There is a gorgeous and sinister scene about eleven minutes into the premiere episode of the Showtime network's new series, "Penny Dreadful". Josh Hartnett, who plays an American sharp shooter/gun-for-hire, walks out of the London mist, his tall form a silhouette in a long duster coat and a bowler hat. He is greeted by the imperious figure of Eva Green, who plays a femme fatale, clad in burgundy satin and a demure little hat, attire that belies the iron resolve of her will. They walk together down a dark, warren-like alley, and through the heavy oak door of an illicit opium den. The year is 1891. Once inside, the couple encounters the imposing form of Timothy Dalton, who plays a sort of Indiana Jones of Ripper-era England. As a trio, they commence the destruction of a nest of evil creatures of the night, who are ensconced in the bowels of the drug lair amidst the grisly remains of their victims. The production is fecund with blood and dismemberment, a style cable and prime-time viewers have long since become inured to, thanks to shows like "Game of Thrones", "Hannibal" and "The Walking Dead". The gore is stylish and tinged with the sadistic eroticism fans of cable shows like "True Blood" and "American Horror Story" now take for granted. It is Grand Guignol for the safety of the living room.
While the ambiance of "Penny Dreadful" is evidence of a cool tolerance of prodigious atrocities and salacious violence, the setting, costumes and era mirror a burgeoning subculture that first took root in 1987. Steampunk as a term first appeared in a letter to the science fiction magazine Locus from K. W. Jeter, the American science fiction and horror author known for such works as "Morlock Night" (1979, a sequel to H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine") and "The Kingdom of Shadows (2011). Jeter was making a case for "Victorian fantasies", a genre he predicted was going to be "the next big thing". Suggesting that "a fitting collective term" for the work of authors like Tim Powers (The Annubis Gates, 1983), James Blaylock (Homunculus, 1986) and himself, that "reflects the appropriate technology of the era" ought to be "Steam-punks". According to Wikipedia, the first use of the word in a title was in Paul Di Filippo's 1995 "Steampunk Trilogy", consisting of three short novels: "Victoria", "Hottentots" and "Walt and Emily", which, respectively, imagine the replacement of Queen Victoria by a human/newt clone, an invasion of Massachusetts by Lovecraftian monsters, and a love affair between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
As a movement, Steampunk has blown up globally, with annual festivals, fairs and expos taking place world-wide throughout the year. One of the largest and most highly attended of these events takes place annually in Piscataway, New Jersey. Founded in 2010 by Jeff Mach, Josh Marks, Erin Tierniegh and Jack Manx, the fair is currently produced by Mach and Widdershins, LLC. The Steampunk World's Fair is held over three days, in the Embassy Suites and Radisson hotels in a corporate industrial park off Route 287 in May each year. Attendance has burgeoned to such a degree that overflow hotels are now booked out months in advance, and shuttle service is provided to bring guests to the hub of the event location at the two main hotels.
Attendees at the SPWF tend to outdo each other, and themselves (often changing up to 5 times throughout the event), with elaborate themed uniforms and fashions, most variations on the theme of an ideal version of the past; specifically the Victorian era. In the words of Jake Von Slatt, a self-described "tinkerer", hardware hacker and proprietor of The Steampunk Workshop, it is "the intersection of technology and romance". Activities at the convention include panel discussions on a variety of subjects related to Steampunk, such as the technology of alternate histories, the philosophical and sociological implications of the genre's works, costuming, etc, speeches and other presentations, performances of Steampunk music, fashion shows and theatrical productions, among many other events. Intrinsic to the fair are the vendors, dozens from all over the country, who display and sell their clever and original wares each year. Invention and the repurposing of outmoded technology and other products is the cornerstone of the Steampunk ethos, and this philosophy is present in many of the items on display at last month's fair, which took place from May 16 to the 18th.
Oil and Lace is a good example of re-imagining a new future for old things. Katrina Davies, the founder, collects abandoned toys that have wound up on the junk pile or washed up on the shores of local garage sales and thrift stores. She then tinkers with them, bringing new life through her skills as an amateur electrician. The mechanical toys are improved upon, making them more interesting and interactive than originally intended by the manufacturer. A mechanical squirrel rolls its eyes and moves its arms, a little plastic dog walks across the table wagging its tail, and a duck wearing a black top hat flaps its wings as it waddles along the floor. All of Davies' restored creatures are painted with a bronze, silver and gold patina that bestows upon them the sheen of a tiny robot, one that would be right at home in "Metropolis", the 1927 Fritz Lange film that foreshadowed the Steampunk era.
Taking the re-purposing to the couture level is The Princess Nightmare. This New York based designer uses Swarovski crystals to embellish and customize ordinary footwear into something more fitting for a Disney princess, or Lady Gaga. A pair of peep-toe stilettos are adorned with enough Swarovski bling to spell out "Police Public Call Box", an homage to the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) telephone box from the cult BBC series, "Doctor Who". "The Swarovski Shoe on Fire", with its fierce 3 toned flame encircling the heel, is a nod to "The Hunger Games" trilogy. The Princess also creates elegant little satin clutch purses, each with a unique design that pays tribute to "Harry Potter", Disney, and other fantastical pattern designs. She takes custom bridal orders, as well as costume orders for everything from Halloween to Cosplay to role-playing. Her Etsy site features beautifully tailored, and very slightly naughty, versions of "Alice in Wonderland", "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood" costumes. At the SPWF, she wore an idealized leather version of the "Alice" costume, the skirt trimmed in feathers. The Princess Nightmare is raising funds for a booth at this year's New York Comic Con, which planners have announced will be extended from its usual three days to week long and city wide when it comes to town in October. Donations can be made at her idiegogo site.
Drgnskyn promises that "no dragon has been harmed in the production of this jewelry", a statement that might please Daenerys Targaryen, who we last saw chaining two of her beloved dragons away in a dungeon in the season four finale of "Game of Thrones". The creation of Karen Goeller, an artist from Doyelstown, Pennsylvania, the jewelry, made from silicone then cast into hand-carved molds, resembles what one might find in the wake of a shedding dragon. There are bold chokers and pendants, the vibrant "skins" attached to handmade chain mail links, earrings, cuffs, and rings. All of the pieces, worn with a bathing suit at the beach or poolside, would make quite an impact as a summer fashion statement. Or just worn with a simple gown, Targaryen style. Winged Wolf Caravan specializes in ball-jointed dolls, clothes and accessories, Vampire Freaks all things goth and undead, and Poisonous Pinups is a media based company offering pinup girls and models for burlesque events, Cosplay and more. And these are only a few examples of the vast and wide ranging commercial ventures spawned by the Steampunk movement. According to the website Steampunk Empire, Charles H. Duell, the commissioner of the United States Patent Office from 1898 to 1901, said the following in 1899, "everything that can be invented has been invented." Time, and Steampunk, has proven him wrong.