History as Speculative Fiction: Some thoughts on reading "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" and "From Hell" While Under the Influence of Robitussin

Having come down with a nasty cold the last few days, I did what I always do when I feel like total shit, and tucked into the biggest, thickest, most difficult books that I could reach without having to get out of my chair.  In this case they were Susanna Clarke's magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Alan Moore's almost appallingly excellent From Hell.  

Truth be told, I was already most of the way through Strange & Norell by the time I took sick, and so it only took a day and a half, about 12 aspirin, and several wet handfuls of kleenexes to finish the giant novel, which in my mass-market paperback edition tips the scale at 1006 pages.  Its the kind of book which, by virtue of its length and its wealth of detail, the reader more properly inhabits more than simply read.  Insofar as something so intricate can be synopsized in a sentence, here it is: the novel takes place in an alternate history of England which was once saturated with magic but in which magic has more or less disappeared by the early 19th century, until two frenemies, the titular characters of the novel, begin to bring it back, for better or worse.  Its almost overwhelming novel, exhaustively researched and steeped in period references.  You put it down feeling like you've spent some real time in the year 1814, except, of course, not quite the real one.  

Next up I took a miserable trip to the grocery store for Dayquil and Nyquil, which I mixed into a cocktail and sipped while reading From Hell.  Much like Strange & Norrell, its another novel (albeit graphic) that is very much predicated on the reader's familiarity with, or at least willingness to become familiar with the time in which it takes place.  While spanning centuries in a kind of lunatic way, it focuses on the high Victorian era of 1888, particularly the fearful early Autumn reign of Jack the Ripper.  Unlike so many other pieces of Ripper fiction, it is not so much a mystery (the murderer is revealed in chapter 2) as an autopsy of the culture that produced him and the culture that continues to obsess over him.  It is not, moreover, what you would call a pleasant read.

A particularly surreal splash page that demonstrates From Hell's hallucinatory, even mystical take on English history.

A particularly surreal splash page that demonstrates From Hell's hallucinatory, even mystical take on English history.

I've always thought the best movies to watch when you're sick are the original Star Wars movies, or the Indiana Jones movies (excluding the fourth, though that goes without saying), or Back to the Futureetc.  Broadly speaking, these are all tales that you can wrap yourself up in like a blanket, although in the case of From Hell its a nasty threadbare blanket that barely keeps out the cold.   

One thing that unites all of those narratives is that they take place in history.  And lest you argue that Star Wars doesn't fit the bill, let me remind you that it is set "a long, long time ago", and that its space opera aesthetic isn't so much futuristic as retro-futuristic.  

My point, which I am only arriving at now, is that at least for me, these kinds of, hmmm, lets call them speculative history are comforting enough to me that I choose to read them when I feel terrible.  They allow us to feel like we're taking in an entire world, seeing them with a clarity we could never bring to our own, fragmented times.   

I would argue that almost any novel, film, or video game that takes place in history is already a piece of speculative fiction.  It remixes history, which we can never really recover from the past, only get little glimpses of from contemporary accounts.  I guess I'm suggesting that, just as any story about the future is automatically a speculative fiction, even if it contains minimal horror or fantasy elements, any story about history is likewise automatically speculative fiction.

In fact, most of fantasy literature until at least the 1980s and 90s with the arrival of the "New Weird" is predicated on pseudo-historical worlds that are medieval-with-a-difference.  Tolkien is of course the most obvious example, with Middle-Earth being an evocation of the high middle ages of chivalry mixed with the more brutal mythology of Anglo-Saxon and Norse Europe.  But there are earlier examples as well, such as George Macdonald's allegorical fairy tales and Lord Dunsany's strange tales of Kings and Queens and other worlds.  But they are all similar in that they are idealized versions of history mixed with elements of mythology.

Even a novel that is now about history but which was written in the time in which it was set -- I'm thinking here of Thomas Hardy novels, or Jane Austen -- have become speculative history for us now because we as people separated in time from those stories still cannot help but read them as describing other worlds.  In other words, for those of us living in post-modernity, history is mythology. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters only make explicit something which is usually latent in our reading.  Why, after all, shouldn't Abraham Lincoln be a vampire slayer, or Anna Karenina a partial robot?  Those figures, freed from the temporal now, have become whatever we want them to be. 

While it can sometimes be difficult to see our own times as  containing infinite possibilities, resonances and adventures, tales of history can comfort us in our shared illness of banal "now-ness".  We turn to them because their worlds are beautiful, or scary, or strange, and most importantly, we choose them because they are not our own.  Even if, like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and From Hell, they comment on our own.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to crush up some ibuprofen, pour them  into a bowl of chicken soup, and hope that the fact that the chicken appears to be winking lasciviously at me is only a happy byproduct of all the Robitussin.  

Or maybe, just maybe, I've stumbled on the recipe for Chicken Soup for the Damned Soul...

Or maybe, just maybe, I've stumbled on the recipe for Chicken Soup for the Damned Soul...