THE STRESS OF HER REGARD by Tim Powers (Book Review)
“Byron nodded. ‘These creatures aren’t especially good visually, but they are purely matches in a powder keg when it comes to language. I wonder how many of the world’s great writers have owed their gift to the … ultimately disastrous attentions of the nephelim.’ His laughter was light and sarcastic. ‘And I wonder how many of them would have freed themselves, if they could have.’”
Tim Powers is known for his secret history novels, books that follow recorded history but then find space in the unknown and unrecorded aspects of the pass for the supernatural and the fantastical to encroach. The Stress Of Her Regard (1989) remains my favourite of his novels. Set in the early nineteenth century and featuring Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Keats as major characters, the novel reimagines the Romantic poets as prey to the lamiae, vampiric silicon-based lifeforms half-woman and half-snake, who have shared the Earth with humans since pre-Biblical times. Powers expertly draws on the lives of the Romantic poets and the imagery of their poetry to create a rich gothic masterpiece.
Michael Crawford is an English physician, who during the night before his wedding leaves his wedding ring on the finger of a statue in the garden of the inn, thus accidentally marrying himself to a lamia. Following his wedding night to the woman he was supposed to marry he wakes up to find her brutally murdered and must flee to the continent. Across his journey, he meets John Keats, François Villon, and winds up joining forces with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, all of whom are fellow victims of the lamiae. All the while he is hounded by the creature he married, and Josephine, the sister of his deceased wife, bent on vengeance. Crawford and the poets’ attempts to free themselves from the deadly attentions of the lamiae will see them become involved in a huge conspiracy involving the Graeae and the revolutionary Italian secret society the Carbonari.
Powers’ novel takes the turbulent lives of the Romantic poets and uses it as raw material to construct an elaborate Fantasy. This grounding in the vividly realised historical detail, from Byron and the Shelley’s stay at Villa Diodati which led to the writing of Frankenstein, to Percy Shelley’s mysterious death, makes the fantastical elements weirdly believable, whilst defamiliarizing the recorded history, making the weirdness and wonderfulness of the past magical and strange again. The life of Keats, Byron and the Shelleys was semi-mythologised at the time, providing Powers with ample material. Powers convincingly inhabits his real life characters, treating them with appropriate respect whilst being unafraid to point out their foibles. His strong characterisation extends to the fully fictional characters. Michael and Josephine’s struggles with grief and their eventual reconciliation is moving and earned, and Powers refuses to let his characters off easily.
The novel also engages with the major themes and ideas of the poetry of the Romantics. In particular, Keats’ Lamia (1820) and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) provide much of the inspiration for the lamiae and the terrible price those who are bound to them must pay. The lamiae are fascinatingly imagined; Powers combines elements from vampire, djinn, Ancient Greek mythology and Biblical apocrypha to make a supernatural menace that the novel hints can be understood in science fictional terms. They are as much Muses as they are vampires, responsible for the Romantics’ extraordinary poetical gifts. They also behave like succubae, sexually draining their victims, who become addicted to their attentions. And of course there are people who fetishize their attentions, in a circle of destructive addiction. Powers’ depiction of a creature who has entered an ancient parasitic relationship with humanity is disturbing in the extreme, especially given the care he takes to weave it believably into recorded history.
As well as explaining all the bizarre aspects of the Romantics’ lives – why did Mary Shelley keep Percy’s burned heart after his death? How did Byron become involved with the Carbonari? – the novel uses its fantastical aspects to engage with a core preoccupation of Romanticism, the struggle to keep alive some sense of magic and wonderment in a world increasingly described by rationalist science. The Graeae, sisters of the Gorgon and lamiae who are brought to Venice in their stone forms as pillars in the Piazza San Marco, create a field of predetermination with their vision, but when their single eye is stolen, their gaze creates a field of expanded possibilities. Byron and Shelley’s plan to free themselves from the lamiae involves stealing the eye so they can create this field of expanded possibilities and win back their agency. Thus the gaze of the lamia represents the reduction of possibilities in a world ruled by cold rationalism, but can be subverted to create an area in which uncertainty and potentiality can thrive. It is this struggle, between the urge towards rationalism and the urge towards Fantasy, that is at the heart of the novel.