Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Three more 1980s stories by Tanith Lee

ISFDB image of cover of the paperback
Early this week I read three more stories from Tanith Lee's DAW collection, The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales, which I own in hardcover. 

"The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" (1984)

"The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" first appeared in Alan Ryan's anthology Night Visions 1, later republished in paperback as Night Visions: In the Blood.  We can see that Lee got a promotion when the book was published in paperback, a few years a later.  Another remarkable thing about the later edition's cover is that it shows three skulls emerging from a single coffin: evidence of a housing shortage?

Despite the title of the book in which it was originally published, this isn't really a horror story, but a fantasy that touches on religious ideas.  "The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" begins with an interesting reflection.  Anyone who has tried to do anything creative, draw or paint or write or whatever, knows the frustration and disappointment of being unable to produce a work that corresponds to his or her vision.  Lauro, an itinerant musician in some unnamed medieval European country, reflects that perhaps our world is just such a disappointment to God, an unfinished shadow of what He intended to create.  Perhaps there is a second, perfect, world out there somewhere that better corresponds to God's hopes of what this world could have been. 

Lauro, in a wood, sees a unicorn, and feels that the unicorn must have come here to our world from the second perfect world.  Perhaps if he touches it, he will be able to make the music he dreams of making?

The unicorn is a Christ symbol; Lauro eventually helps a nobleman hunt down the unicorn, for which he is paid 30 silver coins.  Lauro frees the unicorn, more or less accidentally, and then the unicorn kills him!

In the second part of the story we are told that Lauro's soul returns in the body of a beautiful young girl, Sephaina.  Sephaina is groomed to be a sort of sacrifice to the unicorn; mankind's offering in a bid for forgiveness for the sins of the noble hunter who captured and abused it a century (or longer) ago.  Those who look after her, and then the ghost of Lauro (or is it some kind of demon, or just a racial memory?) all lie to Sephaina about what the nature of this sacrifice is to be.

Finally, in the third part of the story, the soul that was Lauro's and Sephaina's is reincarnated in a, or the, unicorn.  A young woman sees the unicorn, and feels it is an omen, a promise of a happy marriage.  Indeed, soon after she meets and weds.  When her husband dies the unicorn appears to her again, comforting her in her time of bereavement.

What are we to make of this story?  On the one hand, it seems to be about the futility of life, how we are all at the mercy of fate, with little ability to control our own destinies.  Again and again people are lied to; people try to do one thing and find the results of their actions are different than, even the opposite of, their intentions; people expect one thing to happen and are then surprised by or disappointed in what eventuates.  On the other hand, the story seems to be endorsing the idea of eternal life, and the possibility of finding comfort in the Christian religion.  Maybe the suffering of Lauro and Sephania is recompensed by their reincarnation as a unicorn, a creature which can bring comfort to people, and serves as a good omen that comes true?  Perhaps the story proposes that our suffering, though very real, in this life is not in vain, but will eventually be rewarded.      

Some may be frustrated by the mysteries presented by the story, and some will feel that Lee overdoes the lush descriptions of the blue sky, verdant forest, shimmering pools, etc.  Personally I liked the story; trying to figure out what the "point" was, the images Lee conjures up, and the various surprises, which did take me by surprise.  

"Sirriamnis" (1981)

"Sirriamnis" was written especially for Unsilent Night, a slim book of two stories and some of Lee's poetry, a special edition printed by NESFA for Lee's appearance at their Boskone convention in 1981.

Our narrator for this tale is Tohmet, an old, educated slave in a Greek port city (I guess Corinth, which Lee is spelling "Crenthe") during the period of the Roman Empire.  Tohmet is owned by a noble family, and acts as a clerk/accountant and a tutor.  He is particularly fond of Lysisas, the son of the family patriarch, a handsome, intelligent, and personable young man, the very picture of nobility.

Lysisas buys a slave girl, Sirriamnis, a beautiful and mysterious creature from North Africa; most of the household thinks she is an Egyptian, but Tohmet can tell she is a Phoenician, a Carthaginian.  The Carthaginians, of course, were the Romans' most fearsome enemies, and worshipers of sinister deities who demanded human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of babies.  His relationship with Sirriamnis works changes on Lysisas, and not changes for the better.

Hunches, and a little detective work, reveal to Tohmet that Sirriamnis is some kind of witch.  For one thing Tohmet discovers magical symbols written by Sirriamnis on a stone in a disused shrine.  There are sometimes strange sexual elements in Tanith Lee stories - in "The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" there was the idea that maybe unicorns rape women with their horns.  In this story, Tohmet figures out that Sirriamnis has written the magic characters on the stone with the blood shed when Lysisas took her virginity.  Later, Tohmet is witness to perhaps the strangest erotic encounter I have ever read about!  

After her bizarre deed of sexual vampirism, the witch, in a strange form, flees, and Tohmet pursues her out of the household, all the way out of the town, where she uses her magic to escape him.  Of course, as a slave, Tohmet isn't permitted such freedom, so, for the acts he did out of love for his master's family, he receives a whipping at the hands of his master!

This story brings up some class and gender issues.  Why does Tohmet, a slave, identify with his owners, who beat him, instead of with Sirriamnis, his fellow slave?  Tohmet talks about the generative power of semen, but dismisses "those fluids expended from the womb of the female" as "negative and waste," and expresses fear and loathing for women, seeing them as sneaky, malicious, dangerous.  I've encountered these sorts of issues in numerous stories by Lee, but Lee is skillful enough that such ideas add depth and interest to her stories, instead of turning them into propaganda pieces which try to browbeat you.  (Contrast this with Brian Lumley's lunk-headed and ham-fisted use of environmental issues in the lame and irritating stories of his I read last week.) 

"Sirriamnis" is an effective horror story.  As I have said many times on this blog, I am very fond of Lee's writing style.  Besides that virtue, the story benefits from Lee's pacing; we learn creepy things about Sirriamnis at just the right speed, creating a satisfying mood of impending but unidentifiable doom.  The climactic horror scenes are surprising and disturbing.  The characters-- the witch, the wise elderly slave, the young aristocrat, his body slave -- all feel real, and they all have relationships with each other that feel real, and, as befits a horror story, feel sad.  Tohmet's fondness for Lysias is a reflection of his childlessness, the body slave's affection for Lysisas is characterized by envy and unrealized desire, and of course all of Lysias's relationships with the slaves have an element of exploitation.

Another hit from Lee.

"Magritte's Secret Agent" (1981)

"Magritte's Secret Agent" first appeared in the Twilight Zone Magazine, and was the issue's cover story.

I’m not crazy about Magritte, or modern art in general. My tastes would probably be considered conventional or conservative 100 years ago: I like Greek and Roman sculpture, Greek vases and Wedgwood and Rookwood, Raphael and Michelangelo, Fragonard and Chardin, Allan Ramsay and Joshua Reynolds, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Beardsley and Mucha, Augustus St. Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, Albert Moore and Lord Leighton, that kind of thing. In short, before I read this story, I not only had to do some googling to find a reproduction of Magritte’s “Secret Agent,” I had to do some googling to find out if it was a real picture or just one Lee made up for her story. There is such a picture, but apparently it is a minor and rarely reproduced work of Magritte’s. I found the answer to this mystery at a website devoted to Lee; a black and white reproduction of the painting can be seen there.

Our narrator is a young woman in late 20th century England, living in a town on the coast.  Having attained an art degree, she is working at the lingerie counter at a department store (I feel your pain, narrator!  With my history degree, I worked for minimum wage at a bookstore for some three years.)  One day a stern woman in her fifties comes to the counter, pushing in a wheelchair an invalided, mentally retarded, young man of striking beauty.  Our narrator becomes obsessed with this unusual pair, insinuates herself into their lives, learns their sad history.

The woman, a Mrs. Besmouth, was raped by a stranger 20 years ago; the wheelchair-bound, silent, almost mindless, young man, Daniel, is the product of that rape.  Besmouth hates the ocean, she having been raped on the beach, and has boarded up those of her windows that face the sea and plans all her movements throughout town so that she and Daniel need never see the water.  Daniel has, apparently, never seen the ocean.  Our narrator, bizarrely, becomes convinced that Daniel might like to see the ocean, and, one black night after having downed a few drinks, seizes his wheelchair and rushes to the beach with him.  Besmouth follows, then holds back our narrator, who is much smaller and weaker than the middle-aged woman, and the two women watch as Daniel slides out of his chair and is carried away by the tide, never to be seen again.

As with "The Gorgon," there really is no supernatural or science fiction element to this story; it appears to be a story about women and their lives in a world made by men.  Several times we are reminded of the way society and the men who have made it constrain women's opportunities and take advantage of them.  The numerous sexual and family relationships mentioned in the story are all demeaning or disastrous - examples include one of the narrator's coworkers openly cheating on her husband, and an unattractive guy who keeps trying to seduce the narrator and is even accused of trying to drug her so he can date rape her.

It is hard not to see this story as somehow about abortion.  Daniel is repeatedly described in such a way as to remind the reader of a baby; for example, because he sleeps upstairs, every day for some 20 years Besmouth has had to literally "carry" him.  Daniel's death frees Besmouth of a heavy responsibility, the way a woman ending an unwanted pregnancy might feel freed of a weighty responsibility.  At the same time there is the idea that Daniel, upon seeing the ocean, suddenly comes to life, and that his death constitutes for him an escape to freedom as much as it does his mother, but there is the chance that this is simply our narrator rationalizing her participation in what the law and many people would consider murder or at least criminally negligent homicide.

A strange and unsettling story that, like other Lee stories, surprised me without relying on any kind of gimmick or trickery.  "Magritte's Secret Agent" is definitely weird and disturbing, but also internally consistent and logical.

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What can I say?  Three more unique and effective stories from Tanith Lee; The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales appears to be a top notch collection of weird stories.

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