Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard was one of my favorite random used-bookstore discoveries. After reading it ten years ago, I talked it up to all my friends. It was out of print at the time, so I constantly lent out my own copy until the time I didn’t get it back. When I got wind of Hide Me Among the Graves, a sequel of sorts, I was thrilled and hoped it would be one of my favorite books of the year. So how does it stack up? Well, to be honest, I didn’t like Hide Me Among the Graves quite as much as I did The Stress of Her Regard. I’m not sure if it’s Powers’s style that’s changed or if it’s me, but more on that later.
In The Stress of Her Regard, a group of characters (including several prominent poets and some invented characters) are terrorized by the nephilim. The setup is similar this time around, but a generation later: the central characters include the artistic Rossetti family and their friends, and veterinarian John Crawford, son of Michael Crawford from the first book. The four Rossetti siblings have essentially inherited the family vampire, who takes the form of their uncle, John Polidori. John Crawford’s parents passed on a lot of lore on fighting the creatures, and Crawford finds himself putting it to use when Adelaide McKee, a former prostitute with whom he once spent a fateful night, comes back into his life with a shattering piece of information. The fictional characters and the famous ones must work together to free all of them from the attentions of the nephilim.
The first thing I appreciated about Hide Me Among the Graves was simply seeing Powers’s nephilim again. The nephilim concept has become hugely overdone in the intervening years, and watered down in the process. Powers’s original take on that mythology was refreshing then and it’s even more refreshing now. In his universe, nephilim are fundamentally inhuman creatures; they are life forms based on silicon rather than carbon, and they are vampiric, seductive, and violently possessive of those humans they consider “theirs.”
The slotting of the nephilim mythos into the real history is brilliantly done. It makes such perfect sense out of weird things that really happened, that it almost makes you wonder whether it could have been possible. Powers even incorporates Queen Boadicea in a really clever way. The quirks of London are worked into the mythos as well; one great example is how the “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clemens” rhyme is associated with occult lore in the novel. And the imagery is vivid and superbly written, immersing the reader in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city.
I mentioned above that I’m not sure whether it’s Powers who’s changed, or if it’s just me. I’d probably have to embark on a reread of The Stress of Her Regard to be sure. In my early twenties I had much more patience for books that were intensely atmospheric, but slow. For much of the middle stretch of Hide Me Among the Graves, it feels slow, and too long, and bogged down in its details. This is especially true when the poets are at center stage; at times these characters seem to be going in circles. It fits the real facts of their troubled lives, it works as a metaphor for artistic madness or for addiction, and it illustrates the dangers of the nephilim, but it can still be frustrating for a reader. I found that my interest flagged when the poets came to the fore and perked back up whenever Crawford had the point of view.
Hide Me Among the Graves picks up momentum again in the later stretches, probably in large part because the plight of Crawford and McKee becomes more prominent, and these two are characters that readers will connect and sympathize with. We learn what the vampires’ ultimate plan is, and it’s one with horrifying ramifications for these two (and for another character who’d be spoilery to mention). The course of their unusual relationship tugs at the emotions as well, as does a beautiful scene — somehow sad and eerie and uplifting all at once — that will touch the heart of any pet lover who has lost some of these dear companions. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Edward Trelawny, a septuagenarian author who is utterly badass here, and who speaks almost all of the few humorous lines in Hide Me Among the Graves.
While Hide Me Among the Graves doesn’t quite live up to the (admittedly stratospheric) hopes I had for it, I’d recommend it for anyone who is interested in “secret history” fantasy or Victorian London or the Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists. It sags some in the middle, but Powers’s clever mingling of real history with secret supernatural goings-on makes it well worth reading.
Hide Me Among the Graves is Tim Power’s sequel, twenty-five years later, to The Stress of her Regard. I liked it better than its predecessor, but some of the same problems plagued this otherwise interesting read.
Instead of wandering all over Europe, Hide Me Among the Graves sticks pretty close to 1860s London, following the fortunes of a widowed veterinarian, John Crawford, and the artistic, poetic and strange Rossetti family, particularly Christina and her brother Gabriel Dante. Those pesky ageless vampiric creatures, the nephalim, are back to stir up trouble, and this time one of them wants to create an earth tremor that will destroy London.
When Christina Rossetti was fourteen, her father tricked her into awakening one of the nephalim, who took the shape of Christina’s uncle John Polidori. Polidori committed suicide when he was released from Lord Byron’s service, but pledged himself to the nephalim, and he functions here mostly as a traditional vampire figure. Both Christina and Dante, the two “artistic” siblings, reap the questionable benefits of a nephalim “muse.” Their work is considered exceptional and inspired. In Dante’s case, the cost is high, as the possessing “muse” lures his troubled wife, Lizzie Siddal, into taking a laudanum overdose.
Meanwhile, a former prostitute named Adelaide McKee approaches the widowed and alcoholic John Crawford. McKee reminds him of a previous encounter, when they both were pursued by a nephalim. McKee says that in the aftermath of that event, she bore Crawford’s child. She thought their daughter was dead, but has discovered she is not. The girl is a mortal, but under the control of Polidori and the nephalim that wants to destroy London. Crawford and McKee join forces with the Rossettis to try to fend off the supernatural creatures.
There is some great imagination and lovely writing at work here. McKee and Crawford venture into a subterranean London that is a place of nightmares and strange beauty. Rossetti goes to a hidden beach to converse with the ghost of her father, and that sequence is shivery and powerful. From luxurious salons, to dream landscapes, to underground London, the book is filled with wild, fevered images that work very well. In two parts of the book, John Crawford is assisted by the ghosts of animals he cared for. It was interesting to me that those two scenes carried more emotion than any particular interaction between the human characters.
While Rossetti, like Mary Shelley, is robbed of agency in this story, she is at least in good company this time; like Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Shelley before her, she writes much better when she has surrendered herself to the “muse.” In spite of this, she keeps fighting off the influence and trying to stop the nepahlim.
The thing about the nephalim, though, is that they’re like blue jays at a bird-feeder. No matter what you do, they keep coming back. In this case, they seem to come back about every seven to ten years. This is because Hide Me Among the Graves follows the same “secret history” structure of the first book, and the characters must wait for a time when a documented event happened in the lives of the historical characters before they can move forward. Because the scope of this book is narrower, there is a bit less of this, but these awkward leaps in time are still disconcerting.
Powers makes excellent use, though, of Dante Rossetti’s selfish disinterment of his wife, eight years after he buried her. In real life, Rossetti had buried a notebook of his original poems with Lizzie as a token of his love. Then eight years later he dug her up to retrieve them, so he could publish those poems next to the set of poems for his new love. Powers, of course, makes this all about the nephalim and a possible way to stop them.
The book suffers in other ways though. There’s that strange lack of emotional resonance with the characters. When Crawford is trapped underground, he is suddenly overwhelmed with fear. Equally suddenly, he seems to put away his fear and moves on with no aftereffects. Is that courage? Faith? Some external mystical force? It is never explained.
Edward Trelawny (also an historical character) is the most interesting character in the book. He is a thinking man but also a man of action, and he drives most of the action scenes. This is all to the good. Another outstanding moment in the book comes with William Rossetti, the brother who took a job at Inland Revenue, and was an editor and curator of other poets’ work, rather than a poet himself. Watching him wrestle with the temptation the nephalim offers him (his own poetry, more radiant, compressed, elegant and powerful than anything either sibling has written) is suspenseful and sad.
Once again, most of the action takes place in the last fifty pages or so, and then everything happens so fast that we hear about some scenes that took place off the page while the characters are on the run. This created a credibility problem for me. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to believe that the story I was hearing really took place.
Hide Me Among the Graves is a more tightly plotted work than The Stress of Her Regard. While that book seemed very clearly about the connection between creativity and addiction (with the nephalim as an addicting agent), Hide Me Among the Graves seems to be, ultimately, about family. The nephalim follow families – for example, the Polidori/Rossetti connection. John’s parents were the main characters in The Stress of Her Regard, and when Hide Me Among the Graves opens, he is still mourning the loss of his wife and children in a ferry accident. Before too long we discover that his oldest son has been turned into a vampire, and in underground London, Crawford is sure he hears the voice of his dead wife. Is his loyalty to Adelaide and their daughter, or to the dead?
Powers always has an unusual story and an imaginative take on things, and Hide Me Among the Graves is a good example of how strangely and elaborately his mind works. I don’t believe that Christina Rossetti needed a supernatural “coach” to write a poem like “The Goblin Market,” but I was happy to go along for the ride while she, her siblings and their friends tried to save London.