Book Review: Hide Me Among the Graves / Author: Tim Powers / Publisher: Corvus / Release Date: September 1st
Since the publication of his epic time-travel story The Anubis Gates in 1983, Tim Powers has been celebrated for crafting big, bold historical fantasies. His latest runs true to this form – it's a massive, draughty Gothic cathedral of a novel that mixes real life literary figures with ancient demons, subterranean magic and all manner of sooty, foggy goings-on.
The action, spread over several decades in the middle of the 19th century, revolves around poetess Christina Rossetti, who, as a teenager, accidentally awakens her vampire uncle, John Polidori. Sub-plots proliferate as others are drawn into Polidori's morbid sphere of influence, including a melancholy, cat-loving vet, a reformed prostitute and Christina's brother, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose model-turned-wife Lizzie is one of the bloodsucker's victims.
Christina makes for a wonderfully resourceful and self-possessed heroine, despite the fact that she is at best ambivalent about her uncle – sickened by him, certainly, but also reluctant to sever all ties with what she perceives as the inspiration behind her writing. Playing Van Helsing to her Mina is Edward John Trelawny, a scar-faced ex-pirate and one-time friend of Lord Byron, who, even in his seventies, is a dab hand at gunplay. And for comic relief there's the dissolute poet Algernon Swinburne, whose love of kink and debauchery makes him an ideal recruit to the vampire's cause.
You don't have to know anything about any of these historical personages beforehand to enjoy the novel, as Powers very much makes them his own and introduces them all in a detailed, leisurely fashion. Throughout, the depth of research is astonishing. Subtly changing over the course of the story, London emerges with a remarkably three-dimensional solidity. In contrast, Polidori is spectral and mysterious, rarely showing his true face and choosing instead to appear in guises that will be especially harrowing to the onlooker, past lovers or figments from nightmares.
In addition, Powers conjures up all kinds of strange but convincing occult lore, such as the notion that ghosts are attracted to water and the creatures that live in it, turning the Thames into a repository for the deceased – an idea that leads to a brilliant set-piece where Christina goes down to the river and encounters her dead father in the form of a grotesque, gasping flat-fish. There are also several flesh-creeping descents into the capital's ancient sewers, the abode of seers, ghouls and stinging moths. The last section is a little disappointing – the characters seem to spend a great deal of time chasing, or being chased by, shadows, only for everything then to be wrapped up in an overly neat denouement. But you still come away awed by Powers' narrative verve and phantasmagorical imagination.