There’s a scene in Hide Me Among The Graves—the sequel to Tim Powers’ 1989 supernatural alt-history novel, The Stress Of Her Regard—where the upstanding John Crawford crawls through the pitch-black, pre-Roman ruins beneath Victorian London. Unseen insects creep across his face and body. Horror begins to mount—and then he instantly, all-too-easily pushes his fear to the back of his mind. Granted, he’s lived his whole life with horror hanging over his head; in Stress, his father gets swept up in a fantastical quest that involves the Romantic authors Lord Byron, John Keats, the Shelleys, and John Polidori, generally acknowledged as the originator of vampire fiction in English literature. Years after the events in Stress, the younger Crawford has finally failed in his lifelong effort to dodge his father’s fate when Polidori’s vampiric ghost catches up with him.
Crawford’s hereditary acquaintance with the supernatural is Hide Me’s central plot device, and also its central problem. During the course of the book’s main arc, from 1862 to 1877, the shocks and frights are few and far between. It doesn’t help that his fellow protagonists—the real-life literary family the Rosettis, Polidori’s nieces and nephews—have also been aware of the supernatural since birth. To them, the existence of bloodsuckers, psychic parasites, spectral apparitions, nameless monsters, and magical talismans is a given. In the face of such things, barely anyone blinks. And almost every time Powers gives himself the opportunity to linger on the gripping and grotesque, he provides only the driest, most perfunctory descriptions.
Powers is on such familiar ground, though, he mostly makes up for the frustrating dearth of chills. Not only is Hide Me the sequel to Stress, its setting is strikingly similar to that of his breakthrough novel, 1983’s time-travel classic The Anubis Gates. Like those novels, Hide Me insinuates itself cleverly amid established historical figures, movements, and events, all while leaving history at large undisturbed. In addition to the aforementioned Romantic luminaries, Powers colorfully repurposes Edward Trelawny (as the Fagin-like leader of a gang of young vampires) and the equally legendary Algernon Swinburne, portrayed here as a petulant, desperate young poet yet to immortalize himself. (At least, not in the way history remembers him.) But as Powers unspools an elaborate web of alternate history, resurrections, and ploys for eternal life, death itself no longer seems very scary. Neither does the story itself; halfway through the book, the characters begin to spend more time sitting around and explicating their increasingly tangled situation than actually experiencing it.
What saves Hide Me is Powers’ decades-sharpened sense of craft. For all its shortcomings, including its considerable length, the book moves swiftly and smoothly, and Powers’ dialogue and prose are immaculately, elegantly constructed. Granted, they don’t have as much juice as the book’s fertile premise calls for. Considering the purple hues he used to paint Stress, though, the sequel is a far more enjoyable, consistent read. But where Stress strained at the seams with invention, surprise, and bursts of sublime horror, Hide Me wears its cobwebs as if they were comforting, threadbare old clothes.