Tim Powers does not often write short fiction, but when he does, he comes up with doozies. The Bible Repairman and Other Stories contains a mere six stories, but each one is so well-crafted that it will stick in your brain, giving you odd jabs now and then, twisting a thought or causing goosebumps.
“The Bible Repairman” is about Torrez, a man who makes his living “fixing” Bibles: carefully “scorch[ing] out the verses the customers found intolerable, with a wood-burning stylus.” Particularly popular passages for excision include Jesus’s condemnation of remarriage after divorce and Jesus’s promise of Hell to stingy people. He also does custom repairs to cars, such as installing a “pain button” that the owner can push when the car refuses to start — foolishness, but it indulges his customers’ anthropomorphization of their automobiles — but also performing legitimate repairs, such as removing a babbling ghost from a car’s stereo system. He does not, however, retrieve stolen or kidnapped ghosts any longer, for fear of losing his mind. But one day a man comes to his door asking him to ransom his daughter — and he means a living daughter, not a ghost. In payment, he brings Torrez’s own daughter’s ghost, kidnapped years ago. You cannot adequately imagine how the story goes from there; you must read it. It is one of the more peculiar and wonderful stories I’ve read in recent years.
Tim Powers’s affinity with ghosts extends to “A Soul in a Bottle.” In this story, George Sydney meets a woman as he reaches down to place three pennies beside Jean Harlow’s square at the Chinese Theater. She becomes entangled with his discovery of a rare book of poetry — rare because one of the poems appears to be signed by the poet. And even rarer, on closer inspection, because a familiar poem seems to have an unfamiliar last stanza. The book leads him, ultimately, to the poet’s sister, and things become considerably more morally complicated from that point. Between ghosts and alternate worlds, the story comes out to be more melancholy than it seems going in. And Powers isn’t a half-bad poet, either.
In “Parallel Lines,” on June 21, 1975, something strange happened to Hollis and everyone else in the restaurant where he was working. It’s been 31 years since “the night God vomited on Firehouse Pizza,” as one character puts it, a night of which Hollis has no recollection past about 8:00 p.m. It was Hollis’s last real job, but it didn’t last past that night; and now it has been intruding on his dreams, so much so that he’s returned to the place on this fateful night. Strangely, a number of other people who were in the restaurant that night in 1975 have also returned on this night, along with a couple of strange looking fellows. It seems they’re from the future, and they’re trying to figure out why no one can time travel to that night, in violation of all the laws of nature. Things get even odder from there, in typical Powers fashion.
Powers returns to ghosts in “Parallel Lines.” Caroleen finds her right hand haunted by her dead sister, BeeVee. BeeVee was not a nice person, and Caroleen suffered for it. BeeVee seems to regret her treatment of her sister in life, but even more, she regrets that she is dead. And she wants to come back.
Jack Ranald has committed suicide, and his old friend, Arthur Kohler, a rare book dealer, is the executor for his estate in “A Journey of Only Two Paces.” Ranald’s widow, Elizabeth St. Campion Halloway, hijacks him one afternoon after a lunch ostensibly intended merely for the delivery of some cash from the estate. Soon the two are in the hills above the Silver Lake Reservoir in Southern California, looking for an apartment building Ranald had owned that seems too hidden to really function as such. Why has Campion brought him here? And how is it that she knows so much about him, from what kind of car he drives to the most valuable book in his stock? The brilliant sun of Southern California has never seemed so menacing as in this tale.
The final story in this volume, “A Time to Cast Away Stones,” is set in the same universe as Powers’s brilliant novel The Stress of Her Regard. This story is about Edward John Trelawny in the years between that novel and Powers’s new novel, Hide Me Among the Graves. For those who know these novels, no more need be said except that this long piece about most unusual vampires is required reading for anyone who loves Powers’s works. It is dark and frightening and altogether wonderful.
This slim volume is a must for anyone who admires Tim Powers and his unique voice. I know of no other author in the science fiction, fantasy and horror community who can write a ghost story with the Powers panache. The first five of these stories are accessible to anyone coming to Powers for the first time; the last is best read by those already familiar with Powers’s work with Shelley and Byron. All the stories have poetry to them, some literally. The world changes shape when you read Powers, and that’s a good thing.