posted Wednesday 14 March 2012 @ 2:23 pm PDT
It’s been more than two decades since Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard appeared in 1989, and, rather appallingly, it was out of print for several of those years until Tachyon issued a new edition a few years ago. It’s always been among my favorite Powers novels, partly because it’s a sheer wallow for English lit majors, with the Romantic poets who lurked in the background for much of The Anubis Gates getting full turns onstage, and it left a lot of us wondering what Powers – who set The Anubis Gates near the beginning of the 19th century and The Stress of Her Regard in 1816 and later – might make of the rest of that fantasy gold mine of a century. Instead, throughout the 1990s, he gave us generally rewarding detours to Las Vegas and California in the Fault Lines series of novels (Last Call, Expiration Date, and Earthquake Weather), even venturing into John le Carré cold war territory with Declare, which remains one of his strongest novels in purely literary terms. Meanwhile, for an entire generation of readers, the whole Victorian era got transformed into a kind of theme park for steampunk, a mode which Powers, along with his pals James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, arguably invented way back in the ’80s. As for the new novel, Hide Me Among the Graves, Powers gave us a hint of what he was up to with ‘‘A Time to Cast Away Stones’’, which appeared in his Tachyon collection The Bible Repairman and Other Stories last year and which serves as a convenient link between The Stress of Her Regard and this one. That story, set in 1824, featured Edward Trelawney, who had known Keats and Shelley during their struggles with lamia and nephelim, who himself had suffered a nearfatal bullet wound during the Greek war of independence, and who managed to make it out of Greece with, among other things, Shelley’s jawbone. The jawbone, the bullet wound, and Trelawney himself all play central roles in Hide Me Among the Graves, and Trelawney emerges in both the novel and the story as one of Powers’s most complex creations – vain, foolishly ambitious, and heroic all at once – but he’s not really at the center of the tale.
Instead, the tale focuses on two sets of characters, one historical, one fictional. Powers seems to view history in much the same way a hungry cat views a disabled mouse, so it’s no real surprise that his historical figures turn out to be the Rossetti siblings – Christina, Dante Gabriel, William, and Maria – who were haunted enough on their own terms even without the aid of vampires and predatory spirits. For one thing, their uncle was John Polidori, the friend and physician of Byron’s who was present at the famous 1816 storytelling session that gave birth to Frankenstein and Polidori’s own The Vampyre, and who also figured in The Stress of Her Regard. He’s long deceased as the novel opens in 1862 (after an important set-up prologue in 1845), but as we soon learn, not quite deceased enough: a well-meaning ritual by the teenage Christina has given him entrée into the psychic life of the family (these things, like many vampires, have to be invited in), and he returns in force years later, now allied with ancient malignant forces dating back to Roman Britain. Dante Gabriel, for his part, is obsessed with guilt over the death of his model-turnedwife- turned laudanum addict Elizabeth Siddal, leaving an original manuscript of his poems in her coffin, only to have it later exhumed ostensibly to retrieve the poems (this is a part that Powers didn’t even have to make up, though of course in his version retrieving the poems is only a ruse).
Parallel to the story of the Rossettis is the tale of the fictional John Crawford, a veterinary surgeon whose name might ring a bell to those who remember Michael Crawford, the protagonist of The Stress of Her Regard (John recalls his parents telling him they were related to ‘‘a species of vampire’’). Grieving over the death of his wife and sons years earlier, Crawford is sought out by Adelaide McKee, a former prostitute whom Crawford had previously encountered under very weird circumstances on Waterloo Bridge, and who tells him they now share a daughter – and one who is in mortal peril at that. It’s not long before we realize that the same supernatural forces plaguing the Rossettis are threatening their daughter, and eventually they all join forces in a series of increasingly and wildly spooky adventures involving vast caverns beneath London, revenants of various types, and even the occasional demon – all the while aided by the wonderfully ambiguous and problematical figure of the aging Trelawny, who plays something of a Van Helsing role for much of the narrative. Subterranean London has nearly become a genre unto itself in the past several years, but here it gets the full Powers treatment, and it’s like discovering it for the first time. Meticulous as always in his research, Powers also draws an engaging portrait of London itself, with its dire poverty contrasted with the newly finished Thames embankment, an emblem of a landscape increasingly transformed by Victorian engineering and optimism.
But Hide Me Among the Graves is not merely a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, and that novel is no way a prerequisite to enjoying it. In the decades since Stress appeared – with novels such as Last Call or Declare – Powers has notably refined his novelistic skills. His set pieces are no less spectacular and his plotting no less kinetic, but the prose is more measured and less overripe than in those earlier works, the characters more complex and conflicted, the action more tightly focused (nearly all of it takes place in London over a 15-year period, rather than wandering all over Europe). Especially notable are Christina, torn between the devoutness of her sister Maria and the aestheticism of Dante and his Pre-Raphaelite friends (who barely put in an appearance at all); Adelaide, easily the coolest kick-ass character here; and the magnificently self-absorbed yet ambivalently heroic Trelawny. Only the youthful Swinburne, who plays a crucial role late in the novel, comes off as a bit of a caricature, a foppish Victorian Carrot Top who never has a clue as to what he’s gotten into. And, in a subtle touch of embedded lit-crit, the same eldritch forces that threaten the Rossettis (and even London itself) also serve as muses: when they’re around, Christina and Dante and Swinburne produce their finest poetry and art; when they’re not, the work turns mediocre. Those same nephelim seem to do wonders for Powers as well; this is his best novel in years, and the Rossettis seem a better match for his morally complex art than even the earlier Romantics. Of course, if it is the nephelim behind what Powers is up to, we might be well advised to avoid him at conventions, or at least not invite him up to our rooms.