Confessions of an Amateur Hack:
Tracing the Victorian Roots of Writing Fan-fiction

Kindra Coates
Date Written: April 29, 1999
Last Updated: February 4, 2000

Written for ENGL-4360: English Novel Since 1800
Taught by Dr. Daryl Coats

Okay, I am willing to admit the truth. I am guilty of writing fan-fiction (usually shortened to just fanfics). In fact, my website is a library of stories I have written set in different universes. The cliche that imitation in the sincerest form of flattery has been taken to heart by me and countless other writers.

It is quite easy to dismiss fanfic writers as amateur hacks using the Internet to become instantly published. I could join together with other fanfic writers who treat their fanfics as stories that must be constructed out of a proper mixture of storytelling elements and still keep true to the characters and universes they have borrowed. And as a group, we could get really ugly and just pummel our critics into the ground. But advocating violent behavior just leads to lawsuits. Besides, fanfic writing is practiced by professional writers and is not limited to the Internet or the television shows these fans are addicted to.

Fanfic writing has roots drawing back to the Victorian era. Should I start naming names? Alice. Dr. Jekyll. Oscar Wilde. Frankenstein. The Time Traveler. Sherlock Holmes. Scrooge. Lewis Carroll. Dracula. If you do not recognize the previous list, put down this paper and proceed to your nearest library. But there is little chance of that happening. And to understand why, the definition of fanfic needs to be expanded.

Fanfics are usually considered to be stories concerning previously conceived characters written by someone other than the original author. Some are as simple as retelling a familiar story from a different character's viewpoint. Others add original characters to the universe and change the direction of the mythos. With the popularity of the Internet, fanfics have found a global audience. Fanfics have also been published in book form--by respected publishing firms. Movies are never considered fanfics but they are, unless the movie is a literal adaptation of the author's original text. But movies and books are rarely considered with the same contempt given to their Internet cousins. And it is through these movies and books that we can trace fanfic writing back to one of its largest roots--the Victorian era.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is probably the most recognizable Christmas fable ever written. Part of this is due to the thirteen film adaptations made of the small 1843 novel. The first movie was filmed in 1908. Most of the films have been literal adaptations, but a few have had such unique twists that they could fall under the fanfic definition. A few examples: Scrooge--starring Bill Murray--set the fable in 1980s New York and centered the visitations of the ghosts on a television executive who is trying to produce a live version of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. All the characters were renamed and changed to fit this format. And just how important is setting, anyway? TNT's production of Ebenezer made Jack Palace the lead as Scrooge and moved the story over an entire continent, placing it in the American Old West. And what about The Muppet Christmas Carol and Mickey's Christmas Carol that replace almost the entire cast with non-human performers?

But movies are not the only examples of fanfic treatments of A Christmas Carol. In the comic book world, Mavis--the secretary of Wolff & Byrd Counselors of the Macabre--retells A Christmas Carol to her niece and nephew. In her version, the ghosts of Christmas are sued by Scrooge and must be defended by the Counselors. The ghosts still manage to give Scrooge a change of heart, despite the courtroom restrictions. On the cartoon series The Real Ghostbusters, the paranormal investigators are sent to the past and accidentally bag the ghosts of Christmas before they give Scrooge his lessons. They return to the present and find that they killed Christmas, and now they are the only ones who can set things right.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland's influence on popular culture is at once both expansive and minimal. It is a story that everyone has heard of--if not by reading it, at least by watching the film adaptations made since it was published in 1865. But it has inspired only a few fanfics. The two I have found both combine Alice with Sherlock Holmes. In the "Case of the Detective's Smile" by Mark Bourne, Alice delivers Holmes a token from a group of grateful clients. "The Case of the Stolen Tarts" could not have been solved without his aid. In "Alimentary, My Dear Watson" by Lawrence Schimel, Holmes is called in to investigate the disappearance of a Mr. Charles Dodgson. The only things out of place at the scene of the crime--besides a man disappearing into thin air-- were a large crack in the mirror, an unusual hat, and a dead white rabbit. Lewis Carroll also has connections with the myth that fans have created around Sherlock Holmes. In Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, Baring-Gould had the student Sherlock Holmes meet and make friends with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a don at Oxford. Dodgson is real name of Lewis Carroll.

Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, and it is safe to say that the public has not had enough of him yet. Holmes holds the record for being the fictional character with the most movie appearances--seconded by Dracula. In his introduction to Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, Mike Resnick lists twenty books and stories--his pick of the most memorable. I have appendixed the list at the end of this paper for anyone interested. But a few fanfics escaped his list. Possibly because he did not care for them, or they were lost in the volumes of material, or they were published after the collection. Here are my additions to that list.

The Resurrected Holmes is a collection of fanfics with a different twist to its premise. Watson's dispatch-box full of his notes on Holmes's cases were sold by his heirs to a private book collector with the stipulation that nothing was to be published for five decades. Of course, other fanfics purpose that they are the long-lost works from Watson's pen. This collection differs in that the notes were notes and had to be expanded into stories. The collector spent the next five decades finding authors to transform the notes into readable works. A few of the famous names that the collector are supposed to have worked with are H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, Mickey Spillane, Rex Stout, and many others. An interesting twist not just for Holmes fans, but fans of these other authors as well.

Many stories have been written about Holmes versus Jack the Ripper. One of my favorites is found in Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. In a chapter of that book, Watson figures out who Jack is and arrives in time to save Holmes from him--proving again that Watson is not the imbecile that he pretends to be. Another novel dealing with the crimes is The Whitechapel Horrors. Edward Hanna has Holmes helping Scotland Yard solve the murders. He manages to throw suspicion on all of the classic Jack suspects, but the ending is a complete surprise.

Having Sherlock Holmes meet historical and fictional figures contemporary with the time he lived in is another common theme fanfic writers often exploit. The two dealing with Alice have already been mentioned. The Seven Per-cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer was one of the first of this type, bringing together Holmes and Sigmund Frued. Holmes's cocaine addiction has gotten out of control and Watson enlist the help of Frued to break him of it. Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon by Larry Millett has the detective and chronicler travel to the wilds of 1894 Minnesota to find and stop a murderous arsonist. This book sheds a different light on the cause of the Hinkley forest fire that occurred in the same year. "How a Hermit Was Disturbed in His Retirement" by Julian Symons has the bee-keeping Holmes help a young woman find her missing fiancÚ--even though at the end he cannot read the name on her letter of thanks. Was it Mantle or Maple or Marple? "The Adventure of the Field Theorems" by Vonda N. McIntyre has Holmes investigating crop circles for Arthur Conan Doyle. "Two Roads, No Choices" by Dean Weasley Smith has Holmes investigate for two time travelers why the RMS Titanic did not sink. Holmes meets H.G. Wells' Time Traveler in "The Richmond Enigma" by John DeChancie. The Time Machine was published in 1895 and began another branch of science fiction--the time travel story. But that is another paper.

Even Arthur Conan Doyle is subjected to fanfic treatment. In 1993, Mark Frost--also partly responsible for the television series Twin Peaks--published his novel The List of 7. In it, Doyle unwittingly calls down the wrath of group who is trying to bring about the end of the world. He is rescued by Jack Sparks, a secret agent of Queen Victoria. They alone must stop the group of 7 and meet many unusual people along the way, including Bram Stoker. Jack Sparks serves as Doyle's inspiration of Sherlock Holmes by the end of this novel.

But what of Holmes and Dracula? Dracula by Bram Stoker was published in 1897, making him and Holmes contemporaries. Of course the two most popular characters created during the Victorian era have shared adventures. In "The Adventure of the Missing Coffin" by Laura Resnick, the coffin in question has been stolen from another vampire by the nefarious Count. As Holmes and the vampire track down the coffin, the Count keeps an appointment with a British author who is interested in his memoirs. In Fred Saberhagen's The Holmes-Dracula Files, Dracula is one of the good guys helping Holmes stop a murderous plot to destroy London with plague-infected rats, early biological warfare. The Harkers and their two children make an appearance, along with Dr. Seward and Arthur Holmwood. It is a sequel to Saberhagen's earlier book, The Dracula Tape (a re-telling of Dracula from the Count's point of view in which he is the hero of the story). This novel is said to be an influence on Francis Ford Coppola's movie version of Dracula--namely the romantic subplot involving the Count and Mina.

Most these fanfics share a common trait. They do not try to blend more than two or three fictional characters with historical facts. The last novel I want to look at breaks that trend, and breaks it well. Anno-Dracula by Kim Newman is a re-write and sequel to Dracula. Instead of the humans defeating Dracula, he turned the tables on them. Mina became the first of his converts; Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, and Quincy Morris died; Arthur Holmwood joined the vampire ranks; and Seward was allowed to live. Dracula embraced and married Queen Victoria, and a who's who of vampire and Victorian literature appear when a killer nicknamed Silver Knife begins cutting up undead prostitutes in Whitechapel. Characters present include Inspector Lestrade, Mycroft Holmes, Professor Moriarty, and Colonel Moran from Arthur Conan Doyle; Lord Ruthven from John Polidori; Dr. Jekyll from R.L. Stevenson; Fu Manchu from Sax Rohmer; Dr. Moreau from H.G. Wells; Florence Stoker and Oscar Wilde from history as well as Jack the Ripper's victims, and other historical figures connected with that investigation. A great What if. . . .? novel, it gives a reader another spin on Jack the Ripper, Dracula, and Victorian political intrigue without becoming dull or predictable.

I have not written much on the movies made about these characters. Jack the Ripper has inspired many movies, including the 1980 Time After Time. In it, Jack escapes with H.G. Wells' time machine to present-day San Francisco, where he promptly begins killing again. Wells feels obligated to chase after him and return him to Victorian London to pay for his crimes. Many of the movies using Sherlock Holmes as a character have been fanfics--with the possible exception of Jeremy Brett's BBC productions. A couple of the more memorable reworkings of the Holmes mythos are Young Sherlock Holmes and Without a Clue. Young Sherlock Holmes works from the premises that Holmes and Watson first met in school and teamed up to solve a baffling series of apparent suicides. The movie throws in explanations to how Holmes got his pipe, his deerstalker, his violin, and his greatest enemy. Without a Clue is a comedy that supposes Dr. Watson was the actual detective who solved the cases and he made up Sherlock Holmes to protect his identity. When the public forced him to produce Holmes, he hired an out-of-work actor to play the part--one who couldn't "detect horse manure if he stepped in it."

Dracula has suffered the same fate as Holmes. Most of the movies using him are either loosely based on the stage play or loosely based on the novel. While not quite fanfics, they are not quite literal adaptations either. Not until Francis Ford Coppola's production are all the original characters from the novel are used and the actions take place as Stoker described them. But the added romantic subplot between Dracula and Mina is enough to upset purists. But Dracula has a fun side too. First there was Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein in which he is working with a beautiful mad scientist to take over the world. And then there was The Monster Club, where he would have taken over the world with the help of a magic amulet if not for a group of pesky kids and their dog. Finally, Mel Brooks produced Dracula: Dead and Loving It which is barely a funny movie. The only hilarious scene was Renfield denying his eating of insects with a grasshopper leg sticking out of his mouth. If Dracula is going to be reduced to a stand-up comedian, at least he could be funny.

Now I have reached the last of the Victorian authors that have left a lasting impression: H.G. Wells. One of the fathers of science fiction, he excelled at writing stories that blended the scientific with the fantastic and making the blend sound plausible. His four most famous fictional works are War of the Worlds (1898), The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897). "The Richmond Enigma" and Time After Time are two fanfics inspired by The Time Machine that I have already discussed. Two not mentioned yet both involve television shows. "When Mice Rule the Earth" was a Pinky and the Brain sketch on the cartoon Animaniacs. Pinky and the Brain are a couple of lab mice who try to take over the world every night. In "When Mice Rule the Earth", Brain decides to use Wells' time machine to go back in time and help mice evolve into the dominant species. H.G. Wells and his time machine also showed up in the series: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In the first (and best) episode Wells was in as a character, he had gone to the future utopia that Superman had helped create. Unfortunately, a Superman-hater named Tempest used the time machine to go back and kill Superman as an infant when he first arrived on Earth. Wells goes to the present and enlists Lois and Clark's help to stop him. And The Time Machine also influence the writers of the comic book series The X-Men. A group of mutants that lived in the sewers of New York were named the Morlocks, which is the name of the subterranean race in the future.

Dr. Moreau was used as a character in Anno-Dracula, as well as a template for the mad scientist. The Invisible Man shows up in just about every line-up of famous monsters. But the novel with the biggest influence is probably The War of the Worlds. Again, H.G. Wells began a sub-genre of science fiction--the alien invader story--and possibly has written one of the first stories about space vampires. The most famous fanfic of The War of the Worlds is Orson Welles' radio drama re-make Invasion From Mars. Orson Welles' idea was to set the story in present-day New York and enact the performance as actual news bulletins of the Martians invading. The performance was given on Halloween, 1938. And it caused panic among the listeners who tuned in after the announcement that this was a performance. People actually thought Martians were invading and took to the streets.

The War of the Worlds has been filmed many times. Independence Day is the latest cinematic update: the aliens have advance technology that they are helpless without and a virus destroys them all. Spaced Invaders is the misadventures of a group of Martians that hear a Halloween replay of Welles' Invasion of Mars and think that their fleet is attacking Earth. They crash-land on Earth, ready to help, and completely clueless to what is actually happening.

This is hardly an all-encompassing list of literary and cinematic fanfics published. I mostly used materials I own or have read. In order to find all that has been written or filmed on these characters, I would need a spare decade and an army of researchers. As it is, I owe my sister at least five tips to Star Wars and an out-of-state trip for digging through my books at home and finding what I needed. But I think I have accomplished what I set out to do. Fanfics have a long history of being written, and all that we Internet amateur hacks are doing is continuing the tradition.

Mike Resnick's List of Sherlock Holmes Fanfics



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Works Consulted

Link to Non-Fiction Teasers