The motto of Etheric Explorers Club, translated from the Greek, is “to seek, to discover, to return home.” These explorers dedicate themselves to investigating the ways in which the spirit world touches the physical world. Unfortunately for the explorers, most of these meetings between the spiritual and the physical are dangerous.
Paul Marlowe’s Ether Frolics is a collection of short stories that provide accounts of the explorations of the ether since the end of the Victorian era.
The stories are arranged in three groups of three, each of which comes with its own introduction. I particularly enjoyed the first set. These three stories all touch on the lives of outsiders at the birth of the modern era. My favorite in the collection was the first story, “Ten Golden Roosters.” Melissa Maddox seeks out a Russian painter, Vasily Rubinoff. Rubinoff has an uncanny ability, which he records in his paintings. Horrified by what he sees, he chooses to take absinthe to limit his apocalyptic visions. Melissa’s job is to discover if there’s any substance to these visions. “The Last Post,” meanwhile, features a conscientious objector who refuses to fight for England in World War One if it means he has to take orders. He is imprisoned until the enemy’s secret weapon demands that he be sent to the front. “The Grinsfield Penitent,” meanwhile, is about a priest seeking forgiveness after a supernatural encounter.
All nine of these stories are focused around a supernatural event, being, or disaster. Ether Frolics is often written in a formal style, such as one might imagine in a historical account of the Royal Geographical Society’s exploration of the Amazon. However, the title is a reliable signal about the mood of the book. Behind the formality rests a cheerful smile as Marlowe frolics with monsters, explorers, and the last vestiges of Victorianism in a modern world. By the time the third set of stories was introduced, for example, I was not at all surprised to read that the Etheric Explorers Club welcomed female members as early as 1880, and soon after admitted living women as well (cue drum roll).
This playful collection often reminded me of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics as well as Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist books. Yancey and Mignola, however, both have the advantage of charismatic, memorable protagonists. Marlowe’s stories tend to feature either Rafe Maddox or a member of his family, but the personalities of these characters are not fleshed out by the end of the book.
It may be this same dynamic, which settles for a distant and humorous summary of Victorian formalities, that keeps the resolution of these stories from truly satisfying. Marlowe is happy to throw any number of monsters and disasters at his heroes, but I was disappointed that they were so easily put down. The resolutions of these stories tend to lack a sense of irony or suspense, which lends these accounts the feel of research rather than adventure. The monsters barely have time to let their fangs grow in.
Ether Frolics ultimately has the feel of a short story collection that precedes a more fleshed out work, much like Jack Vance’s short story collection The Dying Earth outlines the world that Cugel would attempt to steal in later novels. More adventures from the Etheric Explorers Club would be welcome, particularly ones that find the personality repressed behind the formality of the characters. Until then, readers that like being there at the beginning should pick up a copy of Ether Frolics now.