Saturday, December 31, 2011

neo-victorian new year playlist

Happy 2012!   I hope you all will be blessed with:
  • 100% good health
  • 80% increased happiness (can't be too happy because then you won't appreciate it as much)
  • 60% increased wealth
To start off your new year right, BuzzFeed has provided a list of 21 Steampunk Songs for the New Year.  They include tunes from This Way to the Egress, Clockwork Dolls, Hellblinki, and the Men Who Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing.

Check out the artists who made the list here.

Friday, December 30, 2011

review: the suspicions of mr. whicher


image source: Downszone
Recently I reread a book that I had been given as a gift a few years ago- The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale.  Written in the style of a murder mystery novel, it's a story of a country house murder at a country house and the mystery surrounding it.

In the summer of 1860 a body is discovered at Road Hill House in the village of Road (known today as "Rode") in the county of Wiltshire (which later fell under the jurisdiction of nearby Somerset).  This incident quickly explodes into a classic "Whodunnit" as the secrets of the family pour forth for all public scrutiny and suspicion falls upon each family member and servant in turn.  Was it Samuel Kent, the patriarch of the family, caught in a sexual encounter with the nursemaid?  Was it any of the four eldest children, products of the father's first marriage?  Was it the 8-month pregnant Mary Kent, the second wife and once governess to the older children?  Was it the cook or the housemaid?  Or the 18-year-old gardener who had just given notice for not receiving a pay raise?  Or the shoemaker who had discovered the body in the first place?

As pressures mount and public outrage grows over the failure of the police to find the murderer, a Scotland Yard detective is requested.  That is how Jonathan Detective-Inspector Whicher enters the picture.  Would this man, born into the lower classes and known for his keen attention to detail and observation, be able to use the new art of detection to find out the murderer?  Or would his airing out of the dirty laundry of this respectable middle class family be his downfall?

Summerscale outdoes herself in research for this book.  Not only does she investigate the murder, but she reads countless newspaper articles, books, and novels, drawing the connections between the murder and its influence on modern day fiction.  She also delves into the world of the detective- how the public viewed this new personage, hired to find out and divulge the dirty little secrets of every day, ordinary people and things. The views of the middle class on their privacy and decency and how they could get in the way of a police investigation of the Victorian age, as well as the great inexactness of detection and the dependency on the art of the culprit making a mistake or even confessing are also explored in great detail.

For a detailed account of middle class life, detection and detectives, and Victorian crime, this book is an excellent and easy read.  For a murder mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the end, go no farther than the pages of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

an unlaced christmas

Christmas is always very festive in our house- much to most everyone's chagrin.  While I love Christmas and all of its trimmings, it can be overkill with my dad.

My dad is the obnoxious one playing Christmas carols nonstop, insisting everyone sit in the "Christmas Tree Room" (a.k.a. the living room) complaining like a little kid when certain Christmas traditions are no longer honored (the fact that everyone in the house is now a legal adult has left him rather heartbroken that Santa no longer gets cookies and milk and the "toys" have switched from Legos and Barbies to crock pots and sewing machines) and meticulously setting up his 1940s train to go around the Dickens' ceramic Victorian London buildings he has set up on a platform beneath the decorated evergreen.

I was sick this entire weekend.  Instead of letting me veg out on the couch with the remote, my dad ended up plopping himself down next to me, acting like I wanted to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas as if I was still eight.  I have nothing against Christmas movies, but if you're in my family you see the same ones every single year, and so are genuinely sick of them.  But I had bowed out of most Christmas movies during my high school and college years, so I played along and let him put the DVD in.  Then I fell asleep.

When I woke up it was two hours later and we had apparently already watched the Charlie Brown Christmas Special and were in the middle of A Christmas Story.  I just went upstairs to bed at that point.

On Christmas Day proper I was very grateful when my mom switched off one of the many versions of "Silent Night" in favor of her new Adele CD.

I got a pretty nice haul of Christmas gifts- mostly clothes, and nothing neo-Victorian.  With the exception of my twin sister Leigh and my little sister Jordan, my family does not really understand my love of neo-Victorian clothing.  I find that rather odd because my mom proclaims she believes she was reincarnated from the Victorian Era.  But her love for that historical period seems to stop at the trappings of a Victorian home.  Victorian fashion would have suited her if she had, in fact, been born in Victorian times, as she's always about the most recent trend in popular mainstream fashion styles.

But as a subcultural fashion style?  Definitely not.  My parents, being the respectable middle class family they are, trying so hard to fit in with the masses, tend to look down on anything they deem to be too bizarre or odd compared to the bizarre and odd things the majority of American society does according to the dictates of pop culture.  In the past it has resulted in verbal insults, snide comments, or put-downs.  With me and my interests, however, my mom gave up trying to put me down in any way since this past summer because I just don't respond to it as if I care what she thinks, so she knows such a task would be futile.

That doesn't change the fact that the majority of my family members think there is something freakish and unnatural in my explorations of the neo-Victorian fashion world.

The best example is a recent exchange that occurred between my older sister and my mom regarding my steampunk interests:

Lindsey:  She's 24 years old and still playing dress-up!  How immature!

Mom:  Well, at least she's not doing drugs...

There is hope, I guess, because my mom "defended" my interests by pointing out how it could be worse.

On Christmas morning I opened a box containing a beautiful black metal bracelet with purple gems on it- a piece of regular retail costume jewelry from The Limited.

I was pleased with the item- it goes with my normal work wardrobe and any other outfit with an element of black in it.  But then my mom shocked me by excitedly saying, "See, it's steampunk!"

My jaw dropped as I realized that my mom thought she was trying to help out my "freakish" fashion interests.

Now I was faced with a minor dilemma as a dedicated advocate of the fashion.  Do I try to educate her on how the bracelet, while it would be a nice accessory for a steampunk-inspired outfit, is by itself not steampunk?  Or do I shut up and thank her for being so thoughtful?

I chose the latter.  She was obviously pleased with herself for "successfully" understanding my fashion interests.  And she had cared enough about my happiness to try and support something that I enjoy doing, even if she does find it beyond weird.

My dad, meanwhile, bought the family a collective gift to represent our love of a certain 19th century literary figure (and a Sullivan's Island watering hole that we visit every year dedicated to said figure and his brief military service on that island).




If you guessed that that flying spinner yard decoration is a raven, then you are correct.  I just wonder if Edgar Allan Poe has turned over in his grave as a result....

Monday, December 26, 2011

picks from picard: victorian clothing

Although I promised the first installment of posts on Liza Picard's Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870, the post never came.  A cold had me pretty run down for the past week, and this was too long of a post for me to focus on.

So here it is.

Clothing has always had a role in society for showing off the wealth and status of those who own it.  The Victorian era was no exception- people even in the worst conditions clung to any aspect of respectability they could through their clothing.  While a strange sight, it certainly was not an unusual one to see a man in a workhouse laboring in a rock pile next to convicts in his tailcoat and top hat.  They wore these clothes literally until they fell apart.  

image source: eriding.net


The second-hand clothing trade thrived in London, where old and worn clothes were purchased from the middle class to be sold to the lower classes.  These clothes were then sold in the second-hand clothing exchanges- in Petticoat Lane or Seven Dials in London.  

Used underwear- called "inner wear"- sold well, as the patches and mending did not show (ew.)

One thing absolutely required to be worn of all respectable men was suitable headgear.  Hats were reblocked, repurposed, refitted and used until they fell apart. Sellers of hats would pile their goods on top of their heads- one after the other- creating a tower so they could maneuver through a crowd and keep them safe from thieves.

The type of hat worn could differentiate classes and occupations.  Costermongers and artisans wore cloth caps while middle class and upper class men wore tall hats a la Abraham Lincoln or bowler hats. 

Hats were such a respectable necessity that collapsible opera hats were created so the Victorian men could put the cumbersome thing under their arms and out of the way during an opera (weren't hat rooms and cloak rooms invented yet?)

The only men who were bare-headed were laborers. 

image source: Mister Crew
Men's clothes were usually subdued in color- although Picard does not say which colors were preferred.  Apparently until the 1860s the dark three-piece suit in one cloth became the staple for businessmen, and have remained that way to this day, with suits changing very little since then. Neckties could be colorful, however- a band of cloth tied in a bow or a cravat held in place with a pin.  Wellington boots- which could be pulled on rather than laced of buttoned- were the fashion of the day.  Shirts were frilled for the evening.  



Ready-made clothing was coming into the market around this time.  Stores such as E. Moses and Son (for working men's clothes), Swan and Edgar's (for dresses) and the Family Mourning Warehouse (for a sudden death) provided pre-made clothes for those who needed them.
For women, shawls were the requirement for women of all classes between the 1840s and 1870s.  Shawls were even worn in the summer.

A parasol almost always accompanied the upper and middle class women out of doors. Useless in rain, they were meant to protect the fair complexions the Victorians so desired.

For the middle and upper classes dresses were made with narrow shoulders and sleeve tops cut so that Victorian ladies could not lift their arms.  The necklines were high during the day but almost scandalously low for evening wear (think lower than Queen V's own racy secret portrait).  Dresses could be made for both day and evening- with removable sleeves and two types of bodices with the appropriate necklines for day and evening.

Just as our fashion borrows from other eras, Victorian fashion did too.  Brocade materials and 18th century fashion influences were prominent in the fashion of the day.

One of the greatest inventions was aniline dye in 1856.  Unlike the vegetable dyes of the past, these new dyes allowed for vibrant dress colors- making purple a much more affordable color.

While costerwomen wore dresses short enough to show off the boots underneath, middle and upper class preferred dresses long enough to sweep the floor- literally.  these dresses were lined and edged with stiff braid to pick up the surplus of the dirt.  The braid was brushed when the dress was taken off, and could be removed entirely when it was so filthy that it could not be repaired.  There is mention of a cord-pulley system inside some skirts so the dresses could be lifted a few inches from the ground, however.

Despite the existence of  trouser-like riding "skirts" for women, bloomers were a short fad that never really caught on.  A type of Turkish "harem pant" was introduced by a Mrs. Amelia Jenks Bloomer of New York, but London was just scandalized.  One brewery tried to dress all of their barmaids in these loose-fitting pants to utter failure (my question is, who wore them in New York?)

An illustration for Godey's Lady's Book, 1874 edition
image source: Fashion-Era.com
Until the sewing machine came into more common use in the 1850s and 1860s, dresses were hand-stitched.  This sort of work allowed for some dressmaker shops to exploit their workers when they advertised 24-hour services for a dress.  The customer came to the shop to choose the pattern and material of her dress,  be measured and then left, assured that she would have her custom-fitted dress the very next day.  Then the measurements and pattern were given to several women working at the shop, who were expected to slave away all night creating the promised dress.  During the summer season of fashionable parties and balls these women had to get five or six dresses done a night.

The downside to the sewing machine was that it put many dressmakers and seamstresses out of work.

A family making a pair of trousers.
image source: Victorian Durham
Women wore shoes and ankle-length boots of satin or kid while indoors.  Outdoors they wore boots.

As for underwear, the fashions changed over the years, but seem to have been the following at various times:


  • petticoat- a skirt underneath a skirt- not necessarily underwear, but sometimes worn for warmth or to give one's skirts a desired shape
  • crinoline- originally the name for a stiff fabric made of horsehair and wool used with petticoats, by the 1850s the word stood for a stiff petticoat or a wire or whalebone frame-structure used to spread a woman's skirts about her. 
  • corset- tight-lacing had been popular until the advent of the crinoline, which provided a bell-shaped bottom that made a woman's torso look more like the desired hourglass figure created by tight-lacing.  Corsets came back in the late 1860s when crinolines declined.  
  • bustle- a frame or pad placed on the buttocks to support or enhance the fullness of cloth on the back of a dress.  These first came into popularity in the 1870s.
  • drawers- the closest to our idea of panties that the Victorians ever got to- a loose pant-like garment joined at the waist.  


Thursday, December 22, 2011

the boyfriend and neo-victorian crafting

Since we will be apart from each other for this holiday weekend, my boyfriend Scott and I celebrated Christmas early.  We exchanged gifts after dinner on Saturday evening.

My gift was big and somewhat heavy.  Scott thought I had some idea what it was.  I had absolutely none.  Ripping off the wrapping paper, I was stunned by what I saw- a basic Singer Simple sewing machine:


He had heard me say that I wanted one to work on further sewing projects.  Despite having requested one for Christmas from my parents, I was pretty sure the hefty price tag of one would discourage them from getting one for me.  And now it makes sense why my JoAnn Fabrics purchases of last week interested him so much...

As far as what I was looking for, Scott hit all of the right marks.  I haven't used a sewing machine since my junior high Home Economics class, so I wanted something simple- no real frills or confusing buttons.  This machine included bobbins and instructions and extra needles.  What more could an inexperienced seamstress like me want anyway?

Although Scott's tendency to purchase me these sort of things has me wondering- what's his motive?

According to him, it's to encourage my "hobby."  Scott loves his hobby- painting wargamining miniatures.  He assembles and paints lead and plastic toy soldiers for the fun of it.  He's absolutely obsessed with it and has been for much longer than we have known each other.

I think the other benefit he could find from me having a creative hobby like sewing (and the suspected motive for his gift) is that I could sew while he painted and we could have a full conversation.  Currently I try to write while he paints.  What commonly happens is that he starts talking and I am so engrossed in my writing (or reading something that I am writing about) that I don't hear most of what he is saying.  But I don't currently have anything else, other than reading aloud to him, that I can do while he is painting.  And a lot of our time together is spent with him painting.

Scott apparently also wants me to be a crafter, or so this recent (nonChristmas) gift I received from him tells me.


I had expressed a need for a hot glue gun while making my failed clockwork doll key last week, as there were several instances during that experiment where a glue gun would have been much appreciated.  The boyfriend was a little surprised when I informed him that the pattern on this fancy glue gun that he purchased for me was a very Victorian pattern.

He knows me so well, even subconsciously.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

porcelain doll makeup tutorial

As promised, here is my makeup tutorial for a porcelain doll look.  Yes, this is the first time I have appeared on video on the internet.  It's a bit scary, actually- I made numerous "word" mistakes in my nervousness.  Writing is such a safer way to go, and involves less set-up to boot.  You have NO idea how much trouble I had with the lighting- there were about five different lamps, filched from various parts of my apartment, around the room, including lamps laid on the floor and shooting up at me  I also somehow managed to break a five-headed lamp after I unplugged it when "shooting" wrapped up, something that I am not too happy about.

I have no idea why the video did this, but it seems that upon being uploaded to Blogger the sound is very delayed compared to the image.  I apologize if that gives anyone any difficulties.  The small video, however, can be enlarged to full screen by clicking on it.

Below the video I've included written instructions as well.  Enjoy!

video

You will need:
  • foundation that's lighter than your natural skin color
  • foundation in your skin tone (optional)
  • white eye shadow
  • black eye liner
  • white eye liner (I substituted this item with more white eyeshadow)
  • thick lash mascara or fake eyelashes
  • red blush
  • red lipstick or lip paint
  1. Wash face clean of all other makeup.  Tie hair back.
  2. Apply a light layer of regular foundation to your face to balance out skin color, especially if you have red blotchiness like I tend to get (optional).
  3. Apply foundation that's lighter than your natural skin tone (but not too light- you want to look like a doll, not a ghost) to your skin.  Cover everything- eyelids, eyebrows, lips, ears, neck, and any other skin area of your choosing.  Make sure the makeup is blended well.
  4. To make your eyes seem larger and more glassy, apply white eyeshadow to eyelids.
  5. Add a very thin layer of black eyeliner to the inside of your upper eyelid to just barely highlight the eye.
  6. Add a layer of white eyeliner to the inside of your lower eyelid (I substituted white eyeshadow for the eyeliner and, obviously, had to lightly dust the outside of the lid, not the inside).
  7. Apply two to three layers of mascara to your eyes.  
  8. Give the mirror a big, obnoxious smile.  Apply a heavy amount of red blush to the apples of your cheeks in big, round circular motions.  Don't be discreet with the blush- dolls rarely had natural looking cheeks.  The redder the better.  
  9. Purse your lips.  With lip liner, draw on the curves of your lips, but instead of going to the corners of your mouth stop about halfway between the corner of your mouth and the center of your lip and make a straight line downward on each side.  Apply red lip paint or lipstick to your lips.
Some curled hair, a corset, and jerky machine motions, and voila!  You are ready to be a life-sized clockwork Victorian doll.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

review: a game of shadows

This past Friday evening I had the opportunity to see Guy Ritchie's sequel to his Sherlock Holmes (2009).  If you were expecting more action-packed thrills, slow-motion battle imagery, and intrusion into the personal lives of Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan by Mr. Holmes, then this is the movie for you.


*Warning: Here Be Spoilers for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  Do not read if you do not want the movie ruined for you*

Transitioning perfectly from the events of the first film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opens up with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), apparently having served her time in prison, continuing her role as henchman for Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris).  One raw fistfight, explosion, biological weapon, and stood-up date later, and Watson (Jude Law) returns to Baker Street to banter with Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) about conspiracies, urban camouflage, and stag parties.  Did I mention that the good doctor will marry Miss Mary Morstan on the morrow and wants to leave bachelorhood in style by honoring that precious old tradition?

Holmes, meanwhile, has other intentions, leading to a series of events that threaten Watson's pending marriage, honeymoon, and own existence.  But he is soon reconciled to Holmes' meddling in his life when he realizes that the fate of Europe rests in their abilities of observation, fighting, and gunslinging.

image source:  Gotcha Movies
There is much to be said for this new installment of the Sherlock Holmes franchise.  While the beginning of the movie had a few old gags, for a sequel it managed to contain itself, instead of adding all of the same old characters and dragging down the plot by giving old, somewhat irrelevant faces more screen time.  Rachel McAdams' cameo appearance was handled beautifully- short, sweet, and relevant to the plot.

New characters were delightful as well.  Madam Simza (Noomi Rapace) was treated as most of the women in the original Sherlock Holmes stories are treated- as a plot device, not a romantic interest or an intellectual equal.  She has a goal, and she works her way to fulfill that goal by helping Holmes.  But she never has conversations with the two main characters that have nothing to do with the actual problem to be solved (i.e. no confidences about personal relationships or romantic overtures)- a refreshing thing to see.

image source: Gotcha Movies
As for Professor Moriarty, I am pleased to say that the casting was perfect.  Jared Harris plays a remarkable Moriarty- a nice mix of the nondescript academic that he actually is, the intellectual and rationally defined cruelty inherent in his nature as the Napoleon of Crime, and an emotionless demeanor when confronted with Holmes.  His "moral depravity" is clearly buried beneath the surface, popping up only a few times in a cool, calculated way- even when he plays an opera on a phonograph and starts belting out words while torturing a person dangling from a hook.  He is the perfect match for Downey's Holmes, and it was a genuine pleasure to watch their intellectual sparring.

The only significant new character that I was pretty disappointed with was Stephen Fry's depiction of Mycroft, the unsocial older brother of Sherlock Holmes.  I felt that Fry's personality is too bubbly in general for the normally withdrawn Mycroft.

I did thoroughly enjoy the following:
  • The lightening of the "bromance" aspects.  Scenes such as Holmes making sure that Watson got to his wedding on time, if hungover and the worse for wear, demonstrated Holmes as a good friend in his own way, even if he did ruin the stag party.
  • Watson's scarf.  
  • The "neat" disposal of Mrs. Watson from the train.
  • The depiction of the struggle by Reichenbach Falls.
  • The mental depiction of the final fight to occur between Holmes and Moriarty- shown in such a way that it appears that they share the same thoughts.  They certainly are shown to possess a nearly identical mind in that scene, leaving all doubts of their mental capacities being equal to be blown away by the Swiss mountain air which they breathe.
The plot, meanwhile, was a little slow to start and somewhat difficult to follow, and I am still not sure I completely understand the importance of certain plot devices or details.  As a result I will probably see this movie again soon.  I get what the overall plot was, but how Holmes figured out that his trail of clues led from Point A to Point B to Point D was rather confusing to me.

Action fans will not be disappointed.  There were plenty of fistfights and gun battles, many in that slow-motion shot technique that Ritchie seems to so adore for physical confrontations and dangerous situations.  My opinion was that there were too many of these "slo-mo" scenes at times.

There was also plenty of new humorous scenes, although a few may have been way over the top. For example I wasn't a fan of Holmes' rooms looking like a jungle when Watson first entered- it seemed like they were trying to outdo the first movie in making Holmes look eccentric.  I did love Mycroft's old manservant.

My complaints are quite a few, but many of them became satisfactory to me when their purposes were resolved as the movie progressed- such as Watson doing nearly as much detecting as Holmes in several scenes, and the infamous "urban camouflage".  The ones that weren't were the following:
  • A scene where Holmes and Watson are dancing at a ball.  It looked very improper for Victorian times, even if their intentions were to find an assassin (on that note, it made them very conspicuous as well)
  • Mycroft standing naked in front of Mary Watson (who started the movie as Mary Morstan).  Despite Mycroft being considered even more eccentric than Holmes and less acclimated to society, it just seemed unrealistic that such a high government official would not consider covering up after bumping into a Victorian lady.  And while Mrs. Watson did avert her eyes, the fact that she did not run out of the room immediately also doesn't seem to fit into the image of a Victorian lady.
  • An entire brick structure falling on Holmes and Moriarty and no one sustaining any serious injuries from that incident.
  • Moriarty not noticing that his little red book had gone missing and was replaced with a duplicate until Holmes told him so.  Wouldn't he have updated his accounts at some point, if he was so obsessive about this particular little red book?
  • The lessening of the "bromance" of the last movie in favor of some extreme homosexual imagery.  I am mostly thinking here of the tussle between the two heroes in the train carriage after Watson learns that his new wife was thrown off a moving train by Holmes.  While hilarious, it was also way over the top for my liking- as if the director was trying too hard to make Holmes and Watson out to be repressed homosexuals finally letting their sexual urges out. 
  • Holmes and Watson being able to take out way more men without more than a few bruises.  But that's my complaint with most action films.
  • Watson performing chest compressions on Holmes.  This method of restarting a heart hadn't been invented yet.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and would recommend it to anyone hoping to see a good action flick this winter.  The jury's still out as to whether it was better than the first one.  I do think I need to see it again.  Such a dilemma, however, does suggest that this sequel was at least on a similar level of quality to its older brother.  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

a mechanical doll costume

Last night there was a steampunk/pirate event at the Lava Lounge in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood.  Not having any recent steampunk clothing purchases to show off and not wishing to recycle an old look, I decided to channel my energies into coming up with a persona who could use my few steampunk items to create a whole new look.

The persona:  a clockwork doll.

I decided to use my classic Emilie Autumn concert look- the infamous gold and cream colored one that I have featured on this blog many times before, the purple mini skirt, and the white ripped up stockings from those concerts (which have not yet disintegrated into a jumbled ball of threads).

I also went with my very first steampunk clothing purchase- the tan skirt with lace trim.   But to make the skirt look different I decided to bunch it up with gold-colored ribbon.  I added a pair of low brown shoes and voila! the outfit!


Originally, to complete my wind-up doll look, I had made a large gold-colored clock key shaped piece of cardboard to attach via a cut up wire clothes hanger that was to wrap around my skin and be secured in place with some very tight lacing.  The specifications for this clockwork key roughly followed one creative soul's instructions on the Steampunk Fashion LiveJournal.  This key had been a pain in the arse, as it had not only taken up a decent amount of time, cutting, recutting, painting, repainting, and numerous supply purchases to secure parts of it in place; but it had also resulted in a disagreement that culminated into a verbal confrontation with one of my apartment complex neighbors in our dark back alley at night over the fumes (the crazy neighbor even damaged someone else's bike that had been residing on my shared back porch, erroneously assuming that it was mine.)

The key in one of its stages of transformation (when it was still copper-colored).
I ended up recutting the middle of the key to secure the shaft of the key
further into the actual key to make it less top-heavy, but to no avail.
But when I finally managed to put the troublesome prop on I realized that I had made the key too damn big despite my attempts to resize it.  One of the hanger ends broke off completely.

Fortunately I had applied my makeup in such a way that I was confident that I looked every bit the porcelain doll of Victorian times and could use my own body to mimic the mechanics of clockwork motion, so the prop was discarded.

With an application of foundation a little lighter than my normal skin tone on my entire face, neck, ears, eyebrows, and lips; a very light dusting of flesh-toned powder; an unsubtle amount of blush applied with a large brush and rounded motions; white eye shadow; a very thin amount of eyeliner on the top lid; three layers of mascara; and a carefully applied amount of painted lipstick on the center of the upper and lower lip, I think I succeeded in cinching the essence of a doll look:


I'm so pleased with the look that resulted that I will be posting a makeup tutorial on this blog within the next week or so.  I certainly shocked my roommates, and the boyfriend was especially amazed by the transformation.  I did not look at all like my normal self.


The entire costume certainly got a lot of comments and compliments.  One creepy guy even followed me around the venue a good while for some reason that is completely beyond me.

The show itself was terrific- from Patricia Wake's haunting vocals to The Bloody Seamen's rock hard pirate-themed style.  Scott went as the Phantom of the Opera, but took off his mask upon our entrance into the bar.


Scott is absolutely wonderful for accompanying me to these events, dressed up in clothing that he despises, just to see me have fun with other steampunkers.



Friday, December 16, 2011

steampunk hipsters scared by justin bieber

Why does everyone assume that steampunkers are going to jump airship as soon as aspects of the subculture become more mainstream?!

The Washington Post recently published an article entitled: "Justin Bieber, Macy's co-opt steampunk subculture" in their Lifestyles section.  While the opening lines of the article would have one believe that steampunkers are dropping the genre like a hot potato by the thousands, the article actually shows more trepidation on this "infringement" by the mainstream than any actual running away from the scene.  Understandable, considering how mainstream culture tends to twist various subcultures such as goth or neo-pagans into something they're not (cutting practices, devil worship, spell casting and blood sacrifices anyone?)

But one can't necessarily disparage Justin Bieber and Macy's for using their own take on steampunk, that imaginative 19th century world that never was to inspire their "works of art."  The set design, costumes, and even concept are all pretty remarkable for Bieber's video- well thought out, fitting in with the steampunk theme very well with the toymaking gears of the workshop, the 19th century/modern mix of clothes for the workers, and the clockwork doll.  For crying out loud The Nutcracker, that most famous of Christmastime stories, features in the Christmas party scene four clockwork dolls made by Herr Drosselmeyer (Clara/Maria's uncle/godfather/grandfather, depending on what version your story goes by).  These dolls eventually become the Nutcracker Prince and the three fairies (Dewdrop, Snow, and Sugar Plum).

Besides, if you watch the video for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" with the sound off, it's easy to imagine industrial music to go along with the movements of that mechanical doll and breakdancing workers in place of the pop music nightmare that I consider Bieber's music to be.


After asking a few steampunk people I know what they thought about Bieber's video, the most common response received was "meh."  No one really cared as long as Bieber didn't go around claiming that he was now steampunk.  One person even thought it was good that the artist who made Bieber's armgear made so much money off of the tween pop sensation.

Also, who would fault Macy's window displays just because they sell "popular" clothing items such as UGG boots?  I personally think that the displays are absolutely gorgeous and perfectly enchantingly appropriate for the Christmas season:

image source: The Washington Post
image source: The Washington Post

Isabella “Captain” von Pumpernickel, a steampunker quoted in the article, put it best when she said that true enthusiasts would not be turned off by a teenage boy and a department store from indulging in their love of an altered historical era:
“If you think steampunk is dead because the ‘mainstream’ has noticed it, well then you weren’t really into it that much. ... You are not a steampunk, you are just a hipster."
Once again, let's not be steampunk hipsters!  Indulge in your love of steampunk and don't give a flying f*ck about what has gone mainstream if the subculture is really that important to you. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

steampunk hellboy

What do you get when you take two metal crafters who happen to be comic book enthusiasts, discarded car parts, a studio in Thailand, and a popular new subculture and mix them all together?

Steampunk Hellboy, that's what:

image source: Earth911
Made by Kreatworks, the 7 1/2 ft. tall, 770 lbs. sculpture can be purchased on Etsy for $7,400.00  The steampunk inspiration comes from the spiraled wires on the chest, as well as the wires on the superhero's neck.  

If you think plain old wire designs don't make something steampunk, at least these guys didn't "Just Glue Some Gears On It (And Call It Steampunk.)"  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

queen victoria was actually... sexy?

Queen Victoria's private "affairs" can't get a break from public scrutiny, can they?

First her "unmentionables" were displayed for all the world to see at an auction last month.  Now this royal personage who gave her name to an era known for its modesty (i.e. prudishness) of dress and rigidity of ideas on proper social decorum is revealed to be a rather sexy little vixen of her time- at least behind closed doors.

Exhibit A:

image source: The Daily Mail

According to this article in The Daily Mail, this image of a sensual young Queen Victoria, at age 24, was given to her husband Prince Albert as a surprise birthday gift in 1843.  Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the picture was considered to be so racy that Albert kept it in his writing room in Windsor Castle and did not let anyone else look at it.

In fact, its existence was not even publicly known until 1977.

I must say, while I have never considered Victoria to have been a beauty, this is certainly a very flattering portrait of her.  Despite the book that I am currently reading on the Victorian Era saying that ball gowns of the time period were quite often that low, it was probably not considered even remotely acceptable for a female monarch to show that much skin.

This portrait and other British royal artifacts spanning hundreds of years of English history will be discussed in detail in eight half hour radio programs on BBC Radio 4 in February 2012.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

picks from picard: miscellaneous fun facts

I am currently reading Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870 by Liza Picard.  Although I have not yet finished this book, I have already learned so much.  I thought it would be appropriate to do for Ms. Picard's well-researched book, which depends on primary sources such as Henry Mayhew and others, to write blog posts about certain topics much as Scott did with the series of posts about crime and criminals in Victorian London entitled "The Mayhew Files."

I will start with Victorian clothing next week.  For now I want to pick a rather random selection of facts I discovered so far from reading this book:

  • The first dentist drill worked by clockwork was invented in 1863.
  • Queen Victoria used chloroform for several of her childbirths to reduce the pain of labor.  
  • The Thames was terribly polluted and stank, especially in the first part of the 19th century.  The problem came to a head when the Houses of Parliament had to be evacuated in June 1858 due to the terrible stench rising from the sewage and trash in the Thames.  This event became known as The Great Stink.
  • If you thought 21st century traffic jams were bad, try 19th century ones, with no right-of-way laws, traffic signals such as lights and stop signs, and solid gridlock in some streets where carriages, carts, and pedestrians shoved their way in any open spot available.  There were policemen at some intersectons regulating traffic, but Picard doesn't indicate how useful this was.  
  • The first traffic light was installed in 1868 around the Houses of Parliament, with a red lamp for "stop" and a green lamp for "go."  
  • There were 78 toll bars or turnpike gates within six miles of Charing Cross, which were not cleared away until 1864.
  • When Queen Victoria took a train from Slough to London in 1842, the 44 mph train ride was not enjoyable- she asked her husband to tell the rail company to "please go more slowly in the future."
  • Ever heard of an "earth closet?"  Henry Moule created one in 1860 as a different take on getting rid of human waste than the water closet.  According to Picard it looked and operated like this:
There was a hopper behind the seat, containing fine, dry earth.  It had to be dry, to ensure that it was free-running: suitable earth could be dried in the kitchen oven.  A substantial wooden slab like a low table on four legs had a nicely rounded hole in the middle, with a metal pan fixed under it, and a smaller hole convenient to the occupant's right hand, housing a handle which could be raised to release a flow of earth from the hopper into the receptacle under the seat.  It was simple to maintain and repair, easy to clean, and the floor under it could be swept and scrubbed.
  • Single, poverty-stricken parents could sell offspring which they either didn't want or couldn't afford to take care of to a "baby farmer" for £12-20. The fate of the child? Not always murder, but more often than not left in a different part of the city to die or become some good Samaritan's responsibility.
  • Umbrellas were considered to be effeminate- therefore men did not commonly use them until about 1860, when thousands were being sold in the streets for use in wet weather.  
  • On that note, one could also "rent" an umbrella for a few hours in case of an unexpected downpour from the heavens.
  • A weak solution of arsenic could be used to remove facial hair- a good excuse to keep it in the home, available to a poisoner.

Monday, December 12, 2011

steampunk at the movies

Our Steel City Steam Society at the Sunday evening showing of Hugo last week.  The Doctor had just arrived from the Steel City Con, hence why he is the only acceptably not steampunked personage in the group.  Besides, how does The Doctor NOT fit into a steampunk photo?

Yours truly (kneeling next to The Doctor) went as an airship pirate, while her favored gentleman Scott (second from the right standing) made an attempt at another Professor Elemental look with pith helmet, khakis and button-down shirt:


Apparently our little group got some bizarre and/or irritated looks from some people, and my boyfriend got bad customer service from the theater's Starbucks from what he thought was a distaste for our clothing (I think it was more from a lazy employee being, well, a lazy employee, but I wasn't the one dealing with the guy who made my Earl Grey).  But at the local Eat 'n Park that we patronized after the show, we actually made rather a bit of a hit.  We were all polite and generously tipped our waitresses, while one waitress not even serving us came up to us and asked the females for corset purchasing tips.

Something of note:  The Doctor, who was last in line to pay his bill at the diner, said: "Stanton, the manager at Eat-n-Park said that he really enjoyed the atmosphere we brought, and seemed very pleased to have us."

So I guess the SCSS might be freaks, but we are nice freaks?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

sewing goodies for an amateur seamstress

This afternoon I braved the nightmare that tends to be McKnight Road (just north of the city) to have a Robert Griffing print custom framed at JoAnn Fabrics today.  The print had been sitting in my apartment for over four months, safe in its cardboard wrapping, but sadly not displayed for the world to see in all of its macabre glory:

"The Victory Coat" by Robert Griffing
This Eastern Woodland Native American is trying on the dead enemy's coat for size. 
When I arrived at the chain fabric and craft store I realized that I had left the print in my apartment, totally defeating the goal of my excursion.  Irritated, I went inside anyway, as I had also planned to look at some fabric for a potential sewing project.

Unbeknowst to me, JoAnn's was having an amazing Super Sale weekend.  I ended up getting three yards of this beautiful brocade material for under $18.00.  The goal?  To make my own corset, with the help of Ruth, one of my new steampunk friends:

The mostly blue side is the predominant color.
I just thought the other side was too pretty to not show.
Then I decided to look through the patterns, even though I was pretty sure that I wouldn't find anything relating to my personal steampunk and neo-Victorian needs.  I was wrong.  This Simplicity pattern set for a Victorian jacket, skirt, and bustle,  was on sale for $1.99.  That's a steal compared to its original sale price of $17.99:



Don't expect any of my attempts at sewing corsets or skirts to pop up on the blog for a while.  For one, I don't yet have possession of a sewing machine.  I am waiting to see if Santa brought anything (Despite being full-fledged adults, he still leaves myself and my twin sister and older sister rather rather generous pile of gifts each year, the same size pile as my high-school-aged youngest sister.  My parents claim that that will happen until I am married.  So... don't get married, and keep getting awesome gifts from Santa?)

Other hindrances to posting any new hand-made costumes will  be the amount of time I can commit to these projects, patience, and my damn obsession with perfectionism, although I will try my hardest to record my failures as well as my successes.  I am the type who would rather buy an item than make it if I think it's worth the money I spend for the time I will save in not doing it.  But I have recently joined a "Stitch 'n Bitch" group run by Ruth, where we can sew and discuss steampunky and not-so-steampunky things, so having a project to do at these things other than my current project of sewing clockwork onto a flannel bag would be nice, and make me feel good about creating something with my own hands.

I am better at building props, so expect a tutorial on making a "clockwork doll" costume later this week.  That costume is currently in the works, much to the annoyance of one of my neighbors, who just confronted me in the back alley of our apartment building over the smell of the spray paint I am using to make a life-size cardboard clock key more metallic in appearance.

(As an aside, after making these purchases I went back home, retrieved the forgotten print, and returned to JoAnn Fabrics, where I was treated to another 50% off of my custom frame job.  I am currently in love with this store. )

Friday, December 9, 2011

you know you're a steampunk enthusiast when...


  • You spend more money on Victorian or neo-Victorian clothes and accessories than you do on 21st century clothes.
  • You practice an authentic British accent.
  • Brown is the go-to color in your wardrobe.
  • Tesla is your idol, while Edison is just a dirty crook.
  • Buying toy guns doesn't make you childish- it just spices up your outfit.
  • The search for affordable and large clockwork parts takes up most of your online shopping time.
  • Broken objects or appliances, mechanical or otherwise, end up in your home to be "requisitioned."  In my case this has gone from a wine bottle opener to a plastic, gold-colored  Christmas bulb.
  • You troll Craigslist's "Free" section and antique stores for such broken appliances and objects mentioned above.
  • You want to try absinthe simply because it was made popular in the 19th century drink.  And you want to try it the "legitimate" way- dripping water onto a sugar cube, not setting it aflame.
  • You know how to properly wear a corset.
  • The majority of your readings have to do with the Victorian era and its inventions, contributions to modernity, dress, and mannerisms.
  • You drink tea like a fiend.
  • You talk about Jules Verne like he's an old friend.
  • You have enough neo-Victorian inspired music to play it nonstop for 12 hours without repeating songs.
  • Your entire family knows that as long as a gift looks somewhat Victorian you'll probably like it.
This list doesn't exactly display all of my own personal attributes as a steampunk enthusiast.

Anyone have anything they want me to add?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

review: hugo

This past Sunday I went with the Steel City Steam Society to see Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011) at a local movie theater.  Yes, we were in full steampunk gear.  Yes, we received strange looks.  And I think the guy sitting in one of the rows we ended up occupying in the theater did not appreciate our presence.  But we were respectful and quiet when the film started, and settled in to a 3-D experience involving much clockwork, dogs, snow, and even an automaton.

Set in 1930s Paris, the film follows the story of Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield), a young orphan living behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse railway station, where he steals to eat and winds the station's clocks to deter suspicion that his uncle, his legal guardian has been missing for the past few months.  In the process he must avoid Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), the station inspector, who has a keen eye for thieving orphans, if not a quick-springing mechanical leg brace.

image source: Front Row Reviews
As a tribute to his beloved and deceased father, Hugo steals clockwork parts to complete an automaton that his father had been trying to fix before he died.  His attempts to honor his father in dishonorable ways gets him into trouble with the station's resident toy maker, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), and eventually a relationship (albeit usually hostile) develops between the two.  Soon Hugo begins to discover a mysterious link between his father's automaton and the old toymaker.  With the help of Méliès' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), he tries to unravel the mystery.

First things first: despite the plethora of gears and clockwork integral to this movie's setting and plot, this movie is not steampunk.  It didn't appear to be so from the trailers, but one has to investigate anyway.

That being said, there is a lot to recommend this movie to a steampunk or Victorian enthusiast or a history buff such as myself.  The history of motion pictures, from its early days in the 1890s to about WWI, as well as the machinery that went along with the new art of cinematography at that time, was certainly explained concisely for the audience.  The story also follows the biography of the real-life Georges Méliès very closely, something that I was pleasantly surprised to discover when I actually researched the movie further when I got home from the theater.

Another historical plus is a dream sequence that mimics the Gare Montparnasse railway derailment of 1895.  I was not aware of the details of that incident until I saw this movie, although I have featured images of it on my blog before:

image source: Wikipedia

One remarkable thing to note about this movie is its ability to transcend labels.  Although advertised as a "fantasy family film," I would strongly recommend it to any adult to go see by themselves.  There weren't any corny bits, the kids didn't act like idiots, and even the somewhat "comical" Station Inspector is not unrealistically so for the most part.

But movie's message really cinches the universality of this story.  It is, at heart, a reminder that everyone has a purpose in life.  As Hugo himself tells his friend Isabelle:

I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.

The only cons was the entire 3-D experience.  I had a mild but sharp and consistent headache from the previews to the credits.  It did nothing to add to the story, and often took away from looking at other aspects of each scene.  Why is 3-D such a big trend now?  *groan*

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

creepy christmas carols

Last night I had mostly completed a review about Hugo written up and saved on Blogger... or so I thought.  But for some reason I can't find it, and I fear it has been lost in the aetherspaces of the Internet, never to be recovered again.

While I work on another one I'll treat you all to something not so Victorian, but certainly very relevant to the season:  creepy Christmas carols.

My favorite is, by far, the infamous "Carol of the Bells."  Although the lyrics are bright and cheery, the music itself is just completely epic and dark.  Once, using that song as inspiration, I wrote a short story a very long time ago about a depressed girl who contemplates suicide.  I would share it here but it's actually more of a teenage angst tale, one that I am not particularly proud of today.  The point is, I used a Christmas song to write a story about rather dark and depressing things.

The best cover of that song is, in my opinion, the rock mash-up by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  The "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" intro doesn't hurt either, especially as I consider that my favorite of the "non-creepy" songs:


Next in line is "Coventry Carol," a song from a 16th century miracle play.  Usually performed entirely without vocals, I wasn't even aware that there were lyrics to this song until about this time last year.  Then I discovered, somewhat to my horror (but mostly to my morbid delight) that this song is mostly about the Massacre of the Innocents, that episode  recorded in Matthew 2:16-18 where King Herod of Judea orders the killings of all of the young children in and around Bethlehem in the hopes of destroying the newborn Christ, who he believes is a threat to his throne.  I find it a fitting reminder of one of the darker sides of the Christmas story- the fact that innocent children died as a result of the birth of the Son of God.

My favorite version is by Nox Arcana.  Despite the song's lack of adherence to the traditional song's melody, Nox Arcana managed to make what is probably a really difficult song to sing more lively and its lyrics understandable,  something the original song's melody does not facilitate.


The last one is the dirge-like "We Three Kings," written during the Victorian era by the Revered John Henry Hopkins.  Not only does the mournful minor chords differ greatly from the cheery notes of the majority of Christmas songs played during the season in retail stores and shopping centers, but the lyrics themselves are sombre, especially these lines:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Nice foreshadowing of the human Christ's fate.

There isn't one version of this song that I favor over any others, so here's a version without the edits that all too often occur to make this song less dreary:




As a bonus for this December 6, my boss's office was invaded by St. Nicholas, despite the fact that my boss is Indian and Hindu rather than some form of European and Christian:


Yes, all of those shoes do indeed belong to him, and have been sitting in our office for months.  My only question is- is it possible he has more pairs of shoes than me?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"hugo" trailer #2

After weeks of hearing nothing but rave reviews about Hugo, Scott and I decided to go see it around the same time The Steel City Steam Society made it an official event.  So now there's at least a dozen of us going to see it in full steampunk garb.

A review will follow tonight's viewing.  For now, enjoy the second trailer:


Click here for my post on the first trailer.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

the steamiest tattoo parlor this side of the atlantic

As far as art installation pieces go, I am certainly no expert.  I've tried my share of trying to understand and appreciate a good many--ranging from one that consisted of a room filled from floor to ceiling in layers of fiberglass to four duct-tape and cardboard constructed dead trees with rape stories written on them.  I get the rape one, but fail to understand the fiberglass.  My favorite was always the "Cloud" one at theWarhol museum- a room empty except for two fans and several silver pillow-shaped balloons half-filled with helium that could be batted about the room without ever falling inert to the ground.  But I'm sure art experts have a much different interpretation of the piece than I do-- batting around shiny floating objects is probably not the actual purpose of the piece. 

Nevertheless, an art installation piece I can appreciate for its aesthetic value has caught my eye in a recent article featured on Wired- a tattoo parlor in the steampunk style.  Many thanks to Lydia of the Steel City Steam Society for sharing this link on that group's Facebook page and thus bringing the project to my attention:


Anyone want a mechanical mosquito to service their inking needs?
Dermobot (Skin Crawler) by Chris Conte
image source: Wired

Nervous yet?
Electric Chair #3 by Sam Ostroff
image source: Wired

This project, entitled Mobilis in Mobili: An Exhibition of Steampunk Art and Appliance opened on November 12 in at the Wooster Street Social Club (site of TLC's NY Ink) in New York City and runs through January 12.  Curated by Bruce Rosenbaum of ModVic, the exhibit features the works of 26 artist-designers that span a range of items from guitars and desks to workable inking devices and accessories (a webcam installed on the nozzle of a 1918 gas pump to see the progression of a customer's back tattoo, for example).  These purchasable pieces of art give an industrial flair to a tattoo parlor which probably does one of several things to customers:
  • Make an already nerve-wracking decision seem more menacing to a newbie hoping to get their first tattoo
  • Make it seem more hardcore to the inking pro
  • Inspire steam and clockwork-driven tattoos
  • Inspire the steampunk enthusiast
Steampunk Speed Governor Lamp by Cory Barkman
image source: Wired

Steampunk "Back" Tattoo to the Future by Bruce Rosenbaum and Ken Taylor
image source: Wired

"Full Head of Steampunk" Opthalmometer Computer Workstation by Bruce Rosenbaum
image source: Wired
Steampunk Lamp by Chris Osborne
image source: Wired

Thursday, December 1, 2011

ode to "steampunk done wrong"

One of the members of The Steel City Steel Society recently shared this brilliant song inspired by the "Not Remotely Steampunk" category of Regretsy.

In the style of Mr. B and Professor Elemental:


Excellent job, Jeff!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

neo-victorian office manager

I decided to make a humdrum workday more exciting yesterday by an interesting combination of Victorian-inspired and color-coordinated pieces:



I apologize for the bad quality of the photos- I was in a rush to take these before I went to work and didn't have time to set up a corner of my apartment for an actual photo shoot.   I hated how my hair turned out, so after this "shoot" I changed my hair to be half-up, half-down.


I also did not wear the hat to work... I just wanted to play around with it for these photos. I think the little hats tend to look better on one when one's hair is let down.


I received compliments all day about the color combination of the red shirt with the red umbrella, the blouse itself, and the thigh highs.  The heels, however, were not a fun work addition.  I was so thankful when my day was done and I could remove those pesky heels.

Overall, I think this outfit was a success.  I just need to work on my hair styles.  Any recommendations?



Ruffle blouse: vintage, $5.00
Pleated skirt: Victoria's Secret, a gift from my boyfriend Scott 
Rose-patterned thigh highs: Halloween store, $6.00
High heels: DSW, $40.00
Red Umbrella: vintage, $4.00
Necklace: vintage, $4.00

Note: All vintage items were previously featured in this post.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

holiday steampunk ball in da 'burgh!

Come one, come all, to The Steel City Society's Midwinter Ball!



So deck yourselves out in your steampunk finery for a night of steel and steam in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood on December 15!

Monday, November 28, 2011

valley of fearful writing

With the upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie quickly approaching, I have been trying to get in  my Holmes fix in.  This is easier than it sounds, as I have been rereading stories of the famous detective to my boyfriend Scott since the last Guy Ritchie film on the topic came out.  We finished all but His Last Bow and The Valley of Fear several months ago, and as a result moved onto other books.
image source: Open Letters Monthly

Partially out of excitement for the newest installment of the current blockbuster Holmes saga, and partially to avoid having to read another Salman Rushdie novel out loud to Scott so soon after having finished Shalimar the Clown (Rushdie is an amazing writer, but he's so artful with words that my tongue often cannot keep up, and I end up getting a headache) I recently found myself yearning for more Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle told it.  So I raided my absent twin sister's closet and pulled out an old novella- her copy of The Valley of Fear.  I hadn't read the story for nearly ten years and couldn't remember what it was about, but eagerly brought it back to my apartment.

Scott and I finished The Valley of Fear last night.  What an utter failure.  I get the impression that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it for two reasons:
  • To make cash
  • To write an outlandish romance/adventure novel and ensure its publication by encasing it into a Sherlock Holmes story
I don't think this rationale would be incorrect if the story was actually good.  It's no secret that Doyle despised Holmes, considering him a blinder to what he perceived to be his worthy contributions to literature, such as The White Company.

The problems with The Valley of Fear are few but significant.  Let's take the story in its two parts- the detective solves murder case story, and the murderous gang in the coalfields of somewhere in America story.



The first part is very enjoyable.  With the exception of Doyle's inattention to detail- in this story, set before "The Final Problem," Holmes gives a detailed description of a Professor Moriarty and his status as the most devious criminal ever, even though Watson supposedly had never heard of Moriarty until the events of "The Final Problem."  As many Holmesians know, ACD was not one for chronology and The Valley of Fear is no exception.

The premise is terrific- a man is hunted down by killers intent on exacting revenge for a past wrong he has done them.  Holmes thoroughly deduces each clue until he has figured out how the murdered man at Birlstone has been killed and who was responsible based not only on bloody footprints at the scene of the crime but the behaviors of the inhabitants of Birlstone.  Mystery cleanly solved- exactly what Holmes readers are looking for.  But why was such a crime committed in the first place?

Instead of a nice little synopsis, instead Doyle inserts a narrative much like that added to "A Study in Scarlet," where the resolution of the mystery is followed by a story of adventure, romance, and murderous Mormons that takes place years before the events in which Holmes is involved.  Insert "deadly secret society a la a romanticized version of the Molly Maguires" for "murderous Mormons" and you have the makings of a somewhat similar narrative.

The hero of this second part, John McMurdo, a counterfeiter and man-on-the-run from the Chicago police for murder, joins the Scowrers, a secret society that terrorizes the citizens of Vermissa Valley through extortion, threats, and murder.  Soon McMurdo is one of the most popular of the members- he can binge drink with no bad effects, has a fierce temper, violent tendencies, and a notable criminal past.  He even manages to get the prettiest girl in town to fall in love with him.  But the Pinkertons are on their trail and trying to close in.  What will happen to our amoral hero?

The main problem with this part is that neither McMurdo nor his girlfriend seem to be believable characters.  Even though the girl, Ettie, hates the Scowrers, she cannot help but love McMurdo and remain his, albeit reluctantly.  McMurdo, meanwhile, is not only a Mary Sue character of sorts to his gang friends- he is just too damn good at coming up with ideas, too filled with bravado, and too obviously eager to show off his violent side and announce that he is a criminal for one to think that this guy is what he says he is.  Sorry Doyle, Scott and I saw the ending coming from miles off.

And the speeches of love between Ettie and McMurdo were so disgustingly ridiculous that we could not believe that the same genius who had created Sherlock Holmes and dozens of other well-written characters and stories would spew out such crap.  We almost stopped reading the novella entirely as a result- I ended up speeding up the words and dramatically exaggerating the pitch of my voice to get us through it with some dignity.

Overall, this detour from the original mystery story is just totally unnecessary and pretty bad writing to boot.  Bad monkey, ACD.

If you are a true Holmes fan, I doubt that any discouragement would get you to stay away from this story.  And as far as bad stories go, this story was better than most.  But if you are a casual reader of the Holmes stories, I would suggest that you give other, better stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" a shot before judging ACD as a writer.  If you do want to read The Valley of Fear, then my suggestion would be to read Part 1, read a synopsis of Part 2 online, and then read the Epilogue (which is still unnecessary, but at least reminds the reader of why you picked this book up to begin with by reintroducing Holmes to the story for three pages.)

Now, a book cover for The Valley of Fear that perfectly describes my feelings for the novella itself- inexplicably ridiculous:

image source: Hard Case Crime
Potential Reader: (looking at cover) He wrote erotica as well as Sherlock Holmes?

The little caption at the front doesn't help.