The Secret Historians


Four authors who specialize in secret histories—novels that mix the real history of the world with strange, sometimes supernatural conspiracies—have written a round-robin discussion of their genre for Eos Books. The participants are John Crowley, Jeffrey Ford, James Morrow, and Tim Powers; I've never read any books by Ford or Morrow, but Powers' stories are usually a lot of fun and Crowley is one of the best novelists working today.

Powers offers the most perceptive comment:

[C]onspiracy theorists want "an alternative to the usual story we have to live with all day every day" (and we're all honorary conspiracy theorists when we're in the middle of reading a book like, say, Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49). But it has to be secret, too! There has to be that element of "I know the real story, and most people don't." I'm a sucker for that effect myself, so I like to try to evoke it in my books.

I've found lots of historical characters whose lives could plausibly (well, almost plausibly) include familiarity with, and action in, very secret magical goings-on, and it's fun to concoct supernatural explanations that cover even their recorded, apparently-mundane actions. But of course it's cheating–as Dan Brown cheated in The Da Vinci Code–to falsify actual recorded history. You have to leave the reader thinking, "Jeez, I can't see anything that contradicts this theory…"

He also gets off the best line, in response to Ford's remark that he doesn't think a writer can escape all the assumptions of his own time:

One time I was going to write a book involving the Brontes, and I read a 1990-something biography of Emily Bronte, and she turned out to have been an anorexic proto-feminist lesbian–but I think any woman in history would have turned out, in a 1990-something biography, to have been those things.

Crowley gets off a good line too:

I once told an audience at a convention that my Aegypt books were entirely organized according to astrological principles designed to draw through the text certain planetary influences that would cause readers to experience the text in a certain way. I quickly recanted, after seeing their many upturned faces filled with awe and acceptance.

Part two of the roundtable is here, and part three is here.

In related news, Thomas Pynchon has a new novel and Robert Anton Wilson has a new blog.

NEXT: Pull My Finger Conservatism

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  1. Thanks for this one, Jesse. Powers is possibly my favorite fiction writer; and now I have three other names to track down at the library.

  2. There has to be that element of “I know the real story, and most people don’t.”

    Plato’s cave, Christian neo-Platonism, Marxian “false consciousness,” Qutb’s notion of Jahiliyyah, etc. The history of philosophy is absolutely overflowing with notions such as this.

  3. Not sure if this is on point, but I absolutely loved Powers’ DECLARE.

  4. I second pretty much everything hale said.

    Or, if I want to be more authentically Internetty about it:

    Me too!

  5. Morrow wrote the wonderful Only Begotten Daughter, as well as the Corpus Dei trilogy, where God’s body falls from heaven and lands in the Atlantic ocean.
    All four authors are regulars at Readercon.

    If anyone knows, what was the last thing Crowley released?

  6. According to the bio in the roundtable, his most recent book is called Lord Byron’s Novel. I have not yet read or, for that matter, seen a copy of it.

    He also has a blog.

  7. As a PSU grad, I feel compelled to plug Morrow’s “This is the Way the Worlds Ends”. A great story, but seems to over encourage active participation in citizenship/government vis-?-vis, an over-hyped parallel to Locke’s notion of tacit consent. i.e. by just being or floating in society, don’t be suprised if one day you wake up eff’d because you didn’t act. Despite the book’s well crafted message and encouragement for active citizenry, you still won’t catch me in a voting booth.

  8. I’ve never read anything by any of these authors…any one want to give a nice little “best of” list? Thanks!

  9. Morrow’s City of Truth is worth reading, I haven’t read anything else by any of these four. I’ve always heard good things about Powers, I guess I’ll have to try one of his books.

  10. any one want to give a nice little “best of” list?

    If you like “Pirates of the Caribbean” type action, I highly recommend Powers’ On Stranger Tides, which was OOP but was just re-released in PB (prolly to coincide with Dead Man’s Chest). Otherwise, definitely check out Declare, which is a John Le Carre-type supernatural espionage thriller. It’s terrific.

    Can’t recommend Drawing of the Dark; and The Anubis Gates, which is said to be his best, is still waiting for me on the bookshelf.

    Meantime I’m going to investigate the other three authors.

  11. The Anubis Gates is my favorite Powers novel. On Stranger Tides is great fun too. Either one is a good place to start.

    The Stress of Her Regard is rewarding reading, but it’s sometimes slow going. The Drawing of the Dark is juvenilia, but it’s the sort of juvenilia that shows a lot of promise for what’s to come. Both are worth reading eventually, but I wouldn’t start with either one.

    I didn’t care for Final Call, which had some good ideas in it but suffered from a bad case of bloat. Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is OK, but it’s very atypical — a science-fiction story set in the future rather than a historical fantasy set in the past.

    And that’s all the Powers that I’ve read. The much-praised Declare has been on my to-read list for years now — I really ought to bump it up to the top.

    As for Crowley: Aegypt and its sequels are magnificent. Of his shorter books, my favorite is Beasts.

  12. Morrow’s “Towing Jehovah” and “Blameless in Abbadon,” the first two books in the Godhead Trilogy are both amazing reads, one where God dies, and a guilt-wracked oil tanker captain must tow him to the arctic (spoiler: the crew has a REAL Eucharist). In “Blameless…” a justice of the peace puts God’s corpse on trial at the world court. The third book, whose name escapes me at the moment, is o.k., I guess.

  13. Third book is “The Eternal Footman”

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