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TIM POWERS: Master of Fantasy

September 2000
By Paula Guran

"The thing is, supernatural fear -- as that skeptical materialist Lovecraft knew -- hits at a way-deeper level than just fear of some natural thing that will only kill you. A lunatic waving a gun is certainly very bad news, but the mere fact of him, like outside in the street, isn't enough to unman you. Lon Chaney was asked once what was the scariest thing he could imagine, and he said, 'A knock at the door at 3 AM, and you open it and see a clown standing there.'...I totally agree." -- Tim Powers

Tim Powers' unique brand of dark fantasy often offers the ultimate "What if?" What if a couple of early nineteenth-century Anubis-worshipping sorcerers cast a spell to bring their god back into power while, in 1983, a millionaire managed to take a group back to hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge speak in London in 1810 (THE ANUBIS GATES)? What if Byron, Shelley, and Keats were to meet a supernatural creature "as beautiful as she is evil" (THE STRESS OF HER REGARD)? What if a 1529 soldier of fortune were hired to guard a brewery in Vienna and gets involved with the Fisher King and a host legendary heroes to repel the Turkish invasion of eastern Europe (THE DRAWING OF THE DARK)? What if you linked the myth of the Fisher King with gangsters, the wasteland of Los Vegas, the ghost of Thomas Alva Edison, a haunted Los Angeles, body-swapping, and a million more oddities (the loose trilogy of THE LAST CALL, EXPIRATION DATE, and EARTHQUAKE WEATHER)?

Powers takes myth, folklore, legend, and accurate history and weaves in supernatural assumptions, wild (but believable) alternate explanations for events, a sense of adventure, and exquisite weirdness to produce his highly original novels.

Douglas Winter Born in Buffalo, New York, Powers moved to southern California as a child and has lived there since. Of his ten novels. THE ANUBIS GATES won the Prix Apollo (France) and the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award; DINNER AT DEVIANT'S PALACE also won the Dick Memorial Award, and LAST CALL won the World Fantasy Award. His eleventh, DECLARE, is a huge and intricate novel that combines espionage. the Middle East, and the supernatural in what may well be his most accomplished work yet. Published in a limited edition earlier this year by Subterranean Press, DECLARE sold out almost immediately. The William Morrow edition will be released in January 2001 and will be marketed as mystery/suspense. This time Powers may well gain a well-deserved larger audience.

DECLARE would also make a terrific film. Reduced to a simplistic Hollywood logline DECLARE might be "WW2 and Cold War spies meet in a supernatural LAWRENCE OF ARABIA combined with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as written by John le Carre" -- but, of course, it's also much, much more. How does Powers come up with such ingenious concoctions?

"I don't really read a lot of fantasy anymore -- but science-fiction and fantasy were just about all I read from age eleven until about age twenty, and that early reading seems to have laid the foundation-shape of my fictional imagination," he says. "I'll see a dramatic effect in a book by Kingsley Amis or John D. MacDonald or Dick Francis, and decide to use it in a book myself, but instinctively I'll have one of the characters in the situation be dead, or a vampire, or the other character at a different age.

book cover "When I'm reading any non-fiction -- history or biography or some contemporary thing about the movie industry, say -- I always find that I'm asking myself, "Sure, but why did he do that really? What were these people really up to?" And I instinctively refuse to admit coincidence -- if this here happened to Einstein in Germany on the same day that that there happened to Roosevelt in the United States, a significant connection seems obvious. So I cook up an explanation for the events that's consistent with the recorded facts (I don't write 'alternate history'!) but is not the explanation history gives. In a way, I make myself believe that my secret explanation really is the real story, and so when I find a fact that doesn't seem to fit my concoction, I just keep looking, confident that the apparent contradiction isn't real; sort of like a scientist sticking with an intuitive theory even when early experimental evidence seems to disprove it. And if I keep researching, I do generally manage to vindicate my theory!

"With DECLARE, it started when I read the John LeCarre introduction to a book called THE PHILBY CONSPIRACY; LeCarre provided so much evocative atmosphere, and opened the door to such a lot of speculation about Philby's background and real purposes, that I just landed running. I hadn't even been looking for clues to the next book I would write, but I read that book, and then a dozen more about Philby, and that led me to a hundred more books and articles on all sorts of related topics. I was well hooked.

"And this area -- the Soviet Union, British and Soviet spies, Bedouins and lost cities in the Arabian desert, and the beautifully-enigmatic Philby and his father, was a gold mine. (Such wonderful characters and settings and conflicts, all ready-to-wear!) And the very nature of the spy business meant that there were lots of never-explained and apparently-irrational bits that I could build a solid (though of course supernatural) explanation for."

Although DECLARE is decidedly dark, it's far from gloomy or bleak. In some ways, it's a downright heartening experience. Powers says he never deliberately chooses the tone of a book: "I don't think one could maintain an assumed tone throughout the writing of a whole book. I imagine the tone of any book I've written reflects my own attitude, which is -- wary of bad stuff, but basically cheerful, even optimistic.

book cover "I'm never aware of any differences in tone, among my books. Some have been called 'dark,' but to me they all seem to have lots of funny bits! (Some scenes and bits of dialogue just crack me up still, I have to admit.) And in fact I believe they all have 'happy endings' -- the nice people generally go away happy, and the nasty people get some mixture of defeat and humiliation and ... well, death."

Powers told me once that he hadn't read any science-fiction or fantasy published since 1972. "That's an exaggeration, but it's largely true. As I said, until roughly 1972, fantasy and science-fiction was about all I read, and I read Kuttner and Merritt and Cabell as much as I read Heinlein and Sturgeon and Leiber.

"I do still read some writers in the genre, of course -- such as Gibson and Stephenson and Karen Joy Fowler and Lisa Goldstein and Jim Blaylock, among a few others. (Of course, all of those but Stephenson are friends of mine.) I like to think it's no harm that I haven't kept up with the field I write in. I really don't want to have been taking part in a contemporary 1980s and 90s 'dialogue.' I love 20th century literature, of all sorts, but obviously most of the great writing was done in the many previous centuries, and I wouldn't want my own writing to be too top-heavy toward the 'right now.' And really -- it can't help but be pretty top-heavy that way in any case. We all grew up watching THE OUTER LIMITS and THE DICK VAN DYKE show, after all."

In DECLARE, Powers provides an absolutely bizarre explanation of the political set-up of the entire 20th century (and a lot more). yet makes it entirely acceptable to the reader. His new myths are often more convincing than the truth of history. Does he believe these myths himself? "Well, I suppose I'd be crazy, if I did. But I'm reminded of something that happened to Philip K. Dick -- his house was the target of a very military-style 'hit' in '72, and someone said to him, 'You're a writer? Well, in one of your books you probably described something that you thought was imaginary, but was in fact real, and top-secret. How many books have you written? Forty? Then you'll never know what it was that you stumbled on.'

"I don't believe my own myths -- except sometimes, invariably late at night, when after I've cooked up my imaginary explanation I find some fresh bit of evidence that precisely dovetails with it, even appears to confirm it. Then I nervously wonder if I haven't stumbled on some real explanation, and some super-NSA is aware of the direction of my researches and has an assassin out in my yard, lining up my head in the cross-hairs of a gunsight.

Last Call Expiration Date Earthquake Weather

"I go to bed, then, and in the morning I'm okay again.

"And it's true that I do try hard to make my supernatural structures work logically! This is a challenge, since you don't want to make it so mechanical that it loses the numinous, goosebumps quality. But I figure my readers are smart enough to object, for example, to an invisible man who can see by visible light, or to levitation without some at-least-implicit acknowledgment that General Relativity is being contradicted. And if you've got three-inch-tall men running around, how much brain can they have? What do they weigh? And what wave-lengths of light would their tiny retinas perceive? If you're going to make the reader believe this stuff is really happening, you have to take these things into account." Does he believe in the supernatural? "I'm both totally skeptical and uneasily credulous. For my book LAST CALL I had to buy a deck of Tarot cards, to look at the pictures -- but I'd never shuffle it! And for researching EXPIRATION DATE my wife and I bought a little bottle of something called 'Come Here' oil at a botanica, which is kind of a Hispanic witchcraft shop ... and then, nervous about maybe accidentally breaking it, we went back and bought too a bottle of 'Go Away' oil. Like the third wish on the Monkey's Paw!

"Ultimately, being a serious Roman Catholic, I believe that the supernatural can intrude in malign ways, but very rarely does. Not around my house, ever, I hope."

In the ever-evolving literature we call horror, many readers (and writers) these days find reality more frightening than the supernatural. Not for Powers. "I've known people who say, 'I'm not afraid of ghosts, I'm afraid of gang violence and psycho killers and cancer and nuclear war.' And I always think, 'Sure, say that when all the lights are on and there's company in the house. But I bet you think differently when it's total dark and you're all alone and you hear something whispering under the bed.'

book cover "The thing is, supernatural fear -- as that skeptical materialist Lovecraft knew -- hits at a way-deeper level than just fear of some natural thing that will only kill you. A lunatic waving a gun is certainly very bad news, but the mere fact of him, like outside in the street, isn't enough to unman you. Lon Chaney was asked once what was the scariest thing he could imagine, and he said, 'A knock at the door at 3 AM, and you open it and see a clown standing there.'

"I totally agree.

"And it isn't just horror -- there are evocations of heart-wrenching beauty that only fantasy can give you. The 'magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in fairylands forlorn,' or however Keats put it. I think Hope Mirrlees's LUD IN THE MIST is one of the best examples of this kind of effect, and even Lovecraft wrote some wonderful nostalgia-for-things-we've-never-seen stories like "The Strange High House in the Mist."

"Obviously you need the word 'mist' in the title."

[Note: Okay, kids, don't try this at home. Trust me, putting "mist" in the title isn't enough! -- PG]

Another mark of Power's novels is a certain "morality" inherent in them. Is this a reflection of the author's -- a practicing Roman Catholic -- personal belief structure? "I suppose -- though it's hardly unique to me. In fiction or real life, I -- like everybody, I think-- admire costly honesty and difficult loyalty. I think of Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, or Thomas More in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Since hard virtue and heroism are things you hope you'll never have to actually exhibit, I generally have my characters driven to these things, in spite of all their best efforts to just stay home and drink beer. They generally declare for the moral side of whatever the conflict is, but only when they've been deprived of every way to avoid it."

book cover One myth that has convinced quite a few folks is that of the nineteenth century English poet William Ashbless. Ashbless, supposedly a contemporary of literary figures such as Byron and Coleridge, winds up in every Powers book. "[Fellow author] James Blaylock and I certainly have had a good time with Ashbless in the years since we invented him in 72," says Powers. "We made him up as a pen-name under which to write portentous but nonsensical poetry for the college newspaper, and he's been busy since, in both Blaylock's books and mine. I still refer to him in every one of my books, though lately I've been using a Spanish-ized version of his name, Guillermo Ceniza-Bendiga It's almost a good-luck charm, by this time." Subterranean Press will even be publishing a WILLIAM ASHBLESS MEMORIAL COOKBOOK -- "Which is kind of a misnomer," Powers admits, "since it will develop that Ashbless's apparent death was a misunderstanding."

Blaylock, Powers, and K. W. Jeter are often associated with the term "steampunk." Does Powers accept this term for this subgenre that has been described as the "twisted offspring of science fiction and postmodernism"? "Sure! I believe it was Jeter that invented the term, and certainly he and I and Blaylock were all working from the same text when we respectively wrote INFERNAL DEVICES, HOMUNCULUS and THE ANUBIS GATES -- literally the same text, in fact, since Jeter turned Blaylock and I onto Henry Mayhew's various books on Victorian London lowlife. And it's fun to have had William Gibson and Bruce Sterling do THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, and get to imagine that they did it partly because of our loony books. Really, there's a cluster of qualities about 19th Century London that just begs to have books written in it. I mean, how can you resist playing with Charles Dickens's toys?"

book cover Powers and Jeter knew now-legendary science-fiction author Philip.K. Dick the last decade of his life. "We didn't quite live on the same street, but we were all within a few blocks of one another, and we spent a lot of time just talking the day away," Powers says. "I'm never sure of what influence Dick might have had on my writing -- he was a real genius, who could write a brilliant book in twelve days; I plod and plot and outline like a landscaper. I did learn from his work that your protagonist ought to have a job, and worry about losing it! And his wild hallucinatory nightmare plot developments certainly showed me fictional effects that I hadn't known could be got. Like the old line, 'I didn't know you could get that note on a horn!'

"I do think that the endless theological speculations Dick and Jeter and I spun, on all those afternoons and evenings, gave me an adventurous curiosity about religions, especially Catholicism. I wish Dick were still alive, so I could run some speculations past him."

Tim Powers is currently researching his next novel. "I read at gradually-narrowing random, taking notes and looking for odd parallels. It looks like it will involve the Los Angeles area in modern times, but will have to do with consequences of things that took place in the 1930s. Beyond that I'm not real sure yet."

Powers short fiction will be collected as NIGHT MOVES later this year from Subterranean Press.


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