The Stress of Her Regard Hardcover – Aug 1989
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From Publishers Weekly
Set early in the 19th century, Powers's ( On Stranger Tides ) seventh novel is a horror story that wonderfully evokes the period. On the stormy night before his wedding, Dr. Michael Crawford, in an ill-advised moment while drinking and carousing with two of his friends, slips his intended's ring on the finger of a statue of a woman in the inn's courtyard. The next morning the statue has disappeared. Disturbed, Crawford purchases a new ring and goes to his wedding. The night's celebrations are followed by a morning infinitely more horrifying than the previous one--Crawford awakens to find his bride murdered. Doubting his own sanity, he flees England, becoming aware that he is pursued by a lamia --a malignant female spirit. He seeks help from his friends, the poets Byron and Shelley, who, it turns out, have experience with such a monster. Strewn with literary personages and allusions, the book is entertaining on several levels, but most particularly as a chilling horror-adventure.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The story centers around the nephelim, Lilith's brood. Seductive, serpentine, and deadly, they are succubi and vampires, draining blood and vitality from their hosts even as they inspire them to creativity. One of these beings attaches itself to Byron and Shelley's circle of expatriate poets, and the drama begins.
We see this through the eyes of gynecologist Michael Crawford, who gets drunk and puts his wedding ring on a statue's hand at the bachelor party--and finds his wife murdered the morning after the wedding, in a scene reminiscent, probably intentionally, of Dr. Frankenstein's wedding night. Suspected of the murder, he flees to the Continent, where he becomes Byron's personal doctor. Traveling with the controversial lord, he will become entangled with poets, wannabe poets, fetishists who *want* to be vampire victims, and the mentally ill sister of his dead wife, who wants to see him dead. Along the way, he learns more about the creature to whom he is "married", and tries to break his ties to it, as mysterious deaths begin to occur.
This is a creepy and atmospheric novel that I could not put down. I read at night until I couldn't stay awake any longer, then got up and read in the morning. This is an enthralling novel of ancient evil, troubled love, birth, and death, which will stay with you.
I've enjoyed reading fantastic fiction (mainly SF, but with a touch of fantasy here and there) all my life, and this novel forced me to redefine my concept of what it means to have one's mind blown. Although the main character is a fictional doctor who is haunted by an accidental "marriage" to what may be one of the "giants in the earth" mentioned in Genesis, he crosses paths with several of the Romantic poets, who never struck me as "historical figures" in the way they were written. They were just as human as the protagonist, and just as terrified by the fate that pulled them together. That fact, along with the author's fine eye for period detail, did a lot to keep this story grounded in some sort of "reality" when the supernatural fireworks began.
In this novel, as with others such as "The Anubis Gates" and "On Stranger Tides," Powers picks out colorful characters from history--people who lived strange lives, and about whom we know little--then, taking care not to contradict anything we do know, he "fills in the gaps" in some pretty incredible ways. I liked the term another poster used: "gonzo history."
I should mention that this story, while ultimately very hopeful, goes through some dark, *dark* places, and with its moments of horror and eroticism, it's probably not a good choice for younger readers.
Because of the historical angle, many readers will already know the fates that await certain characters, but even those moments are suprising, and brilliantly executed. BTW: If you're reading, Mr. Powers, thanks for letting Shelly go out with such a bang. When the couple were on the beach, and she said, "I can see it! It's coming!" I got such a chill that I had to put the book down and just savor it for a moment.
The Stress of Her Regard is set in the time of those three happy-go-lucky but yet melancholy poets, the Romantics. No, not the rock group, but Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, and John Keats. Powers has once again picked his time period and historical people well--there are few people as full of life and mystery as these three poets. Byron, Shelly and Keats were the original Beat writers, travelling the world and putting what they saw into their fiction and poetry long before Jack Keroauc.
The main character isn't a poet, though, but a doctor named Michael Crawford. Having already suffered the death of his first wife and his younger brother, the book opens with Crawford's marriage to his second wife and her brutal death beside him in bed on their first night as man and wife. Blamed for his wife's death, and laboring under the absence of his own memory of that night, Crawford flees into hiding. But Crawford is hunted, not only with guilt for the deaths of those close to him, but also by strangely erotic dreams, and hounded by the sister of his second wife. His escape from both of these are interlocked with the poetry and lives of the Romantics. You mention fantasy to some people, and they have a hard time not relating it with Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons. Powers' fiction isn't one style alone. The Stress of Her Regard is a perfect example of this. Not only does it predispose some knowledge of the work of the three poets, but it also has horrific undertones that threaten to explode into the forefront a la Stephen King.
Powers' previous novels have also played fast and loose with historical characters, but those characters have always remained in the background, as if Powers was wary that the "real" characters would destroy the fabric of his half-real fantasy world. In The Stress of Her Regard, though, Powers bravely tackles using the historical characters to become major forces of the storyline. In fact, the intriguing ambiguous yet always exciting Byron steals the book from Crawford, who seems to be a rudderless boat on a swift moving river. And although Byron falls victim to the lamias, his struggle and fall are the stuff that climaxes are built of, rather than Crawford's selfless struggle to rescue his wife's sister.
Not as pyrotechnic as The Anubis Gates, nor as perverse as Dinner at Deviant's Palace, nor as playful as On Stranger Tides, what distinguishes The Stress of Her Regard is the consistent tone of the novel--a spiralling descent into the insanity of creative genius, and the redemption of love.
"Stress" may well be Powers' most ambitious novel from a literary standpoint. The book treats multiple subjects: love, ambition, literary pretension, mental illness, politics, freemasonry (although obliquely)...oh, yeah, and vampires. Lots of the strangest, vilest bloodsuckers you'll ever find in fiction, and they have a taste for poets' blood. I won't attempt to explain how all of this fits together, but it does, and brilliantly.
Some of Powers' early work was only okay, like "Drawing of the Dark," for instance. As he's matured, though, he's really become a master of tight plotting. This ranks up there with his best, including "The Anubis Gates," "Last Call," and "Declare."