One aspect of the Romantic period of English literature that I’ve always found fascinating is the fact that the three greatest of poets of the period (Byron, Shelley, and Keats) not only changed the face of literature together but actually interacted with each other and seemed to draw inspiration from the same wells of creativity. All died too young (though Byron outlived them all) and all left an indelible mark on the world. For me they were the rock stars of their day. But what if the great poets truly did draw inspiration from the same place? What if that place was dark and full of teeth and stone and extracted a blood-price for its influence? This is the starting point of Tim Powers’ historical fantasy The Stress of Her Regard.
The novel is an interesting mix of gothic horror, science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. The story is told mostly through the eyes of Michael Crawford (later, due to necessity, Aickman), an English doctor who has lost both his brother and his first wife to dreadful accidents. The day after his wedding to his second wife, Julia, he awakes to find her horribly murdered in their marriage bed and he has no memory of what happened. Accused of the crime he runs from both the law and from Julia’s deranged twin sister Josephine who relentlessly hunts him. In his travels he encounters Keats and later becomes entwined in the lives of Byron and Shelley. All of these men, including Crawford, have drawn the attention of the primeval creatures known as the nephilim. The attention of these jealous creatures imbues their victims with wondrous dreams and imaginings but also extracts a price of their blood, vitality, and the lives of those they love.
The nephilim serve as a unified field theory of folklore and legends. They are a strange, ancient race that can assume many forms. They are the muses, the sirens, the vampires, the lamiae, the succubae; all of the creatures that lurk in the darkness of the minds of men (and primarily men in this novel) spring from the nephilim. Powers does an excellent job of combining myths and, even more, creating a race that is utterly alien. Their agenda and their jealousy do much evil, but are they wholly evil or simply motivated by desires that lay outside the understanding of human beings? There is no need to answer this question; it is enough that their attentions do men much harm and that the connection between them and humankind must be severed. It is to this end that Crawford eventually devotes himself and it is this quest that forms the climax of the novel.
I also found it interesting that Powers had so much fodder to play with in the actual biographies of the poets. The author expertly inserts the story of the nephilim over their actual lives seamlessly. In many cases, the truth is as strange as the fiction. For example, after Shelley’s death, his body was cremated and his friends kept relics of the remains. For the plot of the novel, Byron and Crawford need to keep his heart. This relic is later given to Mary Shelley. In actuality Mary Shelley did indeed keep her late husband’s heart with her after his death. Powers also draws an excellent character in Byron; an aristocratic man with much bluster and a tempestuous personality but with a core of decency and honor. I really felt drawn to him more than to Crawford; I’m sure many people were eclipsed by the larger-than-life poet in his day. The text is also enhanced with quotations from various works by the poets and from correspondence that add a nice verisimilitude to the tale.
There are passages in the novel that were difficult to follow. Much of the explanation behind the Graiae and the mechanics of how their shared eye functioned simply eluded me. I would probably need to return to the book some time and re-read it to see exactly what was going on. The situation reminded me of reading The Hunt for Red October: I don’t know anything about the mechanics of a submarine and didn’t understand the explanations but took it on faith that the mechanics were sound and thus were the characters’ motivations resulting from them. Powers built such a strong scaffold on which to hang my disbelief that it withstood my lack of understanding.
Incorporating actual history into speculative fiction is a tricky business, best not left to amateurs. Powers is clearly no amateur and this tour-de-force novel is the evidence.