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[GUEST POST] Emma Jane Holloway on Nineteenth-Century Science and Spiritualism

Ever since childhood, Emma Jane Holloway refused to accept that history was nothing but facts prisoned behind the closed door of time. Why waste a perfectly good playground coloring within the timelines? Accordingly, her novels are filled with whimsical impossibilities and the occasional eye-blinking impertinence-but always in the service of grand adventure. Struggling between the practical and the artistic — a family tradition, along with ghosts and a belief in the curative powers of shortbread — Emma Jane has a degree in literature and job in finance. She lives in the Pacific Northwest in a house crammed with books, musical instruments, and half-finished sewing projects. In the meantime, she’s published articles, essays, short stories, and enough novels to build a fort for her stuffed hedgehog. She is the author of The Baskerville Affair trilogy, consisting of A Study in Silks, A Study in Darkness, and A Study in Ashes (available December 31). You can vist Emma Jane on the web at and on Facebook.

Ghosts in the Laboratory: Nineteenth-Century Science and Spiritualism

by Emma Jane Holloway

Whether we like to admit it or not, the dividing line between fact and fantasy is a moving target. Our ancestors mucked about with alchemy, phrenology and table-rapping, and no doubt we’re doing something our great-grandchildren will find quaint. The definition of “science” is subject to interpretation over time.

I write Victorian-set steampunk with both mechanics and magic and my main character is the niece of Sherlock Holmes. Yes, mixing Holmes with the supernatural may sound odd, but back in the day of gaslight and corsets, laboratories and the land of spirit were far from strangers.

Science, the supernatural, and the emergence of psychology made something of a traffic jam in the nineteenth-century consciousness. While there were sceptics aplenty-some of them highly vocal-there was less certainty around what they should be sceptical of. Darwin was new. Religious orthodoxy was still the order of the day, though alternative movements such as theosophy and spiritualism were gaining ground. Séances were the rage. A dynamic tension emerged between the rigour of fact and an insatiable appetite for the fabulous. Victorians were great explorers, and the realm of spirit was no exception.

With the typical can-do energy of the day, respected men of science and letters put their heads together to examine paranormal happenings through the lens of scientific principle. Several groups emerged, including the Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 and still exists today. The psychologist William James, folklorist Andrew Lang, W.B. Yeats, and both Freud and Jung numbered among its members. Its aim wasn’t specifically to debunk the supernatural, but to examine it as one would any other natural science. However, not everyone was prepared to accept the findings. When numerous mediums were exposed as frauds, a disgruntled band of dedicated believers left the society to join The Ghost Club, a spirit-friendly organisation founded in 1862 that also survives today.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was among the defectors. Although he was a trained medical doctor and filled his Sherlock Holmes stories with modern forensic detail, Conan Doyle had a vivid interest in the paranormal. He went on to get caught up in one of the more bizarre cases of the time: the Cottingley Fairies. The wee folk appeared in a series of photographs taken 1917-1920 near Bradford, England. Conan Doyle came across the pictures while working on an article for The Strand, the same publication where his Holmes stories appeared. There was public debate about the authenticity of the Cottingley pictures, and Conan Doyle was a vocal advocate. Unfortunately for his reputation, fairies were a step too far for an increasingly sceptical post-war society.

It may seem strange to us that Conan Doyle wrote articles about garden sprites for the same magazine where he published his detective stories, but both were part of the Victorian landscape he’d come from. True, we only catch passing references to the supernatural while Holmes and Watson are poodling about London solving crimes, but its presence is felt nonetheless. Gothic touches such as hellhounds and vampires abound, even if they turn out to be myth.

At the time my stories are set-in the late 1880s-the separation of science and the supernatural was well underway but by no means complete. Of course, The Baskerville Affair takes a leap into fiction. In my story world, the nature spirits are real-not faked photographs. And yes, I do have Sherlock Holmes functioning in a universe with magic, albeit grudgingly. In his famous quote from The Sign of the Four, Holmes reminds Watson “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In his typically rational way, Holmes was prepared for anything-even steampunk with a side of sorcery.

You can visit Emma’s web page and find free short stories and excerpts from the Baskerville Affair universe!

To whet your appetite, here are some brief excerpts from The Baskerville Affair trilogy, consisting of A Study in Silks, A Study in Darkness, and A Study in Ashes (available December 31).

A Study in Silks

Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London’s high society, but there’s a murderer to deal with-not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse…

In a Victorian era ruled by a Council of ruthless steam barons, mechanical power is the real monarch, and sorcery the demon enemy of the Empire. Nevertheless, the most coveted weapon is magic that can run machines-something Evelina has secretly mastered. But rather than making her fortune, her special talents could mean death or an eternity as a guest of Her Majesty’s secret laboratories. What’s a polite young lady to do but mind her manners and pray she’s never found out?

But then there’s that murder. As Sherlock Holmes’s niece, Evelina should be able to find the answers, but she has a lot to learn. And the first decision she has to make is whether to trust the handsome, clever rake who makes her breath come faster, or the dashing trick rider who would dare anything for her if she would only just ask…


A Study in Darkness

When a bomb goes off at 221B Baker Street, Evelina Cooper is thrown into her Uncle Sherlock’s world of mystery and murder. But just when she thought it was safe to return to the ballroom, old, new, and even dead enemies are clamoring for a place on her dance card.

Before Evelina’s even unpacked her gowns for a country house party, an indiscretion puts her in the power of the ruthless Gold King, who recruits her as his spy. He knows her disreputable past and exiles her to the rank alleyways of Whitechapel with orders to unmask his foe.

As danger mounts, Evelina struggles between hiding her illegal magic and succumbing to the darker aspects of her power. One path keeps her secure; the other keeps her alive. For rebellion is brewing, a sorcerer wants her soul, and no one can protect her in the hunting ground of Jack the Ripper.


A Study in Ashes

As part of her devil’s bargain with the industrial steam barons, Evelina Cooper is finally enrolled in the Ladies’ College of London. However, she’s attending as the Gold King’s pet magician, in handcuffs and forbidden contact with even her closest relation, the detective Sherlock Holmes.

Not even Niccolo, the dashing pirate captain, and his sentient airship can save her. But Evelina’s problems are only part of a larger war. The Baskerville Affair is finally coming to light, and the rebels are making their move to wrest power from the barons and restore it to Queen Victoria. Missing heirs and nightmare hounds are the order of the day – or at least that’s what Dr. Watson is telling the press.

But their plans are doomed unless Evelina escapes to unite her magic with the rebels’ machines-and even then her powers aren’t what they used to be. A sorcerer has awakened a dark hunger in Evelina’s soul, and only he can keep her from endangering them all. The only problem is…he’s dead.

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