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|
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|
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 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|
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|
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.