This collection, chosen by friends, colleagues and admirers of the late author, is a great introduction to one of our great speculative short story writers. Tanith Lee effortlessly blends myth, fairytale, science fiction and erotica in a way both subversive and compelling. The stories are also often very witty; in ‘Red as Blood’, for example, Snow White with her unearthly pale skin and blood-red lips is less a fairytale princess than something far more disturbing. That she doesn’t show up in the magic mirror of her desperate, put-upon step-mother is another clue again.
There are loads of great twists like these, although they are very much part of the stories rather than the whole point of them. In ‘The Gorgon’, one of the numerous author characters in the collection (all but one of whom are male) blags his way onto a forbidden island to confront the titular she-demon only to find a charming, beguiling woman who happens to wear a mask all the time. There is a great sense of lost potential in the relationship between these two; the male character is extremely well-drawn: he knows he is vain and arrogant, but the knowledge does nothing to stop him ruining things with the woman, who has seen and heard it all before. There is a dreadful price to pay of course, but it is not the one we are expecting.
‘Bite-me-Not or Fleur de Fur’ could be a vampire story; equally it is about a love so powerful it transcends species. There are echoes of the final novella in the collection, ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’, which similarly examines a super-charged, transformative eroticism whose consuming nature, while terrifying, is also incredibly seductive.
With her subversive wit, fairytale darkness and linguistic agility, Lee has been rightly compared to Angela Carter; however, a big difference is how beguiling Lee makes her horror. Even when people know what is happening to them, they do not break away because their new experience is so much more meaningful and intense than the hypocritical banality around them.
Not that these stories aren’t scary. ‘The Ghost of the Clock’ is a genuine shocker in the best sense of the word. The snippy, relatable young female protagonist, down on her luck and having to stay with a nightmare aunt in a remote house by the sea, comes up against a phenomenon that reflects the sheer, awful power of the human mind.
There’s a happier, or at least more ambiguous version of the same idea in ‘Jedella Ghost’, in which a young woman who appears to be either a ghost or immortal appears in a small American town at some point in the early twentieth century. Notionally an investigation story, it is about the ways knowledge can bring corruption as well as enlightenment. As is the case with all these tales, the ending is sublime.
‘Medra’ is the most overtly science fictional story in the collection and is set in a hotel in an empty city on a planet inhabited only by the mysterious girl of the title. A young male suitor arrives; does he have a sinister ulterior motive? Well, of course he has, but this being Tanith Lee that’s not the girl’s main problem, or indeed the young man’s. As in ‘The Gorgon’, the woman is a repository of deep and terrible knowledge that brings her no succour, and the young man’s regard is not enough to compensate for it.
As with ‘Medra’, the idea of willpower as a defining universal force is explored in both ‘After the Guillotine’, in which victims of the executioner’s blade find themselves in a limbo defined by last-moment expectations, and ‘Taken At His Word’, in which a rejected writer’s words become physically lethal and vampiric.
It would be tempting to view the latter as wish-fulfilment; Tanith Lee’s career spanned decades and seemed more than usually full of the ups and downs of publishing. However, the stories are never less than generous in spirit. ‘White As Sin, Now’ is a series of fragments of what feels like a lost mythology; familiar and yet achingly strange. Another lost young woman weaves her way through fairytale surroundings filled with other desperate characters whose story seems to have broken up around them. Planned as an experimental piece that could be read in any order – and probably still could be – each little section resonates with another in a similar way to the entire collection.
Despite that cohesion, the stories all feel and sound very different. The male writer in ‘The Crow’ is very different to the one in ‘The Gorgon’; however, in both stories perception is revealed to be limiting, even untrustworthy. ‘The Crow’ explores the transformative nature of art, in terms of an unexpected visual revelation and the way such an experience radically alters the protagonist’s viewpoint. Afterwards, he sees his lover for the narrow-minded person he is and their relationship ends via a detour through the carnal.
The narrator of ‘Cold Fire’ is very different again; he sounds like an extra in ‘Moby Dick’. The younger half-brother of the skipper of a boat tasked by the government to haul an iceberg up to the Arctic, he reveals what it is about the ice that has everyone so worried. ‘Cold Fire’ is one of the more straightforward stories in the collection; its strength is in its mythic simplicity and unique use of language: a kind of colloquial poetry that has you wanting to read it aloud. Then there is the mystery itself: haunting and fantastic, it is one of the many images in this book that stays with you.
This was only meant to be a short review, but the pieces are so inspiring I found I wanted to mention them all. ‘Tanith By Choice’ one of those books you happily recommend to people directly, so I repeat that suggestion here because the storytelling is exquisite.