No one writes historical fantasy quite like Tim Powers. A typical Powers novel — if anything the man writes can be called typical — combines supernatural melodrama with scrupulous research, seamlessly intertwining the real and the fantastic. Using this approach, Powers has examined the lives and times of such diverse figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“The Anubis Gates”), Bugsy Siegel (“Last Call”) and notorious British double agent Kim Philby (“Declare”). In the process, he has produced some of the most memorable imaginative fiction of recent decades.
“Hide Me Among the Graves,” the first Powers novel in more than five years, returns to the scenes and themes of one of his very best books, “The Stress of Her Regard” (1989). The central figure in that earlier work was Michael Crawford, a medical student who succumbed to the influence of a female vampire. This chance event resulted in the murder of his wife and brought him into the orbit of the romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats, each of whom had been touched in some way by the same vampire.
“Hide Me Among the Graves” takes place a generation later and features John Crawford, Michael’s son, a young veterinarian who appears to have inherited the family curse. In an eerie series of parallel occurrences, John endures domestic tragedies and finds himself involved with a later group of influential — and haunted — 19th-century poets: the Pre-Raphaelites. Chief among these is Christina Rossetti, her brother Dante Gabriel and Algernon Swinburne.
The narrative begins with a crucial prologue set in 1845, when the adolescent Christina uses her blood to animate a statue containing the dormant essence of her late uncle, John Polidori, a real-life figure best known today for his seminal short story “The Vampyre.” Although Christina’s actions are essentially innocent, the consequences are disastrous and reverberate throughout the novel.
The story then jumps ahead to 1862, when a reformed prostitute named Adelaide McKee knocks on the door of John Crawford’s surgery. Although he doesn’t recognize her immediately, the two have a complicated history. Seven years before, Crawford lost his wife and two sons in a bizarre accident. On the night following their deaths, he encountered Adelaide on a bridge over the Thames, where they barely survived an attack by the entity they eventually identified as John Polidori’s vampiric spirit. Their evening ended with a sexual encounter, after which they went their separate ways. Years later, she tells Crawford that the two of them have a daughter. And that daughter, Johanna, has come to the attention of the undead Polidori, who has very big plans for her.
Most of the ensuing narrative, which spans more than 20 years, concerns the ongoing attempts to rescue Johanna and to find a permanent solution to the problem of Polidori. But the scope of the drama gradually widens with the advent of a second vampire, an ancient creature named Boadicea, whose roots go back to the Roman Empire. Boadicea plans to join her bloodline with Polidori’s to create a force capable of threatening the stability of London itself. Thanks to Powers’s command of these various elements, the novel’s personal and apocalyptic concerns proceed in perfect equilibrium.
In the battle that follows, Crawford and Adelaide form the dual heart of a loosely knit coalition of real and invented characters. Joining them are assorted members of the Rossetti clan, among them the siblings William and Maria, along with the aging, colorful Edward John Trelawny, adventurer, contemporary and compatriot of Byron and Shelley, and a living bridge between the realms of the human and the Nephilim. (A significant piece of Trelawny’s back story can be found in the novella “A Time to Cast Away Stones,” which appears in Powers’s recent collection “The Bible Repairman.”)
Powers holds this complex enterprise together with wit and unflagging ingenuity. He has, over the years, become an increasingly effective stylist, and his language is consistently evocative and precise. He delivers a wonderfully detailed portrait of two very different cities: the “real” London with its slums, salons, poverty and grandeur, and an alternate London, a subterranean realm where secret, unrecorded histories take place. He also has an uncanny ability to preface his chapters with epigraphs — mostly from the Rossettis — that seem to echo and comment on the events described within. Finally, he has a knack for creating arcane, oddly plausible rituals that permeate the narrative. These rituals — rites of protection, rules for communicating with the dead and the undead — might seem contrived or even silly to an unsympathetic reader, but they are ultimately quite effective, imposing a quasi-scientific logic on the most extravagant imaginative flights. The result of all this is entertainment of a very high order, a seductive account of love, art and supernatural terror that only Tim Powers could have written.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”