There are many fans of vampire fiction who have never heard of Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard. Powers, like Stephen King (Salem’s Lot) and Suzy McKee Charnas (The Vampire Tapestry) is not a “vampire author.” His oeuvre is a style of fantasy known as “secret history.” Powers begins with real life people and events and weaves alternate versions of their “official” stories, suggesting unknown, and usually magical or occult, influences at work behind the recorded facts. Powers is one of the original authors whose style inspired the “steampunk” genre which has become so popular, and which naturally overlaps with a great deal of vampire fiction set in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
But Tim Powers’ work defies easy categorization, and in many ways fits the newly recognized realm of Instititial Arts: creative work that combines, transcends or falls between standardized genre definitions. The Stress of Her Regard (reissue edition 2008, Tachyon Publications) is fantasy, horror, literary fiction, historical fiction and vampire novel all at the same time. Originally published in 1989, at the beginning of a massive revival in vampire fiction, it’s unquestionably one of the most unusual vampire tales written in the last six decades.
This is a literary novel in the classic sense: long, leisurely, meticulously crafted, and full of allusions to literature and cultural motifs. The plot spans six years and multiple countries, although the story, altogether, forms a sweeping epic beginning at the dawn of time. Powers never drops big expository boulders on his readers’ heads, though–the complicated mystery of the lamia, or Nephelim, whose “regard” for their beloved victims is so destructive, unwinds bit by bit as the tale progresses. Readers will need to pay attention and keep a good memory for small details, because even the tiniest may be an important clue.
The story opens in 1816, introducing Powers’ alternate universe versions of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, John Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont. They’re in Switzerland on the lakeside summer get-away that so famously resulted in the penning of Frankenstein and “The Vampyre” by Mary Godwin and Polidori, respectively. However, it becomes apparent that Shelley’s greatest concerns aren’t literary. Twice he’s thrown into a panic by the appearance of a powerful, and evidently malign, phantom figure that resembles a woman. Shelley is being pursued by something very persistent, and he seems prepared to die rather than be overwhelmed by it.
We meet the book’s central protagonist, Dr. Michael Crawford, as he travels with several inebriated friends to his second wedding. Crawford, in his 30s, has a past marred by several deaths. Before long we have hints that the loss of his first wife in a fire occurred under suspicious circumstances, and that bitter memories are the least of the evils haunting her widower. When the wedding party stops at an inn, Crawford makes an unthinking mistake. He places his fiancée’s wedding ring on the finger of what he believes is a statue while he assists one of his friends. He loses the ring when the statue first changes position, then disappears. Like Victor in Tim Burton’s film The Corpse Bride, Crawford has unwittingly given Something Else reason to think he’s married to it.
The wedding takes place as planned, but the following morning, Crawford awakens next to the lifeless body of his bride Julia, who has been crushed to a pulp while Crawford slept. To avoid certain conviction for murder, Crawford flees. Disguising himself as a medical student in London, he meets John Keats. It’s Keats who explains the Nephelim, or lamia, to Crawford: an ancient race of vampires who attach themselves to selected individuals and jealously destroy their families and anyone else who might compete with the vampire for its loved one’s affections. The lamia’s feeding, through either blood-drinking or sex, conveys unearthly erotic euphoria. Keats introduces Crawford to the global underground network of lamia-addicts, or “Neffers” who will do anything to attract an encounter with a vampire. Like the slaves of Shambleau in C.L. Moore’s short story, the Neffers are recognizable and despised, but they’re also a tight community, like an organized secret society.
The Nephelim are able to bestow artistic inspiration on their chosen partners, and it turns out that all of the Romantic poets in The Stress of Her Regard are their reluctant bridegrooms. Crawford leaves England for the Continent, tracked relentlessly by Julia’s vengeful twin sister, Josephine. He encounters Shelley and Byron in Switzerland and all three embark on a long journey, together and independently, to escape the Nephelim. Over time, Crawford gradually learns the history of the Nephelim, why they have a physical nature of stone and metal, how they came to walk the modern world as part humans, and how they cause human dead to return as “undead” vampires. Crawford’s medical specialty, obstetrics, will turn out to be uniquely suited to resolving his situation. Byron, meanwhile, joins the Carbonari, a group that history claims was devoted to Italian nationalism, but which, in this story, has a hidden role as resisters of the Nephelim and their predation.
The Stress of Her Regard brilliantly twists fantasy together with historical fact, and many details that sound like horror fiction are actually true. The original characters of Crawford and Josephine, whose rejection of her own identity leaves her vulnerable to the wiles of the lamia, are strongly drawn, complex and memorable. Powers’ framing of a vast, mysterious conspiracy, with ancient supernatural powers, hidden riddles and secret societies, rivals anything written by Umberto Eco, let alone Dan Brown. I only wish that I had read this book much sooner! Now that it’s back in print after fourteen years–with breathtaking cover art by Ann Monn–I urge all serious vampire fiction fans not to wait as long as I did. The Stress of Her Regard is an intelligent and original variation on the vampire theme.