Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tanith Lee, Sorceress


I have just now heard from a reliable source that Tanith Lee has died. This is terrible news for lovers of fantasy. Her prose was elegant, sensuous, a delight to read. There really was no other writer like her.

I never met Ms Lee, so I have no stories about her to share.  So instead, I'll give you the section of my essay, "In the Tradition..." dealing with her work:

If there is one commonality among the hard fantasists, it is that they are not a prolific lot.  Tanith Lee, however, is prolific.  Which makes it hard to single out one work for examination.  A survey of her oeuvre would necessitate the exclusion of other writers.  Nor can she simply be skipped over.  She is a Power, and has earned her place here.

I've chosen to focus on Lee's Arkham House collection Dreams of Dark and Light not only in the name of ruthless simplification but also because it is a rare thing for a hard fantasist to work much in short fiction (novels being the preferred length of eccentricity, and eccentricity being the name of the game) and rarer still for one individual to excel at both lengths.

Here's a quick sampler of what happens in Dreams of Dark and Light:  A selkie beds a seal-hunter in trade for the pelt of her murdered son.  The dying servant of an aged vampire procures for her a new lover.  A writer becomes obsessed with a masked woman who may or may not be a gorgon.  A young woman rejects comfort, luxury, and the fulfillment of her childhood dreams, for a demon lover.  These are specifically adult fictions.

There is more to these stories than the sexual impulse.  But I mention its presence because its treatment is never titillating, smirking, or borderline pornographic, as is so much fiction that purports to be erotic.  Rather, it is elegant, languorous, and feverish by turns, and always tinged with danger.  Which is to say that it is remarkably like the writing itself.

In "Elle Est Trois (La Morte)" three artists--a poet, a painter, a composer--are visited by avatars of Lady Death.  The suicidal allure of la vie boheme, with its confusion of death, sex, poverty and the muse, has rarely been so well conveyed as here.  The artists are captured as their essences, each courting death in his own way.  The composer France unwittingly acknowledges this when he tells his friend Etiens Saint-Beuve, "One day such sketches will be worth sheafs of francs, boxes full of American dollars.  When you are safely dead, Etiens, in a pauper's grave."

After France himself has been taken, the poet Armand Valier muses on Death's avatars (the Butcher, the Thief, the Seducer) in Lee's sorcerous prose:

. . . And then the third means to destruction, the
seductive death who visited poets in her irresistible
caressing silence, with the petals of blue flowers or
the blue wings of insects pasted on the lids of her
eyes, and: See, your flesh also, taken to mine, can
never decay.  And this will be true, for the flesh of
Armand, becoming paper written over by words, will endure
as long as men can read.
    And so he left the window.  He prepared, carefully,
the opium that would melt away within him the iron barrier
that no longer yielded to thought or solitude or wine.  And
when the drug began to live within its glass, for an instant
he thought he saw a drowned girl floating there, her hair
swirling in the smoke. . . . Far away, in another
universe, the clock of Notre Dame aux Lumineres struck

This is the apotheosis of romantic decadence--sex, drugs, and death mixed into a single potent cocktail.  But, lest the reader suspect her of indulging in mere literary nostalgia, Lee notes in passing that "the poet would have presented this history quite differently," by introducing a unifying device, such as a cursed ring.  This sly contrasting of the story's sinuous structure with the clanking apparati of its Gothic ancestors, does more than just establish that the fiction is an improvement on antique forms.  It hints (no more) that the real horror, the real beauty, the real significance of the story, is that death is universal.  She is a true democrat, an unselective lover who sooner or later comes for all, aware of her or not, the reader no less than the author.

Once upon a time the Romantics elevated the emotions above reason, sought the sublime in the supernatural and the medieval, and elevated the equation of sex and death to cult status.  Following generations took their machinery and put it to lesser ends, much as the forms of magic were taken over by performers of sleight-of-hand.  They could do no better, for they had lost the original vision.

Lee's work is a return to sources and a rejuvenation of that original vision.  It is the higher passions that matter.  Viktor, the bored aristocrat in "Dark as Ink" is too wise to pursue his obsessions, and for this sin suffers a meaningless life and early death.  But the eponymous heroine of "La Reine Blanche" finds redemption despite her singular regicide and unwitting betrayal of her fated love because she has stayed true to her passions.  An erotic spirituality shimmers like foxfire from the living surfaces of this book.

By some readings (though not mine) these works could be classified as horror.  There has long been a midnight trade between the genres, ridge-runners and embargo-breakers smuggling influences both ways across the borders.  It's illegal, we are all agreed, but is it wrong?  No one would dare attempt to expel the late Fritz Leiber from the Empire of the Fantastic.  Yet he readily admitted that nearly all his work was, at heart, horror.  Even his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, though disguised by ambiguously upbeat endings and the wit and charisma of their heroes, exist in an almost Lovecraftian horror-fiction universe.  In the end, the only question that matters is whether the work suits our purposes or not.

"As I supposed," says a raven in one of these tales, "your story is sad, sinister, and interesting."  Exactly so.  There are twenty-three stories in this volume, and I recommend them all.

Copyright 1994 by Michael Swanwick. Probably the best way to memorialize Tanith Lee would be by reading one of her books.



Antony Galbraith said...

Thank you for this! A great choice to pay tribute, among so many great choices. Two other varied collection of short stories worth noting are Women as Demons: The Male Perception of Women through Space and Time and Forests of the Night. Too many people do not know what the world has lost with her passing.

Cat Rambo said...

So gutted to hear of her death. Thank you for the recommendation.

Diamond Jim said...

Reading DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT is an excellent suggestion, Michael. It's also a beautifully produced book with Max Ernsts on the dust jacket.

Michael Swanwick said...

James Turner was the editor at Arkham then and he really did a beautiful job.

Ruzz said...

Wonderful final post (from her?) on her website: "Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told – on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the
wind, on the hearts of others – there we are remembered, there we work
magic and great change – passing on the fire like a torch – forever
and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need
no words at all."

Diamond Jim said...

Exactly, Michael. Jim produced so many beautiful books around that time—even the Lovecraft volumes of the day, although I once heard him insist at a convention (Armadillocon, probably) "No more fish-frog books!"

Sandy said...

A lovely tribute, Michael. The amazing thing to me is that although I never met her or saw a picture of her, the picture you posted of her looks EXACTLY as she should have looked. Imagine going to a zoo and standing a little too close to the lion enclosure and then a lioness walks over to check you out and stares deep into your eyes...