Absinthe & Arsenic by Raven Dane (book review).

March 23, 2021 | By | Reply More

Absinthe & Arsenic’ is a collection of sixteen tales by Raven Dane, a mixture of Victorian weird fiction and steampunk. In the introduction, she confesses to being a lifelong fan of M.R. James and Wilkie Collins. Most of the pieces were written especially for this book and have not appeared elsewhere. One exception is an extract from her award-winning steampunk novel, ‘Cyrus Darian And The Technomicron’.

To set the scene, every story begins with a year, always in the latter half of the nineteenth century and a place name, usually London, but some take place in Yorkshire, Ireland or even France.

For openers, there’s ‘The 10.15 To Lealholm’, an extract from the journal of Edwin Hazeldine Esquire, who went to visit his elder brother at ‘a godforsaken remote farm on the North Yorkshire moors’ and found that worthy besieged by strange shambling dirty nasty creatures that strongly resemble zombies, though that term isn’t used. Can they survive?

‘Annie By Gaslight’ is set in Whitechapel, London, 1888 so just one guess who turns up. Annie is a nice eight year-old who feels some sympathy for the pretty ladies she sees hanging about on the street, especially when they start getting murdered. An interesting twist on the old Ripper yarn.

‘Worse Things Happen At Sea’ is a story of the Mudlarks who scrounge what they can from the mudflats of the Thames when the tide recedes, harassed by the police, thieves and stranger perils that lurk in the dark water. Getting some social history, along with the horror, is a bonus of these fictions and a timely reminder of how easy life is for most of us nowadays.

One of the highlights here is ‘Breath Of The Messenger (A Lovecraftian Steampunk Tale)’ featuring Dane’s hero Cyrus Darian, a half-Persian, half-Irish maverick alchemist and his companion, Belial, a Fallen Angel, one of the seven High Princes of Hell. Aided by aristocratic inventor and genius Sir Miles Hardwick, they must prevent one of the Old Ones from breaking through to Earth. I like a ghost story as much as the next man, but this sort of retro daft high adventure is more my cup of tea and was hugely enjoyable. The book also features ‘A Fateful Encounter’, an extract from ‘Cyrus Darian And The Technomicron’, in which he meets a dangerous demon.

In ‘The Chill’, John Harbinger hates spiritualist mediums, the table tappers who extract money from the bereaved and, in London of 1888, he spends much time going to their charades and exposing them. Unfortunately, one disgruntled fake has some real powers and puts a spell on him, so he feels chilly all the time. His doctor can’t help and he must turn to another medium for help. Harry Houdini exposed hordes of these fakes in the real world, but as soon as he died, they crawled back out of the woodwork and are thriving now. In any case, this is a heart-warming story, despite the Chill.

In ‘Daniel And Lydia’, the latter is a young lady whose parents have tragically died, leaving her to the care of a distant relative in a cold, lonely deserted mansion house. The former is a ghost who roams the grounds. Lydia won’t get her inheritance until she reaches her twenty-first birthday, which leaves her helpless meanwhile. It is a reminder of how limited life once was for the ladies and a splendidly gothic tale with a surprising twist.

I wouldn’t want a steady diet of Victorian weird tales, but a small dose like this is perfectly acceptable and made more so by Raven Dane’s literate but accessible prose. She has a good feel for the era, its customs, mores and, most importantly, its dialogue. Nobody says ‘I’m like’ or ‘totally’ to break the nineteenth-century mood. All in all, a pleasant tome, best read on a steam train at night while your manservant prevents the lower orders from bothering you.

Eamonn Murphy

March 2021

(pub: Telos Moonrise, 2013. 190 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (US), $13.08 (US). ISBN: 978-1-84583-858-4. Ebook: Price: £ 2.20 (UK), $ 3.02 (US).

check out websites : www.telos.co.uk and https://telos.co.uk/shop/horror-dark-fantasy-and-science-fiction/dark-endeavours/absinthe-arsenic/

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Category: Books, Horror

About the Author ()

Eamonn Murphy is a science fiction, fantasy, horror and graphic novel reviewer who writes a bit too. See https://www.amazon.co.uk/~/e/B01GEVVV5Q

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