Tim Powers is for me a writer whose development is more obvious than a lot of others. I cringe reading such early efforts as An Epitaph in Rust and The Drawing of the Dark. One can see a wonderful imagination on the page, but not the talent to execute on a line by line basis. In The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace a synthesis starts to be seen. I daresay The Stress of Her Regard (1989) is the transition point from those novels to where we see Powers today, as Last Call and the novels which follow feature the author in his best form. Thankfully, unique imagination has remained a constant throughout.
The Stress of Her Regard was Powers’ most ambitious novel to date. Daring to feature some of the English language’s most renowned poets as primary characters—Bryon, Shelley, and Keats among them—the resulting storyline tells of a British doctor, Michael Crawford, and the bad luck he has while out drinking the night before his wedding. Accidentally leaving his ring on a statue, he returns the next day to find the object now clenched in a stone fist, unable to be loosened. All goes well in the wedding, however, that is until the next morning when Crawford awakes to find his new bride’s body mutilated in terrifying fashion beside him. A whole world of dark horrors slowly unveiling itself in the aftermath, Crawford escapes Britain, but does so into the arms of a creature which would rather have him dead. Cognizant of the lamia’s true power, he turns to British poets who are traveling the continent for help. Trouble is, they too are haunted in their own way.
There are many books and stories these days featuring people of old, real and fictional, in varying fantastical scenes. From Darwin to Livingstone, Tesla to Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll to Edison, it’s a sub-genre unto itself which features famous 18th to 20th century personages involved in ever-escalating tales of dark horrors and fantastical secrets of forgotten history. While not the first, The Stress of Her Regard must certainly be considered one of the forerunners of this type of fiction, and as a result contains a sincerity and integrity that a lot of the later, more imitative works do not possess.
As mentioned, with The Stress of Her Regard Powers had finally honed in on a writing style capable of deeper scrutiny. There are innumerable anachronisms in terms of authorial voice superimposed on European culture of the 19th century, but the focus, as tucked into the scene and setting as it is, remains dark fantasy with horror elements. But it’s at the scene level where the greatest development can be seen. Patient and subtle, the story is built like bricks, one quality scene at a time. That being said, there may be times that Powers is too patient. The content perhaps is not key nor adds significant value, and as a result the story sometimes does not escalate well beyond the scene level. The Anubis Gates, for example, does a better job generating momentum.
In the end, The Stress of Her Regard remains Powers’ most accomplished novel to that time in his ouevre in terms of technique. The scenes are wonderfully unveiled and an intangible motif of Gothic horror delightfully pervades the story. But something still lacks between the scenes—an underlying motivation for plot that lurks. The twist on vampires is well-done so as not to be just another vampire story—to be more than a one-note story, and for that comes recommended to people who enjoy dark fantasy and horror.