Steampunk Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

jekyll-and-hyde-cam-kennedy-alan-grant-waverley-booksI have seen several adaptations of R. L. Stevenson’s novella, including an amazing British series called Jekyll that follows one of the not-so-good doctor’s progeny in modern times. One of the amazing parts of the story of this book is how it immediately caught the imaginations of the public and was adapted for the stage within a year of its publication. But I realize recently that I had never actually read the slender tome myself.

Unfortunately, the big reveal that Henry Jekyll (properly pronounced JEE-kill, I recently learned) and Edward Hyde are one and the same is the one part of the tale that is always consistent across all adaptations, so it is impossible for the story to titillate and surprise in the same way it would have been for readers in the 1880s. The idea of a split-personality has long been linked to this piece of literature, and the names of the title characters are part of our vernacular.

BUT, this doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading. I really enjoyed Stevenson’s prose, and it is always interesting to return to the source. I surprised to find that in the original that nature of Jekyll’s original “sins” that lead him to want to extricate his two halves from each other are never mentioned, and the details of Hyde’s antics are equally left to the imagination. In order to stretch the story into a full-fledged play or movie the adapters have had to fill in some of these details, which can really alter the tone and nature of Hyde. For instance, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hyde reveals to Mina that Jekyll occasionally had ‘impure thoughts’ about boys, and his overwrought Christian guilt made him consider himself a great and terrible sinner when really he was a pretty boring and upright citizen.

In the foreword to the collected works of Stevenson in which I read the mere 60-page novella, Claire Harman recounts a story of Stevenson seeing a theatrical adaptation in 1887. He is all but horrified to see Hyde depicted as “an unbridled womanizer” because, as Stevenson wrote to John Paul Bocock, “The hypocrite [Jekyll] let out the beast in Hyde… who is the essence of cruelty & malice… these are the diabolical in man– not his poor wish to love a woman.”

I found the ambiguity in the story itself very intriguing, and it seems ripe for someone to explore not only the exploits of Hyde during his short life, but Jekyll’s past and his other experiments that are only hinted at in the original. I was also surprised to see that the Hyde of the original story is nothing like the huge monster versions in Van Helsing and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but a tiny, young and underdeveloped man who does not have amazing strength, but unbridled passions.

Steampunk Sourcebook: Hellboy

Hellboy Main Characters
Hellboy Main Characters

The Hellboy movies are in that category of films that skirt Steampunk without it being the main focus. In both Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008) you can find steamy fodder for your punked out imaginings. Plus, those filed-down horns sure look like goggles!

Hellboy in profile
Hellboy in profile

Some fun facts and context
۞ Hellboy first came onto the comic book scene in 1993. Since then there have been dozens of comics and collections, as well as two major motion pictures, two video games and two animated short films called Hellboy: Sword of Storms and Hellboy: Blood and Iron. You can watch both animated films in their entirety under the gallery of photos below.

۞ I also found a bonus “animated comic” in the special features of Hellboy 2 called the “Zinco Epilogue” where (in my opinion) the creepiest villain of all time, Kroenen, is shown being revived by a man called Mr. Zinco and his team of scientists.

۞ The world of Hellboy was created by Mike Mignola, who wrote another awesome Steampunk book, The Amazing Screw-On Head (2002) which tells the tale of an American Civil War-era spy. In 2006, a pilot was aired on in a contest to see if it would be made into a show, but it didn’t make the cut. The 22-minute pilot was released on DVD in 2007, but you can watch it by clicking here.

۞ But it was the dark and spooky director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) who brought these characters to life on the silver screen. With the assist by Peter Briggs of Alien vs. Predator fame, Del Toro wrote both feature length movies and was a creative producer on the animated films. You can see a kindred spirit to the style of Pan’s Labyrinth in the visage of death in Hellboy 2.


۞ “Hellboy” is the name that was given to the little red demon discovered by Alliance soldiers when he was “born” in the wake of WWII in 1944. It is revealed during Hellboy (2004) that his “true” name is Anung un Rama which loosely means “and upon his brow is set a crown of flame.” During the movie, a many-times-resurrected Rasputin (Karl Roden) forces Hellboy to accept his role in the rise of the Ogdru Jahad, a phylum of Cthulu-like monsters that would make H.P. Lovecraft proud. One of Hellboy’s special features is a giant arm made of stone, which can act as the key to open the Ogdru Jahad’s crystal prison in another realm. Luckily for humanity, Hellboy stops (most of) the creatures from entering our world and thwarts Rasputin’s nefarious plot.

"Family Photo"
“Family Photo”

۞ This supernatural detective love cats and enjoys big guns and fine cigars. He was raised like an ordinary boy by Professor “Broom” Bruttenholm, a founding member of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). Hellboy’s aging process is described as “reverse dog years,” so Broom knows that Hellboy will outlive him and worries about his future. Prof. Broom is played by John Hurt, who also lends his voice to the animated films. It took me awhile to realize that I was I was looking at the actor who played Mr. Ollivander from the Harry Potter films, as well as the villain from another wonderful comic-turned-movie, V for Vendetta.

Professor Broom
John Hurt as Professor Broom

۞ Hellboy is joined in both movies by his buddy and fellow freak, Abraham Sapiens. Abe is a fish-person a la the creature from the Black Lagoon, and was actually portrayed by multiple actors. Doug Jones is the one who had to crawl into the prolific prosthetics, but the voice of Abe in the first movie was actually done by actor David Hyde Pierce who goes uncredited.

Doug Jones as Abe Sapien
Doug Jones as Abe Sapien

۞ Hellboy’s lady love is Liz Sherman, a reluctant pyrokinetic agent for the BPRD. In the movies and animated shorts she is played by Selma Blair. Belief in psychic abilities and clairvoyance (ie, communicating with spirits from the “other side”) reached their pinnacle of popularity during the Victorian era. If you are looking for an absolutely amazing non-fiction book about what happens after we die, check out Mary Roach’s hilarious and poignant Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. You can read a description here.

So where is the Steampunk in all of this?

Karl Ruprecht Kroenen without his mask
Karl Ruprecht Kroenen without his mask

In the first movie, Hellboy has an enemy named Karl Ruprecht Kroenen. In the comics he is just another Nazi in a gas mask, but Del Toro creates a truly creepy new backstory about a man obsessed with surgeries. His fetish has left him without things most of us take for granted, like eye lids, lips, etc. (you know, the little things.) In return, his research has also given him preternaturally long life do to a body filled with saw dust and clockwork. I have a feeling it is this guy’s cringe-worthy visage that boosts the movie from a PG to a PG-13. [Shudders]


But it is a Victorian-era villain who directs the action. Grigori Rasputin (played by Karl Roden) was born in 1869, and was living high on the proverbial hog off the Russian nobility during the early 1900s as a royal physician. According to the movie, he has been resurrected in 1944 and is there at the beginning of Hellboy’s life. His terrible plot continues to unravel 60 years later (give or take a resurrection and some minions) he attempts to use Hellboy to bring the world to its knees.

Golden Army Soldier
Golden Army Soldier

If we move on to the enemies and allies of Hellby 2: The Golden Army, we need not look any further than the title. The Golden Army was built by a goblin blacksmith to end the war between humans and supernatural beings like trolls, fairies and elves. The King of the elfs, Balor, tries to make it so the army can never be awakened, but thousands of years later and in the hills of Ireland the clockwork army lays dormant. Don’t be fooled by their egg-like appearance, these “seventy times seventy soldiers” pack a wallop as big as Hellboy and they put themselves back together seemingly without end.

There is a gorgeous animated prologue to the movie that tells the whole story and you can watch it below.

Johann Krauss
Johann Krauss

Luckily for Hellboy, he does have some Steampunk fighting on his side, too. Johann Krauss is an agent for the BPRD, but he and Hellboy do not cross paths in the comics. According to the books, Krauss suffered an accident in 2002, but in the second installment of Del Toro’s Hellboy movies his suit definitely looks like it is from the turn of the 20th century. He no longer has a body, so the suit contains his ectoplasm, another popular trope in the Spiritualist movements of the early 1900s.

Check out more videos and photos from the movies below, as well as steamy homages to Hellboy and his buddies I found online.

This is the prologue from the second Hellboy movie. It tells the origin of the Golden Army and it has tons of machinery and gears.

Steampunk Sourcebook: City of Ember (2008)


Like The Golden Compass, City of Ember skirts the edge of “true” Steampunk, but I have seen it on several Steampunk movie countdowns (though interestingly not on book lists.)

Streets of Ember
Streets of Ember

The story centers on two teenagers, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). We meet them on their Assignment Day when their entire future careers get determined by the luck of the draw. Doon is supposed to become a messenger, but he trades that choice job away to Lina in return for a chance to work under the city and gain access to the generator that supplies the lifeblood of Ember: electricity. Because Ember lies deep below the ground, safe from the terror that took place 241 years ago. Without the generator the entire population would be plunged into total darkness and the electric lights mounted all over the city is there only refuge from the abyss beyond.

But lately, the lights have begun to flicker.

Lina is delighted to become a messenger and dives into her duties with gusto. She is the grownup in her tiny family, which consists of a little sister named Poppy with a propensity for putting things in her mouth and a dear (though slightly crazy) grandmother who spends her days taking thread out of clothing and spooling it for reuse (no on has had new clothes for over a century). In the depths of a closet, Poppy uncovers a mysterious metal box that had belonged to a former mayor and proceeds to gnaw on the contents.

Lina and Doon
Lina and Doon

Lina recognizes the writing on the pages as coming from the revered and little understood “builders” who created Ember and, with the help of Doon, attempts to recreate the documents from the chewed mess. To their shock and amazement, they seem to be telling of a way out of Ember, and out of the danger of starvation and perpetual darkness. Can Lina and Doon overcome the rampant corruption in their government to discover the truth and lead the citizens of Ember to salvation?

Some fun facts and context:

۞ The movie is based on a novel called The City of Ember that was released in 2003. You can read an interview with the author here about the novel’s tenth anniversary this year.
۞ DuPrau wrote 2 sequels, The People of Sparks (2004) and The Diamond of Darkwood (2008), as well as a prequel called the Prophet of Yonwood (2006) that tells of the cause of the apocalypse that led to the building of Ember.
۞ The City of Ember was made into a graphic novel in 2012 by Niklas Asker.
۞ Harry Treadaway (Doon), most recently appeared in the 2013 Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. Saoirse Ronan (Lina) has lent her voice as well as her face to several films and is best known for her roles in Atonement and The Lovely Bones.
۞ The film includes a few major changes from the book. First off, giant mutated animals. In the book, Doon keeps a caterpillar to observe it and is utterly fascinated by insects because the people of Ember never see things from above ground. In the film he finds a moth is easily 2 feet across, upping the visual ante but not staying true to the novel. There is also a completely terrifying star nosed mole as large as a hippopotamus that delivers the come-uppence to Ember’s corrupt mayor (played by Bill Murray), which never appeared in the book. Likely this is a reference to the nuclear cause of the apocalypse in the Prophet of Yonwood and mutations that could follow. Personally, I did not like the change, I thought the book was already great without the novelty.
۞ The other big change, which is probably the reason the movie ends up in Steampunk lists and the book does not, is the amount of gadgetry. In the movie, Doon’s father (Tim Robbins) is an inventor and Rube Goldberg type machines cook their breakfast, while in the book he runs a shop populated by old shoe heels and rusty nails. There are also scenes that take place in the huge industrial center under the city, but the tech is all there to create electricity so it is not very Steampunk in the end. But the gritty, dark ambiance and added mechanical gizmos definitely make you feel like you are in the past rather than the distant future.
۞ The set was built in the same shipyard the Titanic was, and many of the interiors that were built were never used in a single shot but add to the depth of the visual story. Check out the clips below the gallery for more windows into the underground city.

Click on the thumbnails for larger images.

Steampunk Sourcebook: Captain Nemo

The enigmatic Captain Nemo made his first appearance in Jules Verne’s science fiction classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), which takes place in the late 1860s. Little is revealed about the mysterious figure besides his hunger for scientific knowledge and his rejection of imperialism and by extension, most of the world above the ocean. He and his dedicated crew exist “below the law” by rarely stepping foot on dry land and aiding those oppressed by imperialism. In the second novel featuring Nemo, The Mysterious Island (1874), he tells a group of castaways that he is the son of a raja named Prince Dakkar and that he lost his family in the First Indian War for Independence against the British (1857). After the death of his loved ones he goes into hiding and embarks on secret scientific research, culminating in an electric submarine called the Nautilus.

Fun Facts and Context:

۞ Nemo means “Nobody” in Latin
۞”20,000 Leagues under the sea” is often interpreted as the vertical distance down into the depth of the ocean, but it is a slight mistranslation of the french title “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers” where mers (meanings seas, plural) was translated as “sea.” It is meant to indicate the horizontal distance traveled under the water, not the depth of the water. 20,000 leagues is 6 times bigger than the diameter of the planet (each league is 4 kilometers).
۞ In the original manuscript, Nemo was a Polish noble whose family was killed in the January Uprising (1863-1865) by Russian oppressors. Fearing a blow to sales (as well as insulting France’s ally), Verne’s editor asked him to change the character and keep the details shadowy.
۞ Though he is an Indian prince in the final iteration of the novel, Nemo spent most of his formative years in Europe so he speaks with a British accent (he admits to speaking French, Latin and Gerrman as well).
۞ And though he hates the imperialist nature of European nations, the Nautilus is full of treasures from around Europe including an organ which Nemo plays masterfully. There is also a substantial library on board to feed his scientific pursuits.
۞ Nemo has a brief appearance in one more of Verne’s works, a play called Journey Through the Impossible. The play was not published until 1981 after a handwritten copy was discovered in 1978. The first English translation was completed in 2003.
۞ There was a real submarine called the Nautilus, which was designed by an American inventor living in France named Richard Fulton. It was developed in the late 1700s and was powered by a hand crank.

Captain Nemo has appeared in various adaptations of Verne’s novels, but few of these belong in the Steampunk canon. For instance, the 1954 film adaptation is heavily influenced by the style and politics of the era, and some important details are changed (for instance, the Nautilus runs on nuclear power rather than electricity). You can find a full list of Captain Nemo’s appearances here, but for the sake of this post I am focusing on the versions of Nemo that fit firmly into Steampunk.

For instance, Alan Moore’s graphic novels (and the film adaptation) featuring The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In this series, Nemo is much more callous, even bloodthirsty, than the original character. Verne’s Nemo saved whales, Moore’s Nemo mows down people with machine guns (Volume 1).

Captain Nemo also appears in The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, a 1973 novel by Philip Jose Farmer. If you haven’t guessed it, this is a crossover novel that takes place in the world of Around the World in 80 Days but incorporates (or rather co-opts) characters from other novels like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. In Farmer’s account, Captain Nemo is better known in some circles at Professor Moriarty.

Kevin J. Anderson rewrites Captain Nemo’s history (and brings a childhood spent with Jules Verne into the mix) in his novel, Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius (2002).

Check out my gallery below for various versions of this Victorian antihero and other steamy sea captains.

Steampunk Sourcebook- The Golden Compass


For die hard fans, His Dark Materials (known as the Golden Compass trilogy in the US), wouldn’t technically fit into the definition of Steampunk.

The series is set in the present/near future so steam power is a thing of the past and the story has nothing to do with Victorian England or an alternate history, but the parallel universe Lyra Belacqua inhabits has some decidedly Steampunk elements to it. The images in this post are all from the 2007 film release of The Golden Compass.

GC carriage

First, England gets “punked.” Lyra lives at Jordan College within Oxford University, which doesn’t exist in our universe. She later travels to an alternative London with dirigibles floating over head and horseless hansom cabs, apparently their answer to the automobile.

The spaces that she inhabits in while in the power of the evil Mrs. Coulter remind me a lot of the work of Alfonse Mucha (1860-1939).

GC Mucha golden-compass-railing

There are also so some fun alternative technologies, for instance, a projector (which they call a spirit projector) that uses glassy orbs to create 3D, moving images of of the mysterious Dust (which is basically powdered sentience). The bad guys also employ “spy flies” which are clockwork insects “with a bad spirit pinned to it” and sent to locate Lyra and her band.

GC projector


Fun Facts and Context

  • The Golden Compass was originally released under the name Northern Lights.
  • The trilogy explores contemporary concepts in science such as quantum entanglement (lodestone resonator), dark matter (dust is invisible without the amber spyglass even though in the Golden Compass film they depict it clearly as visible by the naked eye) and human evolution (how did we become “more” than animals? Where did sentience come from?)
  • The Golden Compass film stops short of the plot of the first book. The real ending of the Golden Compass is darker and sadder, but I think they stopped where they did in hopes of continuing the trilogy and that needed a more hopeful note.
  • Unfortunately, the films of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were never made. Many people, including actors in the film, blamed the Catholic church for killing the series. I admit that I watched the movie before I read the books and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t continue and why the church would protest so much. Then I read the books and I totally get it. (Spoiler alert) Even if the story wasn’t overtly about killing god (or at least the one posing as god), there are multiple scenes of a violence against children, like in Citegazze (a city in another alternative universe), that would have been hard to stomach on the silver screen.