A new Tim Powers novel is always a cause for celebration in this small part of the universe. I’ve been a fan ever since I read The Anubis Gates all those many years ago. Powers is, I suspect, something of an acquired taste. His books are not thrill-a-minute adventures, often most of the characters in them are damaged in some way; but they are always thoughtful and beautifully written.
The new book, Hide Me Among The Graves, tells a story of the Rossetti family, who provided two leading figures of the London art scene in the late 19th Century. Gabriel Rossetti was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He is particularly noted for his striking portraits of voluptuous redheads, which rather endears him to those of us who qualify at least in part for that description. One of his best known paintings was used as the cover of Liz Hand’s novel, Mortal Love. His sister Christina was a poet. Her most celebrated work is Goblin Market, but the work of hers you are most likely to know is the magnificent Christmas carol, “In The Bleak Midwinter” (for which Gustav Holst provided the best known arrangement). The pair were close friends with the decadent poet, Algernon Swinburne, who was notorious for his alcoholism and masochistic fetishism (though Wilde apparently claimed that Swinburne was all talk and no action).
As Powers has been explaining in multiple interviews, the germ of the book came to him when he discovered that Rossetti had buried a handwritten volume of his poetry with his wife, Lizzie, after she killed herself with a laudanum overdose (laudanum is a mixture of opium and alcohol that was highly popular at the time). Some years later Rossetti dug the coffin up to retrieve the book. The official excuse was that he had an offer of publication and this was the only copy of the poems he had, but what if, Powers thought, there had been another motive. Then he discovered that the Rossettis had an uncle, John Polidori, who had been Byron’s physician. Powers had turned him into a vampire in a previous novel, The Stress of Her Regard. Suddenly it all made sense.
There are three things in particular that I love about this book. The first is the presentation of the Rossetti family and their acquaintances as believable, if somewhat desperately arty, people caught up in horrible circumstances. In addition to Gabriel and Christina we meet their resourceful but deeply religious sister, Maria, and their practical and boring civil servant brother, William. Powers also introduces a vet, John Crawford, and a reformed prostitute, Adelaide McKee. Their child gets kidnapped by the vampires. The couple act as our (relatively) sane and sympathetic access point into the rather eccentric cast. Obviously there are vampires, and Algy Swinburne is just the sort of fellow to want to be in thrall to them, but Powers has a talent for making belief in magic seem, if not rational, then at least understandable, and that’s also admirable.
A lot of the magic in Hide Me Among The Graves will feel familiar to anyone who has read books like Last Call and Three Days to Never, but the mechanisms work even better in the 19th Century when the techniques Powers has his characters deploy really were regarded as rational. Here’s an example:
“It’s true,” Gabriel said. “We’ve held séances in this house.”
“Oh, William, Gabriel, no!” exclaimed Maria. “Consulting the dead!”
William smiled and leaned back. “It’s science, Maria! Possibly magnetism, as Christina said. I’ve been to a good twenty séances, here and elsewhere, and now I’m at least willing to concede the possibility that there is some sort of life after death.”
And remember that William is the boring, rational member of the family.
The final thing I really like is that Powers has done his research on 19th Century London. I particularly like the section late in the book in which we learn that you can no longer see the Thames from Gabriel’s old house, and the place where Christina communed with ghosts has been built over by the giant Victoria Embankment. You can almost feel the magic draining out of the city in the face of the assault from engineers.
Hide Me Among The Graves is not a fast-paced book. It can’t be, because it has to tell the tale of most of Christina Rossetti’s life. But it is a very fine book, and one that puts vampires back where they belong: alien, implacable, terrifying, and most definitely not sparkly.
Also I think this book would make a wonderful graphic novel.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository