Books to be Scene: Tim Powers' HIDE ME AMONG THE GRAVES
"Christina reached behind her and lifted the chalice from the wall top and handed it to Maria. "Rest in peace, Uncle John," said Maria softly as she poured the wine over the dirt. "Please."For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, like yer man Isaac Newton opined. Say someone writes a book or shoots a film that ends up wildly popular, and this work of fiction pushes its theme or setting so as to get mild-mannered adolescents (and a good number of the older generation) as frenzied with excitement as a shoal of sharks in a spreading cloud of chum. Sooner or later, along come the other authors or directors promising to do things differently seemingly because being contrary for its own sake is cool. The frustrating thing is so many of these young turks sticking it to the man simply ignore everything people like about the competition because hey, it's not like they've got anything to learn, right?
...Christina glanced up quickly, for a deeper shadow had seemed to fall across them from only a yard away - and then it was gone, and the grass was rippling in waves away from the raw mound.
Christina was reminded of having once at twilight walked through a field of tall grass and disturbed sleeping birds, who darted short distances away without appearing about the grass tops, so that her passage had seemed to cause ripples, as if she were wading through a pond instead of grass.
She thought she caught a whiff of the sea, or gunpowder, and the metallic scent of blood. There was no more sensation of clinging spiderwebs. "He's gone," she whispered, feeling empty."
I can think of a few things wrong with that theory -
Okay, so it's not exactly a universal constant, but I've got a good example, honest. Why is it the only possible reaction to Twilight seems to be to head as far in the other direction as possible? Stupid kids enjoy reading about vampire boyfriends who are, like, so hot and live forever and won't ever leave you? We'll show them! Our bloodsuckers are so hideous, deranged and feral Dracula would shit himself in fear, never mind Edward "psycho" Cullen! Yet while God knows there's plenty to mock about Stephenie Meyer's blockbuster franchise - the dodgy gender politics, the near-incompetent plotting - why is it so few (if any) films have actually tried to riff on how terrifyingly seductive an undead paramour would really be?
Enter Tim Powers, an American novelist who's been turning out brilliantly demented works of genre fiction for several decades now. While he's dabbled in sci-fi (and - half-jokingly - claims partial credit for coining the term "steampunk") most of Powers' best known works involve some kind of historical revisionism. Though this isn't playing fast and loose with the facts so much as coming up with new explanations for what actually happened. Powers' appeal comes from the way he matches a childlike, freewheeling sense of invention with an almost literary approach to planning and research along with seemingly effortless prose that's an absolute pleasure to read. It's like discovering your college professor writes fantasy comic-book mashups in his spare time.
The name rings a bell.
People who haven't read the man's books might still have heard of him in passing; his undead-pirates-and-voodoo novel On Stranger Tides (1987) was one inspiration behind the Monkey Island video games, and Disney bought the rights when the writers for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie decided there was no way they were going to be able to cover the same territory without treading on Powers' toes. But that film went full-tilt with bombastic CG spectacle over coherent plotting, and although to be fair this was the franchise hallmark by that point, there's far more to Powers' work than non-stop mayhem. He does have that element of barely-restrained crazy, a breathless rush of "And then this happened, and then this happened", but it's never the only pillar supporting his books.
Take his vampire novels. Powers concocted his own version of the myth with his sixth novel, The Stress of Her Regard (1989), where the Romantic poets - Byron, Shelley, Keats et al and their cheerful little circle - owe much of their genius to having struck terrible bargains with otherworldly things who accept blood and unquestioning loyalty in exchange for curing writer's block. Powers' vampires are ancient and terrible, mythic creatures connected to the Nephilim, an obscure race of demonic beings from Christian scripture. His vampires bond with lonely, troubled souls, but despite the fringe benefits they're obsessively devoted to the people they're paired up with, ready to kill anyone - messily - who looks like competing for their affections.
But what's the book you're specifically waving around?
The sequel Hide Me Among the Graves jumps forward several decades to a time where the main characters from The Stress of Her Regard had a son, though he's retained little more than fairly dim memories of the lessons his parents passed on about things that go bump in the night. The itch at the back of his mind still saves him when he runs into a woman from his past who's drawn the attention of a particular dark presence, one that's bound this time to the poet Christina Rossetti and her artistically gifted siblings. The Stress of Her Regard is still a great book - even Powers' weaker writing is still a hell of an adventure - but Hide Me Among the Graves considerably tightens up its prequel's tendency to sprawl, turning into a masterful novel part character drama, part fantasy potboiler, part period thriller that fairly sweeps along.
But it's not just the editing or the set pieces that suggest Hide Me Among the Graves would make a great, great film, or the quality of Powers' writing; it's the refinements he makes to his vision of the children of the night as a hideous take on Dorian Gray. The veneer of moth-eaten elegance these things wear is a temptation, but it flickers like a reflection seen in a broken mirror; you can tell they're not remotely human, and the more desperate they get the more they revert to savage, animal forms. Yet this is never the cartoon splatter of 30 Days of Night or From Dusk 'til Dawn; even when they're reduced to feral howls and the look of waking nightmares, you're left in no doubt it would take something a lot more complex than heavy artillery to lay these things to rest.
So his Big Bads are freakier than anyone else's? Is that what's got you so excited?
It's not just the threat of the Other, but the lure of it - and the lure of surrendering to these things knowing clear as crystal that you're doing something mind-bogglingly stupid. All of Powers' cast have their own reasons for being tempted, and in Hide Me Among the Graves he manages to make the twisted dynamics between the vamp and their prey seem both horrifying and heavy with bitter, tragic pathos. A young girl makes one terrible decision and spends the rest of her life trying to undo the evil she's let loose - from so many other horror writers this would be a MacGuffin or throwaway personality trait but here it's a subplot that informs everything these people do, rather than just marking time until the screaming starts.
Powers' prose has something of a matinee sheen as it is, as if still drawing (consciously or otherwise) from the widescreen epics just passing out of view when he started writing. Hide Me Among the Graves is grim, and dank, and the atmosphere's alternately grimy or chill enough you could choke on it, but I'd call it more a Hollywood spin on period misery, like the Hughes brothers' much-maligned adaptation From Hell (I enjoyed it. Sue me!), or Sleepy Hollow Burton without the slapstick. There's also an element of silent horror in there - a good cinematographer could do amazing things for this with a minimal, almost monochrome colour palette as a nod to the tinting in these early films. Powers captures something of their sickly opium haze, too - the standout showdown is a terrifying rush of despairing, hallucinogenic imagery that fair scorches the subconscious. (Richard Stanley might like it, or the Dacaillon Brothers (Sodium Babies) if they've grown up a little.)
It does seem like it might make for some pretty pictures -
But more than anything else it would be such a shock to the system to have a vampire movie asserting that for once you don't have to go with smouldering glances and teenage fantasy or ultraviolence and comic book excess; you can have both. And more. Widescreen shots of 19th century London, homicidal muses preying on artsy types nursing severe emotional dependencies, mouldering corpse-children delivering elemental vengeance on good Christian folk, gunshots in the drawing room and a sweetly messy, wounded love affair. It's got need and longing plus subtle character progression plus rooftop chases at the end of the world. Hide Me Among the Graves is easily one of the best books released this year, and I can only dream of a director wanting to make a genre flick in such an established niche yet so wonderfully free to do whatever the hell it wants.
Tim Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves, published by William Morrow in the US and Corvus in Europe, is available now on Amazon in hardback, paperback and Kindle editions.
Images taken from the UK editions of Hide Me Among the Graves and the re-release of The Stress of Her Regard.
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