About the time that I was writing scripts for Marvellous Boxes, my Twilight Zone-ish audio drama anthology, Robert Valentine and Jack Bowman were already winning awards for their work on The Springheel Saga. This audio drama series is told as a trilogy of trilogies: three episodes establish The Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack, three more continue The Legend of Springheel’d Jack, and the final three episodes reveal The Secret of Springheel’d Jack.
It’s a series I’ve been enjoying and recommending for a few years now. Yes, it features a distinctive occult detective character named Jonah Smith. However, I’m more drawn to the high quality of the writing, the cinematic feel of the production, and the performances of the actors — most all of them with lengthy and impressive credentials.
The Wireless Theatre Company is now preparing to add the ninth and last episode of The Springheel Saga to their wide choice of audio plays. I decided it would be a good time to toss my four questions from Oklahoma to London and see what bounced back. It was this:
If it’s okay with you, Tim, we’d like to record our answers from the fireside snug of the Morgan Arms public house over a couple of pints of the local brew, and send you the transcript. Errors, omissions and swear-words will of course be deleted.
RV = Robert Valentine
JB = Jack Bowman
#1 – Using three similes — and as many sentences as you like — describe your occult detective character.
JB: Similes? Okay.
RV: Right. Our occult detective, Jonah Smith, is in fact the greatest police detective of his generation, just like his historical counterpart, the former Bow Street Runner, James Lea. Lea was middle-aged by the time the Spring-heeled Jack scare occurred, and had already made a name for himself for his part in solving the famous ‘Murder in the Red Barn’. However, Smith is a young constable when we first meet him, and unlike Lea, due to his growing obsession with capturing Jack, his career on the force is much less successful.
JB: And like Bruce Wayne, he’s haunted by the childhood trauma of losing his parents, and that trauma drives him. Often at great personal cost.
RV: Definitely. He’s a man with an obsession. Rather like a mid-19th century Fox Mulder. They’re both obsessed with finding the truth. In his case, it’s the truth about Spring-heeled Jack.
#2 – While reading about a fictional world where a vampire travels to, say, a city that is recognizably Victorian London or small-town Maine, a reader might look up suddenly and wonder what was that noise? However, while reading about a fictional world where a vampire enters a tavern that’s frequented by zombies, werewolves, and ghosts, a reader escapes to far-flung fantasy-land and probably ignores that noise altogether. How close is your fictional world to the world of reader?
JB: The world of The Springheel Saga is Victorian London, as a matter of fact, but in it’s heavily atmospheric, heightened way it’s a fairly recognizable place. There’s superstition and skepticism in equal measure — just like in the real world — and the fact that the city is living in dread of a mysterious phantom attacker is in no way a normal occurrence.
RV: Although, the interesting thing about this fictional world is that it’s supernatural events do mirror the historical reality; back in 1837 people really were living in terror of Spring-heeled Jack! During the Winter of 1837/38, you had people scurrying about their business, looking over their shoulders, fearful that this ghost, this monster — the devil himself — might suddenly leap out at them.
JB: True! The one difference in our story is that he actually is the giant, fire-breathing monster of legend.
#3 – I see occult detective fiction as a cross-genre of mystery and supernatural fiction. Do you agree with this, and if so, do you lean more into one genre than the other? If you don’t agree, what’s your problem?
RV: I suppose the elements key to occult detective fiction are a mystery to solve, a character to solve it, and the presence somewhere of the occult. With those requirements satisfied, your options are wide and various. For example, you could have a detective who uses paranormal means to solve rational mysteries, making the detective the story’s fantastic figure. Or you could have a detective who uses the occult to solve occult mysteries, which in some ways normalizes or diminishes that aspect of the genre. It’s more to my taste to have a detective who, whilst not equipped to deal with the supernatural, the weird or the fantastic, nevertheless finds themselves facing it in the course of their investigation. If you take that route, the forces of the occult retain their power to be — quite simply — mysterious. I heard one phrase describing all story as being essentially a ritual in which the hero must face the ‘abyssal powers of darkness’ and come out again. That phrase has always stuck with me as incredibly useful, whatever the genre: ‘the abyssal powers of darkness’. I mean, to be honest, any mystery is an investigation into the unknown, and even in straight detective fiction the detective must necessarily cross over into a world of darkness in their search for the truth. Even Miss Marple has to do it. There’s a definite sense of initiation in that aspect of the mystery genre, and the division between the everyday world and the world of the mystery feels heightened when the occult is an element in the story. You cross over into a world where the fabric of reality itself changes from what you’re used to. Having said that, because our supernatural MacGuffin is basically a seven-foot tall monster with otherworldly powers, we tend to keep Jack off-stage as much as possible and we do lean towards the mystery genre most of the time.
JB: With The Springheel Saga there’s also a large dose of the adventure genre alongside the mystery and occult. Yes, Smith’s a detective, sometimes in an unofficial capacity, but he doesn’t just interview witnesses and find clues, he also gets involved in high-speed chases, explosive action and hand-to-hand combat. Between series, we also change the type of mystery he has to solve. In series one, he’s a police constable carrying out a purely criminal investigation into these strange attacks. In series two he’s on the run, accused of a murder he didn’t commit, and has to find the real culprit whilst evading the police, the real killer and Springheel Jack himself, all at the same time. In series three we shift genre once again to spy thriller, but one which hinges on a mystery that Smith must once again solve, albeit in a more James Bond fashion than previously. But the constant ingredient throughout the saga is the occult, so although we keep that at bay for the most-part, it’s the underlying thread of the whole piece.
#4 – What are your plans?
RV: We have one more episode of The Springheel Saga left to release. It’s three series comprising nine episodes in total, spanning the entire Victorian era from Jack’s first sighting to his last. And while Jonah Smith’s days of hunting Spring-heeled Jack are coming to an end, we do have outlines for three Jonah Smith spin-off adventures, whether they ever see the light of day or not.
JB: Without divulging any spoilers, we did decide that his further adventures would, like The Springheel Saga, involve historically-based spooky Victorian mysteries, but unlike The Springheel Saga, they would all have rational explanations – if they get explained at all, that is!
RV: The reason for that decision is a certain kind of realism: in the fictional world we’ve created for our hero, the fact that he comes across something as incredible as Spring-heeled Jack is improbable enough for one lifetime. We wouldn’t want to make his lifelong quest to capture Jack any less extraordinary by overpopulating his world with occult phenomena.
JB: Having said that, Jonah Smith himself has picked up a few psychic properties from his encounters with Jack, so who knows? He might very well be the one bringing the occult to the party in his next adventure.
RV: I’ll drink to that.
My thanks for Robert Valentine and Jack Bowman. The Springheel Saga can be downloaded exclusively from The Wireless Theatre Company.