Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers is a follow up to his 1989 novel The Stress of Her Regard, a point worth making since it is not mentioned anywhere on the dust jacket. The novel could stand on its own, but references or allusions to previous events would be lost, and the reader might suffer from a vague feeling that there’s a narrative abyss from whose ragged edge the story they’re being told begins. This is not the first time that Powers has gone back to stories which originally stood as single, self-contained novels. Earthquake Weather, from 1997, drew together the fantasies Last Call (1992) and Expiration Date (1995) into a grand, synthesising mythologisation of the history and landscapes of California and Las Vegas, combining their modern re-interpretations of Fisher King allegories and ghost stories into a complex whole. This revisiting of earlier material is indicative of Powers’ compulsive creation of grand mythological systems which incorporate historical events, rich and realistic depictions of place, rationalised manifestations of the supernatural and real-life characters lent appropriately legendary characteristics (Last Call features the ghost of Thomas Edison and Expiration Date the gangster Bugsy Siegel as the inheritor of the Fisher King’s crown).

The Stress of Her Regard (its title taken from lines in a Clark Ashton Smith poem, Sphinx and Medusa) weaves its intricate and complex mythological schema around the lives, travels and artistic vision of the English Romantic poets. At the granitic core of his invented, or recast mythology is the notion of a stony race of supernatural beings which predate organic life. They are the nephilim of Biblical legend, the ‘giants in the earth’ who were the pre-Adamic descendants of Lilith. Formed from the rocks of the earth, they can take the shape of inhuman mineral behemoths, ambulatory boulder masses, or even sentient mountains; when sluggish or sleeping, they can appear as statues (with shades of Steven Moffat’s weeping angels in Doctor Who); or they can splinter off and ‘marry’ a selected human being, becoming their doppelganger twin. They also take the form of semi-serpentine lamiae, and exert a mesmeric, transfixing influence over their spouses akin to the opiated addiction to a vivid dream world. This bewitching link is sustained by blood, and a lineage furthered by the rebirth of infected hosts as nephilitic ‘revenants’, variants on the classic vampire. Powers moulds his mythology to reflect, adumbrate and comment upon the various aspects of the Romantic worldview (and its Gothic offshoots), and to incorporate various of its artistic creations. The nephilim are partly comprised of Keats’ lamiae, partly of Polidori and Byron’s vampires, and numerous fragments of Romantic poetry and journal entries are quoted at the head of chapters, recast to make reference to the stony tribe. The notion of the Romantic sublime, found in its ultimate aspect in the inhuman scale of the Alpine peaks and crevasses, is given a new slant of awe and terror with the notion that those mineral masses might in some sense be sentient and exerting an influence on the overwhelmed observer.

Powers also provides a rationale for the air of tragic mortality which seemed to surround the Romantic poets. The nephilitic lamiae act as muses, bringing with them the incidental gift of transcendant artistic vision, an insight into an extra-human realm. But there is a terrible cost to pay. Whilst there is a genuine love between muse and often willing ‘victim’, the nephilim are jealous lovers, and wreak terrible, murderous violence upon any others who come too close to the affections of their chosen ones. He also incorporates rationalised variants of a whole panoply of Gothic devices. Indeed, the formative evening for modern Gothic horror, that storm-wracked night of 1816 at the Villa Diodati near Geneva during which Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Lord Byron, John Polidori and Percy Shelley decided to tell each other tales of terror congruent with the turbulent darkness beyond the walls, is included as a scene-setting preface to the book. Splintered wooden stakes fired from rifles are effective against the stone creatures, as are iron spikes and silver bullets. Those who fall under the spell of the nephilim, and who open their veins for them, return as revenants themselves after death, no longer human but hybrid beings. They light on victims of their own, but must be invited in first, as with classic vampire lore. Polidori becomes one such, thus becoming the Vampyre of his own nephilim-fuelled imagination. Powers also manages to incorporate fragments of Norse and Greek mythology, hinting at some grand underlying synthesis. Allusion is made to the Greek tale of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the sole survivors of a great flood who repopulate the earth by casting stones behind them which sprout into human beings. The use of wooden stakes to slow the stone beast which emerges from the Swiss mountainside leads to a comparison with Balder the Beautiful in Norse mythology, killed with a dart made from mistletoe, with Byron likened to Loki, his assassin. This leads Byron to fumingly wonder ‘do all our most affecting legends, as well as our literature, derive from these devils?’ The Graiae, or Fates, also play a central role, taking on the form of the statures atop the pillars in St Michael’s Square in Venice (with the third lying below in the waters of the canal). The notion of their omniscient vision, which encompasses all time, conjures up modern notions of chance and quantum mechanical uncertainty. The attempts of Byron, Shelley and our protagonist (the unfortunately named, for the English reader, Michael Crawford) to prevent the re-awakening of the Graiae becomes a battle over the ontological status of reality, and of the theological state of free will, as well as a metaphor for the Romantic Poets’ opposition to dynastic tyranny (the occupation of Venice by the Hapsburg Empire in this case).

The narrative offers a grand tour of Romantic locales via Crawford’s fate-driven travels across Europe. Spanning the years 1816 t o1822, with a short epilogue in 1851, it moves from London to the Swiss Alps, Venice to Rome, Livorno to Portovenere on the North West coast of Italy. Along the way he meets Keats and Shelley (both of whose deaths he witnesses), Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont, Dr Polidori, Byron, and his friend and companion in adventure Edward Trelawny. Powers clearly has extensive knowledge and understanding of the Romantic poets, and enjoys assimilating the events and legends of their lives into his story. He and his friend and fellow Californian writer have indeed co-created their own Romantic poet, William Ashbless, who first featured in Powers’ Victorian London-set novel The Anubis Gates. They have since written numerous Ashbless poems which lovingly pastiche the Romantic and Victorian styles. Ashbless even gets a mention in Hide Me Among the Graves, his name casually thrown in amongst a list of the great poets of the age with a modest acknowledgement of its lesser status. Algernon Swinburne is told that if he loses his connection with his bloody muse, he will no longer write with the visionary intensity he has lately been enjoying, at least ‘not like Byron and Shelley and Keats, who shared the affliction you’re now free to shed. But – like Tennyson or Ashbless, probably’.

Powers characters tend to be sorely tried, and to suffer injury and symbolic disfigurement or lameness in the course of their adventures. They also go through mental agonies, frequently suffering from anguish and guilt at some past failure or moral dereliction, whether real or perceived. In The Stress of Her Regard, Crawford loses his middle finger, and ages prematurely, and he is tortured by the sense that the death by drowning of his brother and of his wife in a fire were somehow brought about by his neglect or inaction. Josephine, initially his antagonist but later his companion, his lover and finally his wife, loses an eye (torn out in an echo of Biblical imprecations and Greek tales – the Fates again) and suffers throughout from tormented mental states and schizoid shifts in personality. There are elements of the precepts of Christian sacrifice here, and of the Fisher King mythos of the would which will not heal, and which is symbolically associated with the ruination of the land. The quest of the hero is thus not only a search for personal salvation, for the erasure of guilt or curse, but for the restoration of the broken world, of a lost wholeness.

Powers is, perhaps not incidentally, Christian himself (Catholic, to be specific, putting him in the noble lineage of writers of the fantastic such as GK Chesterton, Walter M Miller and Gene Wolfe). He and Blaylock were friends with Philip K Dick in his later years, with regular discussion circles held at his house. He turns up as a character named David in Dick’s late, pseudo-autobiographical tale of madness and the re-building of a fragile sanity, Valis. Valis, and the lengthy Exegesis which underlay it, was Dick’s own attempt at the construction of a universal mythological system (analogous in his case to a Gnostic religious variant) to give meaning to his chaotic and damaged life and the violence and tyranny in the world around him. At this point it’s not clear to what extent he believed in the actuality of what he was writing, an ambiguity which he addresses by splitting his autobiographical persona into two characters, Phil Dick and Horselover Fat, who turn out to be the schizoid halves of the same person. Powers, in the guise of David, offers the fractured Dick protagonists a kindly perspective on the universe, which he sees as essentially benevolent despite its apparent cruelties, guided by a compassionate underlying presence which manifests itself through the generosity of human spirit. The protagonists of Powers’ novels, for all their anguish and suffering (and perhaps partially through them), generally find this to be true, and the author shows the same generosity towards them as he did towards the ailing and sometimes unbalanced Dick. There’s an essentially kindness at the heart of his work which transcends the travails he puts his characters through. The punishments they endure are often exacerbated by their strong sense of moral purpose, their refusal to give up their quest or mission despite all the temptations laid in their path, or to abandon their companions, or even apparent enemies, to their fate. Indeed, it is a characteristic of Powers’ novels that enemies can become allies, or even friends, joining forces to stand against inhuman or demonic powers.

Hide Me Among the Graves (the title deriving from one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal’s little known poems, At Last) takes place some forty years after the events of The Stress of Her Regard, and features John Crawford, the son of Michael and Josephine, whom they named after John Keats. We briefly met him as a thirty year old man in that novel’s coda, as his aging parents told him their remarkable tale in the place where it all began. He has followed in his father’s medical footsteps, although choosing rather to minister to animals as a veterinarian. Where The Stress of Her Regard moved between a succession of colourful continental locales, the later novel remains firmly rooted in a vividly imagined Victorian London, whose geography is expertly laid out. The three main sections take place in the years 1862, 1869 and 1877, with a prologue taking us back to 1845, and an epilogue forward to 1882. The Romantic poets have now been replaced by Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetics, with a cast centred around the Rossetti family: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister, the poet Christina Rossetti, and their siblings Maria and William; and Dante’s friend and sometime housemate, the wild-haired and hearted poet and rakehell Algernon Swinburne. The nephilim are reawakened through Christine’s christening of the diminished stone statuette which Polidori has become, and which her father has brought back from Europe, with blood. Trelawny returns, grizzled with his adventures in Italy and Greece with the late Lord Byron, and reported piratical escapades. He has had his own brushes with the nephilim, and now has one of their dormant ‘eggs’ lodged as a growth in his neck (Powers had used the idea of gallstones as nephilim eggs in The Stress of Her Regard). He also carries part of Shelley’s jawbone as a talisman, having been present at his shoreline cremation following his drowning in the seas of Livorno (drowning being one way of escaping from the attentions of the stone lamiae and avoiding a terrible rebirth).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - self-portrait 1870
A difficult and oft-thwarted romance between damaged and initially ill-suited protagonists is once more at the heart of the story. John Crawford overcomes his initial Victorian gentleman’s shock at the forthrightness of Adelaide McKee (to whom he refers with a businesslike ‘McKee’ for most of the novel), the ‘fallen woman’ who enters his life on Blackfriars Bridge, and with whom he takes a plunge into the Thames after a plummeting ‘meteor’ (a jealous nephilim in pure mineral form) roars down on them from the London skies. Powers introduces further mythological lore and local legend to his Romantic portrayal of a Dickensian, gaslit city. There is the paying of coins to the road sweeper at the Seven Dials junction, who hands them back and replaces his broom to allow for a ‘blind’ passage, free of the supernatural vision of nearby watchers. The Thames is re-imagined as a fogbound medium for ghosts caught in an afterlife limbo, flopping about as devolved, fishlike blobs. There is a thriving ‘hail Mary’ trade, in which Adelaide is involved, involving the use of ‘aves’, or birds to catch the souls of the recently departed and allow for a limited form of communication. And the nursery rhyme vocalisation of the sounds of London’s church bells (oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements etc.) are revealed as mnemonics for the ancient Latin passwords (oranges and lemons representing Origo lemurum) required to pass safely down neighbouring wells and into London’s labyrinthine underworld. This underworld, a city beneath the city, is depicted with chill imaginative detail, and we gain the sense that the subterraenean territories which John and Adelaide stumble into are just the edge of a vast, lightless subworld. Powers’ London is a layered city, whose historical strata are still open to the excavations of the adventurous or foolhardy archaeological adventurer. The gateways to the labyrinths of hidden London can be found in the most unprepossessing of places, such as the basement of the ramshackle spit and sawdust Spotted Dog pub. Powers brings the mythological matter of Britain into play, casting Gog and Magog as giants of the stone race, Albion personified, with Boadicea as their nephilitic offspring, intent on making England shake and razing London to the ground once more, as she did in revenge for the defilement of herself and her daughters by the Roman invader.

There’s also a scene in which John and Adelaide gain entrance into what appears to be the interior of a giant stone skull (the inside of Gog or Magog’s skull?) by inching their way along a narrow crawl space beneath a tomb in Highgate Cemetery, with no possible of turning around. It’s a passage which rivals Colin and Susan’s crawl through the constricting cave tunnel beneath Alderley Edge in Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Bringamen for clammy, airless claustrophobia. Highgate Cemetery, the locus of Victorian gothic in London, is a natural locale for the novel to spend time in. Powers cleverly incorporates Rossetti’s disinterment of his wife Elizabeth Siddal’s body from the cemetery into his narrative, giving him a better purpose for such desecration. According to legend, Rossetti had buried his notebook with all his poems in it with Lizzie’s body. He later came to regret this, and managed, some seven years later, to again permission to dig up the coffin and retrieve them. Lizzie was reported to be perfectly preserved, a strand of her red hair coming away with the book. Here, that preservation is explained by the immortality granted by marriage to the nephilim (she is not dead, but merely sleepeth), and the disinterment is an attempt to prevent the birth of an unnatural offspring, conceived before her death. Rossetti’s determination to recover his notebook is also rationalised, his foreswearing of his own destructive ‘muse’ resulting in a dying down of the fever of artistic inspiration in his blood, and the subsequent need to find the words he’d written while it still raged. Powers plays games with autobiographical detail, reflecting on Rossetti’s concentration on poetry rather than art for a period in his life. He similarly offers a metaphorical depiction of the waning of Christina Rossetti’s creative powers, or of her will to write further in later years, a melancholy acknowledgement of the diminishing of the sense of burning, youthful purpose.

Quiet heroism - William Rossetti
As in The Stress of her Regard, the stone muses are shown to be harsh mistresses or masters, the creation of visionary poetry or art through their aegis an exacting and spirit-sapping calling, inviting an attendant train of tragic event which can in its turn be transformed into artistic expression. William Rossetti, the more stable and staid male member of the clan, who tirelessly promoted the work of his brother and his fellow artists, and who ended up chronicling their lives (in the mid-century PRB Journal and in his 1906 volume Some Reminiscences), is offered a vision of the library of great poetic works he could create if he opened himself up to a nephilitic lover (thus allowing the Polidori creature to re-establish itself). But he knows the price he and others would have to pay, a resists this heady temptation, sadly resigning himself to an acceptance of his lesser literary talents. This refusal is an oddly heroic moment, a sacrifice of a secretly held dream, and an unseen act of will which saves others by retreating to the shadows of insignificant obscurity. Once more, Powers allows his characters such moments of quiet heroism, choices made which result in sacrificial suffering for the sake of others whom they may not even know that well. Such gestures are eventually repaid, though. There is a sentimental but touching and quite beautiful scene in which John, having been infected by a nephilim bite, and knowing that his will shall shortly be affected, throws himself into the Thames once more to cast off the malign influence with his dying breath. But having reached that final moment, he finds himself being gently nudged to the surface by many furry forms – they are the blind and lame cats which he has cared for in his house over the years, which have joined the river of ghosts. Later, lost in the underworld and pursued by hungry ghosts, he is again aided by animal spirits, this time of the horses he has treated in his surgery. These scenes extend the generosity of Powers’ world view beyond the human, and typify his benevolent take on the universe. It’s a hard path which his characters are forced to take, but in the end, love sees them through.

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