The name of Tim Powers has been a secret talisman for a select group of readers for decades. His ardent fans have used that byline as an unfailing compass pointing to contemporary urban fantasies of surpassing elegance, thrills, cleverness, and emotional heft, such as his Fault Lines trilogy or Declare. But Powers has also worked in a historical or steampunk vein, and it is this mode that launched his name into wider spheres of public attention with the adaptation of his novel On Stranger Tides as the latest installment of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean series.
New readers wishing to become familiar with the Powers magic could do no better than to pick up his latest superb short-story collection, The Bible Repairman. Here, in potent, distilled form, you will find Powers’s trademarked secret histories, heroically damaged (or damagedly heroic) losers, creepy supernatural phenomena, and macabre humor.
James Tiptree advised writers to start readers off “in the dark and a mile underground,” and that’s the tactic Powers often employs. His narratives, despite a surface transparency of action, frequently involve an occult layer that pulls the reader in like quicksand. This is true with the title piece. Transfixed, we watch a middle-aged Latino man performing a series of obscure and eerie and grotesque actions. Gradually we learn that he is a kind of self-taught street-level brujo, about to be called upon the make the supreme sacrifice of his career.
The next tale, “Soul in a Bottle,” opens with seemingly greater normality, as we follow a shabby used-book dealer on his daily rounds. But mystery soon intervenes in the form of a strange young woman. And even after her uncanny nature is explained, much suspense remains in how our hero will or won’t accommodate her wishes. The melancholy outcome is quietly tragic without being melodramatic.
“The Hour of Babel” proves Powers is just as adept at science fiction as he is at fantasy. Reminiscent in tone of Heinlein’s existentially upsetting “– All You Zombies –“, the story blends time travel with horror to make a superior interstitial hybrid.
In “Parallel Lives,” two elderly twins, one dead, one living, play a cat-and-mouse game that evokes comparisons to the mordant creations of Shirley Jackson or Robert Bloch. Fritz Leiber, the grand old man of California contemporary fantasies, will surely come to mind in the cat-centric “A Journey of Only Two Paces.” And rounding out the collection is a pendant to Powers’s novel The Stress of Her Regard, which centered around the Romantics: Byron, Shelley, and crew. Here, with “A Time to Cast Away Stones,” minor hanger-on Edward John Trelawny must contend with ancient forces unwisely summoned up in the Greek mountains.
Powers’s subtle and beautiful prose is never flaunted, but always works in the service of his stories, which are marvels of ellipsis and concision. He captures venues and characters with just the right amount of description, and never belabors the events in his stories, always preferring to hold back when possible and let the reader’s imagination supply the special effects and motivations. Powers’s worldview is one where miracles exist just below the surface of the quotidian, revealed through random trapdoors. But open the wrong door, and you might receive a curse just as easily as a blessing. Contact with the gods can blind as well as enlighten.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.