Literature / The Stress of Her Regard
A 1989 historical fantasy
novel by Tim Powers
, set in early nineteenth century Europe. The premise reworks
several historically collected quotations and poems from authors in that era into a meta-Cosmic Horror Story
, exploring and explaining the personal anguish
inherent to artists through the lens of vampires
and ancient conspiracies.
As such, Powers gets to show off
his knowledge of the minutiae of that era by writing an adventure spanning the entire European continent.
Earth is secretly home to at least three intelligent species, of which only humans were active in historical times - until someone woke one of them up 800 years before the story opens, seeking to become immortal
in exchange for providing a linkage between the two species which would allow them to become active again. This species is referred to in-story as the nephelim - a reference to the ancient Christian legends of the more-than-human powers that once walked the earth in the days before the Flood. (The third species is represented by the mountains themselves; they are expected to inherit the Earth in the far future.)
The nephelim can offer immortality
and poetic inspiration, but at a price: they are vampires
, and while they do not directly harm their human hosts, they are jealous "spouses" and will kill their hosts' families. Several English Romantic poets encountered over the course of the story have such "spouses" and have lost close family members to them, but cannot bear to break free at the cost of no longer being able to create great poetry. Those who try to break free are subject to pursuit.
The story's protagonist is an English obstetrician named Crawford, who is about to marry for the second time (his first, unhappy marriage ended with his wife's death in a fire) to a respectable young Englishwoman named Julia. During a drunken escapade the night before marrying Julia, Crawford puts a wedding ring on the finger of a statue; unfortunately, the statue was a nephelim seeking a human host that would let her cross the English channel in pursuit of her previous host, Percy Bysshe Shelley
. The nephelim kills Julia on their wedding night, forcing him to flee to the Continent. He is pursued by her twin sister, Josephine, who has... issues. While on the run, he involves himself with several similarly affected persons-of-importance, gets roped into both sides of a conspiracy-cum-revolutionary-movement, and slowly uncovers the ties that bind mankind and the nephelim.
This work features the following as characters:
This work provides examples of:
- Accidental Marriage: Crawford and the nephelim statue.
- Angsty Surviving Twin: Josephine.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Several major English Romantic poets - Byron, Keats, and Shelley - draw their inspiration from nephelim "spouses".
- Blessed with Suck: It's great being a Nephelim's lover. You develop astounding skill with language and words, and you'll be protected from anything that could ever hurt you, even old age and death. And all it wants is all of your love. Oh, and the deaths of everyone else in your life. And you won't be allowed to love anyone else. Not even yourself.
- Brother-Sister Incest
- Byronic Hero: Lord Byron is a major character who provides critical help at key points in the story. All the other (successful) authors that show up (Keats and Shelley, among others) are examples. It seems to be a chronic ailment among artists.
- Chekhov's Gun: Several instances.
- Numerous pieces of period literature, fiction and nonfiction, are reinterpreted or reworked into the supernatural setting. These quotations tend to be at the beginning of each chapter, and act as unfired guns for the moment.
- The biggest one would have to be the fact that Aickman came across some intimate knowledge of the Big Bad disguised as rather obscure information while in medical school.
- City of Canals: Venice. The protagonists' favorite city in the world, as it happens.
- Cosmic Horror Story: All over the place. The nephelim are both far more powerful than any man and a little too insubstantial to touch. All attempts to oppose them tend to be some dangerous desperate ritual. Garlic and extremely conductive or insulative material (in the form of, say, highly conductive silver bullets, or highly insulative wooden stakes) are the only defenses, and the slightest bit of human error will screw those over.
- A sequence in the middle of the book bears mentioning: Percy Shelley, Aickman, Josephine and various family friends are all living together at a beach-house in Italy. Percy is afflicted by a nephelim and is attempting to ward it off. It's some time before he can fully cast it off, and in the meantime the dozen or so people in the house have to constantly be on guard against nephelim: don't go outside at night, coat your windows with garlic, don't talk to strangers, always keep the blinds closed. The confined nature doesn't make anyone else that happy. Then, one by one, people in the house fall in love with various nephelim that came to haunt Shelley. Most of these people are married and don't know anything about the nephelim, but are carrying out secret affairs with them and becoming more and more lifeless. So you have, essentially, families and loved ones being destroyed by some supernatural force no one truly see or understand.
- Dead Guy Junior: In the end, we learn that Crawford and Josephine named their son John for the poet John Keats.
- Deal with the Devil
- Death by Childbirth: The mother of Julia and Josephine.
- Technically she's not the only one, as The Man Behind The Curtain does eventually die off-screen from surgical complications that revoke his Mr. Seahorse status.
- Dysfunction Junction: Aickman, Josephine, Keats, and Shelley and their families all spend some time living together.
- Driven to Suicide
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Crawford and Josephine, among others, and man do they ever earn it. The poets have it just as bad.
- Emotionless Girl: Josephine, when she slips into her Robot Girl-imitation defense mechanism.
- Eye Scream: Josephine resists manipulation by the nephelim by gouging out an eye to break the spell. Later, she uses a glass eye that doubles as an emergency stash of garlic.
- Face Death with Dignity
- Famous Last Words: John Keats' epitaph, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water". Given a very different meaning in context of the story than the usual interpretation in Real Life.
- Frankenstein's Monster: The inspiration for Mary Shelley's story is shown early in the book - the friendly writing contest that gave rise to Frankenstein was inspired because some of the attendees had noticed at least one of the creatures hanging around, and decided to turn the stalker incident into a joke.
- Heroic Sacrifice: The cruise of poets.
- If I Can't Have You: The Nephelim just want to be loved, completely and unconditionally, by the humans they choose. And to make sure you'll always love them they'll kill everyone else you love to make sure you're all theirs.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The nephelim roleplaying Julia in Venice.
- Loving a Shadow: Crawford realizes eventually that he never really knew Julia.
- The Man Behind the Curtain: The man who made the original bargain. While he lives and maintains the link between humans and the nephelim, humans will never be free of them.
- Mistaken for Murderer: Crawford by Josephine.
- Not Blood Siblings: Crawford and his sister-in-law Josephine.
- Our Vampires Are Different: The creatures that feed on humans are a separate species that can be thought of as animated stones. They grant extended life, but are very jealous of their... proteges... and tend to kill their families. They are vulnerable to garlic and holy water, and cannot cross oceans without a human host. They can be "divorced", but afterward one must be careful not to allow them back into one's life.
- Plot Tailored to the Party: The book isn't a medical drama, and Aickman and Josephine's medical professions, while useful, aren't really relevant to the superatural conflicts. Suffice it to say, they are integral in the last act, as are Byron's own skills.
- Regency England: Crawford's part of the story begins there.
- Riddle of the Sphinx: Given a new spin, in which "A man" is only coincidentally a viable answer. The actual correct answer is sentient life on Earth, and the "legs" referred to in the riddle are the atomic bonds in the skeletons of, respectively, Earth's primordial silicon-based vampires, its current calcium-boned humans, and its future aluminum-boned race to come (presumably robots).
- The Stoic: Josephine.
- Suicide Pact: The cruise of poets.
- Taking You with Me: The cruise of poets has this as its objective - to remove the nephelim threat to the families of those on the cruise.
- The Unfavorite: Crawford's sister-in-law Josephine, the younger twin of his wife Julia, who blames herself for her mother's Death by Childbirth. Crawford sees her Unfavorite status when he first meets her shortly before the wedding, but her family appears oblivious to this.
- Voluntary Shapeshifter: The nephelim can take on the shapes of humans, and can act very convincingly.