A Wizard Did It: The Wild Imagination of Tim Powers

SARAH DUNN
Last updated 09:23 29/11/2012

Tim Powers is one of those authors that you never hear about casually, but once you know who he is, he's everywhere.

Were you a fan of Monkey Island? Inspired by Tim Powers.

Remember Blade Runner? Phillip K. Dick dedicated the book to Powers.

Got around to seeing the fourth Pirates of the Carribean movie? Pretty much copied verbatim from Powers' sixth novel.

Surely to god you're not into steampunk? Powers, Dick and friends invented the genre while they were at University.

The main reason why Powers himself never gained as much visibility as his cultural creations is that he's not the most reader-friendly figure. He is an incredible fountain of ideas, but in classic fantasy-writer style, he tends to rely on occult logic to pile on facts and plot points without fully explaining why things happen and where they come from. It's something that doesn't bother most fantasy readers at all, but can be quite disorienting for people who aren't used to a non-realistic approach.

Occasionally I picture the possible conversations:

Reader: "Why did that just happen?"
Powers: "Because that other thing happened before."
Reader: "I still don't understand why that other thing happened in the first place."
Powers: "Didn't I go into that at the time?"
Reader: "No."
Powers: "It was magic."
Reader: "I see."

This is something I love about speculative fiction, but some of my more science-minded friends can't handle it at alland that's ok.

Luckily, Powers' new book Hide Me Among the Graves is a good deal more relatable than earlier work like my favourite, Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Written in 1985, Dinner is set in a Mad Max-inspired postapocalyptic America where a monsterous preacher named Norton Jaybush spreads madness and vampire-like "haemogoblins" roam the crumbling cities. In places it reads like the back of a Dr. Bronner bottle, but boy is it exciting.

Even comparing the cover art, it's obvious Powers is heading in a different direction to before. Except for perhaps the first edition and the Chatto and Windus, every edition of Dinner seems directed squarely at a niche fantasy market.

[Having said that, I'd love to meet anyone who genuinely admires the swirly-purple-vomit aesthetic of that Subterranean Press edition.]

Hide Me is less of a creative orgy than an unorthodox dinner party in comparison. It's set in mid-19th Century London and focuses on the romantic poet Christina Rossetti. Powers' premise here is that Rossetti, Shelley, Keats and a number of other well-known poets gained their inspiration through possession by ghost-like vampires, which he also identifies as the Biblical Nephilim.

I need to point out here that Powers' obsession with vampires should not be read in the same vein as most other vampire literature. He doesn't tend to stick to the established rules laid down by writers like Bram Stoker and Anne Rice about how vampires operate - Powers' vampires are mindless and unglamorous, more like the mythical Chinese "hungry ghosts" than Twilight's elite Cullen family. One of the Hide Me vampires is a dwarf who burrows underground and communicates using a violin.

Powers' main characters are still quite stilted and awkward a lot of the time, but his prose has improved to the point where Hide Me no longer counts as a guilty pleasure. Powers' sheer imaginative guts and the exhaustive research behind his mythical motifs means this book really is something more than the old "classic literature + pulpy goodness" formula that did such strange things to Jane Austen. I hope it brings more people to read about Rossetti, but mostly I'm just so pleased for Powers.

- Nelson

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