Intrepid scholar John Holbo rediscovers a long-suppressed strain of Victorian popular culture.
Haeckel’s early Christmas card designs proved not the end of my investigative line but—as is so often the case with Haeckel!—the start of another even more writhing thread. He worked, for a time, for a London firm, Raphael Tuck & Sons, allegedly founded by a German immigrant in the mid 19th Century. This “common knowledge” is subject to doubt. Tuck House was razed during a Christmas-time blitz, in 1940, but whether German bombs could have been responsible for curiously “shadowless columns of flame”—to quote an eyewitness account by a London civil defense worker—is likewise subject to doubt. Was “the mad Cherub,” as Tuck was known, for his designs and demeanor, really Raz-al Tariq, or a descendant of that notorious “Mad Arab”? The question begs an answer. Was “Tuck” a corruption of “Puck,” “the oldest Thing in England,” to quote Kipling’s admittedly fanciful and pretty-pretty accounting of that elder Entity. Tuck, the man, could hardly have been Puck. But perhaps there is a lineal link to stories of greeting cards traded at Solstice, before the time of the Romans; of cards as old as Stonehenge, even dark hints that Stonehenge itself is but a collection of “greeting stones”? I leave as an exercise to the reader the consideration of the implications of the latter thought!
Again I digress! The predominantly tentacled and be-pustuled designs favored by the Victorians—designs Haeckel was preeminent at rendering, through the superlative collaboration of fevered brain and steady pen that distinguished him—were collected, aesthetically, under the heading “squeampunk.” The term is apparently an overstuffed portmanteau of “squaymous,” as in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale: “He was somdel squaymous/ Of fartyng, and of squide daungerous”; and “pank”, or “fang,” meaning to be fixed or made firm. Beowulf is, famously, described as “squaympanked” by Grendel’s mother. (But whether that means she bit him or merely struck terror, is a question for linguists and forensic archeologists.) Squeampunk, as an aesthetic movement, gave ground over the course of the 19th Century, in the face of increasing taste for “cheerful” designs among the urban masses, and increasing industrialization—the romance of the machine, if that is no strict contradiction in terms. As James Watt declared, in his defense of the new aesthetic, “steampunk” was needed because, “we cannot hope to achieve knowledge of, let alone harness the power of, so-called ‘Old Ones’, the least thought or sensory apprehension of which must drive the human mind to the edge of madness. But we can bloody well boil water!”
Artifacts have lately come into my possession, long rumored to exist, shedding no little light on the subterraneous links between the comparatively young holiday of “Christmas,” as we know it, and the eldritch roots of Victorian squeampunk. I have acquired a complete set of the so-called “necro-gnome icons”—cthulithographed, gaily uncanny trading cards that were “terrible and forbidden,” banned by church and crown, hence highly collectible and prized by Victorian housewives and children, who assembled them in decorative albums for display….
Read more, oh, my stars, terrifyingly more, at Hilobrow.com.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden lies sleeping in the submerged city of R’lyeh.