Saturday, November 9, 2013

"All the Birds of Hell" by Tanith Lee

I read this a few years ago, and have had it on my mind since Lee won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 World Fantasy Convention, so today I read it again.  It is a 1998 story; I read it in the 1999 fiftieth anniversary anthology, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction.  (Even though it is billed as a 50th anniversary anthology, be aware that it includes only stories from the 1990s.)  

This story takes place in some kind of alternative or future Russia, in its fifteenth year of “Industrial Winter.”  Pollution has caused global cooling and low clouds cover the sky and hide the sun nearly all day, every day.  Many people get a “Twilight Sickness” which leaves them almost mindless, sitting around all day staring into electric light bulbs and then wandering the streets aimlessly all night.  Due to energy shortages, at midnight the TV stations shut down and city lights are dimmed, and avalanches on the roads and periodic power failures make life difficult for everybody.

The story follows a minor bureaucrat, Tchaikov, who takes on the half-year rotating job of acting as curator at a dacha in the desolate frozen countryside.  Not far away is an abandoned factory; the factory has been taken over by wolves, and Tchaikov can regularly hear their howls.  Tchaikov’s only companion is a large guard dog, and, in the top floor of one of the dacha’s towers, lying in bed, a pair of dead lovers.  They committed suicide nine years ago by taking sleeping pills with their final meal, then exposing the tower to the outside cold so they would freeze to death. The cold continues to preserve them, and the remains of their last meal.  Every month or so a party of tourists comes to the isolated dacha to look at the frozen dead lovers, who are famous, immortalized in verse by a major poet.  Tchaikov’s job is to keep the dacha in repair for the benefit of these occasional groups of tourists.

Lee’s style is smooth and easy to read, and with a minimum of verbiage Lee creates a strange world we can both see and feel, inhabited by people we are curious about.  She skillfully pulls off a bizarre and touching climax to the story which leaves us with questions to ponder. 

A brilliant success, highly recommended, 24 pages packed with imagery and emotion.    


  1. Just finished this story. I loved it as well, and couldn't agree with your review more. Amongst the short fiction I read, this one will linger.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Lee's short work is often very good.