by Tim Powers
With a Foreword by David Drake
Introduction by Tony Daniel
(Baen, November 2017, 487 pp., hc)
“Salvage and Demolition”
“The Bible Repairman”
“Appointment on Sunset”
“The Better Boy” by Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock
“The Way Down the Hill”
“A Journey of Only Two Paces”
“The Hour of Babel”
“Where They Are Hid”
“We Traverse Far” by Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock
“Through and Through”
“A Soul in a Bottle”
“Fifty Cents” by Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock
“A Time to Cast Away Stones”
“Down and Out in Purgatory”
“Sufficient Unto the Day”
Reviewed by C.D. Lewis
Down and Out in Purgatory reaches across time to collect weird horror from Tim Powers. Twenty-one stories date as far back as 1982 and range from a few thousand words to novellas, allowing one to sink into Powers’ weird universes for the duration one needs. And one needs it. The tales are grounded in a variety of mythos, ranging from what you might expect to find worked by a small-town brujo through Viking lore to Catholic cosmology. Their true gem is Powers’ gallery of idiosyncratic characters whose lives (or after-lives) the author up-ends. Powers’ details build rich-feeling character backstories and environments. It’s often a dingy, grayed-out landscape in which ghosts and immortals struggle in a universe full of regular mortals. Mostly set near the present, Powers’ fantasies often employ time travel to complicate their protagonists’ problems. Powers provides an afterward for each piece that sheds light on its inspiration and origin. The ratio of recommended stories in this collection definitely warrants the read, and those unfamiliar with his work will enjoy experiencing the craft that earned those awards.
“Salvage and Demolition” is a glorious assemblage of creepy concepts that ought not all be listed lest we risk spoiling a twist. There’s excitement as opposing factions compete for control of an original handwritten manuscript – but Powers’ work is so much more nuanced than a mere car chase. This short displays a beautiful symmetry in the characters’ relationships, conflicts, and the solutions to their problems. A poem too dangerous to read riffs on Python’s joke too funny to tell – requiring teams of translators working on different parts – while evoking cursed works like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. Why doesn’t the translator destroy the manuscript when she works out it’s intended to kill a bunch of people and put villains in charge of godlike powers? Well, it’s some of the best work she’s done – how could she? The life-or-death struggle to escape villains committed to recapture the translated text doesn’t just put the main characters at risk, but all those who might be tricked into reading the stuff in a paid newspaper ad in 1957 or – there’s time travel – a series of high-traffic blogs hacked by the evil cabal in 2012. The villains may be the most patient planners in the story, but the protagonists seem more creative. The translator manages to shield her own mind from the brunt of the destructive text by pseudonymously writing both halves of an Ace Double, organized around parallel creative principles designed to counter the destructive impulse of the cursed work. The story is so rich with details the reader can feel real surprise when some of them turn out to launch significant story elements. Life and death, love, tolerance, surprise – what’s not to love?
“The Bible Repairman” is a One Last Job short story about a brujo approaching retirement. Naturally it goes off the rails – it is a One Last Job story, after all. Powers creates such a mood in this piece that the alien magic makes complete sense. Much of the genius in the story centers around the workaday atmosphere, which makes the hedge-wizard protagonist seem down-to-earth and approachable while at the same time making magic seem a practical part of a community’s everyday life. It mixes the heart-wrenching aspect of a child kidnapping with the supernatural big-as-life stakes of a local magical underworld to create a dark, sad tale so bittersweet you’ll struggle which taste is best.
“Appointment on Sunset” is a weird fugue-state time-travel short that opens on what seems to be a man trying to find that special focus that lets one see the color images in certain black-and-white optical illusions. The protagonist is headed to Sunset Boulevard … just, not today. Powers depicts drunks’ actions during a blackout as “indeterminate” and subject to change if their ghosts can time-travel into their unconscious bodies to make potentially different choices. It’s so typical in time travel stories that the travelers have seen the future – and know what’s going to happen – that it comes as a refreshing change to find a time-travel scheme that requires reliance on a dupe who hasn’t any idea what the big picture looks like and can be tricked about what is at stake and what the right side is to take. Fans of Timeless (which shares the element of the under-informed time-traveller) will enjoy the main character’s revelation how he should invest his opportunity to save (or doom?) a stranger, and save himself. This quick, fun read is unexpectedly uplifting. Maybe those drunks who keep dying behind the wheel are doing better service for their communities than you thought….
Written with James P. Blaylock, “A Better Boy” invites readers to revel in the sensual pleasures of breakfast foods and sports victories, as experienced by an eccentric inventor determined to solve a gardening problem – and the eponymous tomato – through the studied application of the principles governing the luminiferous ether. You have to love effort to put science behind crystal power. Fans of the Journal of Irreproducible Results will love this inventor’s explanations for the physical phenomena he observes, and his proposed solutions. The zany worldview is completely worth the slow start, which sets the stage for our self-absorbed inventor. The protagonist’s confidence in his erroneous laws of nature is so delightful you can forgive the author’s calisthenics to make ether bunny jokes. Between the protagonist’s conviction he understands the minds of tomato worms and his conviction that he will succeed in defending his prize tomato against them, it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion, as beautiful as it is terrible. The story feels like it’s winding up for a tragedy about an overconfident nut hell-bent on saving a doomed tomato – the stakes themselves nearly comedy enough for a short story – but evolves into a thing of unexpected beauty.
“Pat Moore” opens on a piece of chain mail. You know the kind: circulate it and get good luck – or else! Powers really groks the chain letter, down to the jarring punctuation and failure to spell words that follow the i-before-e-except-after-c rule. You don’t have to see many specimens to understand how they work, but Powers has found a use most miss. Two worldbuilding concepts underpin the story: that chain mail can effectively cloud the location of a ghost whose name appears in the circulating letters, and that the peculiar behavior of binoculars’ optics can be used to catch and hold ghosts. The effect – connecting the unexpected to the ordinary – has a feel like a secret history: a surprise of weird behind the world we know from our own lives. Powers arranges a climax involving ghost combat, demonic Rube Goldberg contraptions, and personal redemption.
In Tim Powers’ first published short story, “The Way Down the Hill” presents the narrator’s account of his attendance at a family reunion of immortal parasites who, upon the death of their hosts, take over the bodies of another human, as yet unborn. The characters are colorful and disturbing; the rules governing the supers’ power provides the villains motive for some awful behavior that moves the narrator to action. The story’s force depends on the reader sharing the narrator’s reaction to the villains, though it’s not a great stretch to imagine many will given the scheme’s danger to infants. I give high praise for a novel creepy nonhuman threat to the world, but wish the protagonist’s climactic decision had been shown with enough reflection to show the solution was, despite its shortcoming in scope, the one the character had to make to win.
“Itinerary” opens on a mysterious call. The narrator’s story skips between the present time – near a kitchen-obliterating propane explosion – and the narrator’s earlier life. Crazy character backstories are absurd enough to hold attention by themselves. The narrator’s expectation he can make things occur out of chronological order makes one wonder what passes for normal in Powers’ zany world. If you like the nonlinear and the weird, this one is for you.
“A Journey of Only Two Paces” returns to third-person to show an officer of the court roped into a bigger role in the deceased’s affairs than he expected. Weird and beautiful, it’s full of literary references and double-meanings and mystical minefields. If weird is your bag, you do not want to miss this.
“The Hour of Babel” shows humans with time travel attempt to make sense of a historical encounter with an alien that exists in so many dimensions the time travel isn’t capable of enabling surprise, or even investigation. Exotic special effects, unusual motives, and the threat of superhuman visitations appear on a gritty future backdrop. As in Lovecraftian work, the protagonists have no power over the lethal forces erupting about them. For lovers of horror.
“Where They Are Hid” depicts twins separated at birth, one controlling the world through time-travel manipulations and one convinced his periodic bouts of extrasensory are hallucinatory fits for which he requires medical treatment. Although both expect to be able to interact with the world around them, they drift out of phase with their world while pursued by an inhuman enemy. Although the first brother is absolutely certain his alterations to history are an improvement, the twin works out that his brother’s not erasing the bad actors at all…. The nonlinear presentation and skipping between observers reduces the feel of one consistent plot arc, which may bother some readers, but like many good horror pieces, this one has great strength in its creepy atmosphere. Horror fans, rejoice.
Written with James P. Blaylock, “We Traverse Far” uses a Christmas haunting to frame in a fictional universe a true story arising from a sidewalk re-enactment of the Romans’ escort of Jesus to the site he was crucified. The protagonist is a shut-in widower struggling to keep alive the day his wife died: calendar set to March, the clothes she’d meant to wear laid out on the bed, all as it was that day. He perseverates on scriptural passages about the divinity and durability of marriage, and is unwilling to give up on the marriage even after his wife’s death put it to a legal end. The protagonist’s transformation follows a mood shift in the story rather than flowing from a character-defining decision during a high-stakes climax. It has a plausible emotional flow and ends with a positive change in the character’s outlook, but its structure may not be for everyone.
“Through and Through” depicts a not-recently-confessed priest confronted in his confessional by the shade of a suicide, which demands confession. There’s enough background on Catholic doctrine in the story to let non-Catholics follow it, though it helps to have passing familiarity with some major Catholic rites. Fearful of death sure to follow the shade’s chill touch, the priest must work out what Catholic doctrine will permit him to do in the face of her request, that won’t provoke her to drag him with her to haunt confessionals for eternity. Inspired by priests the author did not admire, the story shows a priest who doesn’t approach his work with much earnestness gain appreciation for the demands of his religion. The priest’s personal fears and guilty thoughts have a believable feel and the “what if this stuff is for real?” moment is entertaining to see on a priest. Powers’ depiction of life-or-death stakes in a scene with no overt threat presents an excellent example of how horror is done.
“Night Moves” opens on a local wind blowing through town and past a wild gallery of Powers’ patented delightful weirdo characters. The initial feel is more magical realism than horror: a man won’t turn on the light on his boyhood home’s rear porch lest illumination spoil the imaginary nighttime scene outdoors; silent messages transmitted through the blinking yellow streetlights; a lady who expects a scrap of an old dress worn in 1923 to slowly regenerate the whole dress – and maybe her, too, if she can find it. It’s a weird world with faceless gray bogey-men and a gold-digging sociopath stalked in his dreams by an incorporeal childhood playmate. Powers’ A+ creepiness includes a fearsome vagrant who “as usual, was lurching along the sidewalk and shaking his fists at dire adversaries, but tonight, for once, he seemed to be yelling at people who were actually there.” Bring a bag of carrots, it’s some rabbit hole. Ultimately the vignettes collide in a concrete problem from which the protagonist is unwilling to extricate himself until it’s a challenge – but he’s up to the challenge. It’s as satisfying that he has abandoned his Machiavellian plans for his girlfriend’s money as it is that she ditches both him and her own controlling parents.
What fan of horror doesn’t like the idea of a séance to contact the departed H. P. Lovecraft? “Dispensation” manages in less than two thousand words to build a horror story out of so many real-life elements it’s easy to feel the whole thing really should be true. Inspired by a description in Lovecraft’s last letter, geographical trivia about the place he lived, and a real-life long lost manuscript commissioned by Houdini to combat superstition, “Dispensation” dresses an homage to Lovecraft in an old-fashioned ghost story. Fun.
“A Soul in a Bottle” is a missed-connection story about a man repeatedly thwarted from keeping in communication with an often-passing woman who turns out – because it’s a fantasy – to have a supernatural dimension. The tale features ghosts and a plan to alter the timeline. Lonely and wistful and desperate, it ends on the kind of dark note that’s only a triumph for a horror writer.
“Parallel Lines” is a ghost story about the elderly protagonist’s recently-suicided twin sister’s effort to return. The fun part is the seeming physics in spectral communication: the protagonist works out the messages she’s getting are not what she initially assumed. Unlike those horror stories that rely on mood alone for their effect, “Parallel Lines” has a protagonist who makes decisions, takes action, and makes changes. Under 4,000 words, it’s good fun in a small package.
Written with James Blaylock, Tim Powers’ “Fifty Cents” opens on the protagonist’s road trip across the desert to scour thrift shops in an undirected search for a used book of collected songs. But this is Tim Powers, and the weird journey is nonlinear and the world is steeped in mystical possibility. He meets for the first time people who’ve met him before, and ends up places he didn’t drive. Much more about mood and mystery than plot, this will appeal to those seeking goosebumps more than a defined character arc.
Set in the world of Tim Powers’ Philip K. Dick Award winning time travel fantasy novel Anubis Gates, the novelette “Nobody’s Home” opens like a revenge story but turns into the prequel featuring the backstory for his character Jacky Snapp. On the trail of the werewolf/body-snatcher who murdered her poet fiancée, she is thwarted by ghosts bent on killing another woman, ghost-hunters bent on capturing the lingering of her fiancée, and a barge-dwelling vendor who promises to lay her lively ghost to rest. Ghost-related risks and rituals are sprinkled throughout, providing a mythology that has a real-world feel of accreted lore. Snapp’s a fun protagonist: ambitious, driven, able to face fear, clever, and committed. The fact she doesn’t solve all her problems in one story is hardly a reason to criticize a piece that sets her up for further adventure.
Powers’ use of real people in the novella “A Time To Cast Away Stones” creates a feel fans of secret history will not want to miss. Carefully hewing to (incredible) historical facts about the lives of real people, Powers creates a feeling of verisimilitude that allows him to weave supernormal motives and aspirations amidst the already-amazing circumstances of his subjects. Since Powers’ protagonist is a man who in life lied about himself, why not have some fun with what else is true? Facing the opportunity for immortality, Powers’ protagonist must weigh his ambition to achieve great things, his hope for recognition, and his concern for those he loves. This dark piece will have you cheering for one resolution, then another.
Powers prefaces his novella “Down and Out in Purgatory” promisingly, with two quotes on revenge. The piece’s gray mood extends from the opening-scene morgue to an afterlife in Purgatory, where the object of his vengeance dwells. Effective worldbuilding creates a ticking-clock feeling even in the afterlife, with the window for vengeance and/or redemption closing while the protagonist gets his bearings and tries to resolve the conflict that brought him there. The climactic choice is where one expects: does he double-down on the dreams he had while alive, or find some redemption from a path that lost him to obsessions that dulled him to the world while he lived? Enough characters fill out the tale to show redemption and damnation both; by depicting redemption as possible, Powers gives a bitter tale a sweet note even as he delivers on the fate-worse-than-death his protagonist intended to deliver from the outset.
“Sufficient Unto the Day” opens on Thanksgiving dinner preparations for a family whose departed relatives are regular holiday guests. Powers captures the squabbles of children misbehaving on the busy day, the adults planning – all establishing a mood into which the supernatural slips like another humdrum detail or family quirk. Throughout, Powers proves a keen observer of holiday behavior, which is funny to see depicted even without references to Python’s dead parrot. Everybody’s family is like this, apparently, even haunted families. “Sufficient Unto the Day” makes (entertainingly) the argument there is such a thing as too much family underfoot.
C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.