Several days ago, I wrote about my initial impressions with Tim Powers’ “The Stress of Her Regard”, making an effort to reveal nothing of importance to a potential future reader who doesn’t want to be spoiled. That post felt oddly unfinished and, honestly, rather lame, but it took me a while to figure out why. And now I’m going to tell you, in all the glorious, spoilerific detail.
I’ll start with a plot summary and mix in my critique as I go.
The book presents a secret history behind the friendship, travels, fortunes and misfortunes of the famous poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley through the eyes of a fictional character, an English surgeon named Michael Crawford. In it, humans are not the only form of sapient life on Earth; there’s another, older race of creatures whose anatomy is based on silicon and who can thus turn to stone, which may, but doesn’t necessarily, result in their death. They are interchangeably referred to as the nephelim, the lamia, or more to the point, the vampires.
From the hints and bits of information scattered throughout the text, we learn that the nephelim have become effectively extinct during some prehistoric natural event that “changed the nature of sunlight”. If my interpretation is correct, what the author probably had in mind was the shift of the Earth’s magnetic poles, which might have feasibly led to a change in the transparency of the magnetosphere/atosphere to solar UV radiation significant enough to affect life.
The nephelim did not entirely die off, though; they become dormant, slumbering in their stone forms, often as statues, columns, and standing stones that we naively believe are man-made. They came back to life when a human named Aargau, who later became the Austrian ‘secret king’, stitched a small statue containing a dormant nephelim into his abdomen. As it is expected of vampires, they feed on human blood; consuming it sustains them, allows them to take humanoid forms and move and act freely – as long as they stay out of sunlight, which can still petrify or even kill them.
All that happened a thousand years prior to the events of the book, and during that time, the nephelim developed a symbiotic, or perhaps a parasitic relationship with humans. By keeping one inside his living body, Aargau forged a bond of blood between them and the human race, in which they trade magical power for uninterrupted sustenance. It is revealed that there are a great many humans who know about the existence and powers of the elder race, and hinted that an ongoing conflict between Austria and Italy is at least partly motivated by the fact that Austria implicitly supports the nephelim, while Italy resents them, and is in fact the home of a whole secret society (the Carbonari, as opposed to the Siliconari) dedicated to fighting them.
The nephelim depend on humans for both sustenance and reproduction, which can be done directly (a vampire wearing the shape of a human male can impregnate a human women), or indirectly (by ‘hatching’ from the corpse of a deceased host as ‘undead’). They seduce rather than force a susceptible human to ‘invite them’, after which they provide the new ‘host’ with a feverish inspiration, intense erotic pleasures, protection from harm and extremely increased longevity – in return for their blood, and blind devotion. It sounds romantic, and it probably would be, if not for the ultimately alien nature of the nephelim psyche. They are exceedingly jealous and place no value whatsoever on human life. So if a host comes to desire a ‘normal life’ and, for example, gets married to another, unsuspecting human, the nephelim will likely find some grisly way to get rid of the competition. Parents, siblings, friends and even children of a host are in constant danger of an untimely demise due to the stress of the nephelim’s regard. So it’s not a trade to be made lightly.
Which would be fine, perhaps, if it is made willingly, and with full knowledge of the consequences. From the examples put forward by the book, it appears that it rarely is, at least initially. Someone can become a host by being born on a certain date or in specific circumstances (that was the case with the poets Keats and Shelley); or by succumbing to sexual attraction (which seems to have been the case with Byron); or by strange accident, like unwittingly putting a wedding ring on the finger of a statue (in Crawford’s case). Once a human has caught the attention of a nephelim, there is nearly no way to escape it. Not even suicide is guaranteed to work, because the nephelim have considerable supernatural powers and will do extraordinary things in order to preserve their hosts. It can be done, however, through certain magical rituals. One can go to the Alps, where the nephelim can’t follow, or do other, more complicated and less likely things, but it is understood that few manage to pull it off.
Crawford loses his wife Julia on their wedding night to the jealousy of the lamia he unknowingly ‘invited’. He wakes up to find Julia literally smashed to bits in the bed right next to him. When he realizes he will be the prime suspect for the murder, he flees from England and ends up in Switzerland, where he meets the poets.
The poets, and really, all major characters in the book, are nephelim hosts. Shelley has been ‘born into submission’ because his mother was a host at the time she gave birth to him. He was not the only child; he carried another fetus, in the shape of a small statue, in his own body until adulthood, when he somehow cut it out, and in a way, gave birth to his twin sister – who turns out to be the same lamia Crawford accidentally married. At one point, together they plot (and succeed) to murder her, for the sake of Shelley’s last surviving infant (after he’s lost two or three to her jealousy). And that’s when I started having… divided feelings about the story.
Namely, at that moment in the story timeline, Crawford is free from her regard, and has been so ever since Byron and he braved the Alps several years before. Byron has succumbed again in the meantime, and invited his nephelim back, because his writing depended on the supernatural inspiration (among other reasons, I dare say). But Crawford heroically resisted the temptation. It’s a huge temptation. He has been unable to enjoy his life since severing the ties to the lamia, and desired greatly to be in her presence again despite all the grief and trouble he suffered because of her. He has continued loving her and longing for her; moreover, it is revealed along the way that he never truly loved Julia, and married her because a respectable doctor should have a respectable wife. So while I can understand that, regardless of the love and longing, he doesn’t want to invite her back – I don’t see what motivation he has to participate in her murder. All the more because it is beyond doubt that she truly loves him too; she lets him kill her without even attempting to defend herself, because she doesn’t want to hurt him.
But he goes through with it anyway. And in that, he loses his substantiality as the main point-of-view character. Such a dramatic, dangerous and undoable action should have been motivated with reasons far, far better than ‘poor Shelley and the kids he keep making even though he knows he shouldn’t because he enjoys her special regard.’ Crawford himself is more solid in that sense, since he never endangered anyone knowingly. But Shelley (and Byron) had the choice to not marry, not make friends, and obviously, not make children, knowing – and enjoying – the curse they carry.
I say curse here, but it’s simultaneously a blessing. In return for hosting, the human is inspired to create works of art, pleasured, taken care of, and may live several hundreds of years. I can easily imagine many people agreeing quite happily to that kind of a contract at the cost of a ‘normal life’, meaning family and friends and lovers among humans. The text definitely supports this notion; but at the same time, I got the impression that the author intended to make it much more of a curse than of a blessing. That the intention was to make the reader hate and fear the nephelim for their monstrous strangeness and disrespect for human values while feeling compassion for the poor, desperate humans – and not the other way around.
And I suppose most readers do. But from my perspective, if this was the intention, it was badly executed. I did not feel compassion for Shelley because he always knew what he was. He may not have agreed to it, but he knew. And still, he chose to marry (more than once) and have children. Why did he not go to the Alps with Byron? Why did he not seek the wisdom of the Carbonari? Ultimately – why didn’t he kill himself if his existence was so intolerable to him and those he loved? To be fair, he did eventually kill himself; his death was a part of the ritual that banished the lamia forever and thus saved his wife and child. But the question of why he got himself a wife and a child in the first place remains unanswered. Because he was weak and cowardly? Indeed. But that’s not the sort of character I can make an emotional connection with.
In fact it was Crawford himself who put some of these ideas in my head by wondering repeatedly why Shelley hadn’t killed himself before. I think it’s indisputable that Crawford had no outstanding feelings, compassion included, for Shelley; moreover, he disliked and avoided him. But with Shelley dismissed as a good enough reason to kill the lamia – nothing remains. The text failed to convince me that this was a plausible course of action for Crawford.
It wasn’t this one action, either. As the story progressed from then on, what respect I had for him and Byron both, degraded chapter by chapter. Predictably, I felt no compassion for Byron either, but in this instance, I also didn’t feel like I was supposed to. Byron remained solid up till near the end – where I couldn’t identify his motivations for the dramatic, final act of not only murdering his own lamia, but murdering them all.
It only ever comes to it for quite pitiful reasons in the first place. After the death of Shelley and his nephelim twin, it turns out that Josephine, the sister of Julia, Crawford’s deceased wife, is pregnant with his child. Their professed sexual attraction that develops into love is another very implausible turn of events, but I won’t get into that now. The pregnancy is extraordinarily dangerous because Josephine too has succumbed to the seduction of a vampire, and without an intervention to separate her from his attention, the destiny of her child would likely be the same as the ‘horrible’ destiny of ‘poor’ Shelley. So Crawford and Byron decide to put an end to the existence of all the nephelim for good. Because the offspring of one unplanned pregnancy and its psychotic, suicidal, mother are obviously reasons enough for genocide.
Let’s face it, that’s what it is. In the end, our ‘heroes’ manage to put all the nephelim back into the dormant state by severing their connection to the human blood, embodied by the Austrian secret king Aargau (who has lived for many centuries with that statue inside him, enjoying unimaginable magical and political power, but still remains human, and susceptible to murder).
Now, had it been made clear that the humanity is in a state of all-out warlike conflict with the nephelim, where the survival of one species depended on the annihilation of the other – in such a context, this wouldn’t have registered as strange or over the top. But no such context was given. Like I mentioned in the beginning, it is hinted that Austria owes some of its power and influence to the support of the nephelim, and maybe an interpretation could be constructed in which this eventually leads to World War I – but this would have been completely unrelated to the actual plot and characters. Even the secret-society conflict between the Carbonari and Siliconari has only a marginal role, and is predominantly used as barely admissible justification for several instances of deus ex machina. The conflict means nothing to the characters, and the global influence of the nephelim on the human society (even if it is unbearable enough to justify species-wide extinction, a notion that is not supported by the text), means nothing to the characters. They only have their own personal interests in mind.
And I must admit that Crawford does have some personal interest in this – if one accepts his love for Josephine for granted (which I don’t), and remembers his many-times-hinted weakness for babies (which I don’t really think is enough, but ok). This time it’s Byron who behaves implausibly. He has no reasons whatsoever to want to be rid of his muse, let alone of all of them. Something ridiculous like his estranged half-sister who was only ever mentioned as another piece of miscellaneous trivia was put forward as his motivation. ‘Poor Augusta’. While on the other side of the scale he had his poetry, his long-time lover, and the prospect of a prolonged, wealthy life in which he could do so much to further his noble political goals. It seems completely impossible to me, given his stubborn, selfish personality, that he would choose the former.
But he goes through with it anyway. Neither Crawford, who is, after all, a highly educated, thoughtful man, nor Byron, a poet and a political thinker, lands even a single word or thought to the fact that they will be exterminating an entire people in order to get themselves and their loved ones from a situation they created themselves in the first place! Byron invited his lamia twice, and Crawford fathered a child (or did not take steps to make sure he doesn’t) despite knowing that they were all in the focus of the nephelim attention. (And it’s not like we’re considering the unwanted-pregnancy-awareness of a medieval peasant; we’re talking about a surgeon who specializes in delivering babies.)
Even if they had better reasons and no blame in it whatsoever, don’t you think that at least addressing the issue of planning and executing genocide would be in order? It could have been done in any of their conversations:
Crawford could say, “Do you ever wonder if this thing that we’ve set out to do – is wrong? It’s true that the nephelim ruined our lives – well, my life; you seem to be getting along quite nicely – but can we really be sure that they are all evil and deserve to die?”
And Byron could reply, “I don’t think they’re evil. They’re just… hungry. Fighting to survive, just like all the creatures on this Earth.”
“We’re no more than food for them, you mean? But I’ve seen evidence of the contrary. They are entirely capable of holding back on their impulses out of love or respect, not to mention devising and patiently executing sophisticated plans.”
“Of course they are. They’re not animals. And even if they were – would it be justified to eradicate all the wolves in the world because they keep attacking our sheep?”
Not even during the finale, where the nephelim get their last chance to try and seduce the humans away from their genocidal intentions, is this brought up as a problem, and I think it would have been a valid attempt to soften their resolve. To simply ask, “Are you really that selfish? To sacrifice all of us for the temporary safety of the selected few of your kin?”
Pardon these caricatures, but even such superficial consideration would have set my mind at peace. It would have demonstrated that the author was aware how dangerous it is to make racial generalizations; how dangerous it is, even if you have every right to fear and hate, to let the fear and hate decide for you when your finger is on the fire-the-nukes button. I’m not saying that I know of better ways to resolve the situation the characters in this book found themselves in. I don’t have a ready answer, and I expect neither the author nor the characters to give it to me; but I damn well expect them to ask the question. To point out that their solution, no matter how necessary it seems from their perspective, is morally ambiguous, to say the least.
The conclusion that I’m disappointed, angry and put off by “The Stress of Her Regard” seems inevitable. But – other than a definite disappointment in the perceived maturity and wisdom of the author – I still stand by most of what I said in my first post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book despite the eyebrow-raisers, and I’m honestly looking forward to reading more from Tim Powers. In fact, I learned that there’s a sequel to “The Stress of Her Regard”, in which the nephelim come back to life once more – and are presumably put to a more final state of rest. I intend to read it for the language and imagery and out of a sort of morbid curiosity. At the very least, it will be food for more thought and critique.