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Literature / The Stress of Her Regard

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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 myths of the Nephilim 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.

Received a sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves, in 2012.

This work provides examples of:

  • Accidental Marriage: Crawford and the nephilim statue. Accidental on his part, anyway. Turns out the nephilim needed a host to get across the channel and arranged events to get one.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Josephine.
  • Astral Projection: Though Werner himself is immobile, he can make several solid projections of himself with which to experience the world.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Several major English Romantic poets — Byron, Keats, and Shelley — draw their inspiration from nephelim "spouses". Likewise the French poet Villon. The monsters in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre are both based on encounters with the Nephelim.
  • Bizarrchitecture
  • Blessed with Suck: It's great being a Nephilim'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:
    • Shelley's nephilim is his twin sister.
    • Byron also engaged in this with his sister.
  • 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:
    • 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.
  • Cold Iron: The basis of the eisener brache, a weapon against the nephilim.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: All over the place. The nephilim 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 Bysshe Shelley, Aickman, Josephine and various family friends are all living together at a beach-house in Italy. Percy is afflicted by a nephilim 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 nephilim 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.
  • Creator In-Joke: Powers' running in-joke of mentioning the fictional poet William Ashbless. Crawford includes him in a list of famous poets at one point, and one of the chapter epigraphs is claimed to have been translated into English by Ashbless.
  • 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: Shelley makes a deal with his twin sister, giving himself to her (and apparently allowing her to burn out the creative part of his brain) in exchange for leaving his children alone. She reneges pretty much immediately.
  • 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 Mister Seahorse status.
  • Desecrating the Dead: Shelley, during his bid to have his daughter resurrected (long story) is forced to disguise her as a puppet. And then some guards he needs to get by demand to see a show...even worse, the resurrection fails anyway.
  • Dhampyr: Having gestated in the womb alongside a nephilim, Shelley is sort of one of these. He hasn't inherited any cool powers, just a much-lesser form of their weaknesses (e.g. stiff muscles and discomfort in sunlight). Also, as something caught between the two different forms of life, humans are inherently disgusted by him and nephilim are fascinated by him.
  • Distant Finale: Ends with a thirty-years later epilogue showing that things turned out all right for Crawford and Josephine and their descendants, and throwing in a few observations about how things turned out for the poets.
  • Diving Save: During the final battle, Crawford pushes Josephine out of the way of an attacking nephilim.
  • 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.
  • Exposition of Immortality: There are hints almost immediately about the old Frenchman who helps Crawford, starting with the fact that he speaks a dialect so archaic that Crawford doesn't recognize it as French until the old man tells him it is, but the thing that settles it is a song the old man sings. Later on, Byron hears Crawford singing it and tells him it's a 15th-century ballad of which the words survive but the tune is long lost.
  • Eye Scream: Josephine is manipulated by one of the nephilim to cast a spell that involves gouging out one of her own eyes. Later, she uses a glass eye that doubles as an emergency stash of garlic.
  • Face Death with Dignity
  • Famous, Famous, Fictional: A character discussing Keats' poetic aspirations mentions Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and William Ashbless, the fictional poet who was a character in The Anubis Gates.
  • Fingore: Those bonded to a Nephilim commonly receive the "nephilim's kiss", having their left ring finger bitten off. Crawford, for eminently sensible and logical reasons, later bites off most of his left pinky and spits it in a small child's face.
  • First Girl Wins: Although Crawford has already met and become engaged to Julia when the book opens, Josephine is the first of the two to appear on the page, and it's Josephine whom he ends up marrying and having a lasting relationship with.
  • 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, in which several victims of the Nephilim give their own lives to protect their families.
  • Historical Domain Character: This work features Lord Byron, John Keats, Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley as characters.
  • If I Can't Have You…: The Nephilim 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.
  • Immortality: The nephilim can provide this to their lovers, as long as their stay in direct contact with earth or stone.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The nephilim roleplaying Julia in Venice.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title comes from a poem by Clark Ashton Smith, which is quoted as the novel's epigraph.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: In the final confrontation, it is revealed that the Big Bad is magically linked to his lair such that if he dies it will immediately collapse on top of whoever killed him. The heroes have to find a way to achieve their goal without killing him.
  • Loving a Shadow: Crawford realizes eventually that he never really knew Julia, and that if Josephine's imitation of her is anything like the real thing, he's better off without her.
  • 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. In person, however, he's physically unprepossessing and almost defenseless; he depends on those he commands to prevent anybody getting close to him.
  • Maternal Death? Blame the Child!: Discussed in connection with Julia and Josephine's mother. Josephine clearly blames herself. Julia tells Crawford that she and their father don't blame Josephine, and have told her so; one can be left with the impression that even if she's being accurate, their going on about it hasn't helped.
  • The Mirror Shows Your True Self: This is true of the Nephilim; several times when one is preparing to seduce a human, they're shown taking care to first dispose of any nearby mirrors to avoid a mood-breaking revelation.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: Crawford is presumed to have murdered Julia by nearly everybody, and particularly by Josephine, because it happened while he and Julia were alone in a location no other human could have entered.
  • More than Mind Control: It's hard enough for normal people to give up their connection to a nephilim. For people inclined to define themselves by their writing, such as every poet in this book, it's like cutting off your own limb.
  • Must Be Invited: The Nephilim. It's less an issue for being invited into buildings, and more an issue for being invited into their victims' lives. Also, they cheat mercilessly; Crawford putting a wedding ring on a statue-form Nephilim's finger counts as an invitation, even though he was just looking for somewhere safe to put it for a moment.
  • No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: In the last part of the book, Crawford does this several times with both old friends and old enemies, having been much aged by time and nephilim-related trauma.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Crawford and his sister-in-law Josephine.
  • One Myth to Explain Them All: The nephilim are the origins of many myths, including the Biblical nephilim, succubi, vampires, muses, gorgons, the sphinx, and modern literary creations such as Frankenstein's Monster. At one point, Crawford half-jokingly suggests that the Norse Myth of the Death of Baldur, in which a supernaturally-beautiful man is killed with a sharpened length of wood, might be another folk memory of a nephilim encounter, and Byron asks despairingly if there are any myths that aren't about the nephilim.
  • Our Sphinxes Are Different: One of the oldest and most powerful of the nephilim is the inspiration for the Greek legend of the sphinx. It does not resemble the traditional appearance of a sphinx, and in fact doesn't have a coherent physical form at all. It does ask the Riddle of the Sphinx, which is revealed to have a true answer different from the answer traditionally given.
  • 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. Mirrors reveal their true forms. Their human victims, if killed, will arise from the grave unless precautions are taken involving garlic, silver, and sharpened stakes. 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 supernatural conflicts. Suffice it to say, they are integral in the last act, as are Byron's own skills.
  • Psychic Link: Those who have been touched by the nephilim can drink each others' blood to form a temporary one of these.
  • Regency England: Crawford's part of the story begins there.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Deconstructed. After Crawford's wife Julia is murdered, he ends up with her sister Josephine, but the transfer of affection is neither instantaneous nor easy — it's many pages and years of in-story time before the possibility even occurs to them, and many more before they get together — and the things he loves about Josephine are on the whole the things in which she is least like Julia.
  • 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, although only the reader can deduce that).
  • Silicon-Based Life: The nephilim.
  • Silver Has Mystic Powers: Silver is harmful to the nephilim.
  • Split Personality: Josephine has at least two: An imitation of her sister Julia, and one which is likened in movement and personality to an automaton. She's prone to slipping into them at inconvenient times.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: The section "Interlude: Summer 1818" begins with Shelley at a funeral, and proceeds in flashback to explain whose and the circumstances of the death.
  • The Stoic: Josephine.
  • Succubi and Incubi: The Nephilim are the inspiration for legends of incubi and succubi (they can appear as male or female, as best fits the situation).
  • Suicide Pact: The cruise of poets.
  • Taking You with Me: The cruise of poets has this as its objective — to remove the nephilim 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.
  • Waking Non Sequitur: Crawford meets Shelley when Shelley passes out from sunstroke and Crawford offers medical assistance. As Shelley recovers, he makes some delirious comments that reveal to Crawford that he's also encountered the nephilim.
  • Wooden Stake: Sharpened wood can be harmful to nephilim.