Ahead of Her Time
Ef Deal explores uncharted territory with her new steampunk thriller Esprit de Corpse.
by Bill Donahue

Ef Deal was a precocious child. A voracious reader by age four, she made her local library a favorite haunt shortly thereafter.

“By the time I was five, I would wander up to the library at the end of my street; this was at a time when children could still wander,” says Deal, a novelist and musician based in Haddonfield, New Jersey. “I would watch women carry books out of the library, and I just thought that was wonderful.
“One day at lunchtime I stacked six or seven books to read,” she continues. “The librarian stopped me and said, ‘You can’t read all those books in an hour.’ I said, ‘Watch me.’ So she split her sandwich in half, and I read to her all the books in the stack. … I think I read just about every fiction book in the library by the time I was 11.”
Deal’s fondness for fantasy, horror, and science fiction inspired her as she sat down at her mother’s typewriter and began drafting stories of her own. In both reading and writing, her imagination transported her to distant points in space and time.
“I always wanted to be an astronaut,” Deal recalls. “I loved Ray Bradbury’s S Is for Space, and there was a great push in the ’60s to get to the moon. I also had an uncle who worked for RCA and designed some circuitry for the Gemini project. It wasn’t until I got to school that I was told I couldn’t [become an astronaut] because I was a girl. At that point, I switched to English.”
Deal, now 68, has had many of her stories published in anthologies, magazines, and e-zines. In 2022, she penned an intimate and powerful foreword for Incubate, an anthology published by Bucks County’s Speculation Publications. Her long-awaited debut novel, an imaginative work of steampunk called Esprit de Corpse, was recently published by New Jersey-based eSpec Books.
Set in 19th century France, Esprit de Corpse follows the comings and goings of two exceptional twin sisters: Jacqueline, a mechanically inclined genius; and Angélique, a lycanthrope with the heart of an artist. The retrofuturistic thriller blends history, romance, and shades of horror, with a plot driven by ahead-of-its-time technology rooted in hard science.
Steampunk is a word a lot of people know but far fewer can adequately explain. Tell me about steampunk and its appeal.

The short definition of steampunk is science fiction that’s set in the past with a retrospective look at what could have been accomplished. The first book to call itself that was Infernal Devices, from K.W. Jeter (published in 1987). It took from the concept of clockwork automatons that were popular in the 1700s. … Charles Babbage, who is credited with the computer technology we have today, is said to have had a beautiful automaton called the Silver Lady. So you had all that stuff going on, but it didn’t really accomplish anything. The attraction for the 20th and 21st century is to think about what could have been.  
France is a character in your story. Why do you find French history and French culture so interesting?
I lived there for a year, and I fell in love with Paris; it was the first time I felt like I was home. The aromas there were wonderful, so many trees and flowers—it’s just a wonderful feeling. Contrary to what a lot of Americans say, the French are warm and welcoming people. To me, Paris was a small town. That part got me enamored, and my interest only grew when I started searching through the catacombs, the places that influenced so many artists, the museums, the parks. As we read literature for class, I found I could visit the same park Jean Valjean and Cosette (of Les Misérables) visited. And there’s so much history. … You get to explore these amazing chateaus and other sites where all these historical events happened. The stories just kept coming to me.
Esprit de Corpse also has a strong paranormal bent. What took you down that route?
I really liked that nothing about werewolves and vampires had been written at the time when this story was set. There was no canon. There were no rules yet. The sequel to this story really ramps up the supernatural aspects. Book Two is a vampire novel. There were so many things Bram Stoker (author of Dracula) got wrong. His was the first big entry in the canon. The one before that was Carmilla (authored by Sheridan Le Fanu), but the story never recognizes her as a vampire. I had fun laying down the groundwork. That’s the fun of steampunk.
It’s a beautiful, well-written novel, so I’m happy to hear the story of Jacqueline and Angélique continues after the book’s conclusion. What else do you have in store for the reader?
My publisher is committed to the series. …Book Two focuses on vampires, and it also touches on the issue of homosexuality. Book Three is a little bizarre; it involves a haunted train and a mad-scientist cannibal. Book Four involves the Treaty of Peking. I just started Book Five.

The characters in the series won’t leave me alone. When you finish writing a book, you always have to know the story’s future, even if there is no future. At the end of Esprit de Corpse, the battle against Draganov (the novel’s primary antagonist) is ended, and we have these two romantic leads that have changed these women. Is it happily ever after? Is it happy for now? There are more things to explore.  
Photo courtesy of Ef Deal
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, March 2023.