Six times sci-fi got a Black Country twist

by Nadia Awal, BCLM Researcher

What do you think of when you think of the Black Country? Soot? Coal? Faggots and paes?

Sci-fi may not be the first (or even the millionth!) thing you think of, but the Black Country does have links to the futuristic genre! Here are just some examples of “Black Country Sci-fi” (warning: mummies, monsters and spoilers lie within!)

1. A Fearsome Mummy

Image - historic black and white portrait of author Jane Webb
Portrait of Jane Webb, c. 1830s, owner unknown

Jane Webb was born in Bartley Green (now part of Birmingham) in 1807. Both of her parents had passed away by the time she was 17, so she started writing as a way of earning a living. In 1827, she anonymously published The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century.

Webb’s 3-volume novel tells the story of the Pharaoh Cheops, brought back to life in the year 2126, into a world of outstanding technological invention. She describes many marvellous machines, such as automaton surgeons, steam-powered cannons for delivering the post and steam-powered lawn mowers.

Webb was influenced by the industrial landscape and folklore of the Black Country. In one scene, the scientist Dr Enterwefen tells his apprentice about coal being used in “ancient times”:

“…a black bituminous substance, or amphilites, drawn from the bowels of the earth, called coal, of which you may yet see specimens in the cabinets of the curious….smoke, rising into the air…falling and resting upon everything that chanced to be in their way, produced that incomparable dusky hue, which the moderns have so often tried, though in vain, to imitate.”

Enterwefen goes on to talk his favourite ballad, Wednesbury Cocking, which he thinks “might be traced back to the times of the aboriginal Britons”. In fact, the folksong dates from c.1780 and was written by Birmingham gunmaker John Probin, who witnessed cockfights whilst travelling to the Black Country on business.  

2. A Dancing Robot

Walsall-born author Jerome K. Jerome is most known for his humorous novel Three Men in a Boat. However, he did pen a more unnerving short story in 1893…

Illustration of "The Dancing Partner". Black and white drawing showing a mechanical dancer holding his partner up, exhausted from dancing, while two other couples dance in the background.
Illustration from The Dancing Partner, c. 1995, Travelman Publishing

The Dancing Partner is a short story set in in the Black Forest, Germany. It tells the tale of Nicholaus Geibel, a toymaker with a glowing reputation. When the local medic hosts a ball for his daughter’s birthday, the women are critical of the men’s dancing abilities. The solution seems obvious – the toymaker could surely make a dancing robot? “Why, a clockwork dancer, or, better still, one that would go by electricity and never run down.”

A month later a second ball is hosted by a merchant, and Geibel is ready with his clockwork dancer, Lieutenant Fritz. Geibel introduces the crowd to Fritz, whom he has taught to waltz. A local lady is selected to dance with Fritz, and shown how to operate him. A charming dance begins, which becomes more and more frenzied. Chaos ensues. All rescue attempts are futile: Fritz dances the lady to death.

Jerome’s motivation for this tale may have been the perceived shortage of men. In the 1850s emigration societies were established in reaction to the 1851 census, which showed that women were outnumbering men. There was a similar reaction in the 1890s when emigrants started to settle and colonise countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Alternatively, he may have been inspired to write a tale warning humankind against its quest for perfection (or, maybe, he just really wanted to write a story about robots!)

3. Planes, Locks and Utopias!

photograph of hardback book, The Lost Children by H. Herman Chilton.
The Lost Children by H. Herman Chilton, 1931, Hutchinson & Co. Ltd.

Belgian-born Henry Herman Chilton was a lockmaking industrialist. He was educated in Milan until the age of 13, and then he attended Wolverhampton Grammar School. He was a director at J. Legge and Co. Ltd., where he developed a number of lock patents. He also served as a magistrate for Willenhall for 24 years.

As well as being an industrialist and magistrate, Chilton was also a poet, playwright and novelist (and a member of the Wolverhampton Literary Club!) His stories were known for taking colour from the Black Country, and he wrote several sci-fi stories. His stories included a melodramatic tale about the world being ruined by women gaining the right to work; a love story set in a world of fantastical inventions (such as airplanes that take off vertically!); and a story about the children of Hamelin (who followed the Pied Piper) founding a Utopia!

4. Terrifying Triffids

John Wyndham was born in Dorridge and grew up in Edgbaston, but had Black Country roots. His mother, Gertrude Parkes, was born in Smethwick. The Parkes family lived in South Street in 1871, then Little Moon Hill in 1881, before moving to Edgbaston in 1891.  Gertrude’s father was John Israel Parkes, who was an ironmaster and nail manufacturer. He owned the Eagle Works of Rolfe Street, Smethwick.

Illustration from the cover of the book "The Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham. A bright yellow cover with black illustrations of a triffid plant in a city square.
Cover illustration from The Day Of The Triffids written by John Wyndham, 1951, Michael Joseph Publishers

John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids was published in 1951. The plot revolves around Bill Masen and triffids (large, poisonous and carnivorous plants). Masen is a triffid cultivator who is splashed in the eyes by some of the plant’s poison. Whilst he is in hospital recuperating, an immense meteor blinds the majority of humankind. Once Bill has recovered, he realises that the main threat to humankind is not the meteor, but the seven-foot tall, venomous, menacing triffids that are overrunning the country. He barricades himself in a house with his love interest, Josella. They are eventually discovered by other survivors, who have built a new colony on the Isle of Wight.

At the novel’s core is a criticism of the misuse of science. It is also a book of the Cold War era, and Wyndham criticises both the USSR for its reckless experimenting and the West for its greed.

5. Petty’s Refuge

John Petty was born in 1919, and lived in Walsall until 1967, when he moved to Ironbridge.  His most critically acclaimed work, Five Fags a Day, is about his experiences as a scrap-picker, and depicts life in the Black Country and its people. However, he ultimately rejected his Black Country roots when he claimed to have been born in the Potteries, reportedly because he was angered by the lack of recognition he received from his hometown for his literary talents.

Image of the front cover of The Last Refuge by John Petty.
Cover image from The Last Refuge written by John Petty, 1966, Penguin Books

Petty’s novel The Last Refuge, published in 1966, is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war which destroys the USSR, USA and much of Europe.  James Muller, a writer, lives in a world of repressive military control. He is imprisoned by the state because of the perceived danger that his words may have on society. Muller and his friend McAllister attempt to escape. Ultimately, Muller is captured and exiled in the concrete remains of Great Britain.

6. The Frankenstein Icon

Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is connected to the Black Country, thanks to the Dudley-born film and theatre director James Whale!

Whale was the son of William and Sarah Whale (a blast furnaceman and nurse respectively). During the First World War he was a prisoner of war. It was during this time that he discovered his passion for drama, as he participated in the amateur productions taking place in the prisoners’ camp. 

Following the end of the War he became an actor, set designer and director. His success as a theatre director in London led to his move to the USA, first to direct a play on Broadway and then to Hollywood to direct films. He signed a five-year contract with Universal, and in 1931 he was offered his choice of any film in the studio’s property to direct. He chose Frankenstein.

Black and white photograph of Boris Karloff (left) and James Whale (right) on the set of 1931's Frankenstein. Boris is in full costume as Frankenstein, while Whale is talking to him holding a paintbrush.
Boris Karloff and James Whale on the set of Frankenstein, 1935, photographer unknown

For the Monster, Whale turned to an unknown actor named Boris Karloff. He saw something unusual about the shape of Karloff’s head and thought he would make an effective monster. Weighed down under uncomfortable makeup, Karloff was extraordinary in the role, extracting pity as well as revulsion for the monster. Whale largely designed the appearance of the monster and created a lasting cinematic icon. Though deviating from Shelley’s book, the film created a potent myth of its own, and marked the creation of the modern horror film. Frankenstein was an instant hit with critics and the public. The film received critical acclaim and shattered box office records across the USA. Whale went on to direct the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (which also starred Karloff as the monster).

Why not read the stories for yourself? Some of them are free to read online:

The Mummy! by Jane Webb (external link: Project Gutenberg)

The Dancing Partner by Jerome K. Jerome (external link: WikiSource)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (external link: Project Gutenberg)

Woman Unsexed by Henry Herman Chilton (external link: Google Books)

Watch James Whale’s Frankenstein. The famous reanimation scene is a must-see! (external link: YouTube)