by Tim Powers
I'm doing Hide Me Among the Graves a disservice because I read it in March, shortly after it came out, and I didn't take any notes. Thing is, I didn't take any notes because that would have required pausing my reading, and about the only thing that made me pause my reading was falling asleep after staying up entirely too late. As I said about Sybil Baker's Into This World, if we had to winnow down criteria for what makes a good book, 3am reading would certainly be on that list. There was a lot of 3 am reading going on with Tim Power's book, especially since it's over 500 pages. The only excuse I have for taking as long as I have to review it is that my brain entered a particularly foggy period around that time, and while reading wasn't any trouble, writing about it was more difficult.
After I finished, I discovered that the book is not necessarily a standalone. Characters from Hide Me Among the Graves also appear in Powers' The Stress of Her Regard and the short story "A Journey of Only Two Paces." Some reviewers have wondered if it holds up without reading the other, and though I felt like it did, I wonder if it can be made even better if I read the related work. I'm assuming there are some undercurrents that I missed. That said, I really have no complaints.
Set in London in 1862, Hide Me Among the Graves concerns the Rossetti siblings, primarily poet Christina and artist Dante Gabriel, real people that Powers has appropriated for a supernatural story involving their uncle, English-Italian writer-doctor John Polidori. Instead of writing about vampires, Polidori is one in this story, and though he is "dead," his presence controls much of Christina and Gabriel's lives. He is their muse and provides much of their best work, but he does not take kindly to them having interest in anyone besides him. Gabriel's marriage is threatened when his wife seems to be mentally tormented, yet infatuated with Polidori, and this is only the latest interference.
Meanwhile, across town, veterinarian John Crawford receives an unexpected visit from Adelaide McKee, a former prostitute with whom he once had a relationship. They'd had a child together, and up until then, they had both believed the girl to be dead, but Adelaide has since received information to the contrary. Unfortunately, Polidori is interested in the child as well, and the two decide that they must stop him and figure out a way to be reunited with their daughter.
Because the Rossetti family is also at stake, Christina decides she must stop her uncle, even if it means giving up some of her poetic gifts. She receives some help from her siblings, but it is the family's connection to John and Adelaide that starts moving plans forward.
"Our father," said Gabriel, "had a little statue that he'd acquired in Italy. No bigger than your thumb. We always, even as children, knew it was alive."
"It wore the doomed soul of our uncle," Christina went on, "but it was one of the — a dormant, petrified, condensed member of the — well, you know the term that Gabriel would advise me not to say out loud here. The tribe that troubles us, the giants that were in the earth in those days."
The Nephilim, thought Crawford with a shudder.
Again, I don't know if I'm doing the book justice, or if the way I've described the plot sounds convoluted, but it's all terribly interesting and not at all what one might stereotypically find a "vampire" book to be. Polidori exists mainly in the shadows, along with many other souls of the dead, some friendly and some not.
Once again, I find myself stepping outside my literary comfort zone. Mainly, I said yes to this book because it was set in Victorian-age London, which I find interesting, and also because I was curious about the alternate history angle, what with the references to Byron (apparently he is in The Stress of Her Regard.) Horror/fantasy aren't my usual haunts (no pun intended), but Powers' writing so good and so compelling, I'm exceedingly glad that I picked it up.
A five-minute walk from the Sheerness station had taken him to a railed lane overlooking the shore, and since the sun had only a few minutes ago gone down over the Gravesend hills behind him, and the sky was still pale, he had stood there for a few minutes with the cold sea wind flapping the long black brim of his rubberized hat. A couple of distant figures trudged along the darkening expanse of sand before him, carrying a pole that might have been a mast or some fishing apparatus, and a man on horseback a hundred yards further away was trotting north along the band of darker damp sand by the gray fringe of surf. Off to his right, near the empty steamboat pier, Swinburne saw a long open shed with what looked like a row of a dozen gypsy wagons in it — and then he recognized these as bathing machines stowed away for the winter. Come June they would be wheeled out, and ladies in street clothes would climb in and pull the doors closed, and then the vehicles would be drawn by horses down the slope and a few yards out into the shallows, where the ladies, having changed into bathing suits, could open the seaside doors and step down to splash about in the water, unobserved from the shore. In spite of the purpose of his quest tonight, Swinburne had forlornly wished that one hardy lady or two might have braved the cold sea this evening; and that, if any had done it, he had brought a telescope.
One is so inside Powers' prose, that Victorian England feels full, and unlike the upper-crust period dramas, it is not centered around "proper" people. This isn't Bleak House. There are artists and screw-ups and the quietly religious, right alongside strange dog-like creatures, catacombs exploration, and a collection of street children referred to as "Mud Larks." Maybe it's reader-sacrilege to say, but Hide Me Among the Graves would make an excellent movie in the right hands.
Seek this one out.
Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.