Saturday, November 30, 2013

"The Hill" by Tanith Lee

This short story first appeared in 2007 in The Mammoth Book of Monsters edited by indefatigable anthologist Stephen Jones. I read “The Hill” in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.

As in Lee’s “Yellow and Red,” in this story a wealthy Englishman brings home to his fine house something bizarre and deadly from the strange world beyond Europe, and a first person narrator, summoned to the house, is confronted by this danger. In “The Hill” the narrator is a middle-aged woman, a Miss Constable, a professional librarian who regularly offers her services to wealthy book collectors. She arrives at Professor Chazen’s house, which is full of hideous and sinister Asian and African fetishes, to find Chazen absent. Behind the house are numerous cages and pens, inhabited by a weird menagerie of exotic creatures including huge felines, oversized lizards, and giant beetles. Constable sets to work organizing Chazen’s collection of books on such topics as the reanimation of the dead, and over a few days the mystery of Chazen’s absence and the reason he keeps so many foreign beasts unfolds.

The theme of the story is how our senses can deceive us, and how things which appear supernatural can turn out to have rational, mundane explanations. Lee doesn’t make this clear till near the end of the tale, though she does provide enough clues that a reader savvier than I am could have puzzled it out. To me, through most of the story it seemed very possible that Chazen had actually figured out how to raise the dead when in fact something more mundane, but equally strange, is going on.

In instances small and large Lee invites us, and her characters, to believe one thing, and then shows us that we have made assumptions we should not have. For example, early in the story we learn that Constable has never left England – later we learn that she does not consider herself English, and is amused when other characters (as the reader presumably has) think of her as an Englishwoman. There is also a feminist angle to this; people routinely underestimate Constable because she is a woman, and she herself is an accomplice in deceptions that allow men to take credit for her own achievements.

Besides the imperial and feminist issues present, one could do a class analysis of the story; the narrator points out numerous times the servants mispronouncing words (shades of Francoise in Proust), and there are several references to the lives and relationships of working people. Characters’ religious convictions are also taken note of. There is quite a bit of interesting stuff going on in the story.

As was the case with the other stories by Lee I have read recently, I enjoyed the writing style as well as the tone and plot content of “The Hill.” This is another enjoyable story by an admirable writer that fantasy and horror readers should check out.

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