The first part of a feature on the work of Molly Tanzer that originally appeared in Black Static #51:-
THE WEIRD WEST AND THE PICARESQUE: MOLLY TANZER
I first encountered the work of Molly Tanzer back in 2013 when I was on a jury to decide who should receive that year’s British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and her A Pretty Mouth was in contention. A collection of linked stories chronicling the history and (mis)adventures of the Calipash family, and with its gonzo invention and irreverent use of Lovecraftian tropes it impressed me mightily, and I promised myself that at some point in the future I would become more acquainted with this writer’s oeuvre. Fortunately, when you’re a reviewer, promises like that are easy to keep.
VERMILION (Word Horde pb, 386pp, $14.55) is Tanzer’s first novel, and it’s tagged as “The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp”. The novel is set in the United States in the year 1870, but we soon discover that it’s not quite the world we know from viewing The History Channel. In this reality certain animal species, such as bears and sea lions, are intelligent and communicate with human beings, negotiate treaties and alliances with them. It was ursine intervention that helped the North to win the Civil War, and the fallout from that has hindered the human push east in a way that didn’t occur in our timeline. Anyway, Lou Merriwether, the daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, earns her living as a psychopomp, helping the spirits of the dead move on to the next plane of existence. Lou’s mother asks her to investigate when a number of Chinese men go missing. She finds evidence that they are being recruited to work in the east, most probably on a railway line, but that doesn’t quite make sense as there is an embargo on railway building, and then the body of one of the missing arrives in a crate and manifests as a reanimated corpse that Lou must deal with. Various clues point to Estes Park in Colorado, where Doctor Panacea is running a sanatorium for rich people, and so Lou goes undercover, traveling east and posing as a potential client. It’s the start of an adventure that brings her into conflict with vampires and a dragon, that sees Lou reunited with old friends and gaining a sidekick.
To cut to the chase, this is a wild romp of a book, one with many pleasures for the reader. Foremost among those, Tanzer setting the tone in the opening passage with a vivid description of the Rocky Mountain backdrop, is the author’s sense of place and ability to convey that. From the vast spaces and wide open skies of Colorado through to the fog shrouded streets of San Francisco and bustling environs of Chinatown, she is adept at bringing the landscape of her story to life on the page, plunging readers into the geography, immersing us in the atmosphere, so that at times it begins to seem as if the landscape is itself another character in the author’s cast.
And of those characters, as is only fitting, Lou Merriwether is the jewel in Tanzer’s crown, a female adventurer in all but name, though she would hardly recognise herself as such, soul kin and contemporary of those Victorian society ladies who dressed as men and set off to explore the world. Lou is a well of contradictions – supremely confident in her profession, an extremely capable individual, wise beyond her nineteen years, but at the same with a personal life that is as messy and mixed up as anything the rest of us have to offer. She’s at odds with her mother over the death of her father, and her love life is a tangle of missed opportunities and misread signals. These qualities make us identify with and believe in her all the more. In addition to all that, with her mixed ancestry, Lou is a person with one foot in the oriental world and another in the occidental, and subject to the prejudices and judgements of both, while her position as a formidable woman in a patriarchal society adds yet more complications. Lou’s response to all this is to cultivate an air of bemused toleration, except in personal matters and those of social justice, so that she finds ways to work round other people’s problems, to make allowances for machismo and xenophobia, while certainly not condoning such attitudes. And this is seen most obviously in relation to the sexuality of others, with no big hissy fits when a woman is attracted to her, or when an old boyfriend turns out to be gay, or during a visit to a brothel catering for a rather exclusive clientele. In her dealings with other people, for most of the time Lou is the personification of a live and let live philosophy. Only cruelty gets her dander up.
It’s this easy going nature that lets Lou get so close to Shai, her companion on the trip to Estes Park, and the other major character in this book. Outwardly a cultured dandy he soon shows that he has a dark side, and can be a ruthless killer when circumstances necessitate. And yet as his back story is revealed, the times and ordeals through which he has lived, Lou finds herself both attracted to him and slightly uneasy about that attraction. I suspect that in him she sees much of herself, or what she could have become had things turned out differently. In the interaction between the two of them, Tanzer gives us a complex and engrossing relationship, one charged with an underlying eroticism. In brief, they have chemistry. Shai is a man with many secrets, which Lou discovers over the course of the narrative, but perhaps his defining characteristic is his loyalty to long time employer and lover Doctor Panacea. And, for the reader, finding out which way Shai will jump when, inevitably, Lou and Panacea clash, is one of the things that will keep us reading.
Panacea is a memorable villain, a monster who affronts our ideas of what is right and acceptable, who will do anything to get his own way. In some particulars he reminded me of Cougar and Dark from Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, the same quality of showmanship and drive to corrupt others. His evil grows in stature as the book progresses, so that while initially he might have seemed nothing more than a quack selling health tonic and cures to the gullible, what eventually emerges is something far more sinister. Yet for all that, at the end of the day there is a rather crass and commercial motive behind his actions, so that we can wonder if Tanzer intended his person to embody a critique of venture capitalism and what will be done to turn a profit.
These three, the good, the bad, and the could swing either way, are only the leading lights in a wonderful ensemble cast, with other players that include a Pinkerton agent, a bear official who befriends Lou on a train journey, a rich young girl with an unlikely ambition, assorted henchmen and their prisoners, former lovers and their new companions, each one drawn with skill and impressive depth, so that they all help to drive the plot along.
While there are certainly horrific moments in the narrative, including a torture scene that was appropriately distressing, and genre trappings such as restless spirits, vampires, and a dragon, this is not a horror novel as such, but more appropriately classified as a Weird Western. Imagine if you will Big Trouble in Little China transplanted to the American west of John Ford, only with intelligent sea lions and talking bears thrown into the mix, allowing Tanzer further scope to comment on the foibles and perfidy of mankind from an outsider perspective. Classify it how you will, this book was immense fun, gleefully subverting genre templates and blurring the boundaries at will, and at the end of the story there is plenty of scope left for a sequel, which is a possibility that pleases me immensely, as Lou Merriwether and her cronies are simply too much fun for just the one adventure.
(TO BE CONTINUED)