Tim Powers is hailed as the master of the “secret history.” Even as they peek into the imagined unexplored corners of the past, his books never ring false; they’re exhaustively researched, operating by the rule that he is never allowed to change what is about history, but only use inconsistencies and gaps in the historical record to consider what if. He interweaves mysticism (the Chapel Perilous, voodoo, vampire mythology, The Lesser Key of Solomon), esoterica, in-jokes (both personal and otherwise— “William Ashbless” is a poet of his own invention who pops up throughout his works), and verse to create works that feel like they’re part of existing record, even when their events are decidedly insane.
Powers’ latest book, Medusa’s Web, delving into the dark side of 1920s Hollywood glamour, is out next week. If you’ve yet to read him, there’s no better time to get started. Here are four books (and one trilogy) that will serve as wonderful entry points to his bizarre worlds.
On Stranger Tides
This is perhaps the best introduction to Tim Powers’s complex secret histories. On Stranger Tides tells the story of puppeteer Jack Shandy as he searches for his evil uncle and is pressed into the service of the pirate Blackbeard on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. It’s responsible for pretty much every modern representation of pirates who dabble in voodoo (all four Pirates of the Caribbean films are deeply indebted to Powers, even if Disney didn’t own up and buy the rights until the fourth one, which has a familiar title). And it features black comedy, swashbuckling swordfights, high-flying magical duels, zombies, and body-swapping (a Powers trademark) to boot. There’s something for everyone, be it creepy villains, unsettling monsters, lighthearted action, or just plain weirdness. Powers also displays an aptitude for making the characters morally complex, with their own agendas and agency.
The Fault Lines trilogy (Last Call, Expiration Date, and Earthquake Weather)
A loose trilogy of equally epic novels, the Fault Lines books take place in modern day (or what was modern day at the time) California and Nevada. Over the course of the series, an occult mob war is fought over the rightful heir to the throne of the Fisher King, an apocalypse begins with a sudden influx of ghosts and some kind of gigantic creature beaching itself in California, and other bizarre events occur. Powers uses the structure of crime novels to cast his secret histories as gritty conflicts between those “in the know,” and recurring characters (like Neal Obstadt and his contract-killer service, or, once again, a handful of body-swapping characters) and elements serve to build a dense, weird universe that feels almost concrete enough to exist. While it’s perhaps Powers’ magnum opus, the trilogy is as twisted as its ingredients imply, so tread with caution.
The Anubis Gates
Powers’s third novel (and perhaps best-known, and winner of the Philip K. Dick Award) involves a party of time travelers, led by an ailing multimillionaire, who wish to go sightseeing to the past and attend a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Things go awry, however, when an ancient conspiracy of sorcerers abducts one of the time tourists, seeking knowledge of the time gates. In the ensuing chaos, several gambits pileup, involving evil clowns, geomancy, secret societies, Egyptian deities, a freak show of monstrous beggars, and a body-jumping (seriously, what is it with this guy and body-swapping?) werewolf. The Anubis Gates is said to be one of the three proto-works (along with James Blaylock’s Homunculus and K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices) to have kick-started the steampunk genre, making it a must for all the period-fantasy completists.
The Stress of Her Regard
One of the few books Powers wrote that borders on outright horror, The Stress of Her Regard casts Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats, and other Romantic Era figures in a spooky story any of them could conceivably have written (they did help invent gothic horror). Through a series of unusual events, they all come into contact with a vampiric shapeshifting species known as the Nephilim, who influence human society from behind the scenes, acting as muses and prolonging the lives of those they attach to. When Michael Crawford becomes the obsessive target of a Nephilim, he and the troupe of writers must travel to the mountains of Switzerland to break the bond and learn exactly what the Nephilim have in store for the world. Powers nails the atmosphere of the works he draws from, from the opening scene of Byron and Shelley encountering a Nephilim on a boat, to the gruesome aftermath of Crawford’s wedding.
What’s your favorite work of secret history?