Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories of Tim Powers, Tim Powers (Baen 978-1-4814-8279-0, $25, 496pp, hardcover) November 2017
Casual sports fans merely enjoy the games. Hardcore obsessive sports fans compile stats and follow the managerial maneuvers of the franchises. A similar dichotomy exists between casual readers of fantastika and the true aficionados. The latter nerds, such as myself, chart the careers of writers along several axes. And so when a writer switches publishers it’s like a baseball player getting traded–or becoming a free agent–in terms of engendering talk and interest. Such ancillary concerns don’t really affect the actual fiction that much, I suppose, although players have been known to wither on one team and flourish on another. But these career maneuvers among writers are fascinating as barometers of personal and genre trends and adaptations.
After several recent books with William Morrow/HarperCollins, the superlative fantasist Tim Powers appears to have made the leap to Baen, not the first spot I would have predicted him landing. The story collection from Baen under discussion today is to be followed by his next novel, Alternate Routes, which introducer Tony Daniel reveals to be “an August 2018 Baen original Powers novel set along a ghost-ridden stretch of the Los Angeles freeway system that must exist in some universe that is slightly more real than ours.”
Surely the handsome and distinguished hardcover presentation–also featuring prefatory material from David Drake–which Baen has accorded to Down and Out in Purgatory bodes well for the relationship. And they are kicking off this new phase of Powers’s writing with the smart move of gathering all his fine short work to serve as a kind of introduction to the man.
These stories span thirty-five years of Powers’s output, the oldest dating from 1982. His tale-telling actually began with his two books for Laser in 1976, when he was only twenty-four.
The first item is “Salvage and Demolition,” which I had cause to review in my Asimov’s column when it came out independently. There I said that the story “manages to conflate Robert Nathan’s timeslip romance Portrait of Jennie with Robert Heinlein’s ‘—All You Zombies—’… Powers’s sophisticated narrative challenges the reader without frustrating him, delivering just enough information to allow us to have fun deducing the rest and guessing at the twists to come.”
Next up is one of Powers’s more famous tales, “The Bible Repairman.” A louche brujo figure, Torrez, finds that his sense of ethics compels him to undertake a supernatural rescue mission despite the attendant danger to his own well-being. As usual with Powers, the down-and-out California setting is lushly, tangibly, meticulously recreated. I should mention here that new afterwords to each story provide fun and revelatory information.
“Appointment on Sunset” find a ghost summoned back by living folks intent on reinserting the spirit into his timeline–the point of his death–and making him rewrite the past. The battle between free will and predestination is just part of the dense and morally fraught action.
Written with James Blaylock, “The Better Boy” is a kind of Kuttner-meets-Simak story about a man, his “inventor pants,” and a prize tomato, with “ether bunnies” and hideous worm assailants tossed in for good measure. It’s gonzo, but in a gentle manner.
A cascade of avatars, living and dead, battle for supremacy in “Pat Moore.” As always, Powers’s ability to describe creepy creatures and their impact on the living is supreme.
Its face was indistinct—pouches under the empty eyes, drink-wrinkles spilling diagonally across the cheekbones, petulant lines around the mouth—and Moore did not try to recognize himself in it.
The force that had knocked Moore down was holding him pressed against the floor and the stove, unable to crawl away, and all he could do was hold his breath as the soliton ghost swept over him like a spiderweb.
You’ve got a girl in your pocket, came the thing’s raspy old voice in his ear.
That “girl in your pocket” line feels to me like an allusion to Fritz Leiber, a master whom Powers emulates at times, I always thought–and found my suspicions confirmed in one of these afterwords!
Another influence on early Powers must have been Roger Zelazny, for his very first story, “The Way Down the Hill,” with its pack of quarrelling immortals, strikes me as akin to the Amber books and other Zelazny productions.
“Itinerary” features a patented Powers first-person narrator: world-weary, wry, at heart still too sensitive for his own good. Our hero this time finds himself fulfilling an eerie chrono-circuit. Black humor is a feature of all these stories, and perhaps nowhere more completely than in “A Journey of Only Two Paces,” which finds the protagonist forced to attend his own forced soul extinction. I detect traces of van Vogt’s recomplicated psychical epiphanies in “The Hour of Babel,” wherein a pizza parlor functions as a nexus of multiple realities.
The opener to “Where They Are Hid” reveals Powers’s prowess with evoking an enigmatic and emotion-laden episode:
When he stepped out of the doorway and sniffed the warm air, he had a feeling that he’d finally finished the reluctant, years-long, trial-and-error journey—and he was sure of it when, after squinting around for a couple of moments, he saw the woman pushing the baby carriage along the sidewalk. And though now that it was all over he felt like staring in horror, or crying, or just running away, he forced himself to do nothing more than pat the pockets of his coat and smile casually as he strolled up to her. He said good afternoon and peered into the carriage.
“We Traverse Afar,” another Blaylock co-production, is a little gem about a chance meeting of mortals and otherlings centered around Xmas. A jaded priest finds a strangely demanding parishioner occupying his confession booth in “Through and Through.” Although still buried at Swan Point cemetery, HPL dominates the events in “Dispensation.” The classic sub-genre of “bad imaginary friends” gets the unique Powers treatment in “Night Moves.” Is it wise to fall in love with a female poet with a febrile mind? Probably not, and less so if she is already a greedy ghost, as we discover in “A Soul in a Bottle.”
The relationship between sisters, seen in the previous story, gets riffed on again in “Parallel Lines,” where a funky impromptu Ouija board channels a bad spirit. James Blaylock rides shotgun again in “Fifty Cents,” as we witness a succession of weird hitchhikers attempting to thwart our hero’s journey. “Nobody’s Home: An Anubis Gates Story” revisits the Victorian realm of one of Powers’s most famous novels, and features a lovable and spunky heroine. That same era discloses another occult adventure with “A Time to Cast Away Stones,” featuring the quasi-Byronic real-life personage of Edward Trelawny.
You may read my whole review of the title story (it had an independent existence as a novella) in a previous Locus Online column, where I opined: “[This] is Tim Powers’s first true descent, I think, into the bardo, the kind of afterlife fable exemplified by such bold masterpieces as Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, and Will Self’s How the Dead Live. Powers has been steadily building up a physics or natural science of ghosts in his many variegated yet resonant books. Now he embarks on an actual cosmology of posthumousness. What Niven & Pournelle aimed for at novel length in Inferno is surpassed here at a fraction of the length.”
Finally we get the first print manifestation of an online tale, “Sufficient Unto the Day,” which, with its family of lovable and scary kooks, reminded me of Bradbury’s Elliott tales gathered in From the Dust Returned.
This stellar collection, while gravitating around a dense nucleus of compactified themes–ghosts, time-travel, a kind of Ben Katchor-Julius Knipl nostalgic haunted urbanness–is rich and wide-ranging enough to evoke our entire world, in all its spectral beauty. Powers is a writer whose senses and soul are attuned to a cosmic symphony most of us would not hear without his deft channeling of the music.