Thursday, August 02, 2012

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

For the first two decades of his career, no one thought Tim Powers would (or could) create a sequel to any of his softly apocalyptic secret history novels; he twisted things as far as they would go, tested his protagonists to the edge of destruction, and systematically worked to the end of his premises, leaving sequels superfluous.

But then along came Earthquake Weather in 1997, an unexpected sequel to Powers's two prior (and previously unrelated) novels, Last Call and Expiration Date, showing that he could find unexpected new ways to tell new stories in old worlds. If he wanted to, of course. And now, a decade later -- Powers's novels all take time to come to fruition; he generally takes at least 3-4 years between books -- Powers returns to the milieu of perhaps his most acclaimed novel, The Stress of Her Regard, a generation later, with Hide Me Among the Graves. (There is also a bridging novella, "A Time to Cast Away Stones," available in The Bible Repairman and Other Stories, which tells the story of Edward Trelawney, an important secondary character in both Stress and Graves. A really devoted reader should find Stress first, and then read the novella before tackling Graves.)

Stress was one of Powers's sneakiest "what if?" ideas: the three great Romantic poets (Keats, Shelley, and Byron) all seemed doomed -- all died young, all lived over-dramatically, all were haunted by threats both real and imagined. What if, Powers imagined, there were a supernatural reason why all three men died young? What if they were struggling against forces vastly stronger than themselves, and all of their strange superstitions and actions and reactions were based on some single secret explanation? Powers hypothesized another intelligence race -- the siliconari, whom men have called lamia and vampire and succubus and nephilim -- that "marry" humans and give them strength and poetic fire and long life, but also (since the nephilim are very, very jealous) will kill everyone else that their "spouses" love.

The hero of Stress was a doctor named Michael Crawford, who accidentally marries a nephilim -- important note: do not place the wedding ring of your wife-to-be on a random statue in a graveyard at night -- and then falls in with those romantic poets before finally breaking free of the influence of the nephilim and helping to damage their hold on the world. That may all sound lurid and tacky in precis, but Powers is a mesmerizing writer with command of the tiniest of details: the more you know about Keats and Shelley, the more compelling and believable Stress is. He weaves historical details -- down to individual days in the lives of the poets -- into his fabric, until it's easier to believe that Shelley and Keats were tormented by nephilim than any other explanation.

Graves picks up the story a long generation later; our central character is John Crawford, son of the late Michael. John has a Powers hero's traditional bad luck: in 1855, morose and drinking heavily after the death of his wife and two sons, he met and saved the prostitute Adelaide McKee from the attention of those creatures -- one of them the revived corpse of his own dead son, eager to drag John down as well. McKee and John consoled each other that night, and she, mostly reformed, returns to John in 1862 to tell him that they had a daughter, Johanna.

Johanna supposedly died at the age of two, and McKee is worried that the nephilim have her body or soul. She also knows that the vampires had been gone for thirty years -- since Michael Crawford banished them, actually, though she doesn't know that -- but that they've been back in the world for the past fifteen.

The mythology of the nephilim of Stress is subtly changed for the vampires of Graves; the same protections don't work exactly the same way, and the high Alpine mountains are no longer as protective as they were. (There's also a hint of the ghosts of Expiration Date in the vampire's minions.) But the general outlines are the same: the monsters crave human "love" and need to be invited into the world by a human touch. And perhaps the invitations, this time around, had somewhat different requirements?

There are two main monsters in Graves, plus a host of their human followers and the ghosts of their prey: the more important one is John Polidori, once Byron's personal physician. Polidori's power had been destroyed until someone -- and we know that it was Christina Rosetti, his niece -- invited him back into the world. And so John Crawford is caught up in the lives and works of a new generation of poets -- Rosetti, her brother Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Swinburne -- as they, like the Romantics before them, struggle to extricate themselves from the cruel attention of the vampires and equally struggle to want to go back to writing bland, ordinary verses for the rest of their lives. (One thing has not changed from Stress to Graves: the attention of vampires may be fatal to those around a poet, but it gives that poet a power and grandeur that will make his work live for ages -- and, perhaps, though Powers never explicitly says this, it may be the only thing that can make a truly great poet.)

Hide Me Among the Graves is another tricky, sneaky slink through the back corridors and unexpected connections of history from Powers -- not precisely a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, but very much a follow-up and continuation of that book, and a continued exploration of the idea of deadly poetic inspiration.

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