Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Stress of Her Regard

Vampires as a nonhuman, silicon-based life form? When I first heard this summary of the premise of THE STRESS OF HER REGARD (1989) by Tim Powers, I was dubious. But I found this epic novel of the Romantic era fascinating and enthralling. Early in the nineteenth century, young Michael Crawford, the night before his wedding, places his future bride's ring on the hand of a statue of Venus. Thus he gets drawn into the secret world of the nephelim. Over the course of the novel, we witness how these alien beings manipulate the lives of Byron, Keats, and Shelley.

The nephelim can pass for human by shapeshifting, but the human form is only one of the countless shapes they assume. THE STRESS OF HER REGARD frames vampirism as an all-consuming and irresistibly seductive source of artistic inspiration. The nephelim's tactics of illusion and erotic enticement befit Powers' use of vampirism as a metaphor for art. He rewrites literary history by postulating that alien machinations underlie crucial events in the lives of the major Romantic poets. Keats' birth at the season of Halloween attracted the attention of one such creature, which killed his mother. Shelley has one of the nephelim for a half-sister. Byron has been stalked since the age of fifteen by the vampire Lord Grey de Ruthyn, the prototype of Lord Ruthven in John Polidori's "The Vampyre." Shelley and Byron owe their inspiration to the vampires, and their attempts to break the bond lead to disastrous consequences. After Shelley's death by drowning (a deliberate self-sacrifice to escape from his lamia), his heart is used in a ritual to drive the nephelim into dormancy "for the first time in eight hundred years." The unfortunate Michael Crawford draws together these multiple, intertwined plot threads. The statue of Venus, actually one of the nephelim, becomes animate and crushes his wife Julia to death on their wedding night. Julia's twin sister, Josephine, goes insane. Later, however, she recovers and becomes Crawford's ally against the nephelim, and they eventually marry.

In addition to the legend of the man who accidentally marries the goddess by placing his ring on a statue's hand, Powers' novel associates the vampire species with a plethora of mythical motifs. These creatures bear the name "nephelim" from Genesis 6:4 (there spelled "Nephilim"), in which the "sons of God" mate with ordinary women and beget giants. The Gorgons, the serpentine lamiae, the stones transformed into human shape to repopulate the earth after the Flood, the vampires of Greece and Eastern Europe, the Sphinx, Lot's wife crystallized into a pillar of salt, and the Graiae (the three witches who share a single eye among them) all originate in the secret lore of the nephelim. Powers' vampiric aliens form the basis of a worldwide network of myths and are known to humanity only through the distorted memories of legend and superstition. The artistic genius they bestow in exchange for blood and life-force is a snare in itself, an integral part of their predation. The creative drive becomes an addiction, similar to the literal addiction to the nephelim's embrace suffered by the "neffers," former victims who gather to drink each other's blood in a futile quest for the ecstasy they once enjoyed. While ordinary victims get only strange, vivid dreams from this association, to those whom the vampires consider "family" they behave as Muses. Byron rebels at last because he loathes the thought that the vampire "was responsible for my--life's work, my writing, the thing that...made me me." He prides himself on writing "Don Juan" unaided by preternatural influence. Watching Josephine trying to wean herself from the compulsion to invite the draining of her blood, Crawford recalls from his own similar experience "how hard it was to do without that erosion of personality, once one had grown used to it." Josephine speaks of the temptation "to stop being me," to become "just a walking--thing." What may first appear as creative ecstasy reveals itself as the annihilation of the victim's human self. While their victims may labor under the delusion of being loved by the nephelim, their "love" is actually a devouring possessiveness.

In contrast to the carbon-based life represented by humanity and the rest of the known plant and animal kingdoms, these silicon-based entities are in effect living stones. They are "Lilith's people," "the Siliconari," "the first intelligent race the earth had," whose skeletons are composed of "the stuff that's the basis of glass and quartz and granite." At some point in prehistory the nature of sunlight changed, so that prolonged exposure to its rays petrifies their bodies. A triad of stone pillars in Venice consists of the remains of the Graiae, "shackled by having certain restricting designs cut into their bodies." Their "eye," their power of sight, actually signifies the power to know present and future events with absolute deterministic certainty, "down to decimal points even finer than God Himself ever bothered to figure to." Their eye "forbids all randomness, all free will." Conversely, when they are awake but blind, indeterminacy reigns in their vicinity, making the normally impossible possible (a circumstance the protagonists use to overcome the nephelim). This theory is one of many ways Powers draws upon twentieth-century quantum physics, genetic research, and evolutionary biology to rationalize the nature of his vampires. He also explains their vulnerabilities to wood, iron, garlic, and mirrors in terms of modern physics.

The nephelim or lamiae, like the medieval incubi, can assume either sex and can plant their seed in a human female's womb. They can transmute themselves into many forms, a power that requires the drinking of human blood, because they need "the plan, the design, that's in the blood" in order to mimic human shape. A vampire in the semblance of Polidori tells Josephine, "Identity is not as rigidly quantized with us as it is with you. We're like the waves that agitate a body of water...Even the seeds we plant in people's blood aren't physical things, but a sort of maintained attention." People drained to death by vampires arise from the grave, but no longer as truly themselves. Shelley explains, "Eggshells is all humans are to these things." In the grave, "the spores replace the organic stuff of their dead host with their stonier substance," as in the process of petrification that creates fossils. Whether any part of the victim's soul survives within the newly created vampire remains uncertain; however, the transformed corpse does have the ability to access the host's memories. The creatures appear in a variety of shapes: phantoms mimicking people they have killed; a woman "pearly white and smooth," with "weirdly metallic eyes"; a "winged stone lion" with the face of Polidori; a "mad-faced, eyeless giant"; a thing on "elephantine legs" whose "torso seemed to be a huge bag at one moment and a boulder in the next," with a hide "bumpy like chain mail," yet recognizably feminine; a "knotted and lumpy" mass of cloud, shaped partly like a huge water serpent and partly like a "naked woman"; and even a rainbow. Their protean nature emphasizes their radical inhumanity.

Somehow all these elements come together to form a dizzying, dazzling whole. Along the way, the author doesn't neglect to create a deep emotional connection between the reader and the tragic characters under the spell of the nephelim. If you read this book, I guarantee it will stay with you.

Margaret L. Carter

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