Fifty Page Fridays is a regular feature here at Far Beyond Reality, meant to highlight books I usually wouldn’t cover in a regular review. In each post, I start off by explaining why I wasn’t planning to review the book. Then I’ll read fifty pages (hence the name) and give my honest impression of that sample. Finally, I’ll give a verdict: do I want to read more or not?
This week’s installment of Fifty Page Fridays is about Hide Me Among the Graves, the newest novel by Tim Powers.
Why I wasn’t planning to review it: Simply put, Tim Powers is an author I’ve admired more than enjoyed over the years. I’ve read a few of his novels, and they always left me feeling like the problem lies with me rather than with the novel – which is an odd feeling to have. This may be similar to what some of my friends who have tried to read Gene Wolfe’s novels experienced. In my opinion, Gene Wolfe is a genius and one of the best writers of our age, but many of the people I’ve recommended him to just can’t seem to get into his books. They often say they admire what he’s doing but just don’t enjoy reading it. This is more or less exactly how I feel about Powers. Obviously an amazing talent. Extremely original, to the point where he’s almost in a genre of his own. I just can’t seem to get into his books, and I have trouble putting my finger on the reason. So, when I saw Tim Powers’ new novel Hide Me Among the Graves, I decided to grab me a copy and once and for all figure it out.
My thoughts after fifty pages: Well, first of all, I read about 200 pages of the 500 or so in my advance reading copy, considerably more than my usual fifty page sample. And guess what? Maybe I’ve changed as a reader, or maybe Powers has changed as a writer, but I actually enjoyed this considerably more than I expected. The story is set in 19th century London and involves poets, painters, vampiric ghosts, veterinarians, prostitutes, and the undead ghost of John Polidori, the erstwhile physician of Lord Byron whose brother immigrated from Italy to London and brought along a statuette containing his brother’s unrestful spirit. Polidori’s niece unwittingly brings the spirit back into our realm, setting off a complex plot told from various points of view. The prose is simply exquisite, and even the fictional poetry, written by the characters, is often great. The characters are, for the most part, so solid and fascinating that it’s at times annoying when the perspective switches away from one. The plot is amazingly well-constructed, one of those stories that gradually widens the scope from what initially seems to be a small family drama with a supernatural edge to something that goes back centuries and covers much more territory than you’d initially expect. Just these first 200 pages contain a few scenes that are simply unforgettable. I’m not sure if this comparison has been made before or not, but a few of the set pieces here reminded me of something David Lynch might create, if he ever decides to film a 19th century ghost story.
The Verdict: Am I planning to read more of this? Well… no. Not right now, at least. Main reason: this is apparently a sequel of sorts to one of Tim Powers’ previous novels, The Stress of her Regard. Hide Me Among the Graves features some of the same concepts as that novel (e.g. the Nephilim), as well as at least one shared character (Trelawney). There may be more – I’m basing this on a few reviews I glanced over, trying to spot connections without catching spoilers. I believe Hide Me Among the Graves may work as a standalone if you haven’t read The Stress of her Regard yet, but once I discovered the connections between the two books I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t getting the whole picture. Based on what I’ve read of the new novel, I plan to go back and read some of Tim Powers’ previous works, including The Stress of her Regard, but for now I’m putting Hide Me Among the Graves on the “did not finish” shelf.
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What you haven’t picked up about Tim Powers is that he thoroughly researches the historical characters in his books, and then uses the actual known details of their lives. The fantastical parts of the story are woven around and through the accurate historical record (and are inspired by it). For example, what Gabriel does with his poems on page 199 is historically correct, as is the startling thing that later happens as a result later in the book. The poetry quoted in the book is not fictional – these are excerpted from their actual poems.
No, I did get that many of the characters’ details are historically accurate – it’s hard to miss in some of his books if you have any familiarity with the time period. But you’re absolutely right: I wasn’t aware that the poetry in this novel is not fictional. (I guess if I’d read a finished copy there would have been acknowledgements, but I don’t think that was the case in the early ARC I read.) Thanks for commenting.
Here’s a section of an interview where Tim Powerrs explains how slavish he is to the history:
JB: So is the methodology of putting something like that together a matter of you piecing together a historical skeleton of the period? Of the lives of the people you’re writing about and using as characters, the actual historical figures – and then you’re wrapping a fiction around it – fleshing it?
TP: Right. I’m trying to put a secret motivation behind their overt, and in effect, actual, motivations. Like with The Stress of Her Regard, the period when Byron and Shelley were in Italy is very well recorded and so I was able to put together calendars – giant oversized calendars where every day is a foot by a foot – and I was able to write in ink all the events that history simply insists did occur. And I had a lot of sources – Byron’s letters, Trelawny’s journals, Shelley sources. I was even given actual conversations they had. Shelley wrote a long poem called Julian and Maddalo which is a long account of a conversation he has with Byron in Venice. And so I not only had to adhere absolutely to the events and travels and times of day that history stuck me with, but I was also stuck with actual conversations which I couldn’t leave out. So I had to look at the conversations and then say “In what way was this actually a reference to my secret supernatural business? They appear to be talking about this, but in what way can I make it be the case that ‘oh, as any fool can plainly see, they were actually talking about this magical junk!'” and it was kind of fun. In a number of cases I was able to put together the secret motivation behind some really well documented conversation between Byron and Shelley.
JB: That’s quite a task for a novelist to set himself. You are married to these conversations.
TP: Yes. I took it as a rule that they were set in stone. I was not at liberty to change the calendar or the actual history at all. I mean there may be some bits of history that I didn’t get to which I contradicted, but I never knowingly changed anything or left anything out.
JB: What’s your fascination with that period of history?
TP: Oh mainly just the people. I’ve always been fascinated with Byron. Just absolutely one of the dead people I wish I could have met. And he’s one of those people – like Hemingway – whose life is almost more fascinating than his work, and like Hemingway he’s very well documented – in fact more! There’s no books of collected conversations of Ernest Hemingway, but there are books like that about Byron. His journals are so fascinating and letters. He wrote letters the way we make phone calls if we’re not totally sober! So I very much just wanted to use this character, get to play with him.
And then, good lord, there they were – climbing through the Alps, drunk by ten in the morning , you know – their children are dying right and left – you just sort of think if you can’t cook a story to fit into this, you should get a job! Ha!!
JB: What about the Lamia – the female vampyre legend? A number of people have asked me about the source for that. They know of the legend itself, but how did you find out more about that, where did you go to feed your knowledge of them?
TP: Well, where I came up with it… it was never my choice. When Shelley’s body washed up off the west shore of Italy there, he had apparently deliberately died. He set out into a storm when everybody said you’d better not – and he couldn’t even swim! And then when his body washed up, his face and hands had been stripped to the bone. The explanation is “Fish ate it!” and I thought “Oh? I bet fish ate it!!” and also when they picked up his body to carry it to the pyre it just fell to bits. I thought “Well now, what? Fish took him apart and put him back together inside his clothes again?” But in his pocket was a copy of Keats’ poems folded open to the poem Lamia and I though “Well, ’nuff said. I don’t need a bigger hint than that! Thanks!”
That’s fascinating. I really do hope to get back to this novel, once I’ve read The Stress of Her Regard.