I'm really trying to make at least a modicum of effort to share my impressions for any book I've read now. Not that I think anyone else cares what I think - but I've found it useful for reference to see what a book was about or approximately when I read it. That said, here's a long overdue look at Down and Out in Purgatory.
Down and Out in Purgatory the Collected Stories of Tim Powers
I stumbled across a Tim Powers novella called Down and Out in Purgatory on Amazon a little over a year ago. It was a hardcover and I didn't notice the length of the book in the Amazon listing so I was surprised when the book arrived and it was a lot smaller than I expected (both the length and the physical dimensions of the book). As I recall, it didn't cost as much as a full-sized hardcover so that assuaged any disappointment or annoyance I may have felt.
This isn't a commentary on that little novella of a book.
But, before I continue, I did want to mention that Tim Powers signed both books with his own trademark upside-down title page personalization. So that's fun.
A year or so later, I became aware of another Down and Out in Purgatory (also a Tim Powers book) when I received an email about the Tim Powers signing for Down and Out in Purgatory at the Mysterious Galaxy book store. This version of the book is confusingly a collection of short stories with the same title as the earlier novella. The novella mentioned above is actually one of the many stories contained within the collection. After purchasing the book for the signing (and taking both versions of Down and Out in Purgatory to be signed), it took me a couple of months to get around to reading the collected version (I'd read the novella long before) because I had a bunch of less-imposing books on the reading shelf that had been there longer. Many are still there. And have new neighbors as I've been routinely adding new books to the shelf. But enough about my overloaded reading shelf and on to the stories of Down and Out in Purgatory...
The supernatural plays some part in just about every Tim Powers story I've ever read (sadly, the many Tim Powers books I've read are beginning to blend in my memory with the many non-Tim Powers stories I've read, so even though all of TP's stories probably do involve the supernatural, my defective brain can't commit to that statement). The short stories of Down and Out in Purgatory amp that up. A lot. Most of the stories involve ghosts in one way or another - the title story included. One of my favorite stories in the collection, The Way Down the Hill, is more of a non-traditional vampire story (not the neck-biting variety of cross-fearing night walker) set in some vague not-too-far-in-the-future time - judging by the robot in the story. The story reminded me of Highlander in a weird way. And also a little of the gods from Norse mythology.
All the stories in the collection are good, but my biggest problem with short stories is that they're over by the time I start to figure out who everyone in the story is and why I should care. So I'll never love a short story that doesn't include characters I'm already familiar with1 (one of the short stories, Nobody's Home, involves characters from The Anubis Gates, but I've either never read that book or I read it so long ago that I've forgotten the characters because they weren't very familiar to me). Making each short story even more interesting is a note from Tim Powers at the end of each story that details what inspired the story.
Here's a breakdown of the collection's stories (from Amazon - these are not my summaries and some are more accurate than others):
Salvage and Demolition: A book collector discovers a manuscript that results in a time traveling adventure to save the world.
The Bible Repairman: A psychic handyman, who is currently semi-retired and paid to eliminate troublesome passages of the Bible, is asked to return to the work he used to do and save the kidnapped ghost of another man's daughter.
Appointment of Sunset: A group of men try to change the past and save one man's life by making the ghosts of anyone who interacted with him, in any way, relive the events on his death day to change the present. But saving him is just a side-effect of what they're really planning...
The Better Boy (with James P. Blaylock): "A scaled-down horticultural version of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, with a tomato instead of a marlin."
PAT MOORE: A chain-mail letter promising good luck after you send it on to ten friends is more sinister than it seems.
THE WAY DOWN THE HILL: A we'd-all-be-better-off-dead story about a family of immortals who jump from one host to another.
ITINERARY: a time traveling ghost story.
A JOURNEY OF ONLY TWO PACES: A man settles an old friend's estate which requires a trip to a strange apartment building.
THE HOUR OF BABEL: A group of men need help time-traveling to June 21,1975, the night when "God vomited on Firehouse Pizza."
WHERE THEY ARE HID: Inspired by the Fritz Leiber novella, "You're All Alone." A chrono-jumper has undisclosed plans.
WE TRAVERSE AFAR with James P. Blaylock: A grieving man has an encounter during the Christmas season.
THROUGH AND THROUGH: A ghost comes to a confessional and wants absolution from the priest.
NIGHT MOVES: An imaginary playmate tracks down a boy, no matter where he moves.
DISPENSATION: two men encounter kittens and a ghost.
A SOUL IN A BOTTLE: A man meets a ghost - and falls in love with her.
PARALLEL LINES: The surviving elderly sister grieves the loss of her twin, who is trying to communicate with her.
FIFTY CENTS with James P. Blaylock: A man is searching used book stores for a particular book when he encounters some supernatural trouble.
NOBODY'S HOME: A prequel for the character of Jacky Snapp from the novel The Anubis Gates.
A TIME TO CAST AWAY STONES: A story about Edward Trelawny, a real historical figure; "a liar who eventually came to believe his own melodramatic fabulations."
DOWN AND OUT IN PURGATORY: A man vows to kill the man who murdered the woman he worshiped from afar.
SUFFICIENT UNTO THE DAY: A family's Thanksgiving feast takes a dark turn as the invited ghosts of relatives past accidentally draw soul-stealing demons into the family television set.
I'm not really drawn to horror. I've never read Dean Koontz and the only Stephen King novels I've read have been his non-horror efforts: The Stand, Cell, several of the Dark Tower books, and The Eyes of the Dragon. Even though Neil Gaiman's books are a little sinister and scary-ish, I wouldn't consider any of them "horror." And to be honest, despite the prevalence of the supernatural and ghosts, this is less of a collection of horror" stories than just a collection of really well-told stories. For me, it really comes down to an author's skill with stringing words together, fleshing out characters and story lines, and keeping me engaged. Tim Powers is definitely an adept story-teller who can engage the reader even if the content isn't exactly in their wheelhouse. That said, some of the short stories in the book were more enjoyable to me than others - The Way Down the Hill, Nobody's Home, and A Soul in a Bottle were my favorites.
Here's a brief excerpt from The Way Down the Hill that introduces you to some of the characters and the creepy world they live in.
I shrugged. "If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing thoroughly," I allowed.
Archie looked across the room and got to his feet. "Ah, I see Vogel is out of akvavit. Excuse me."
Most of us choose to die at about fifty, to ride the best years out of a body and then divorce ourselves from it by means of pills or a bullet or whatever strikes our fancy, so that our unencumbered soul can - though we rarely talk about it - dart through the void to the as yet unfirmly rooted soul of some unborn child, which we hungrily thrust out into the darkness, taking its embryonic body for ourselves. It sounds horrible baldly stated, and there's a mournful ballad called "The Legion of Lost Children," which none of us ever even hums, though we all know it, but it's hard to the point of impossibility to stare into the final, lightless abyss, and feel yourself falling, picking up speed...and not grab the nearest handhold.
Sam Hain, though, seemed to be an exception to this. He was born in mid-1796 and never died once after that, somehow maintaining his now one-hundred-and-eighty-five-year-old body on red wine, sashimi, tobacco and sheer will power. His physical age made him stand out among us even more than the obscurity of his origin did, and being patient, kindly and wise as well, he was elected Master at our 1861 meeting.
Up until then the Master post had meant little, and carried no duties except to provide a house and bountiful food and liquor for the five-yearly meetings. I was Master myself for several decades in the early part of the sixteenth century, and some of the clan never did find out -or even ask - who the host of the meetings was. Sam Hain, though, made changes: for one thing, he arbitrarily changed the date of the meetings from the thirty-first of October to November first; he began to cut back on the several vast, clan-owned corporations that provide us all with allowances; and he encouraged us to get more out of a body, to carry it, as he certainly had, into old age before unseating some unborn child and taking its fresh one. l believe it was Sam, in fact, who first referred to us all as "hermit crabs with the power of eviction."
I looked up from my drink and saw Marcus enter the bar and signal Archie. The alcohol had given me some detachment toward the whole business, and I admitted to myself that Marc had certainly drawn a good body this time-tall and slender, with cascades of lustrous coppery hair. I could no longer be attracted to it, but I could certainly see why I'd been so entranced at the street fair.
It ends confusingly if you haven't read the earlier events of the story, but if you really want to know more, you should just buy and/or read the book.
The author's note at the end of the story gives you a glimpse into the events around the time TP wrote the story, but not much insight into what inspired him.
This is my first published short story, and it appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1982. I'd had three novels published previous to that, and I wasn't intending to write a short story, but George Scithers, editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine at the time, asked if I'd like to do one, so I did. Scithers was also editor of the fanzine Amra, and I'd sporadically had drawings and limericks published in it since I was seventeen.
As it happened, Scithers didn't like "The Way Down the Hill" - he said the world didn't need another we'd-all-be-better-off-dead story - but I thought, Oh, I bet there's room for one more, and I sold it instead to F&SE, and Scithers and I continued to have an amiable relationship.
For Sam Hain's house I was thinking of the Muckenthaler Mansion in Fullerton, California, though for the story I moved it to the Whittier Hills. I had been in an amateur production of Lysistrata at the Muckenthaler in I974 - I played a senator; a role that required me merely to stand in the background and nod or frown - and it struck me as an appropriate place for the old patriarch to live.
Here's another short excerpt, this one from the prequel to The Anubis Gate, called Nobody's Home. There's a brief ghosty-interaction in this excerpt, but it's more subtle than many in the book.
Another false trail.
Her cold hand went to her chest, and under the fabric of her shirt she felt the glass cylinder she wore on a ribbon around her neck. I won't give up, Colin, she thought - I promise.
The umbrella below her was still hopping back and forth on its eight-step course, and it occurred to her that the person holding it might be playing hopscotch, jumping through the pattern of squares in the children's game. Alone, at midnight, in the rain. Jacky had only arrived in the city a couple of weeks ago, but she was sure this must be uncommon.
She pushed her wide-brimmed hat more firmly down onto her cut-short hair and prodded the false moustache glued to her upper lip, then leaned out from the first-floor window ledge to grip the wet drain-pipe by which she had climbed up to this perch; it still felt solidly moored, so she swung out and slid down the cold metal till her boots stopped at a bracket. From here she could stretch a loose-trousered leg sideways onto the granite sill of a ground-floor window, and a moment later she had dropped lightly to the street.
The figure under the umbrella was a girl, facing away now, her wet skirt flapping around her ankles under the hem of a dark coat as she hopped forward on one foot.
Jacky had decided simply to steal away in the other direction, toward the dim silhouette of St. Paul's cathedral dome, when the umbrella abruptly began to glow; in the same moment it was tossed aside and Jacky saw that bright flames had sprung up on the girl's shoulders and in her hair.
Jacky leaped forward and drove her shoulder into the girl's back, and when the girl tumbled forward onto her hands and knees on the wet gravel, Jacky pushed her over sideways and leaned in over the burning coat and tried to roll the girl's head into a puddle. The heat on Jacky's face made her squint and hold her breath, and her hands and wrists were scorching, and the glass vial had fallen out of her shirt and was swinging in the flames.
And another person was crouched beside her, trying to push her hands back; Jacky swung a fist in the person's direction, but it connected with nothing but cold rainy air. Finally she was able to roll the girl over onto her back, extinguishing the coat, and with stinging hands splash water onto the girl's head.
The author's note at the end of the story shows just how little Tim Powers needs to inspire his very fertile imagination.
"He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day."
- Tennyson, In Memoriam
Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press asked me if there was any story left to be told in connection with the characters and events of my novelThe Anubis Gates - and it occurred to me that the character Jacky Snapp had not got all the attention she deserved, in that novel. So I wrote this personal prequel for her. And since it's a prequel, you don't need to know anything about the novel when you read it.
My wife and I saw the London Stone, on a visit to England, and it's such a disappointment these days that there's almost a kind of rewarding irony to it - it's now just a melon-sized hunk of rock in the window of a convenience store. And it's at ankle level, so to see it you have to crouch down on the sidewalk or go into the store and step behind the magazine rack, and crouch there. If we hadn't been looking for it, we'd no more have noticed it than do the hundreds of Londoners who must walk past this little piece of British history every day.
Almost all Tim Powers stories take place somewhere in California. Most of the seem to be set in the LA area, but at least one in this collection is in the Bay area. A Soul in a Bottle is set right in the heart of Hollywood, which I really enjoyed. If you've been to Hollywood in the past few years, you know just how much of Hollywood's glitter has been rubbed away by the passage of time (and the encroachment of the multitudinous tattoo, t-shirt, and souvenir shops). This story does a great job of combining the awfulness of current-Hollywood and the magic of Hollywood from its golden era.
THE FORECOURT of the Chinese Theater smelled of rain-wet stone and car exhaust, but a faint aroma like pears and cumin seemed to cling to his shirt-collar as he stepped around the clustered tourists, who all appeared to be blinking up at the copper towers above the forecourt wall or Smiling into cameras as they knelt to press their hands into the puddled handprints in the cement paving blocks.
George Sydney gripped his shopping bag under his arm and dug three pennies from his pants pocket.
For the third or fourth time this morning he found himself glancing sharply over his left shoulder, but again there was no one within yards of him. The morning sun was bright on the Roosevelt Hotel across the boulevard, and the clouds were breaking up in the blue sky.
He crouched beside Jean Harlow's square and carefully laid one penny in each of the three round indentations below her incised signature, then wiped his wet fingers on his jacket. The coins wouldn't stay there long, but Sydney always put three fresh ones down whenever he walked past this block of Hollywood Boulevard.
He straightened up and again caught a whiff of pears and cumin, and when he glanced over his left shoulder there was a girl standing right behind him.
At first glance he thought she was a teenager - she was a head shorter than him, and her tangled red hair framed a narrow, freckled face with squinting eyes and a wide, amused mouth.
"Three pennies?" she asked, and her voice was deeper than he would have expected.
The author's note provides a brief glimpse into the inspiration for the characters and events of the story.
This story originated in my frustration that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay died two years before I was born. The character Cheyenne Fleming ended up deviating widely from Millay - certainly poor Fleming's sonnet can't hold a candle (lit at both ends or not) to Millay's! But I think Millay was the best sonnetist since Shakespeare, so I guess Fleming shouldn't feel too bad.
My wife and I did encounter a balloon seller one day in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater, and he did snatch a cigarette out of my wife's mouth; the man was wearing a top hat, and she knocked it off. The used-book store, Book City, isn't there anymore, unfortunately. Not in the present, anyway - you can still find it in 2000, if you can get there.
It seems like a shame not to provide entertaining excerpts from more of the stories, but I don't know if anyone would be interested enough to keep going if I did.
I had really planed to talk about the Happiest Place on Earth, a couple of CDs I'd purchased recently, and a few other things, but this is already a way longer rant than anyone could possibly be bothered to read. Even me. So I'll share that stuff next time. Maybe.
1 One that comes to mind is The Monarch of the Glen, a short story in Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things collection - which tells of the further adventures of Shadow from American Gods. Fragile Things is another book I've mentioned a couple of times, but have never really talked about at any length.