Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tanith Lee & Michael Bishop Horror Stories from 1983

On the weekend I purchased this 1997 paperback edition of a 1983 anthology of horror stories (note the skulls and crows on the cover - scary!) at Half Price Books for one dollar because there were stories in it by Michael Bishop and Tanith Lee.  Gallery of Horror (hardcover title: The Dodd Mead Gallery of Horror) was edited by Charles L. Grant.  On the first page a very cool stamp indicates the book was once in the library of a William L. Trotter.  Trotter must have been a serious reader; if the pen marks on the contents page are his, he read every story and even noted how many pages long each one was!  When I get an anthology like this I usually look at the contents page, dismiss half the authors because I have never heard of them, a third of the authors because I have heard of them and don't like them or don't care about them, then read one or two of the remaining handful of stories.  I envy your discipline Mr. Trotter!

So far I've read two of the included stories, those by Michael Bishop and Tanith Lee, whose work I have discussed a little on this blog before.

"Gravid Babies" by Michael Bishop

Written in the present tense, "Gravid Babies" is a humor piece (bleh) about an academic couple in Carrion City, Colorado, where the sole significant employer is a hospital for werewolves.  Mary is the head psychiatrist at the hospital; she also works to promote the large oeuvre of the popular female novelist who provided the scholarship that financed Mary's education and who financed the construction of the hospital.  Her husband Russell is a stay-at-home dad who is taking a correspondence course that trains ghostwriters of celebrity biographies.  One of his assignments is to copy chapters word for word, long hand, from Rousseau's Confessions.  Another is to pen chapters of an autobiography "of an unforgettable character."  Mary arranges for Russell to have an interview with a werewolf to provide him raw material for this assignment, and disaster ensues after the werewolf bites Mary and Russell's infant daughter.

I am not interested in horror comedy, horror parodies, horror satires.  Edward Gorey, Charles Adams, Gahan Wilson, the "Scream" movies, "Shaun of the Dead," Hello Kitty as Cthulhu, all that stuff leaves me cold.  I am also sick of humor based on pop culture references like you find on "The Simpsons" or "South Park," both of which I enjoyed for their first five or ten seasons.  So I am not the audience for "Gravid Babies," with its jocular references to Hollywood werewolves (like calling lycanthropy "Chaney's Syndrome"), 1983 personages like Studs Terkel, Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan, David Stockman, and Donkey Kong, and even Peanuts (a day care center is named after Lucy van Pelt.)  Some of the jokes are clever, but didn't make me laugh, and I suppose the idea of a prepubescent girl giving birth to a litter of dogs is pretty horrible, but in the context of this silly jokey story it didn't horrify me.

So, thumbs down for this one. 

"Nunc Dimittis" by Tanith Lee

All you classical scholars and devoted Catholics out there already know that nunc dimittis means "now you dismiss."

This is one of Lee's stories in which she romanticizes, or at least makes sympathetic, decadent, perverted, and evil people.  I guess you could say this is a kind of mood piece, sad and sentimental, but also a bit twisted.  There is a lot of description of people's beautiful hair and clothes, people are said to move like dancers, beyond the rain-spattered window stand gaunt and leafless trees in the grey morning light, that sort of thing.  When I see those pale women in black clothes with long black hair (I used to see them out east on the street and in the subway, now I just see them on TV selling mummies and automatons) I always think this is what they are going for. 

A many-centuries old vampire princess living in an unspecified 20th century European city is growing weak, her beauty fading.  Her devoted servant, Vaselyu Gorin, is also feeling the years; in fact, though he retains his physical strength, in a few days he will be dead.  Gorin ventures out from the vampire's beautiful home into the town, sits in cafes sipping coffee and stalks the streets, looking for someone to replace him as the vampire's servant.  He encounters a beautiful young man with eyes like a leopard's pelt who calls himself Snake.  Snake survives by mugging old people and acting as a bisexual gigolo and prostitute.  A perfect candidate.  Over the next few days Gorin watches jealously as Snake goes through the same process Gorin himself went through over a century ago.  When Gorin heads off to his grave he knows that the vampire princess, who raised him from the gutter and taught him to love fine art and music, took him all over the world and taught him eight languages, will do the same for Snake, and that in turn Snake will revivify her, and she will once again plague the populace, a beautiful huntress.

This is a well-written and entertaining story, but at the same time you can see it as ridiculous.  Readers may laugh or roll their eyes at the names, for example.  (The princess's name is Darejan Draculas - the extra "s," Gorin tells Snake, denotes that she is from a different branch of the famous vampire family.)  The story is also ambiguous, even confusing.  To what extent is the reader supposed to admire and sympathize with these people because of their beauty, taste, and deep feelings, and to what extent be revolted by their crimes?  Is the story a reminder of the seductiveness of evil, or a subtle dig at aristocrats (or rich people in general) who may have good qualities and abilities but take advantage of their inferiors?  Could it be a story about the sacrifices people make for love, or how those we love exploit us?

Maybe one of the strengths of the story is that, while it is pretty clear what is going on, what it means and how we feel about it is reflective of the reader's own beliefs and experiences.  "Nunc Dimittis" is worth reading, in any case.


So far, one for two, as people who watch sports say.  And "batting .500."  I think they also say that.  I will probably read a few more stories in this collection before issuing a final ruling.  I wish old William L. Trotter had put a grade next to each title, as well as a check mark and page count.  Then I could admire his taste as well as his discipline, impressive stamp, and arithmetical skills.     


  1. First, I had no idea "Hello Kitty as Cthulu" was a real thing - trust the internet to come up with an unceasing mixture of vapidity, evil, and marketing. It will take weeks to get that image off of my retinas.

    Second, I have never read Tannith Lee, (though I encounter the spines of her books whenever I'm searching used book stores for Lafferty). However, I do recall a trend in many SF short stories from the late '70s and early '80s towards nihilism--they would present genuinely unpleasant people with no come-uppance at the end. The attitude is many of these stories seemed to be one of "life sucks" and not to ask what you're going to do about it. Does her ending fit that description?

    Thank you again.


  2. Lee is a good writer when it comes to constructing sentences and plots, so I am always happy to recommend her, but she does write about strange things from a strange angle. She is into that whole fin de siecle decadence thing, with cynical cosmopolitan connoisseurs sipping absinthe and all that. The intro to the story (by Charles L. Grant, I assume) suggests that Lee tries to render the abnormal normal, depicting characters whose values and attitudes are alien, even repugnant to most of us.

    For the three characters in this story life does not suck. Princess Draculas is immortal, rich, and is about to embark on a brilliant career of (apparently) attending balls and drinking people's blood. Gorin and Snake were low level criminals presumably destined for early graves whom the vampire gives century-plus lifespans, classical educations, and the opportunity to appreciate the arts. The last line of the story is an affirmation of Gorin's love for the vampire. Since none of us can really live like this, maybe the implication is that our lives really do suck.

    I guess you could see the story as a wish fulfillment fantasy, like Tarzan or Superman, with the difference that Tarzan and Superman use their abilities to help people, and they have traditional monogamous love relationships. The vampire and her servants in "Nunc Dimittis" are selfish, prey on other people, and have what you might call codependent, exploitative, sadomasochistic erotic relationships. To what extent she is just depicting amorality to entertain us, or criticizing aristocratic and/or middle class morality, I have no idea.