Sunday, April 26, 2015

Two late '70s Tanith Lee stories: "The Demoness" & "Red as Blood"

Let's explore further the prodigious oeuvre of award-winning British speculative fiction writer Tanith Lee.  These two stories are from copies of Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories that I picked up outside of Nashville in December of last year. Both tales play with our expectations about who is good and who is evil, and challenge us to decide which characters (if any) deserve our sympathy.

"The Demoness" (1976)

In a tower by the sea lives a pale woman with no memories.  Men who arrive at the tower find her irresistible, but when they possess her she absorbs their minds and drains their will to live.  One day a hero comes to the tower; he has the fortitude to resist her charms, and flees.  The vampire woman is stricken with a hopeless love for the only man to resist her, and pursues him across the country.  At the end of the story Lee asks us to pity the demoness, who will live forever but never satisfy her desire for the hero.  

A melodramatic (gothic, perhaps) story about how sexual desire can make men lose their minds and how women most desire the men who most resist them; a dark fairy tale that serves as an allegory of how love can be a curse that ruins our lives, and more broadly about how our emotions, not logic or morality, drive us.  Full of stark images and passages that will catch the attention of gender studies students.  I liked it a lot.

"The Demoness" first appeared in Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 2 and would later be chosen by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for inclusion in the Fantasy Hall of Fame (1998) alongside such classics as Ray Bradbury's "Small Assassin" and Fritz Leiber's "Bazaar of the Bizarre."

My man tarbandu read every story in The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 2 recently; check out his assessment here.

"Red as Blood" (1979)

This story first appeared in the July '79 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; I read it in the sixth volume of Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories, which has a provocative sex-and-violence cover by Josh Kirby.  As with so many representations of women in speculative fiction, the viewer wonders if this is an empowering vision of a woman ("This woman doesn't need a man to protect her!") or an exploitative one ("Look, boobs!")

"Red as Blood" was well-received and has been widely anthologized, appearing in books like The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy By Women, Vampires: The Greatest Stories, and The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and serves as the title story of Lee's collection Red as Blood (or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer).

"Red as Blood" is a version of the old story of Snow White.  I have to admit that until this week I had not read the "original" Grimm version of the tale or seen the Disney movie (or any of the recent movies featuring Snow White, for that matter.)  As a kid I found Disney feature films to be a total drag, and ignored them; the first Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, which I saw in the theatre, and the old Godzilla and King Kong movies I saw occasionally on TV, along with the Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched every day, bred in me an impatience for any moving picture which was not nonstop violence.  For example, I found Star Trek to be an absolute bore; I always groaned when the crew's phasers failed to have any effect on a foe, as they always seemed to do--I wanted to watch the kind of endless firefights and chases that Luke and Indy were always having on the Death Star and in the desert, killing dozens of people singlehandedly with zero moral considerations, not an hour of chatter.

(My cultural education is full of lacunae like this--for example, I had never seen Leave it to Beaver until I was in my 40s!)

Anyway, when I realized "Red as Blood" was a take on this old piece of German folklore, I read the Grimm version of "Snow White" ( trans. Margaret Hunt) at Gutenberg.org, as well as the Wikipedia pages about the story and about the Disney film.

As in the traditional story, in "Red as Blood" we have a Queen (called "The Witch Queen") with magic powers who has an adversarial relationship with her lovely stepdaughter.  But instead of being a naive goody goody, the stepdaughter, called "Bianca" and fourteen years of age at the start of the tale, is a vampire like her biological mother before her.  (Lee doesn't use the word "vampire," but all the clues are there.)  Bianca has her own magic powers--she animates seven "stunted black trees" to be her guards, for example.  Despite her moniker, the Witch Queen is a Christian who would like to have Bianca confirmed in the church and wear a crucifix; Bianca refuses.

Michael Whelan's rendition of seductive
Bianca and the disguised Witch Queen
The Queen sends the huntsman to deal with Bianca, but after he pulls his knife Bianca transforms into a simulacrum of the Queen and seduces, then kills, him.  Then the Queen summons Satan himself for aid! Lee suggests that Satan is not such a bad sort, but God's left hand man, second only to Jesus, who we are told is Satan's brother.

With a flash of lightning Lucifer disguises the Queen as a hideous old hag.  The Queen, incognito, feeds Bianca a magic apple, which includes a piece of the Eucharist--this paralyzes Bianca, and the seven trees put her in a coffin.  A Prince comes by; the Prince has a scar on his wrist, and apparently is Christ himself.  The piece of the Eucharist is dislodged from Bianca's throat, awakening her.  The Prince transforms Bianca into a white dove, and Bianca, bidden to "Begin again" by the Prince (of Peace), flies to the Queen's chamber, transforms back into a girl, but a girl of seven years.  No longer a vampire, she accepts the crucifix the Queen hangs around her neck.

In its somewhat mysterious use of Christian elements and ambiguity over who is good and who is evil, "Red as Blood" reminded me of Lee's "The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn," and "Where All Things Perish."

Technically, this is a good story, well-written, economical, and full of surprises, but I couldn't get emotionally invested in it because I couldn't forget it was a story long enough to care about the characters or plot.  Knowing it was a take on the tale of Snow White, instead of "getting lost in the story" I was busy inspecting all the nuts and bolts, trying to figure out what Lee was up to.  Preoccupied with watching the man behind the curtain working the levers, the story didn't live and breathe for me, but it is certainly a curious, compelling, exercise.

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"The Demoness" was very effective as a horror-fantasy story, and "Red as Blood" was an interesting reimagining of a famous fairy tale, so thumbs up for both.  In our next episode I'll look at two more of Lee's twisted versions of traditional fairy tales.

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