Steampunk vs. Gothic Literature

Earlier this year, at a convention called Dark Side of the Con, I wound up inadvertently leading a panel on the overlap of goth and steampunk. Despite one originating in the early 1980s and the other being a fairly recent phenomenon, the two subcultures have a surprising amount of overlap—in everything from music to fashion to social scenes. In fact, I wrote a piece for Steampunk Tourist a few years ago on the overall similarities and differences between the two. But today I want to narrow in on one specific aspect that is at the root of both subcultures: the literature. 

Gothic literature was a literary movement that developed centuries before the modern gothic subculture emerged, but nonetheless has formed the basis of the subculture’s aesthetic. This influence is often indirect—for example, the late Gothic novel Dracula inspired the early goth scene mainly through cinematic adaptations, and the books you might find on a goth’s bookshelves are more likely to be from modern genres like horror or paranormal fantasy that developed out of the original Gothic movement. Though few people today are familiar with traditional Gothic literature, apart from a handful of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, many of its key elements have stuck with us. Today I’ll be discussing the core themes and features that the Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries share with the more modern genre of steampunk literature—as well as how they differ.

Steampunk is a subculture that developed within the last couple of decades and combines music, fashion, and literature. Its most recognizable aspect is the subculture’s fascination with mechanical parts like gears and clockwork. Like goth, the steampunk scene developed out of its literature, though in this case the relationship is far more direct. The term “steampunk” was coined in the late eighties to describe a number of contemporary novels written in a style that emulated speculative fiction writers of the Victorian era like H. G. Welles and Jules Verne. Since that time, the steampunk social, music, and fashion scenes have developed side-by-side with its literature.

Iconic Settings

Dracula crawls down the walls of his castle in this 1916 book cover.
One of the simplest similarities between Gothic and steampunk literature is their reliance on iconic settings that serve almost as their own character. Remember, the Gothic literary movement coincided with (and took its name from) a revival of interest in Gothic architecture. Thus, many Gothic novels take place in a medieval castle, abbey, or monastery. The first official Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, is even named after its spooky setting, and the question over rightful ownership of the castle, along with the secrets hidden within its dark walls, are what drive the plot. And who could forget the imposing castle of Count Dracula, whose walls Jonathan Harker scales? A common theme throughout the Gothic genre is the idea of a curse, secret, or ancient crime that haunts a certain place.

The cover of The Guns Above features a captain aboard her airship.
Steampunk novels also often rehash the same types of settings over and over again, although to a different effect. While the writers of the Gothic era fixated on the grandiose architecture of the medieval era, steampunk bases itself on Victorian England at the height of the Industrial Revolution. A significant majority of steampunk novels are set in nineteenth-century London or some sort of alternate London with a Victorian aesthetic, as in The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. But the most iconic setting of this genre is a type of vehicle that had just been developed during the Victorian era—the airship. From Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan to the recently released The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, many steampunk works use airships as the main setting for their action and describe them in loving detail.

Extremes in Tone and Circumstance

Gothic and steampunk literature make great escapist genres, because they both like to go beyond the what would be the acceptable range in tone for genres like realistic fiction and push the boundaries of how far we’re willing to follow them and suspend our disbelief. At times, these extremes can come off as cheesy, but when done well they can make the works far more emotionally dynamic. In Gothic literature, this is done mainly through melodrama. Gothic novels start with serious situations and take them to their extremes. Sometimes this can border on comic, as when Conrad is suddenly crushed by a giant stone helmet at the beginning of The Castle of Otranto. Plotlines involving a parent suddenly dying and leaving a young woman alone at the mercy of a predatory stranger are common. Though the genre has been criticized and mocked for overusing unrealistic extremes, they represent an important pushback against the seriousness and rationalism of the preceding Enlightenment era.

Steampunk takes these extremes in the opposite direction. Many steampunk works start with outlandish situations and carry them even further. The genre is known for over-the-top or eccentric characters who tend to lighten the tone and remind us to embrace the absurd. Whimsy is at the very heart of what steampunk is and the attitude it embodies. I feel that this whimsy often comes across best in steampunk music but is beginning to work its way into the literature. A common critique of some steampunk writings is that they take themselves too seriously while portraying outlandish situations, but the best steampunk authors know how to laugh at themselves and take joy in the absurd without undermining their story. One author who does this best is Gail Carriger. I recently read her novel Prudence which features two teenage girls who have a variety of adventures aboard a polka-dotted airship named The Spotted Custard. They travel with an absurd number of hats and parasols, serve tea to werecats, and treat minor issues of etiquette as life-or-death dilemmas. These types of stories are delightful to read, and they remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Removed from Contemporary Scientific Realities

Dracula, of course, is the most famous example of the supernatural in Gothic literature.
Steampunk and the Gothic are also both escapist in another sense: they want to explore possibilities beyond what seems possible in our current understanding of the world. But once again the two genres approach the same goal through opposing methods. As mentioned earlier, Gothic literature was created specifically as a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment—the intellectual movement that dominated Europe in the eighteenth century. As new philosophies were being developed and science began to rapidly advance, Gothic authors felt nostalgic for a time before new technology and cold rationalism—a time when people believed in magic and the supernatural. For this reason, most works of Gothic literature are set in the medieval era or simply some time in the vague and distant past. They deal with the occult, supernatural beings, and superstitious beliefs in omens and curses. Novels like Vathek and The Monk feature black magic, devil worship, and demons, while others, like The Castle of Otranto, include ghosts and apparitions.

Time travel depicted on the cover of Morlock Night.
Steampunk, instead of reverting back to the past, looks ahead to the future. Steampunk emerged around the turning of the twenty-first century, and technology has been advancing more rapidly than ever before. But this is also a time when we now recognize the limits of technology. We currently live in an era beyond the time that early science fiction writers dreamed of, but we still don’t have our flying cars, time travel machines, or life-like robots. The writers of steampunk literature hearken back to the optimism that the Victorians held for science. By first stepping back a couple of centuries, steampunk writers can from there launch a new future that features technology that we can hardly dream of in the modern era. For example, the characters in an early steampunk novel, Morlock Night by K. W. Jeter, travel though time using an apparatus based on Welles’ The Time Machine; in This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee, a young boy is brought back from the dead using pieces of clockwork; and in Kady Cross’s The Girl in the Steel Corset, highly advanced automatons wreak havoc and commit crimes. Steampunk uses imagined technology to explore the impossible in the same way that Gothic literature uses the occult.

Thanks for making it all the way through this unintentionally lengthy post! Are you a fan of both steampunk and the Gothic? What other similarities do you think exist between them? What else would you like to know about the two? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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