Friday, October 10, 2014

Guest Blog by Teresa Edgerton: The Age of Unreason

Today’s post is a guest blog from fantasy author Teresa Edgerton.

The Age of Unreason — Looking Beyond the Obvious

For a long time, most fantasy was firmly entrenched in the Middle Ages.  There were readers who felt that it was impossible to write fantasy outside that period, because if it did not fall into some fantastic approximation of the Medieval era it couldn't be fantasy.  "You can't have magic and technology," they would insist (completely ignoring the vast amount of technology involved in creating, say, a sword).  The idea was that if you could do something or make something with magic there would be no motivation to use technology to do the same thing.  I always thought it was just the opposite.  Once you could find the technology to do something or make something without magic, magicians would no long have the monopoly, and they would turn their efforts toward things that only they could do.  Besides, in a well-constructed fantasy world magic can have terrifying costs.  Why risk catastrophic consequences when anyone with the right tools and materials can do the same thing?

Then along came the steampunk revival, and fantasy was filled with air ships and machinery powered by magic, in quasi-Victorian settings.  And then gas lamp fantasy, which is steampunk without the focus on all the gadgets.  And black powder fantasy where cannons, pistols, and rifles replace swords.  Suddenly it was all right to combine magic and technology.

But somewhere in all this, the fabulous 18th century still tends to be neglected, although it's one of my favorite periods to write about. 

Most readers think of the 18th century, and immediately their minds go to "The Enlightenment" and "The Age of Reason."  They picture men like Kant and Hume having sedate conversations about moral and political philosophy.  They picture Benjamin Franklin with his Mona Lisa smile, and George Washington with no smile at all. 

And yet that was also the era when women wore powdered wigs reaching incredible heights and adorned with ships in full sail and mechanical birds, when quacks hawked "anti-earthquake pills" after the Lisbon earthquake, when the streets of Paris ran with blood — there is nothing sedate about any of that.

But there was yet another side in the 18th century, one we rarely hear about:  a voracious appetite for wonders, curiosities ... and magic.

And it is surprising how easy it is to uncover the unexpected and the extraordinary about any era you may happen to choose.  Here is a sampling of things I found out about the 18th century, in books I brought home after searching through nearby public libraries:

Jacques de Vaucanson (later to achieve fame as the inventor of the mechanical Digesting Duck) outraged the authorities while still a student at a Jesuit college, by his invention of mechanical flying angels.

Dr. James Graham invented The Celestial Bed, which rested on glass pillars, boasted mattresses stuffed with the hair of English stallions — said to "lend a certain resiliency unmatched elsewhere"— moved on an axis, and contained, among other instruments, an internal pipe organ.  Those who slept in the bed were enveloped in "cherishing vapours" provided by 1500 pounds of "natural and artificial magnets" and bathed in "aetherial" gases released from the dome.  It moved, it is said, with a "sweet undulating, tittulating, vibratory, soul-dissolving, marrow-melting" motion, cured impotence and sterility, and guaranteed the conception of children of extraordinary beauty. (This inspired a short story.)

The Black Pullet, a manuscript described as the work of an officer who served in Egypt during this period, besides proposing to teach the art of talismans, amulets, and magic rings, contains a recipe for manufacturing a black hen, no ordinary barnyard fowl, possessing as it did an instinct for detecting hidden gold.

Franz Mesmer postulated a universal fluid "so continuous as to not admit of vacuum, and incredibly subtle," which he identified as "animal magnetism."  Using a tub filled with "magnetized water," iron filings, and powdered glass, he treated patients in his Paris consulting rooms.  Patients gathered around the tub were connected to the fluid by grasping iron rods.  Some patients slipped into a calm and tranquil state, others suffered the wildest hysteria or even convulsions, others still burst into floods of tears, or were "stimulated to ecstasy." (Doctor Mirabolo in Goblin Moon is based on Mesmer.)  

Vampire sightings were particularly numerous in Europe during the 18th century.

A dentist by then name of Martin van Butchell displayed the embalmed body of his first wife in a glass case.  Red dye injected into her veins, glass eyes, and a lace gown provided a pleasingly life-like appearance.  He was in the habit of introducing her to his patients, until he remarried and his second wife objected.

The Count de Saint Germain, who professed to be 2000 years old and on terms of familiarity with the Queen of Sheba, astounded the French court with his knowledge of European history, chemistry, and languages.  He died, it is said, shortly before the French Revolution, though many claimed to meet with him after his supposed death.

It is recorded that Cagliostro, another 18th century mystic (and sometime pupil of Saint Germain), once held a Banquet for the Dead, at which the shades of great men materialized and dined with his guests.

In the year 1783, the village of Weston suffered an outbreak of a disease called Whirligigousticon.

18th century doctors and scientists still believed in the theory of telegony, whereby a child might inherit the traits of the mother's previous sexual partners.  (I used a version of this for my goblins in The Queen's Necklace.) Therefore, if a widow remarried, children conceived of that marriage might more nearly resemble her earlier husband—a vital consideration in matters of inheritance.
I hope these few examples give an idea of the type of richness that is out there, just waiting to provide inspiration for fantasy novels yet unwritten.

Teresa has been telling stories since she first learned to talk. More than sixty years later, she is still inventing them.
The author of eleven novels, written under her own name and her pseudonym, Madeline Howard, as well as short fiction, reviews, interviews, and articles on writing, she currently lives with her husband, two adult children, a son-in-law, two grandsons, assorted pets, and more books than you might think would fit in the remaining space.