One of the great joys of writing my steampunk novel, The Bookman, was that I got to do it while living in London – where many of the historical buildings still exist, many still in their original function.
Everyone has their own secret London. Mine includes Davenports’, the magic shop in the bowels of Charing Cross Station; Simpson’s on the Strand, the restaurant Sherlock Holmes used to dine in; the Red Lion Pub in Soho, where Karl Marx used to drink and above which he worked on Das Kapital; the ancient, hidden Nell Gwynne pub behind the Adelphi Theatre, and others. The Egyptian Hall, sadly, is no longer there. Built in 1812, it was a mock-Egyptian structure in Piccadilly that, over the Victorian era, played host to any number of strange exhibitions – including automatons, freak-shows and magic. The Mechanical Turk, that legendary chess-playing machine, exhibited at the Egyptian Hall. Some of the first moving pictures were shown there. And the British family of magicians, the Maskelynes, have taken it over, when it was known as England’s Home of Mystery.
What better place, then, to feature in my very own steampunk story? Indeed, how could I possibly resist?
The Mechanical Turk, and the magician John Nevil Maskelyne – as well as Isabella Beeton, authoress of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Karl Marx and other historical characters all appear throughout the pages of The Bookman. And it is to the Egyptian Hall that young poet Orphan, reluctant hero of this tale, comes in search of advice.
The following extract sees Orphan arriving at the Egyptian Hall. The façade is pretty much as it was, and as for the gallery of freaks, as they were known, inside – well, they are, most of them, real to life, too. There really was a Skeleton Dude. And JoJo, the Dog-Faced Boy – who acts as Orphan’s guide in that maze of magic and machines – was real too. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction...
Extract from The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar
From Chapter 13: A Night on the Town
And then, almost without noticing, Orphan was there.
He stood outside the imposing façade of the Egyptian Hall.
What did it look like?
Imagine a grand and ancient temple built for the long-vanished kings of a desert country, wide and rich beyond imaginings. To either side of it stood ordinary, red-and-grey bricked apartment buildings, as ordinary and staid as two elderly gentlemen who had stayed out too late. The Hall, though... Wide columns rose on either side of the entrance, each twice the height of a man and above them, in lonely splendour, stood the goddess Isis and her husband, the god Osiris, magnificent and tall, while above and all around them the rest of this mock-temple sprawled, covered in unknowable hieroglyphs, a sturdy and faithful imitation of the temple in Tentyra.
Above them all stood, in giant letters, the single word: MUSEUM.
Carriages and baruch-landaus alike carried people to and from the busy entrance, and a steady trickle of visitors, both wealthy and less well-to-do, came and went through the large front doors of this temple of learning. Even Lizards, Orphan saw – a party of five, all dressed in full regalia and attended by a host of human servants – came to this place of wonder, and paid the admission price.
He could still taste the mustard in his mouth from the sausage he had earlier devoured; it was not a bad taste, exactly, but it lingered unpleasantly. Like the Egyptian Hall, he thought. It looked, for all its mock-antiquated brashness, like a doll dressed up in once-fine rags.
At the door he showed the usher his letter from Maskelyne and was admitted in without questions.
The inside of the Egyptian Hall was a wide cavernous space. It was an amalgamation of junk and of rarities, of curiosities and oddities: a mixture of the deeply strange and the every-day.
In the centre of the room stood a rounded enclosure and, inside it, all manner of animals were on display, identified with large signs that were hung around the enclosure: there was a giraffe from Zululand and an elephant from Jaunpur; a dancing bear from the forests of Transylvania and a zebra from the Swahili kingdoms; a peacock from Abyssinia and, in a cage all to itself, a sleepy tiger from Bengal. The animals looked lethargic to Orphan, almost as if they were drugged. The tiger opened one eye when Orphan passed him, looked at him for a short moment and then, as if that exercise was too much for it, closed it again. The bear declined to dance, and crouched on the ground like an elderly fisherman, while the peacock seemed reluctant to spread its plumage to the onlookers, who tried to encourage it by cheering at it and waving their hands in the air, to no avail.
Dotted around the room were the human curiosities. Here, in an alcove with a gas lamp burning on its wall, sat the human whale, a giant male dressed only in loincloth, whose naked flesh rolled and rolled, like waves in a pool, each time he stirred. He had his own crowd of admirers, who came up to him by turns and poked him with their fingers, in order to better see the fat roll from the point of contact and spread outwards across the giant frame.
Here, sitting on long raised chairs like the legs of flamingos (there was one of those birds, too, in the animals' enclosure), were the Scarletti Twins, one smaller than a child and as fat as she was tall, the other towering over six feet up and as thin as a rope. 'They look like a small fat mushroom under a tall and gangly tree, the poor dears!' Orphan heard an excited customer say to her husband, who nodded with obvious satisfaction at his wife's wit.
Here was the Skeleton Dude, a thin, ill-looking man in a tuxedo (hence the name, dude being a Vespuccian slang-term for urbanite), and beside him was the Translucent Man, whose pale skin allowed the observers to examine the circulation of his blood through his arteries and veins. Here, too, was the Fungus Man, whose body sprouted numerous additional appendages, spots and boils (which you could pop at your leisure for a modest sum).
Orphan walked in a daze through this gallery of unfortunates. Everywhere he looked in that wide open space some man or woman stood or sat or – in one instance – floated (the Mermaid, a woman floating inside a large water-tank, whose lower body was made to look like the tail of a fish), some unfortunate soul was displaying an affliction for the amusement and elucidation of the paying public. On and on it went: in a side room he saw a man with no legs and a man with no arms ride a bicycle together; in another, a bearded lady shared a rolled-up cigarette and a cup of tea (apparently on her break) with a woman who had three breasts (and drew an unwanted crowd of male admirers even as she sat there).
Where was Maskelyne?
As he passed a man with bricks on his head – the bricks were being pounded into rubble by a second man with the use of a great sledgehammer – a small figure bounded up to him and grabbed him by the arm.
'Are you Orphan?' this startling person asked.
Recovering from his momentary surprised, Orphan nodded, then said, 'You must be Theo.'
The man who had stopped him was short of stature, and dressed in short, loose-fitting trousers and an open vest that exposed his hairy chest. His arms were equally hairy, as were his legs. His face was dark and deeply grooved, covered in a straggly beard all over that looked like wild-growing weeds. Deep, sorrowful eyes looked up at Orphan from that extraordinary face.
'You can call me Jo Jo,' he said.