|New York, Tor, 1997, $24.95 hc, 414 pages; London, Legend, 1997, £17.99
hc, 565 pages|
Another Dave Langford review.
Is it because of a subtle difference between the US and British appetites for sequels that Tim Powers's latest novel is marketed as a sequel by Tor, while Legend offer no hint of the fact? No, I think it's merely traditional non-acknowledgement of rival publishers. In Britain, our author has recently moved from HarperCollins, thus reducing his substantial backlist to "Also in Legend by Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates".
In fact Earthquake Weather is a double sequel, to both Last Call (1992) and Expiration Date (1995). The first of these, which won a World Fantasy Award, revolves around loved ghosts and magically booby-trapped Tarot/poker games in which players can lose their bodies to possession or identity exchange. Eventually the protagonist emerges as the hidden Fisher King of the US West, whose assumption of this position redeems the accursed waste land known as Las Vegas. Expiration Date, a personal favourite, is set in a substantially darker Los Angeles where ghosts rather than lines of cocaine are the fashionably illicit things to snort for a rejuvenating high, major-league spirits like Edison and Houdini are coveted McGuffins, and elaborately tatty psychic defences, traps, foci and "masks" abound.
Combining the props and cast lists from these two gives the early parts of Earthquake Weather a curiously clotted feel, as of a stew that contains simultaneously too much and not enough. If one hasn't read Expiration Date in particular, some details -- like the significance of palindromes as ghost-fascinators -- don't seem to emerge with full clarity. If one has read it, certain set-pieces like the use of Edison's spirit telephone come across as "more of the same", rather than the continuous flow of novel invention and erudition which we cruelly expect from Powers.
Still, the book is full of good things. It emerges that Scott Crane the Fisher King has somehow failed his land, allowing a new outbreak of the dreaded phylloxera louse to ravage the vineyards of California. There is not a lot that Crane can do about this, owing to his having been murdered. Worse, he was killed in the wrong way -- that is, not by a potential successor. The possible heir is young Kootie from Expiration Date (Koot Hoomie, raised like Krishnamurti to be a messiah and thus afflicted with this unfortunate name from darkest Theosophy), who actually has the requisite unhealing wound in his side. Crane's chief acolyte brings the late King's family and decay-proof corpse in a partly miraculous pick-up truck to the magic consultancy run by Kootie's adoptive parents: Pete, who has Houdini's hands, and Angelica, formerly a psychiatrist and now an initiate into brujeria....
This group's elaborate and ramshackle magical efforts to either resurrect Crane or transfer his rule to Kootie do, alas, drag a little -- partly because the sheer number of pages visibly yet to come are a signal that closure and healing are at best a long way off. But Powers is never boring, and keeps things on the move with incidental conceits like the occult web-search for information on someone born in 1943. One simply jingles a jar of 1943 pennies at an antique TV which expects an acoustic remote control, and the "random" channel changes drift away from reality into skewed programmes holding supernatural portents. Of course.
Further interesting characters are introduced. Cochran, ever since a strange boyhood epiphany, has a special empathy with viniculture which proves to be of immense importance. Ms Plumtree of the many personalities shifts facets between the pleasant-seeming Janis who swills Listerine to efface her other selves' spit, the unscrupulous con artist Cody, the nymphomaniac Tiffany, and several more -- including a ghostly outsider whose intrusion first fragmented her mind, and who is her own murderous father. Imagine Freud digesting that datum. Plumtree has to take further passengers aboard before the book is over. Meanwhile, Dr Armentrout is a comic-sinister psychiatrist villain who has a nasty fondness for ECT or Edison Medicine prior to splitting off and consuming -- like those sniffers of ghosts -- disordered parts of his patients' or victims' souls. Armentrout has devised his own grotesque apotropaic "mask", which not only provides a bizarre frisson but with fine black comedy becomes the instrument of his eventual come-uppance. Late in the book: "How, he wondered forlornly, and when, did I become indistinguishable from the bad guys?" Also, there are three very different female ghosts.
The Fisher King's pseudo-death was signalled by an earthquake, and ushers in a time of unstable weather -- climatic, tectonic and psychic. A further quake frees Cochran and Plumtree from Armentrout's mental institute, thanks to a god personally threatened by the vineyard plague: Dionysus. He lurks beneath the story in more than one aspect, showing himself through visions and cunningly changed fictions. Thus on one occasion Cochran sees a bull-headed apparition, and on another reads A Tale of Two Cities with dim awareness that the sinister woman who knits before the guillotine should not be called Ariachne as in this text ... a woman "married to the 'bull-necked' man who owned the wineshop". (Dionysus married Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Minotaur fame, and at least once transformed himself into a bull; the knitting motif blurs Ariadne with Arachne the weaver.)
In the end -- following adequately exciting pursuits and escapes, an enjoyable excursion to the Winchester Mystery House where some of the holy wine that pays all debts has been concealed, and a frenzy of modern-day Bacchanals whose revel is complicated by the attack of some rather routinely murderous secret-society heavies -- the final healing requires sacrifice to Dionysus. It's a triple sacrifice, of physical wholeness, of fond memories, and of at least one life. But, as flagged by the repeated quotations from A Tale of Two Cities, substitutions can be made; and the god, in explicit echo of the Green Knight, may possibly inflict only a token wound. All ends painfully but satisfyingly.
Those expecting that some character in each Powers book must sooner or later lose an important body part will not be disappointed. This time it's a hand. Twice. (A mummified eyeball also plays, as it were, a bit part.) Another trait may be a knowing response to the NYRSF #37 essay on The Stress of Her Regard, which mentioned a flair for alcoholic imagery. Someone in Expiration Date duly hears the twitter of small birds as curaçao, curaçao. In keeping with its vinous subtext, Earthquake Weather offers such treats as the burnt-coffee smell of a particular haunting, intensifying at key moments to the reek of Kahlua; Cochran's double misremembering of Dickens which sideslips Madame Defarge into Lafarge and thence Laphroaig; and a cigarette-eating eccentric who gives an early warning of that Dionysian intervention by singing about Puff the Magic Flagon.
Once again I'm awed by Powers's ability to stitch together a syncretic modern myth from fragments old and new -- classical sources, Hispanic folklore like the La Llorona tale echoed in Expiration Date, old movies (a TV showing of The Maltese Falcon sees Bogart/Spade fingering the Year King's killer), assorted oddments of history and pop-culture (the coming rebirth of the King inevitably registers on certain sensoria as the imminence of Elvis), and even outright junk. It seems a little ungrateful to note that there's a worrying delay before narrative tension develops, or that that penultimate Bacchanalia and shoot-out feels rather confused and imperfect in focus. Remembering that both Last Call and Expiration Date were revised by Powers after first publication, it's possible that we may see a tightened-up text in the paperback edition. Meanwhile, new readers would do well to enjoy those prequels before approaching the considerable virtues of Earthquake Weather.
|First published in The New York Review of SF 108, August 1997.
Article Index Home