Waiting between Ether Frolic’s beautiful covers—and a dapper looking nine-tailed fox sporting a monocle—are nine tales by Paul Marlowe, featuring the adventures of the Etheric Explorers Club.
In Japan, the fox—or kitsune—was said to be a highly magical creature, capable of powerful illusions. It is quite appropriate, as the author states in his foreword before apologizing for the pun, “to have these nine tales represented by nine tails when they are the tails of so sorcerous a beast as the kitsune.” Ether Frolics uses sorcery as much as science for the MacGuffins of Marlowe’s steampunk collection, ably playing off the Victorian enthusiasm for the supernatural and spiritualism. Within these pages are “presentiments” of the future, animated nigh-invulnerable statues that were “a focus for the will of a whole nation,” ghostly mathematicians, and an illustrated guide to hell.
Ether Frolics is framed as if Marlowe had discovered and curated these curious stories—“insufficiently supported by evidence” to be published in the club journal—while combing through the correspondence of the Etheric Explorers Club after the Second World War. In a taste of the wit and humour to follow, a publisher’s note follows asking any so interested as to query or comment to direct their concerns about the apparent age discrepancy to the author.
Dry humour infuses the text, whether the club members are discussing a vegetarian doctor, “but then dissection would put any sensible man off his dinner.” Or when comparing the strange foods they’ve consumed turns to an explorer’s reminisces of cannibalism, “Disgusting, I know. I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it, of course.” Upon meeting a spirit haunting the Club’s headquarters, one of the men asks about the ghost’s availability. Besides the others protesting that she’s “dead, for heaven’s sake!” the very cogent point is also brought up that the man in question is already married.
Despite being devilishly clever, there’s more to Marlowe’s debut collection than humour and wordplay. “66° South,” a story of misfortune near the Antarctic continent, holds an almost Lovecraftian brand of horror with its strange ruins and the bloodlust and madness they instil. Marlowe’s sense of place is dynamic and fresh, for all that his writing is set in the past.
Among my favourites, his exemplary description of London in the story, “Cotton Avicenna B. iv. or The Alighieri Gloss”:
London! Paragon of cities. How many wonders there are, in its villas, its market places, in its streets and tunnels. London—this uncommon weal of fateful miracles, and of horrors that I know only too well. Cheek by jowl a multitude lie, a thousand-thousand strange tales between them, unknown but for the chance misstep into an unfamiliar alleyway—the passing glimpse along a half-lit fog-swathed street. So has it always been in the great cities that draw in every kind of creature. Those who toil; those who live upon them. The builders, the wreckers. Town-and country-men. The eager, the wicked, the mad; and not from this isle alone, but from all the ends of the world.
His description of the terrain of the Great War in “The Last Post” is equally vivid:
Brown scars zigzagged in a vast wound across the world, stretching from horizon to horizon, where the continent was tearing itself apart; a crack in Hell opening in Europe’s skin, one that millions of men had rushed to close up with their bodies. How many millions of bodies would it need to close up a wound like that? Or would it ever heal?
These are just two passages among many that are proof Marlowe deserves the accolades he’s received for Ether Frolics—shortlisted recently for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for first English-language collection of short fiction by a Canadian author.
Steampunk and its retro-Victoriana feel could (and at times, has been) accused of nostalgia and sentimentality for an age of colonialism. Marlowe counters with “I do not object to being called a sentimentalist because I acknowledge the passing of a great age with something warmer than a sneer.” Marlowe’s writing evokes this gilded period with his fondness for archaic words and spellings, so it’s best to have your dictionary close at hand while reading if you’re not familiar with the following: crot, stertorous, abstemious, and impecunious. These words never feel intrusive, however, coming as they do in the reminiscences of educated and clever men and women.
Marlowe muses on the creation of art in the first story of the collection, “Ten Golden Roosters,” one of the characters—a painter—suggesting that it is “Pointless to create things. They will just be destroyed by fools.” He was speaking of the Tuileries Palace, built over generations and then burned by a mob. While Ether Frolics may not fit everyone’s idea of steampunk, with its penchant for ghosts over gears, what Marlowe has written is a creation well worth the read, revealing a major Canadian talent.
Sybertooth | 172 pages | $10.45 | paper | ISBN # 978-0986497483