Friday, September 6, 2019

Expiration Date by Tim Powers

The first Tim Powers novel I read was Last Call. It is my favorite of his. While I’ve gone on to read most of his books in the decade since I read that one, somehow I had never gotten to the other two books in a loose trilogy with it. Expiration Date has one shared character with Last Call, and Earthquake Weather is apparently a sequel to both. Powers is a master of making weird mythologies and systems that when described seem like they shouldn’t make sense at all, but in the context of the story work perfectly. I’m looking forward to finally reading Earthquake Weather to see how he manages to merge the mythologies of the two previous books.

Expiration Date has a runaway kid nick-named Kootie who is possessed by the ghost of Thomas Edison. There is the survivor of a set of twins (his sister kills herself near the beginning of the book) who uses a mask incorporating the ghost of Houdini to disguise himself from his former employer. She, and many of the other antagonists in the book, eat ghosts as a way of extending their lives. There’s a psychiatrist who is a materialist, but used the trappings of seances in therapy to good effect, until a dead man and several ghosts showed up to one session. This is not the weirdest stuff that happens in the book. Powers creates horror/fantasy thrillers by doing extensive research on a person or time period and fills the cracks in with very strange things.

Powers tends to spell everything out, and in that way he contrasts with some of my other favorite writers, Gene Wolfe, say, or Caitlin Kiernan. They leave more ambiguity in the events of their stories for the reader to suss out. With Powers he will tell you how it sorted out, and it will make internal logical sense, even when it seems impossible in the early going given everything in includes. He is not an ideological writer, though. He focuses on the story, plot and characters and lets the ideology sort itself out. I appreciate this. His explanations do not extend to sermonizing.

He is a Catholic, and if you read closely, you can see those themes in his books, but they are never didactic. In this case the major theme seems to be the need and search for forgiveness and characters coming to terms with the fact that they have done some pretty awful things in their pasts. I appreciate that. What I had a hard time with, is that I think they often feel bad for the wrong things. I particularly have a hard time buying some of the specific guilt of the psychiatrist character. She is seeking forgiveness from the ghost of someone who she did wrong in one sense; he died in a session she was conducting. But she’s written as if she feels badly for not dating him. Or at least it could be read that way. There are a couple other examples, but that is the one that I had the hardest time with. This didn’t ruin the book for me, but it sat oddly.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the way some horror is out to actually disturb (the movie Hereditary, Caitlin Kiernan’s fiction) and some takes you on a horrifying ride, but ultimately has a comforting conclusion. Powers tends towards the latter. Truly terrible things happen, but at least some of the characters survive, learning and growing through the process. And the ride goes by some of the most creatively horrifying things I’ve read. Quibbles about the motivations of some of the characters aside, I really loved this book. I still prefer Last Call, but this is an excellent dark fantasy/horror/thriller.


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