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About the Author
Craig L. Gidney lives in his native Washington, D.C. His fiction has appeared in such publications as Spoonfed and Riprap, and his music reviews have appeared on numerous websites.
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Photo | John Kainne


Delirium’s Mistress: The Weird & Beautiful Fiction Of Tanith Lee
Craig L. Gidney
The Indian jungle overtakes a proper English mansion. A grief-stricken man carries a dead horse up to his rose-strewn marriage bed. The feminine personification of Death haunts three artists in turn of the century Paris. A man marries a white weasel. A lowly maid finds a beautiful mask, and becomes an owl. A ghost child walks the canals of 18th Century Venice. These are but some of the haunting images in the fiction of Tanith Lee.
The old adage, in Tanith Lee’s case, is true: never judge a book by its cover. Hidden in horror magazines, moldering in used bookstores, buried in anthologies, and masked behind those lurid covers is some of the finest English prose you will read. In the ghetto of fantasy, horror and science fiction, Lee has honed her skills as a prose-poet. Lee has a devoted following ready to read her across genres, to see how she’ll weave together storytelling and poetry in her unique style. Words frequently used to describe her writing are: lush, sensual, rich, elegant, perverse and darkly beautiful. Complex plots and serious themes dart in her word play and shimmering images. To get a flavor of her writing, here is a passage from her 1990 novel The Blood of Roses:
An enormous cathedral, winter had been constructed in the forest, its masonry of ice, the organ peal of wind. The tiny artisans of the tribes of fox and the ermine had excavated and ornamented the aisles, printed its paving. Its windows were paned with cold mauve and blue and yellowish skies and the deadly reds of frozen sunsets. The cathedral endured. Then spring, the destroying angel, stalked the wilderness, sword in hand. Spring smote the cathedral. Its roofs of snow collapsed. After the thaw, green trickled into the arteries of the wood, and spears of sunlight divided the trees one from another.
The vast majority of her work, nearly sixty novels and over two hundred short stories, is out of print. Her current fiction suffers from the same curse that many mid-list authors do: in print for a brief second, then banished to the remainder bins. Which is a shame, considering the critical and professional praise that she has garnered, not to mention the numerous awards she’s received. She is most often compared to Angela Carter and Anne Rice, and is an acknowledged influence on authors like Storm Constantine and Liz Williams. Lee also has fans among such author as Jane Yolen and Michael Swanswick, and critics like the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda, and Jack Zipes. At least one of her novels, The Silver Metal Lover, has been optioned for film, another story was a part of a Canadian anthology television series. Lee has also had a few critical books and papers published about her work.
Lee got her start as a writer of children’s books in the early ‘70s. Such pieces as Animal Castle and Princess Hynchatti and Other Surprises reveal a writer who loves mythology and fairytales, and exults in restructuring them. Predating Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket by thirty years, these works show a playful facility with word, image and character, and a thematic obsession with examining the subtexts of fairytales and folklore that would be developed later on.
In 1975, Lee’s first adult novel, The Birthgrave, broke her into the fantasy/science fiction field. Ostensibly a sword and sorcery novel, the book was unique for not only having a strong female lead – the beautiful and terrible Karrakaz – it also had more emotional depth than your run-of-the-mill adventure novel. The moments of narrative stasis in this book are as intriguing as the “action/adventure” set pieces. The heroine wanders through a ruin-strewn landscape, trying to find out about her mysterious origins. It’s the first of what has been known as Lee’s bildungsromans, or novels of self-discovery. The science fiction critic John Clute has said of her work, that the exotic settings “illustrate her children” as they are initiated into moral and sexual world. In other words, the fantastic landscapes and strange set pieces are literal metaphors for Lee’s characters.
From 75-80, Lee moved from sword and sorcery to science fiction (still producing young adult novels and myriad short stories). During this fertile period, Lee’s prose developed rapidly, and she began to find her own unique, gothic sensibility, while discretely updating the bildungsroman form. Don’t Bite the Sun (1976) is a ribald piece of fiction that is best described as A Clockwork Orange on Ecstasy, and full of gem-studded sentences and joi de vivre. It has some of the manic energy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, as it deals with hedonistic immortal teenagers, searching for depth in prefabricated world.
Sabella or the Bloodstone is gothic science fiction: it deals with a vampire girl on Mars. The tone of the novel is dark, sexual, and full of loneliness and fear. The title character discovers her nature in a hostile environment. By the time of Volkhavaar and Lycanthia, or The Children of Wolves, Lee had reached the height of her powers as one of fantasy, science fiction, and horrors’ premier stylists. Sentence by sentence, Volkhavaar, a novel-length fairytale, simply floats off the page; it’s fiction at its most ethereal. Lycanthia, set in 1920s France, is an homage to gothic literature. Werewolves, forbidden love, dark woods, and a pianist suffering from tuberculosis form an intense novel that’s redolent of Arthur Machen and Poe.
The Flat Earth Series was started around this time. Flavored by the Arabian Knights, and influenced by the fairytales of Oscar Wilde, this unique series mixed high brow eroticism, perverse wit and manufactured mythology that gleefully referenced everything thing from the Bible to the Brothers Grimm. The heroes of the story were the demon lords of under-earth, who, through mischief and duty, affect the denizens of the flat earth. The novels read like connected short stories, and range from the mystical to the tragic, to the comic. The whole series – five books long, plus a handful of short stories – are shot through with a glamorous, nonjudgmental sensuality that has a faint whiff of Anais Nin’s fiction.
In between novels, short fiction was produced at a rapid rate, and a few anthologies were published. Most notable among them: Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, are horrific retellings of famous fairytales. The title story, which won the World Fantasy Award, turns Snow White into a vampire, and her Witch Queen stepmother into a devoted Christian who fears for her soul. Other fairytales, such as Cinderella, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty are given similar inversions. The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales recontextualized medieval bestiaries. Ravens, unicorns, and the titular monster are given glamorous make-overs. Tamastara, or the Indian Nights visited the mythology of India, with subtle critiques of colonialism, and racism. One of Lee’s most celebrated (and award-winning) stories is barely fantasy. “Elle Est Trois (La Mort)” examines the relationship between self-destruction and creativity, played out through Paris. Most of this fiction has Lee’s pet themes interwoven through it: the intricate dance of psychosis and sexuality; the subjugation of women; and the absurd, persuasive power of myth.
Lee moved into horror fiction in the nineties, producing three unique series. Paradys Quartet are a series of novels, novellas, and short stories set in the past, present and future of an altered Paris, where it is the City of Darkness instead of the City of Light. Most of the characters are creatures of the upper-class, artists, poets and society ladies. Colors are assigned to the various books, and the colors appear throughout the novels as recurrent motifs. Indeed, there is an antiquated feel to much of the writing, along with allusions to works by Poe and Lovecraft. The first of the series, The Book of the Damned, is three novellas (in the colors of crimson, saffron and azure), dealing with the themes of shape-shifting and body thievery that are set in the 17th century, medieval times, and the 1920s. The Book of the Beast (in colors of emerald and amethyst) traces the lineage of a curse from antiquity to parlor-and-gaslight times, and has a heavy smattering of esoteric Jewish and Egyptian mythology. The Book of the Dead is eight separate short stories, that branch outside of Paris, into France’s colonies and Africa. The Book of Mad is a complex, phantasmorgic novel that is set between three versions of the city, from the modern Paris to the ruined, mad Paradise. As with her Flat Earth Series, they may be read in any order.
The Blood Opera sequence is set in modern London. It follows lives, loves and feuds of a vampiristic, long-lived family as they acclimate to the modern world. The opening Dark Dance updates the governess in a sinister house theme that is a staple of gothic literature, and has a somber, lyrical mood. Subsequent novels feature outright humorous scenes (intercut with graphic, sexual horror) as the Scarabae bumble through 1990’s England, with rave culture, motorcycle gangs, drug cartels, and assorted Mafiosi. In a sense, the Scarabae books serve as Lee’s sly, witty comment on modern life, with its homophobia, racism, and sexism.
The Venus Quartet is similar to the Paradys cycle, in that it follows the lives of the denizens of an altered Venice. Where the Paradys books were loosely assigned colors, the Venus books are roughly arranged around alchemical forces of earth, air, fire, and water. Faces Under Water is set during Carnival in 18th Century Venice, and deals with the shady doings of the mask-makers guild. Saint Fire is a restructured Joan-of-Arc story, set in medieval times. A Bed of Earth, one of Lee’s best, is an intricate Shakespearean novel of love, loss and revenge, centering on two noble families and their feud over a graveyard plot. Venus Preserved, the closing book of the sequence, is a futuristic thriller that blends together the themes of the series.
Lee’s latest project is a series of novels about lesbian love and life. The same undercurrent of sexual psychosis runs through the books, and they span the breadth of Lee’s work: fantastic (though not overtly fantasy), historical, and undeniably gothic, the anthology Fatal Women, credited to an alter-ego Esther Garber, are tales of doomed love between women, written in bold, symphonic strokes. These tales of wild viragos would fit on the shelf next to Tipping the Velvet, and have allusions to the works of Colette and the Bronte sisters. The quest novel, Thirty-four, is a brief, disturbing mediation on aging, desire and the nature of memory.
While Lee still writes books for young adults and occasionally makes forays into science fiction and historical fiction, it is her gothic-hybrid fiction that is the most resonant. She plays with the tropes of the gothic and the grotesque with vigor and passion. I can only hope that this essay introduces more readers to the word sorcery of this talented author.