Friday, November 22, 2013

"Where All Things Perish" by Tanith Lee

“Where All Things Perish,” which appeared in Weird Tales in Fall 2001 and was anthologized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 13, where I read it, is the strange story of the small English town of Steepleford, and a story about goodness and people’s resistance to goodness. In the early and middle 18th century Steepleford was the home of a new Christian sect devoted to following Christ’s teachings. This sect, intent on loving all the Earth and its inhabitants, was crushed by the populace and the authorities. In the 1780s a successful merchant, Hawkins, meets a beautiful teenage girl, Amber, in the nearby forest. Amber has unique visual (ocular?) powers: not only can she see treasures buried underground, but she claims she can see the good in all people, and takes joy from simply looking at people and admiring the goodness within them. Hawkins marries Amber, but before long he finds her constant staring disturbing, then repulsive. Finally, he has her walled up in the attic of his large house, bereft of food or water, where she screams and begs for help over a period of days before falling silent.

Hawkins is executed for murder, and the people of Steepleford take pains to avoid his vacant house. Decades later, at the end of the 19th century, the house becomes the epicenter of a strange plague which causes the crops and trees of the area to wither and many of the populace to become deathly ill.

Lee’s prose style is very good, and the story is a pleasure to read. The story unfolds not in a linear fashion, but like a mystery, in bits and pieces, as a first person narrator describes his discoveries some years after the fact. The story is perhaps very pessimistic, pointing out human hypocrisy with its numerous instances of characters finding the Christian sect, and Amber, who are devoted to loving all mankind and seek only to help others, repellant. There is also a central irony to the story: the plague that emanates from the Hawkins house is halted by a character whom we are led to believe is a soulless, Satanic creature, utterly criminal and inhumanly evil. Thus “Where All Things Perish” can be seen as a story of a struggle between good and evil, but a topsy turvy one in which the mass of the people rise up against the good and benefit from the presence of the evil. A strange and memorable piece of work.

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