The Stress of Her Regard
by Tim Powers
ISBN 0-441-79055-0, 1989 Ace Books, $17.95, hb, 392 pp.
If you have yet to discover Powers, what a treat awaits you! For those of you who have read his earlier work, such as The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides, I know I'll be preaching to the converted when I say that Powers is one of the most exciting authors writing fantasy today. He is one of the progenitors of the "gonzo" fantasy, a style in which the author uses actual history for the majority of the plot, but inserts fantastic elements that explain actions left mysterious by time and which will provide the details of the story. K.W. Jeter and James P. Blaylock, friends of Powers', have also written stories in this style, and Bruce Sterling and William Gibson are working on one called The Difference Engine. But gonzo fantasy is Powers' ballgame, and he's still batting 1.000.
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.