La Belle Dame Sans Merci

By Howard Mittlemark

WHEN A WRITER appropriates a character from history, he receives, like bag of gold or three wishes, a boon. His character comes equipped with personality, background and charisma. He is off to a running start; readers are predisposed to interest.

In his dark romantic fantasy, The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers, two time Philip K Dick Award winner, has seized upon the vast charismatic potential of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Keats and, through the first half of his book, allows it to dissipate, vanish into air. This is a writhing, convoluted and ingenious tale of erotic love and supernatural conspiracies and Powers expends so much energy weaving his elaborate, inspired mythology into the world we know that his narrative momentum bleeds away as we watch.

On the eve of his wedding in 1815, physician Michael Crawford unknowingly draws the attention of one of the nephelim. Nephelim are Lilith's children, the biblical giants in the earth, the race that preceded man. They are our vampires, incubi and succubi, able to metamorphose variously into stone or lizards or wraiths. When Crawford awakens the morning after his wedding, memories of lovemaking are pushed abruptly aside by the sight of his wife's horribly mutilated body, killed, he later learns, by his jealous demon lover. When suspicion turns his way-his first wife also died in questionable circumstances--Crawford flees to London, pursued by Josephine, his late wife's murderous, schizophrenic twin.

In London, Crawford finds refuge with medical student John Keats, who is entangled in the shadowy underworld of the nephelim. When Josephine appears and attempts to murder Crawford, Keats helps him escape to the continent. After an encounter with Francois Villon, alive after hundreds of years because he long ago married one of the nephelim, Crawford eventually makes his way to the Alps, where Byron hires him to replace Polidori as his personal physician.

Byron, too, it turn. out, is attached to one of these creatures and Shelley, worse still, was born into their clasp, the bastard child of two species (Crawford's creature is Shelley's and on-time incestuous lover, self-excised from his side as a stone; Shelley's relationship with this doppelganger is the inspiration for his wife's novel, Frankenstein.) In a scene reminiscent of Colin Wilson's psvcho-philosophical Sf, Byron and Crawford climb an Alpine peak, and through a confrontation with the Sphinx, are freed of their lovers.

Byron and Crawford thereafter part ways for a time, but their separate involvements with the nephelim continue. Much fleeing and intrigue and supernatural battle ensues with a climax in which the nature of causality itself is at stake.

This is immensely clever stuff--the poets' travels about Europe, their work, their deaths, even their houseguests are accounted for, church rituals are explained and period politics illuminated--and Power's prose is often vivid and arresting, but ultimately it is all too much. Powers throws out great twisting coils of ideas, layer upon layer, until his tale buckles beneath the weight of his invention.

Washington Post Book World/November 26, 1989