Monday, March 27, 2017

Kill the Dead by Tanith Lee

She caught the coin, and said "I know who you are.  I thought you were a legend.  They said you'd be by this way sometime."
"Who said?"
"They all did.  For years and years.  Now I'll tell you.  Watch out.  Before and behind.  You've got a lot of enemies."
"Have I really?" said Dro.
"But not me," said the child.  "I think you're lovely."  
Isfdb lists 1980's Kill the Dead as the second entry in the two-volume Sabella series, and Kill the Dead appeared with Sabella in a hardcover omnibus produced by the Science Fiction Book Club called Sometimes, After Sunset.  So I had been thinking of Kill the Dead as a sequel to Sabella. After reading only two pages I realized I had been laboring under a delusion: this book, on the surface  had very little in common with Sabella. Whereas Sabella had been a first-person narrative about a beautiful girl who always wears black in a future milieu of interstellar travel and computerized autonomous cars, Kill the Dead was a third-person narrative about a beautiful man who always wears black in an unspecified medievlish Europeanish Dungeons & Dragonsish countryside; at first it seems like one of those fantasy novels in which a mysterious stranger shows up at the village tavern, hears rumors of the local monster, then goes off to slay it.  But the hero of Kill the Dead isn't a knight or a barbarian who fights ogres and dragons with a sword or axe--he's an exorcist who fights ghosts with his psychic powers and detective skills!

Parl Dro is known far and wide as "The Ghost-Killer." He walks the roads alone, limping because of that time a ghoul bit his leg on a bridge over a raging river, using his special powers to detect and send to the next life manifestations of the living dead. Even though he is famous, when he comes to town people are often taken aback at seeing him, having thought he was a mere legend; many are scared or suspicious or even hostile to him.  His long term destination is the town of  Ghyste Mortua, the details of which Lee keeps from us until the book is almost half over.

There are two other major characters in the novel.  One is a musician named Myal Lemyal, who carries around a sort of combination two-necked guitar and flute (you can see a representation of it on the Don Maitz covers to both my DAW paperback and the hardcover omnibus from SFBC) and lots of psychological problems (his mother died when he was a baby and his father bragged that he stole the instrument and beat Myal to encourage him to learn to play it.)  He also wants to go to Ghyste Mortua and tries to join up with Parl Dro, doggings him for mile after mile, despite the ghost-killer's apparent lack of interest in having a companion; Myal Lemyal thinks if he can see Ghyste Mortua it will inspire him to write a song that will secure his reputation as a musician.  

The third character is the last survivor of the aristocratic Soban family, which has fallen on hard times.  After their father died the Soban girls, Cilny and Ciddey, lived alone in the family house beyond the village, with no friends or relatives besides each other. When Cilny drowned, their bond of sisterly love was so strong that she returned as a ghost to be with Ciddey.  When Parl Dro detects the ghost and banishes Cilny to the next life, surviving sister Ciddey, unwilling to live without her, commits suicide by drowning herself in the stream.  (Tanith Lee's novels often contain hints--or explicit depictions--of homosexual and/or incestuous relationships.)  Ciddey returns as a ghost to seek vengeance on Parl Dro.

The novel feels kind of episodic and kind of long.  One reason is the book's structure: the ghost-killer, and the pursuing musician and girl ghost, travel from location to location, having little encounters in each one, and Lee also periodically presents characters' flashbacks--these various scenes feel more like individual set pieces than smoothly flowing components of a single narrative.  (At the end Lee ties them all together.)  One of Parl Dro's flashbacks is my favorite part of the book: as a thirteen-year-old boy he was in love with a girl of the same age, but one terrible day she was killed by a lightning bolt, her flesh burned off her bones. She returned as a ghost, and beckoned Dro to a dilapidated attic, hoping he would step on a rotten board and fall to his death so they could be together in the afterlife.  

Kill the Dead moves slowly and many sections are long-winded; there are lots of scenes of conversations in which the world-weary and cynical characters exchange significant glances and witty quips, and lots of long descriptions of landscapes; these passages set a mood but don't do much to advance the plot.

Ghyste Mortua, we eventually learn, was a mountain town of haughty citizens who were all wiped out one day by a tremendous landslide that carried the entire town into a lake.  Since then the town has been considered a dangerous center of ghostly activity.  But when Parl Dro, Myal Lemyal and Ciddey Soban get there, many of their previous beliefs about Ghyste Mortua, about ghosts, and about themselves and each other are challenged; they all reveal secrets and they all change their thinking and grow as people.

An overarching theme of Kill the Dead, present throughout the book and especially at the end when we realize the multitude of deceptions Lee has perpetrated against us and secrets she has kept from us, is how things are often not what they seem--people who are dead think they are still alive, people who are in fact alive think they are dead, things thought to be myths turn out to be true and vice versa.  Lee lets us think one thing for several chapters, then shocks us by indicating that the opposite is true, then presents us a flashback that fills us in, showing us facets of the plot that she neglected to include in chronological order. Lee's novels, including The Birthgrave, Electric Forest, Day By Night, and Sabella, often do this-- reveal that the stuff Lee has been leading us to believe was totally wrong--but I felt like here in Kill the Dead she was pushing this theme harder than usual.  Lee plays fair--there are plenty of clues and foreshadowings--but for me it still felt a little like overkill.

It is at the end of the novel that the idea that Kill the Dead is a sort of "companion" (as it says on the back cover) or "sequel" (as I dopily supposed) to Sabella makes a little more sense, as it is revealed that the novels share numerous themes and components: the sexually irresistible outsider who preys on the normals and learns to inhabit a less selfish and parasitic role in society, for example, and the young person of lowly station who learns the truth of his origin and elite heritage.  Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Kill the Dead as much as Sabella--the pace is slower, the plot more confusing and tricksy, and the characters less interesting and less sympathetic.  Acceptable, but a little disappointing.

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Attention DAW Collectors!

From the penultimate leaf of my copy of Kill the Dead

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