e. Victorian) setting for their Call of Cthulhu game, and there was some talk about doing something with Steampunk for that, but that was some years ago and they have always have about a hundred other things going on all at once. So who knows, maybe? Hopefully, because I think that would be awesome.

 

Glynn Owen Barrass: Yes, we’re on board for that if it happens!

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