The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
Spring Heeled Jack was a real character of the 19th century, or at least as real as alien abductors are. Jack first made his appearance in the mid 1830’s and while reports were concentrated then and in the 1860’s, sightings continued into the early 1920’s. Jack was described as having red eyes, a large helmeted head, a bat-wing like cape, stilt-like heels, and prodigious jumping ability. Some reports had him jump twenty feet in the air. Jack was also notorious for molesting very young women. With such a reputation, Spring Heeled Jack lived on through penny dreadful and pulp magazines, making an appearance in 2003 in the Dr. Who magazine. It should not go unremarked that the early appearances of Jack almost coincide with the failed assassination attempt upon Queen Victoria.
Mark Hodder recasts Jack into the realm of steam punk. Or to be more precise, Jack is responsible for making a world that we would recognize as steam punk. It would not give up too much to say that Jack, in an effort to remove the tarnish on his family’s name, seeks to erase from history the aforementioned assassination attempt and in the process assures its success. Albert becomes king and there is no Victorian age for the 20th century to snicker over. I am not giving up much because this event is not what changes history. Like Ray Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder,” it is a very little thing, that should have gone unnoticed that at once sends technology out of control and sets social forces to play that would make libertines look like choir boys. Not even 25 years after Jack’s first appearance there are steam-powered hansoms, personal flying machines (also steam-powered), roving incinerators, and more smog than can possibly be imagined. Darwin also was less controversial and Mendel started (and published) his work decades ahead of time. The result here would be a genetically enhanced menagerie the would rival anything seen in the “Flintstones.” One might suppose the cause for this would be to make the obligatory introduction of the werewolves of London more plausible.
Even at that, just as Victoria’s demise was of little importance to this steam-driven world, Jack is not even close to one of the main characters. That honor would be shared by Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Burton may be best know as the first European infidel to enter the Ka’ aba in Mecca and see the Al-Ħajaru l-Aswad. Swinburne was a Victorian poet of some note relished his reputation for deviance, a reputation that likely far outstripped the facts. In the Victorian age, they never met. But here, why not.
Burton has been assigned, by the Prime Minister, to investigate a series of abductions associated with the appearance of werewolves. The government feared that the technological class had become too independent. If he has time, he can also look into Spring Heeled Jack. These case (of course) converge. Those that know of Burton far better than I would know that after 1861 he spent a declining career moving from one minor diplomatic post to another. At least in this steam punk world Burton is able to bring talents to their best uses. These talents are considerable and it is the character of Burton that stands out. The pairing with Swinburne would seem odd (this Swinburne does live up to most his Victorian counterpart’s reputation). Burton is purposeful, clear-headed, and, well, might even best Chuck Norris or whoever the current testosterone-addled action figure might be. Swinburne is small, dissipated, and often muddle-headed. Nevertheless Burton sees something in Swinburne.
Hodder gives the reader a simply excellent yarn, engagingly told. In the Burton brings matters to a close, without exactly putting things to rights. That may not be so good for you and me (or humanity in general) but, it at least gives Hodder the chance to tell his next tale, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. What Hodder does not do, however, is explain the reports of Spring Heeled Jack in our world.