Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sabella or The Blood Stone by Tanith Lee

I killed accidentally, through greed and carelessness, at first.  And then I lessoned myself in how I need not kill.
Shopworn cover of my copy
A few weeks ago the wife and I were playing tourist in Mansfield, Ohio, where there is a carousel and an old prison featured in a recent movie, and on the way back to Columbus stopped at a used bookstore in Lexington, Ohio, Holly's Book Rack.  (I assure you we refrained from making "Holly has a nice rack" jokes while we were in the store.)  I was happy to find on Holly's shelves a book I have had on my list for a while, Tanith Lee's 1980 novel Sabella or the Blood Stone.  Holly's had the 1980 DAW paperback edition, which was a match for my DAW copy of Sabella's sequel, Kill the Dead, which was also published in 1980 and which I've had for some while.  Let's check out Sabella, which the people in DAW's crack marketing team wanted us to know is "A Science Fiction Vampire Novel" whose heroine is comparable to the title characters of both Bram Stoker's seminal Dracula and the very first of C. L. Moore's famous Northwest Smith stories, 1933's "Shambleau," which was about an alien femme fatale on Mars.

Sabella, our narrator, is a young woman living on Nova Mars, a planet in another solar system named after the beloved red planet we can see in our own night sky.  Nova Mars has been terraformed and its wilds are populated with the descendants of imported Earth animals, among them deer and cicadas, just as its cities and towns are inhabited by descendants of human colonists.  In the last few decades there has been a sort of Great Awakening or religious revival on Nova Mars, and after a long period of secularism a sizable proportion of Nova Mars' human citizens are dedicated Christians.

Sabella, a pale and beautiful woman in her mid-twenties, is no committed Christian. She has an allergy to sunlight, and spends the daytime hours indoors in her isolated house.  She eschews ordinary food, instead drinking the blood of the deer she catches out in the dusty wilderness--strong, fleet of foot, and with some kind of hypnotic powers, Sabella is able to catch these creatures with her bare hands!  But what she really craves, of course, is the blood of healthy young men!

As a teen, Sabella, irresistible to the male sex, seduced numerous men, biting their necks just as they achieved orgasm and draining their life-giving blood.  Eventually she learned to control her blood lust enough to limit her blood intake, so that she need not kill the deer she caught, or even the men: for a while she killed the men simply out of fear they would call the fuzz on her, but she discovered that men she spared, when they woke up after being partially drained, didn't remember her sanguineous violations, only that they had had the best sex of their lives!

Sabella failed to keep her career as a murderer and cannibal from her mother, and Mom moved them from the populated town of Easterly where they were living to a remote desert house, far from all those corpses strewn about the wilderness around Easterly, that the authorities believed were the handiwork of the native Martian wolves.  Six years ago Mom died of a heart attack, presumably from the stress of having a serial killer as a daughter.

Inside front cover and first page of my copy, featuring misaligned store stamp
As our story opens Sabella has not drunk any human blood for four years, having resolved to kick the habit after Mom's death (there were two years of backsliding before Sabella got on the wagon.)  News comes that Sabella's rich Aunt Cassi has died, so Sabella has to attend the funeral and the reading of the will, hundreds of miles away.  The first of the novel's three parts concerns Sabella's realization that Aunt Cassi, a fanatical Christian and also a smart enough cookie to realize Sabella was a bloodsucking monster, left Sabella a chunk of change in her will in order to lay a trap for her!  Just before dying, Cassi put her trusted manservant in charge of an anti-Sabella operation.  This operation does not bear fruit (at first), because the detective hired by Cassi's manservant to investigate Sabella, drug addict Sand Vincent, falls in love with Cassi's blood-sucking niece and after a torrid three-day affair this joker dies from Sabella-related blood loss!

In Part Two the detective's loving brother Jason Vincent (about whom Sand talked to Sabella incessantly, saying, among other things, that his brother had a physique like a "gladiator's"--implicit or explicit references to homosexuality and incest often show up in Tanith Lee's work) appears at Sabella's door, looking for the hapless gumshoe. When he realizes Sabella killed Sand, Jason begins terrorizing her, making her a prisoner in her own home.  These are effective scenes, as this guy is strong and competent, no easy prey for the vampire, and from the start Sabella's feelings about him are an ambiguous mix of fear and fascination.  We also get flashbacks that relate how Sabella's photophobia and lust for blood first manifested themselves at the same time she started getting her period at age eleven, and that the very same day she go her first period she found a jewel (the blood stone of the title, depicted in George Smith's very literal cover illustration) in a native ruin.  She bought a chain and started wearing the stone around as a pendant on a necklace.

Sabella escapes from Jason, leaving her isolated desert house for a big city, where, in Part Three, she works as a prostitute for money and the opportunity to drink horny men's blood.  Full of guilt and ennui ("What am I living for?  For what happens when I take?  I'll tell you something, when I take, now, nothing happens to me"), a few months after arriving in town, she starts going to church!  She begs Jesus for help, and Jason reenters her life and provides her the clues that lead her back to Easterly to figure out the shocking reality of her vampirism!  Our narrator is not the real Sabella, but a native creature of Novo Mars who lay dormant in those ruins until Sabella awoke it the day of her first menstruation; the Martian then killed (or merged with) eleven-year-old Sabella and took her form and memories!  Jason, similarly, is a native Martian who took the form and memories of a human boy who stumbled into a native tomb.  Because he is also a Martian, Jason is the only man on the planet stronger and faster than Sabella, and the only man who can give her an orgasm and survive a long term love affair with her (he won't go unconscious when she drinks his blood, but will be awake to push her away when she has had enough.)  Jason and Sabella, we are lead to believe, will live happily ever after, travelling the galaxy and having their weird Martian S&M sex.

Sabella or the Blood Stone has some SF tropes we run into all the time.  For one thing, Sabella is a marginalized person with special powers who feels oppressed by society, like an X-Man or a Slan or homo superior or whatever.  While many other SF books with this theme portray the minority sympathetically and condemn the majority, presenting a sort of allegory of the plight of Jews in Europe or African-Americans in the United States, Sabella is more morally ambiguous, because Sabella really is a menace to society!  (The back cover comparison to "Shambleau" is apt--Northwest Smith rescues Shambleau from a lynch mob, but later Smith and readers realize the populace had every reason to fear Shambleau.)

This raises the question of how far we should sympathize with Sabella.  Sabella tricks and exploits lots of men, and before she learned how to exploit them without killing them, she killed many men.  She claims to regret and feel guilt over all this killing and exploiting, and asserts that she can't really control her lust for blood, but can we really give her a pass like we might a Jean Valjean?  Does it matter that many of the men she has killed were criminals of one type or another (months after he dies, Sabella learns Sand raped a woman on some other planet years ago)?  Should we be taken in when Sabella wallows in self pity and makes the lamest sort of social commentary--"I've taken so many and thought of them as victims, but maybe I'm the victim.")?  Is there a feminist angle here?  Sabella's victims are all men who want to use her to achieve their own sexual satisfaction, after all.

A 2010 printing
Leading writers and critics of SF Brian Aldiss and Barry Malzberg describe much SF (dismissively) as "power fantasies," and it is easy to see Sabella as a power fantasy crafted for women: Sabella is beautiful, she seduces and has sex with men, but does not get emotionally attached to them--she has sex with them as a means to an end, the end being to steal from them their very blood (which is pumped by the heart, you know.)  Are female readers who have had their hearts stolen or broken by men who had sex with them and then discarded them expected to enjoy seeing a woman doing the same (or worse) to men?  (The men whom Sabella drains but spares become addicted to her, and search for her, aching to have sex with her again and again.)  Of course, Sabella's behavior towards men also mirrors the fears many men have about women, that women use sex as a bargaining chip or a trap to get at a man's time and money--Sabella seems to be taking advantage of stereotypes of both sexes in its efforts to engage readers' emotions.

The way Lee doesn't tell us what to think about Sabella, but gives us reasons to both empathize with her and to denounce her, adds a level of tension and a potential for suspense and surprise to the novel which fictional rehashes of the civil rights movement and triumphal tales of revolutions often lack.

Looking beyond SF, Sabella also reminded me of those stories in which an orphan or bastard realizes he is descended from a rich or noble family, like Fielding's Tom Jones (and taking us back to SF again, Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy.)  Like those stories, Sabella is an obvious wish fulfillment fantasy about getting money and prestige without doing any work.  (Not only is Sabella really an alien with super powers, and not only does she get an inheritance from a rich aunt, but Sabella and her mother lived off insurance money received after Sabella's father, when Sabella was two, was killed in a mining accident.)  

Even more than those noble orphan stories, Sabella reminded me of those late-20th century romance novels which so often featured Fabio on the cover.  Now, I've never actually read one of those romance novels, but I worked in a bookstore for about three years in the 1990s and I sold a ton of them and read the advertising text on a lot of them, and I have also read a little about them, and it seems like many of them (at least those from the 1970s and 1980s that were produced in the same period Sabella was written and published) feature a "wild" character who is "tamed" by a character of the opposite sex, and female protagonists who welcome being dominated by a powerful man.  This is exactly what happens to Sabella.  No man can tame her or provide her an orgasm until Jason comes along, and after a struggle/courtship she welcomes his domination.  This is where Sabella is at its least feminist--Sabella lives happily ever after when she finally meets a man who is able to control her.

A 1987 edition
The novel's attitude about religion is also interesting.  For most of the book, Sabella expresses all the stock complaints about devout Christians you hear from atheists and liberals all the time, calling Cassi a "fanatic," a "crusader," and a hypocrite who talks about love but engages in "holy war."  Seeing as it is Sabella and not Cassi who has deceived and killed so many people, Sabella's criticisms ring a little hollow, and then in the last four pages of the novel Sabella expresses a belief in God and Christ, suggesting it was God who guided Jason to her.  We are used to SF novels (and novels with titillating sex) dismissing religion as a scam, but here in Sabella we have a sexy SF novel in which a woman finds Christ.  (When I read Lee's novel about a young woman in a super-high-tech and decadent society, Don't Bite the Sun, back in 2015, I thought I detected a similar, though far less explicit, theme of a woman discovering religious faith.)

More broadly, we can see Sabella as a narrative about a person growing up and learning to behave as a decent member of society, with acceptance of religion as a component of this maturation process.  As a teen she disappoints her mother and aunt by being promiscuous and committing crimes.  As a 20-something, in response to her mother and aunt's disapproval, she tries to straighten up and fly right, but she cannot accomplish it on her own--success only comes when she has found the guidance of Jesus Christ and a strong man.  This SF novel full of weird sex has a surprisingly old-fashioned plot!

Lee is a skilled writer, so the style and pacing and structure of Sabella are good, with nice images and plenty of foreshadowing of stuff like Sabella's Martian nature and religiosity that isn't too obvious, resulting in a smooth and entertaining read.  At the same time the book is thought-provoking and even challenging (is it really pro- or anti-Christian? is it really feminist or does it positively portray traditional roles?) because of its unusual themes and somewhat novel use of elements we've seen a hundred times before (like vampires and alien artifacts.)  I enjoyed it, and am looking forward to the sequel, Kill the Dead, the topic of our next installment here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

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