Historical fiction can be tricky. It’s not that they do things differently in the past, but that that difference always seems to be done the same way. Robert Edric’s The London Satyr is therefore invigorating for the tactful, almost pointed manner in which it sidesteps every genre cliché even as each seems to hover menacingly into view.
The novel is set in the underbelly of Victorian theatreland, where Charles Webster supplements his meagre income as house photographer to Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre by secretly requisitioning costumes for use by the shadowy pornographer Marlow. As a go-between, Webster is well aware of his own vulnerability, especially when the murder of a young girl from one of Marlow’s shoots brings down the wrath of the puritanical London Vigilance Committee (who are scarier than they sound). As if the names Marlow(e) and Webster weren’t redolent enough of sinister goings-on, Edric has as Irving’s theatre manager a man called Stoker—only in fact this is the real, factual Bram Stoker, who worked for Irving prior to publishing Dracula, some six years after this book is set.
It would be easy to set up Marlow as a prototype vampire, but Edric isn’t interested in such easy parallels. Indeed, the only undead in the novel are the deceased souls that Webster’s wife, Alice, makes contact with in her increasingly popular séance evenings, to her husband’s increasing despair. Edric doesn’t show us a séance directly, any more than we see an illicit photo shoot, and the author cuts away from the only debauched party in the novel just as the real naughtiness is starting.
All this is to Edric’s credit. This isn’t Victorian smut brought to light for our prurient edification; it is a gloomy London as full of muttered conversations and seething paranoia as any 1970s New York movie. It might seem strange to praise a book for what it’s not as much as for what it is, but Edric proves that there is more than one way back into the past. If anything, it reminded me of filmmaker Chris Petit’s perennial cult favourite Robinson, a novel set in the same world, albeit a hundred or so years later, with a similarly mysterious, protean figure at its centre—another piece of fiction that most definitely deserves uncovering.
Jonathan Gibbs blogs at http://tinycamels.wordpress.com/.