11 July 2016

Hide Me Among the Graves

A review of Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

Tim Powers has returned to the world of his 1989 novel The Stress of Her Regard, which was set in the early decades of the nineteenth century and involved Byron, Keats and Shelley. Hide Me Among the Graves is largely set in Victorian London between the years 1862 and 1877 and involves two main sets of characters, one fictional and the other historical. The main fictional characters are John Crawford, a veterinary surgeon and the son of one of the protagonists of the earlier novel, and an ex-prostitute Adelaide McKee. Their historical counterparts are Christina Rossetti, her siblings and some of their associates.

The book opens with the teenage Christina reawakening the spirit that had possessed her uncle and now resides in a statuette belonging to her father. She later admits this to her sister and together they attempt unsuccessfully to lay the spirit to rest. Thus the scene is set for a complex plot in which the protagonists struggle to rid London of these beings.

Powers has done a masterful job of reinventing the vampire myth with these creatures, which he identifies with the biblical Nephilim. These ‘vampires’ have some of the characteristics of the classical creative daimon: they draw on the vitality of their human victims, but in return they endow those victims with remarkable creativity.

As ever, he tells a gripping story, weaving the biographies of several historical characters into a romp around the underbelly of Victorian London. I particularly like the way he superimposes a secret supernatural history upon the public history we all know. The creativity of the Rossetti family and their friends and acquaintances as well as the tragedies they suffer are explained in terms of their interaction with the Nephilim. Powers has researched the Rossettis and their context meticulously and uses that research to bring both Victorian London and his secret history to life. I am fascinated by the way he takes apparently trivial details (e.g. Gabriel Rossetti’s pet name for his wife, Trelawny’s mysterious mistress Miss B) or carefully selected quotations from Christina and her circle and uses them to reinforce his secret history.

One of the great strengths of his writing is his characterization and the complexity of the characters he develops. Christina is torn between guilt over her teenage indiscretion and genuine love for the entity that once possessed her uncle. Similar points could be made about every one of the central characters. And even the secondary characters Trelawny and Swinburne are lovingly developed.

At times, Powers seems to play elaborate games for the sheer fun of it. For example, a nursery rhyme becomes a mnemonic for Latin phrases that placate the genii loci presiding over subterranean London.

I confess that I attempted (unsuccessfully) to pick holes in his construct. Perhaps a scholar of the period would have more luck. His attention to detail and his ability to manipulate those details to serve the story he is telling are quite amazing.

This is intelligent, literate supernatural storytelling at its very best, a Gothic novel for the twenty-first century.

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