I promised to share the guest blogs I wrote and posted during my virtual book tour for My Dearest Mr. Darcy. I will pop one in from time to time over the subsequent month, starting with this one that I wrote for Blodeuedd at Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell. I hope you enjoy the excitement of a Regency thriller with an excerpt and some history thrown in as well. Read on, but don’t turn out the lights…..
A collective breath was taken, but released in a rush as another apparition emerged. A woman in trailing garments, face beautiful initially but incrementally morphing into an old crone bent and wrinkled, her elaborate dress falling into rags as her old face decayed before their eyes until only a skeleton in strips of moldy cloth remained. She moved over their heads as she decomposed, skeletal form joining the now visible skeletons positioned all about the stage, or rather what had been the stage, but was now a cemetery replete with crypts and headstones. One by one the dead rose, walking on spindly legs, speaking from lipless mouths, empty sockets roving over the crowd.
Are you frightened? White knuckles gripping your chair edge? Perhaps not. After all, we live in the age of slasher/blood and gore movies galore. But imagine it is 1817. You are in a theatre usually reserved for opera performances and ballets, it is pitch black with eerie music rising from the orchestra pit, and you are witnessing a marvel never seen before. Ghostly visions mysteriously projected from hidden spaces under the stage float and move across the floor and over your head. Scenes from novels are brought to vivid life before your eyes. Monsters never imagined are growling at you, beating their wings, and dripping blood.
This is Phantasmagoria!
Now, before you get the idea that I write horror novels or have taken Jane Austen’s beloved couple where only vampires and zombies dare to tread, allow me to explain! My happily-ever-after, marital bliss saga that recounts the life of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy is largely hearts and roses. But along with the romance, I delve deeply into the history of Regency Era England. Nothing pleases me more than discovering some fascinating tidbit of history. Thus, when the blissful lovers traveled to a seaside resort for a romantic holiday, I searched long and hard to learn what they might have done for entertainment. Amid the delights of writing in adventures in seabathing, hot air balloons, silhouette parties, sight seeing castles, and horse racing, I stumbled across magic lantern shows.
Simply put, magic lantern shows are the grandfather of motion pictures. Using techniques of optics and illusion dating back to Aristotle and Da Vinci, ingenious inventors in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries further perfected the art of casting lights and shadows to form images. Candles, oil lamps, and limelight were used to illuminate. And, yes, that is where the term “limelight” for being the center of attention comes from. The magic lantern itself was an actual machine or device that used the light to cast images painted on glass slides onto the wall. Over the decades there were dozens of different apparatus invented, some large and others quite small. The slides were pulled through the magic lantern rapidly as stories unfolded upon the wall to riveted crowds paying a modest fee. A simple Google search on “magic lantern” will yield pages of websites giving detailed history on this incredible device that, if never invented, would mean we would still only have books to read! Some may argue that that would be a good thing, but we shall save that for another discussion, okay?
In 1798 France, in the ashes of the horrors seen during the Revolution, a man named Etienne Gaspard Robert, a professor of physics, created an improved version with moving slides that projected the images onto clouds of smoke. Using unique moveable sliders that changed the size of the image seamlessly and allowed it to move as if real, ventriloquism, and music he cleverly capitalized on the superstitions of people in those days, and the remaining bloodlust, to create a show that would rival Clive Barker for frights!
Phantasmagoria – as he titled his shows – took magic lantern performances to a whole new level and catapulted the craze. By 1803 spinoff Phantasmagoria shows were all over Europe. Even, in my imagination, popping up in Great Yarmouth so Darcy and Lizzy could view the spectacle. And there is nothing quite like a scary show to make lovers cling to each other, is there? Ha!
With all the interesting historical facts and intriguing inventions I uncover, I can’t resist writing them in. In the case of the Darcys being “entertained” by a Phantasmagoria show, I stretched even further. Reading through numerous articles that gave scene-by-scene descriptions of such shows, including the original ones by Robert, I created my own in vivid, scary detail. I have no intention of writing horror novels, so Stephen King can breathe easy, but this sure was fun!