Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers
Well, with Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (William Morrow, 2012), we’re back in alternate history territory with a cast of well-known characters encountering the supernatural. In this case, we’re deep into Victorian times and embedded into the world of the poets from the Prologue in 1845 to the Epilogue in 1882. In that it has the Rossetti family as central characters and involves the Nephilim, it may properly be considered a form of sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a novel published in 1989 and much celebrated. But, before we actually set off with the review of this most recent addition to the Tim Powers canon, we need to spend a little while thinking about the creative process.
Both in what are now called steampunk and mashup novels, there are emerging clichés with anachronistic technology and various supernatural beasties arbitrarily released into eras approximating the Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian. In many cases, there’s no particular purpose to be served except to produce a different backdrop against which to slaughter vampires, zombies and assorted other creatures. The formula is the same no matter whether the genre label is steampunk or contemporary urban fantasy. A hero(ine) is confronted by dangerous thingies selected from the supernatural/horror back-catalogue and, at the end of the book, he or she has won the day, or the night depending on the beasties. The level of collateral damage among the humans also increases of decreases in line with the intended readership. Mashup novels are more pretentious because they ape the writing style of classic authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, et al. A part of the supposed interest is the incongruity of supposedly dainty figures like Fanny in Mansfield Park confronting Egyptian mummies, whereas the identity of the heroic figure is largely irrelevant to the readers who only want blood spilled in the most graphic way possible. Indeed, apart from the initial inspiration to deliberately introduce anachronisms and supernatural creatures, I see little creativity in any of these books.
Alternate history, however, is a far more exciting, not to say, respectable subgenre, particularly when it plays the game of a secret history. The idea is simple, but the execution is challenging. You take real-world events and, by introducing previously unknown facts, suggest a different interpretation. For example, F Paul Wilson runs a complete secret history behind his Adversary Cycle, even explaining in Ground Zero, what really happened on 9/11. For the most part, these extensive revisionist fictionalisations are interesting, but not technically demanding. In other words, once the author formulates the fictional “secrets”, the actual events are rewritten to fit the backstory. The better work is done by authors like Tim Powers who take the historical record and fit the fiction around it. This involves genuine research to find the cracks in the historical record through which new “information” could leak.
So here we are with the Polidori family. We should all know John Polidori because, in 1819, he wrote The Vampyre and this gives him the credit as the inventor of the blood-sucking trope that survives into modern times. He died in 1821. His sister, Frances, married Gabriele Rossetti, their children being Maria Francesca (author), Dante Gabriel (poet, painter and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), William Michael (writer and critic) and Christina (poet). Also involved in this book are Edward John Trelawny, a novelist and adventurer who was a member of different political and artistic groups including Byron, Swinburne and Shelley; a veterinarian, John Crawford who’s the son of Michael Crawford from The Stress of Her Regard, and Adelaide McKee, a reformed prostitute. This could have been a routine mashup in which our cast of famous poets take on and defeat John Polidori who, ironically, has become a vampire — a kind of literary infighting in a salon of the day. Except we’re cast into a fascinating alternate version of London in which ghosts, including a powerful revenant of Queen Boadicea, and now vampire-like creatures, are abroad. There are some beautiful ideas on display as ghosts infest the Thames and walk the waves of the North Sea. Birds are recruited into the fight, the Mud Larks stand by and over the Thames and, in the catacombs, the Hail Mary people find ways to keep the people of London as safe as possible. Yet, if John Polidori and the Queen can come together in the right way, the Queen may finally realise her dream of destroying London.
In all forms of art, there’s a mythology surrounding muses — often depicted as supernatural creatures who inspire the best work in the creative. Tim Powers produces an ironic difficulty for this artistic group to confront. It seems they also produce their best work when under the influence of these “vampires”. To fight and destroy these “muses” may also mean the writing and painting returns to a mediocre level — a neat intellectual and emotional trap for these people who live for the respect of their peers and the adulation of their readers. Indeed, poets might steal these muses, despite the known risks. Anyway, the two key events to set the ball rolling are that Christina is tempted into inviting her dead uncle John Polidori into the family home. And seven years before the main action begins, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee conceive a daughter, Johanna, who has disappeared from Adelaide’s care and is thought dead. Now the couple are drawn together again by the news their daughter did not die. Rather she’s being used by the Nephilim. In such circumstances, all interested parties must combine to see what can be done to save all the children who prove at risk. As in The Stress of Her Regard, we also have the link between statues and what they represent. For Trelawny, this is rather more personal, making him a literal bridge. It sticks in the craw to say it, but the Polidori link may have been buried.
Hide Me Among the Graves is a completely fascinating historical novel set in a beautifully realised alternate London where supernatural forces are threatening the lives of both the talented and the ordinary folk in cataclysmic destruction. Although I think it’s slightly longer than necessary, Tim Powers holds interest through the inventiveness of the developing plot and produces an entirely satisfactory outcome that is entirely consistent with the historical facts as we know them. In an alternate history novel, you can’t ask for a better result.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.