I didn’t know going in that this was the sequel to Powers’ 1989 novel The Stress of Her Regard, following a new generation of characters fighting the same evil as in that first story, but I wasn’t at a disadvantage and this book reads fine as a stand-alone. (That said, I obviously have to read the first book now because it would be wrong not to).
This was and is a perfect October read. Powers writes a deeply atmospheric tale of artists, poets and vampires, set in a London that you can taste, smell and feel. He takes the unusual lives of the Rossetti siblings and their circle and weaves the supernatural around and through the facts so cleverly that I want his version of things to be true. Christina’s breakdown at the age of fourteen, Dante’s nickname of “Guggums” for his wife Lizzie, the oddity that was Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Rossetti’s possession of a piece of Shelley’s jawbone, Lizzie Siddall’s death and her husband’s later exhumation of her coffin all make so much more sense from Powers’ point of view.
If I have one criticism to make (before I go on to gush about everything I loved about this novel), it’s that weaving a story around real-life characters does restrict Powers a little in places. I say this mostly because I was very excited to read about a vampire-enthralled Christina Rossetti and instead found her to be a lot less interesting than I was expecting…
…Adelaide McKee and John Crawford (and later, Johanna) eclipsed her and everyone else with their absolute awesomeness. Christina is a pale shadow next to Adelaide, Dante Gabriel is all kinds of boring next to Crawford, and even the adventurer Trelawny can’t beat the irrepressible Johanna. This little, broken family was, for me at least, at the very heart of this story (and its moral compass) and I was rooting for their eventual happiness every step of the way.
The odds against which are stacked inordinately high. Powers’ vampires are sometimes phantoms and sometimes strange, alien creatures. They can take on the form of dead loved ones, they use grief and inspiration to seduce and once they have someone in their grasp, they both intoxicate and strangle them with their jealous desire. These are not pretty teenage vamps with a fashion sense and a certain sparkle, instead they are truly something out of a nightmare.
Crawford and McKee meet by chance one night when attacked by … something. Their accidental association results in a child and when that child’s soul appears to be under threat, McKee seeks Crawford out again. Their attempts to save their daughter drive the story and bring them into contact with the Rossetti family and their friends again and again in a circular fashion. At the same time, the London that McKee reveals to Crawford and the reader is so fantastically detailed it’s almost another character. The city is infused with the supernatural: the River Thames hosts the ghosts of the newly dead, and mudlarks are attuned to the movements of the Polidori vampire and “the other big one”; crossing sweeps can hide you from supernatural entities for a time, and songbird sellers can commune with the unwilling dead; while the old sewers and Roman ruins beneath the streets are a haunted maze in which one can be both lost and found.
And being found, or rather, redeemed, is an important motivational force for almost every character in the book. Each of them struggles with their own sins and flaws and questions the eventual fate of their soul. In this, Christina’s battle is certainly one of the most interesting, with her very real fears of damnation for having tied herself to the hellish Polidori in direct conflict with her need and desire for the creative inspiration he provides and a troubling lust for the creature itself. Meanwhile, Crawford suffers survivor’s guilt after the death of his wife and two sons, Adelaide is driven to save her daughter and thus atone for her life as a prostitute, Dante struggles with Lizzie’s suicide, and Trelawny, sinner extraordinaire, looks to do some sort of penance for the “many” he has killed, although always on his terms.
This book is a deep, deep red and smoky grey. The story smells of freshly turned earth and mushrooms and tastes like the bitterest chocolate. It’s wonderfully populated by the ghosts of cats and horses, ranged against the terrifying Mouth Boy and the unborn boy with wasps for eyes. It’s a book in which automatic writing, seances and shoes that hide men from God are real, working solutions to problems and in which rescue comes from the most unlikely sources, from a devout old suitor, maybe, or a bottled sea mouse. It’s a book that should be on your tbr pile.
An interesting thing: John Polidori, the Rossetti’s uncle, was the real-life author of the 1819 short story “The Vampyre”, which along with Bram Stoker’s Dracula is seen as a work that established vampire lore.
An even more interesting thing: Powers mentions the poet William Ashbless briefly in Hide Me Among the Graves. As Ashbless was one of the main characters in The Anubis Gates it gave me a little thrill to see his name again and also made me curious. Upon Googling said poet, I found out that Ashbless was a creation of James Blaylock and Powers during their college years. Both authors went on to include him in their books (he has a bit-part in Blaylock’s The Digging Leviathan), without knowing the other had done so. There’s a cool wiki article here if anyone’s interested. For what it’s worth, I think this is hella cool!