A feature on the work of Tanith Lee that originally appeared in Black Static #47:-
I was reading BLOOD 20: TALES OF VAMPIRE HORROR (Telos Publishing pb, 338pp, £14.99) with a feature on Tanith Lee’s work in mind when the sad news broke that the author had passed away. I could have asked for no finer demonstration of how much of value our genre lost on that day than this book.
Blood 20 is a collection of twenty vampire stories, some new and others that have been previously published, some set in the real world and others grounded in fantasy scenarios, one of novella length and others that are more rightly considered as flash fiction. And, though there is much of darkness about them, Lee’s vampires are not the reductive monsters of Hammer and Universal, but fully rounded creatures who act as they do from credible motives, who need blood to survive, but whose existence is not circumscribed or wholly predicated on that need: the appetite for blood is just an aspect of their identity, an essential part of a complex whole, something that describes but ultimately does not define who and what they are. There is a rather rough and ready chronological outline to the stories’ running order, with the opening works set in the Classical and Medieval periods, and the last taking place in the far future.
First up we have ‘On Reflection’ set in a time when the furthest outposts of the Roman Empire are menaced by a sect of madmen, ruthless killers who will stop at nothing until those they regard as enemies are dead. Legionnaire Corbo discovers a strange mirror that turns him into a vampire, and to fight the Madmen he converts other soldiers under his command. Having extinguished one group of the enemy, the Roman vampires prepare to carry the fight to the Madmen and to live for eternity, reconciled to their fate. It’s a solid story, one that reeks with verisimilitude as Lee fills in the small details of frontier life for the Romans, and takes the time to give each member of her cast distinguishing character traits, and there is something of honour in their decision to cast off their humanity for the greater good. You can also find contemporary allusions, with the statue destroying and implacable Madmen bringing to mind ISIS.
There is a strong fantasy element to ‘Bite-Me-Not’ (or ‘Fleur de Fur’), with the Duke and his court besieged in their castle by a party of winged vampires. When the vampires’ leader is trapped a woman of the court comes to his aid, with dire consequences for them both. There is a sense of the fable about this story, and also timelessness, so that when we learn the back story of the Duke and his daughter it feels like justice has been served, even though many of the innocent suffer, and love alone stands triumphant, with the means to repel vampires, the flower of the title, arising like a phoenix from the ashes of the narrative. In ‘The Vampire Lover’ a studious sister frets that her flirty younger sibling is being visited by a vampire, even though she claims not to believe in such things. We too come to believe, but there is a delicious twist waiting in the wings, with the true villain of the piece revealed in the final section of this beautifully written mystery, one that demonstrates a keen understanding of human nature.
A troop of vampires gratifying their bloodlust through posing as mercenaries are lured to a castle where an even greater evil is lurking in ‘Winter Flowers’. Once again Lee excels in her characterisation, making each member of her dramatis personae a distinctive individual and giving us details of their life together, the sacrifices that have to be made so they can survive, the constant peril of being found out by the others with whom they serve. And then there is the magic of the castle and the monster that dwells within, with a neat twist at the end to cap it all. In ‘Il Bacio’ (‘Il Chiave’) an Italian nobleman tries to trick a Jew into becoming the victim of his vampiric ancestor, but is outsmarted when his target turns out to be somewhat other than he had expected. It is a wonderful and witty story, with each delicate thrust of the duelling dialogue cutting deep, a feeling of decadence cast over the whole enterprise, and some delightful turns of fortune near to the story’s climax as the game of cat and mouse is played out to its bitter end. The sister of a vampire must decide how she is to fend for herself when her brother is slain in ‘Blood Chess’, another beautifully written story in which things are not as they first seem, and a timely warning to ascertain all the facts before we take any irrevocable action.
The longest story in the book, fact and fiction overlap in the elegant and clever work that is ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’. In interlocking sections it gives us the story of a writer and the vampire tale that she is working on, at the same time using fiction to work through her own issues regarding a certain man. Emotionally charged, it is a work that combines fantasy and erotica, using both vampirism and the act of writing itself to examine our attitudes to life and love, with some wonderful descriptions and originality of thought. ‘Israbel’, a performer who fascinates Parisian society, and also a vampire, hires an artist to paint her portrait so that she can see what she looks like, but the painter Plinta falls in love with her and asks for conversion as his price. In essence this is a story from the bargain with the devil substrata of genre fiction, with the reader asked to second guess exactly how the candidate will be cheated. Lee comes up with a twist that is, with hindsight, as obvious as it is gratifyingly unexpected in a compelling story, one rich in ideas that are rendered in lush, romantic prose, with convincing characterisation and a delightful end twist.
Moral values are cleverly reversed in ‘Remember Me’, with a clan of vampires adopting a street urchin they name Dracul, who repays their love with cruelty and betrayal. It’s a story that portrays vampires sympathetically compared to the cruelty and inhumanity of Dracul’s own kind, but at the end though he loves the vampires he prefers to remain human, the narrative reducing his treachery to moral terms. There’s an apocalyptic scenario on offer in ‘The Third Horseman’, with a world in which the vampires have converted everyone and so have nobody left from whom to take the blood they need. Again, the story is extremely well written, with Lee finding yet another novel way of using familiar material, turning the clichés on their heads. In ‘Nunc Dimittis’ the aged and faithful servitor of a vampire selects a young criminal to serve in his place when his life has run its course, the story contrasting the pettiness and squalid ambitions of Snake with the nobility and love shown by Vasyelu Gorin, showing how one can be changed by a vampire in other ways than the most obvious.
A journalist arrives to interview ‘La Vampiresse’, who is kept a prisoner at a remote location and subdued with the use of drugs, and this illusion is maintained perfectly for the duration of his visit, but then afterwards we learn the truth of the matter, one that in a way seems stranger than fiction, if I’m allowed a cliché. It’s a deliciously clever exercise in not letting the reader see what is really going on until the writer is ready to pull the rabbit out of the top hat with all the flair of a stage magician who has nothing up her sleeve except pure magic. Office worker by day, Goth Girl by night, Ruby Sin the heroine of ‘Scarabesque: The Girl Who Broke Dracula’ searches for her vampire lover and eventually finds him, but things do not quite go as she had planned. The strength of this piece lies in the back story, Lee showing us how Sue/Ruby came to form this attraction to a fictional being and the terrible circumstances that left her so unhinged, the fantasy simply a way of managing an intolerable reality, and we are left with the possibility that everything we have read regarding the vampire’s visit was only a fantasy, Lee closing with a cutting remark on the suitability of demon lovers.
Another clever piece follows, with a vampire fascinated by the woman ‘Vermilia’. At first he thinks she is one of his own kind, but is puzzled as to why she doesn’t quite fit the bill of sale. By the time he has come to realise the horrible truth it is much too late, with Lee once again deftly reversing the natural order of things in this compelling and offbeat tale. Everything is down to perspective in ‘Real and Vire’. Is our heroine a downtrodden worker drone escaping her humdrum existence through virtual reality scenarios in which she lives as an immortal vampire, or is she an immortal vampire relieving the boredom of her existence through virtual reality scenarios in which she is a worker drone? Lee demonstrates that there are two sides to every situation.
Another highlight of the collection, the wonderfully titled ‘The Beautiful Biting Machine’ has a vampire securing sustenance on an alien planet by working in a fair where he is the caretaker of a robot that enacts vampire scenarios with the visitors. Again this is a great idea, one that is developed with rigour, and at the heart of the story is the irony that only by taking part in a charade can humans deal with their fantasies of vampires, while the reality horrifies even though so close at hand. Vampires have been incorporated into human society in ‘Beyond the Sun’, their special talents making them ideal for such things as space exploration. It’s an ingenious examination of how a predator can make a niche for itself, and the accommodations human beings are capable of, but Lee gives it a personal dimension by showing how Anka fell in love with the vampire who converted her and how his loss from her life has continued to keep her sad. There is no end to Anka’s life, but no end to her sorrow either.
Finally we have ‘On Reflection: The Epilogue’, a sequel of sorts to the first story in the book, set in the far future when the burnt sands of the Earth have turned the entire planet into a reflecting mirror, the story a meditation on fiction and truth, vampires and humanity. It is the perfect end to a damn near perfect collection of stories, one in which every piece has something unique to offer, be it invention, beautiful prose, originality of thought, or characterisation that reflects back the reader’s own soul.
Also from Telos we have DEATH OF THE DAY (Telos Publishing pb, 250pp, £12.99), a reissue of the author’s 2004 crime novel. It opens with the death of a butterfly, possibly an allusion to the so-called effect, and as result Steven Grace crashes his car down a country by-lane when returning to his hometown of Seatree from London. He gets out and wanders into a nearby house, but finds it unoccupied, and so leaves only to turn up dead a hundred or so pages later. And from then on we get the interwoven stories of the various people who are tangentially situated regarding this event.
Grace’s wife the novelist Jula Cork, has her own reasons for wanting him dead, and the police wonder if her friend Jack Hastings gave Jula a hand in making things happen. Another friend, bookshop owner Markessa, thinks Jula and Jack are having an affair: she also believes that Steven is much too good for Jula and wants him for herself, but before long Markessa has problems of her own. Leigh Dover, who discovered Steven’s abandoned car and phone, reporting them to the police, is a woman with a past and becomes a person of interest to the police, and one officer in particular. George and Miranda Alliat, the owners of the house Steven Grace briefly set foot in, are trapped in an abusive and revenge driven relationship. And, by way of closing a circuit, the circumstances that saw them arrive in Seatree several years before was connected to the disappearance of Jula’s parents when visiting the town over twenty to thirty years previously.
Yes, definitely some of that butterfly effect shenanigans going on here.
Lee’s writing is as effective as elsewhere, with her penchant for vivid descriptions and the peculiarly apt phrase given full wing, but that’s really only a small part of what is on offer here. Also vital to the book is the meticulous plotting, with each and every disparate element eventually fitting together like the components of a finely tuned machine, though I suspect if you think about it for too long then certain aspects will seem overly coincidental or simply a matter of authorial convenience. Overall there’s something of a Midsomer Murders feel to this tale of death in a small town, though the real emphasis is on character development rather than a steadily escalating body count, with Lee giving us memorable and completely convincing people.
Steven Grace is a total shit: we learn this from listening in on his own internal monologue, the way in which he seems to see himself as the centre of everything and judge everyone else as lacking in comparison. Jula is the victim of an earlier abusive relationship with her adopted father, Uncle Leonardo, and in reprising past events Lee cannily shows us that abuse is not simply a matter of violence, that people can be ground down and broken in so many small ways, each one accumulating until the burden is intolerable. This past history makes her easy prey for the wily Grace, and by the time his true colours become apparent it is too late, and she is trapped in another abusive relationship, one that is even more insidious and toxic to her self-respect. Similarly Leigh has been turned from a strong, independent, confident woman into somebody who always holds back, who keeps everyone at a distance, and the manner in which she learns to overcome this and trust in the police officer who holds out the possibility of love is sensitively portrayed. And then there are George and Miranda, their love that once burned so bright transformed into hatred and abuse, by his indifference and her betrayal, an act that aroused only anger. It’s a portrait of two people who can’t let go of the past, even though all they do is hurt each other. While there is no doubt where her sympathies lie, Lee is careful to provide George with a motive for how he acts, to show that in his own way he too is a victim. At the end of it all there are happy endings for some, death and oblivion for others.
This was a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing read, with crime genre trappings and mystery elements that with hindsight seem only incidental to the greatest mystery of all, that of the human heart, of how and why we act as we do.
COLDER GREYER STONES (NewCon Press pb, 210pp, £9.99) is the paperback reissue, with one extra story, of the Tanith Lee collection NewCon kicked off their Imaginings line with in 2012 (that volume was titled Cold Grey Stones).
After an Introduction by publisher Ian Whates, detailing his first encounter with the fiction of Tanith Lee and the abiding love it engendered, we get into things with the intriguingly titled ‘Clockatrice’, a tale in which the past is repeated in the present. At the centre of the story is a local legend accounting for the stone statue of a young woman in the grounds of a stately home, but photo journalist Dru is the catalyst for similar events to occur in the present day, the story beautifully written and all the more convincing for the depth of detail, with moments of real horror along the way. A young boy on holiday with his father and his father’s new, young partner, is witness to their relationship growing increasingly violent as a result of the influence of ‘Malicious Springs’. The central conceit is slightly suspicious, or perhaps simply intended as a get out of gaol free card come plot convenience. In less skilled hands this would have been a tale of environmental woe, the monsters of pollution, but Lee concentrates on the human interaction, showing how the little things can lead to the big things going disastrously wrong, and her delivery is as assured as it is original.
A man in lodgings finds his room haunted by a gravestone in ‘The Greyve’, the concept intriguing and developed with a vitality and rigour that is only let down by a contrived and weak ending. An outcast from his village, Nirsen dwells in the forest with the Ice Maiden, but eventually his existence ends and all that is left is ‘The Heart of Ice’. This was a strange, engrossing story, but one that for all its prose beauty didn’t really seem to go anywhere, more in the nature of an oblique fable than story. Next up we have the eerily effective story of ‘Calinnen’, whose return from war is not quite as welcome as he was expecting, finding that all the things he loved have been tainted. A man is lured into the vampiric ‘En Forêt Noire’ by those who wish to kill him, and thinking he has escaped Louis learns that there is to be no escape. Another beautifully constructed story, with believable characters and a compelling end twist, this was one of the highlights of the book, bringing back fond memories of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne.
‘ Fr’eulogy’ is a short piece, an exercise in seeing as others do dependent for success on the revelation of exactly who or what is being treated so thoroughly badly, and while lured in by the prose I have to admit that I found the payoff to be singularly underwhelming. A warrior who has lost everything seeks ‘The God Orkrem’ to demand answers, but then himself assumes godhood and confronts the problems of that role in a fable story that echoes with mythic resonance. Flash fiction ‘In the Country of the Blind’ offers a sardonic commentary on our hatred of those who are different, especially if they may also be right, and it does so through the novel medium of a country of naked people who believe they are clothed being confronted with a man who actually is.
Rag and bone man Harco visits a strange house in ‘My Heart: A Stone’, acquiring the stone heart of the dead owner and the four spirits that haunt him and hold him stuck in Limbo, Harco’s own role to help them all move on. Or something like that, in a fascinating but perplexing story, one that is perhaps more fun to read than it is possible to fully grasp the meaning of, a meaning which twists and turn in your grasp. In the eminently readable ‘Killing Her’ a woman finds a cathartic means to deal with her homicidal fantasies, the story clever and engrossing, but lightweight.
Last of all we have ‘The Frost Watcher’ which, though couched in fantastic and mythological terms, is at heart a story warning of the perils of uncontrolled scientific experiments, that knowledge for its own sake isn’t always a good thing, that some things should simply be left alone. All of this comes wrapped up in the tale of a simple shepherd who has a vision of the world’s end, while everyone else sees only the good to come, and thinking about it this could in fact be inspired by the Large Hadron Collider, though I’m probably taking things a stretch too far in raising such a possibility. It’s a compelling story with which to end a strong collection, one that shows both the variety of Lee’s oeuvre and its undoubted quality.
Tanith Lee (1947 – 2015): her voice will be missed, and we are all the poorer for its loss.