Back in the mid-Eighties steampunk as a concept hadn't been heard of as science-fiction writing was solely based in the future, or used time travel as a vehicle for tales of strange and far-off places. That was until James P. Blaylock came along. As one of the main writers of steampunk that grew from cyberpunk, Blaylock brings us his latest tale in his famous Langdon St. Ives series.
Mentored by Philip K. Dick, Blaylock is considered to be one of the main influencers of steampunk along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. He has since won two World Fantasy Awards, the Philip K. Dick Award and is also director of the Creative Writing Conservatory at the Orange County High school of the Arts.
Langdon St. Ives is Holmes to a deeply disturbing Moriarty type who has remained hidden for some time, committing evil acts in Victorian England. What sets this novel apart from others I have read is the use of brown coloured text throughout the novel to represent the sepia tones of early photography. The beginning has the Victorian Embankment partly destroyed and what lies beneath being made into a place where Langdon St. Ives’ nemesis lurks, experimenting with vampiric fungi that live on the blood of others, animals and humans. London, it seems is rife with shady people, Mr Treadwell and Mr Snips being some who act as an underground mafia duo, threatening other men's lives if they don't give them a map of great importance. These two are not the ones Langdon should be worried about though, as the underground lurking Mr Beaumont has plans that could shake London to its very knees.
Other characters provide a clear look at the different types of baddies around at that time; Mr Treadwell and Mr Snips are two dangerous criminals in search of maps of the London underground where there is rumour a bird with luminous fungus is roaming. Along with the last of the maps, they need to find the bird for their master, though they also have to lure Langdon as both of them know he may want to thwart their plans. Dr Benson Peavey's Elysium Asylum might seem a normal building from the outside where the mentally ill are being treated, but what goes on inside is another matter. Depending on whether the families were wealthy and wanted their loved ones to be treated well, they would pay extra for their stay in more comfortable rooms. Most were poor and forgotten, and used in cruel experiments that would amuse high paying members of the public, one in particular being Mr Klingheimer. One of the subjects has been fed glowing fungi and developed psychic powers which Dr Peavy has been experimenting on for a while.
Sarah Wright lives in Boxley Woods and it’s rumoured that she is a witch. Mother Laswell has always been friendly toward Sarah, delivering essentials to her door in times of need, and never thought she would harm anyone, and to Langdon she makes a request that he visit her to find out whether she is alright as she fears something is wrong with her. When Langdon is brought into this mystery, there is more revealed about a girl who was being taught by the witch who had already developed amazing psychic powers that had to be kept under control. Langdon investigating the girl leads him to the underground lair where he is ultimately captured and taken to the lair of the madman who cultivates the vampiric fungi in Beneath London, the name of chapter fifteen where his investigation has taken him halfway through the novel. Langdon is sure that Beaumont has the blind girl, and needs to be careful now that he is in his lair, but there is someone else who lies beneath, a rich man who wants all that he has and Beaumont thinks he might soon have no use for him.
Beneath London is one of four novels in the Tales of Langdon St. Ives series; Homunculus, Lord Kelvin's Machine and The Aylesford Skull being the other three. As a reader it is easy to delve deep into the London underground passageways where all manner of evils lurk there ready to pounce.
Beneath London might be a well-crafted Steampunk novel, but it has a hefty dose of dark horror besides.
Review by Sandra Scholes
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