Zombie voodoo pirates. Time-traveling Mossad agents. Djinn in the Cold War. The dark fantasy novels of Catholic author Tim Powers can seem like pure high-concept, and his newest book—a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a.k.a. What If the Romantic Poets Were Sort of Vampires?–has the same instant audience appeal. Christina Rossetti fights vampires! A hard-luck ex-prostitute who’s too stoic for her own good might finally find happiness with an animal-loving loner! Tough women, sensitive men, London by gaslight, sinister rituals, and even Boadicea back from the dead: Hide Me Among the Graves seems custom-designed for a cold, rainy weekend curled up under a comforter with the cats.
And yet this thrilling, compassionate book is much more than its concept. Powers excels at a fantasy of salvage: a human-scale, kitchen-sink drama in which characters take what seem like small steps into darkness, only to find themselves in far over their heads. The way out requires terrible physical and emotional sacrifice. The great, heroic actions in these novels are often acts of renunciation, earning no glory.
Hide Me Among the Graves begins with one of these little, enormous complicities. A teenage Christina Rossetti takes a tiny statue from her father. Although his words have made her suspect that there’s something wrong about the statue, something out of line with the Christian faith of her sister Maria, she holds on to it. Following a superstition which she hopes will allow her to dream of her future bridegroom, she rubs her own blood on the statue and falls asleep with it under her pillow.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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That night she thinks that she’s been revisited by an old nightmare, the figure she called “Mouth Boy” because his sharklike maw seems to take up his entire face. But Christina sees that the nightmare figure looks strangely like her brother, and seems to be in some kind of need, so Christina—not realizing she’s in a vampire tale!–invites her dream visitor into her home and, eventually, her bed. She knew she was doing something we might call “sketchy” today, something a bit morally off-center; she didn’t realize that she had reawakened one of an ancient race of jealous, powerful vampiric creatures, the Nephilim of the Bible, and that her nighttime visitor would seek to kill everyone she loved and eventually involve her in a plot to destroy London.
The rest of the book involves the quest to thwart the Nephilim plan of destruction. But the quest is complicated, in part because not everyone fighting the vampires really wants to see them defeated. Powers is terrific at capturing the nostalgia for sin, the longing for it, and it touches and warps many of the characters in this novel. Some characters go through moments of despair, others are tempted by the possibility of being a great poet. Others simply long for the intensity of the Nephilim’s all-encompassing, devouring love, “the dark elation of being severed from human concerns.” Only one character—a young girl who was taken and used by the Nephilim awakened by Christina, then left to wander the streets with other cast-off and damaged children—manages to turn her awful childhood into a source of ferocious, steadfast resolve. The other characters, with their more divided hearts, view her with a kind of uneasy awe.
Powers can evoke real shivers: When Christina, early on in her association with the vampires, begins to draw a rabbit on her sketchpad, the picture “began to go wrong under her darting pencil—the hind legs and back seemed broken now, and the creature’s face began to take on a human-like expression that somehow expressed both scorn and pleading—and when she heard her brother Gabriel gasp at the sight of it, she crumpled the paper.”
There’s also a recurring theme, as seen in the title of The Stress of Her Regard, of the fear of being looked at, the fear of being found out, being the focus of an otherworldly attention. A creature, essentially an unborn child transformed into a vampire, gets the especially frightening description: “In fact, if it hadn’t been for the lively attention in his eyes, she would have believed he was dead.” When one character considers “the special mutual awareness between redeemer and redeemed,” even this salvific awareness seems to throb a little, painful, in a novel about the inflamed attention of the Nephilim.
There are some moments of humor: “How could she still be in love with a man who was dead,” Gabriel Rossetti wonders about his laudanum-dazed, vampire-ridden wife, “and who furthermore could no longer form a coherent sentence?” There’s a nice sense of the exasperation felt by people who have to deal with immensely powerful beings who simply don’t think like humans: “Ghosts are such imbeciles,” one of them notes. This is a novel full of codes, tricks, and home remedies—for ghosts and vampires.
But this is, overall, a sad and scary book. It’s a book in which adults almost casually use children as instruments for the fulfillment of their own destructive desires. It’s a book in which even seeing the terrible cruelty of the Nephilim isn’t enough to make the human characters turn entirely against them. The Nephilim use lust, pride, envy against their victims, but also pity, as when they impersonate family members or appear as cold and needy children. Powers makes the eldritch bond between human and vampire totally believable: You can feel the longing yourself, the sweet pain, the ache where an old sin was only mostly healed.
So curl up under your comforter. But whatever you do, don’t open any windows.