Wednesday, October 23, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 22: Vampires Shouldn't Tweet (The Urban Weird of Tim Powers)


Today we look at a writer who in some ways could be the American, bestseller, late 20th/early 21st century  inheritor of the literary/poetic/urban fantasy/magical realism tradition of Charles Williams.  As in Williams, so in Powers you may encounter any number of occult and numinous entities and events:  otherworldly vampires, vampiric aliens, dog-men, scary magic clowns on stilts, body-swappers, ghosts, people who eat ghosts to get high, zombie pirates, magical beer, evil magicians, or - one of my favourites - a windblown doppelg√§nger made of an expanding bubble of blood (called a 'hemogoblin').  There are several different spins on time travel, some of them with freakish and grotesque consequences.  There's an underground Georgian London, a post-nuclear war future, 1980s California full of paranormal spies, the Nevada desert populated by strange and murderous beings, silent films that tilt the world on its side, vintage TV show cartoon characters that talk to the watcher, communication across great distances by stabbing oneself in the knee, and so on and so on. Real facts (and sometimes appearances) from lots of historical personages (Blackbeard, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Bugsy Siegel, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Groucho Marx, Kim Philby, etc.) affect the plot.  Plus there are appearances of beings from Greek and Egyptian and Celtic mythology.

Powers weaves all this disparate material very tightly together in well-crafted tales.  He also makes it a point to not break any known facts of history, but instead to posit strange and supernatural connections between and behind the facts.  His work is thus in the sub-genre of 'secret history' (rather than 'alternate history'). Though he often quotes from and features classic and modern poets from the canon of English Literature, his own prose style is fairly hardboiled, two-fisted, and noir - yet he can paint some beautiful imagery too.  His writing is muscular but musical and might be called something like 'pulp-literary'.  

Though Powers is a practicing Roman Catholic, he has said in countless interviews that he never, ever sets out to communicate any message through his fiction.  He concedes that his personal beliefs and worldview undoubtedly permeate his fiction, but he prefers to let this happen at a subconscious level.  Consciously, he admits that he thinks actually practising magic would tend to change a person for the worse and all his characters who use magic pay a heavy toll to do so.  He also says he hopes his portrayal of the supernatural in otherwise realistic settings (he's very good at minute observation of everyday details) will create a genuine pulse of the numinous in the reader, expanding our imaginations to conceive of the miraculous actually being possible, both for sinister as well as salvific purposes.

I'll leave you with a characteristically irascible quote from one of his most recent interviews, where he comments on his engagement with vampires in several of his novels:

'Luckily I don't keep up with current SF and fantasy. Up until 1975 I read virtually everything, but now I don't really know what's being written about - case in point - vampires. I get the idea that current vampires are metrosexual guys who are kind of perversely charming. I certainly prefer the kind of vampires like Dracula - they're more fun because the metrosexual with nice hair is going to be too much like a human character, one who probably reads the same blogs and magazines as everybody else, and probably goes to Starbucks. I want an inhuman species that will be alarmingly and disorientingly alien. I want them to only peripherally overlap with humans, so that humans can't comprehend their emotions or their thoughts. The vampires can't really understand very much about us, either, but to our misfortune there is an overlap. That's more interesting to write about. Vampires shouldn't tweet.'