Sunday, May 4, 2014

Three Beastly Tales from Tanith Lee

For four bucks I recently purchased a hardcover edition of The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales, a collection of early '80s stories by Tanith Lee.  This hardcover was printed by DAW in 1985, apparently concurrently with and with the same contents as a paperback edition.  The jacket of my copy has "BOOK CLUB EDITION" printed on the inside flap.  This book has no intro or afterword or anything like that, and not even a table of contents!

"The Gorgon" (1983)

This story first appeared in Charles L. Grant's Shadows 5.  Lee's name is the first listed on the cover.

An American writer takes a house on a small Greek island in order to write.  Visible not far away is an even smaller island, and he becomes obsessed with it, neglecting his writing to stare at it and to try to convince the locals to take him there.  The natives are scared of the island, but our narrator ignores their apparently superstitious fear and swims out to the island.  There, he meets a mysterious woman who wears a mask, a sophisticated and well-educated woman with a fine house and two servants.

The people on the main island believe a gorgon, like Medusa, haunts the island, but the story turns out to have no supernatural or science fiction content.  The woman, in fact, was born with a sort of birth defect that renders her horribly ugly, in fact looking like the depictions of Medusa you see in ancient reliefs, all bug eyes, grinning teeth, protruding tongue.  Her hideousness has forced her to remain a recluse.

Our narrator is shocked by the woman's appearance, and knowledge of her tragedy has a powerful effect on him.  He abandons his writing career, the tragedy of the gorgon woman having convinced him that life is futile - metaphorically, the sight of her has turned him to stone.
Lee's writing is lucid and smooth, forcing me to break out one of my overused stock phrases and describe it as "a pleasure to read."  All the sentences are clear and conjure up images or feelings that contribute to the story.  The ending is very satisfying, because while it is a surprise (at least it was to me), it is clearly foreshadowed, so I didn't feel like I had been tricked.  I don't doubt that "The Gorgon" deserved the 1983 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction which it won for Lee.

Just this year Lee was interviewed for Nightmare Magazine, and answered (sort of) some questions about "The Gorgon."  

"Anna Medea" (1982)

This is a well-written and entertaining, but essentially ordinary, horror story.

Claude Irving lives on his country estate in England with his wife Chloe and their two children.  (I guess it is the Victorian period, it seems that there is rail service but no automobiles yet.)  Irving's kids are a nightmare to deal with, always playing practical jokes which involve small dead animals and commiting other nuisances.  The Irvings have hired and lost fifteen governesses to their terrorism.  The most recent and current governess, a stern black-haired woman with a vaguely foreign face named Anna Medea, however, has managed to reform their behavior.  Despite this, Anna Medea makes Chloe uncomfortable, and she urges her husband to fire the woman.

Time spent reading up on the occult in the library, and the reports from the groundskeepers of mysterious forms in the night and of mutilated animals, convince Irving that Anna Medea is some kind of lycanthrope who is fattening up his kids for dinner.  He lets her go, and loads up his pistol with silver bullets and stalks the grounds at night; when he sees a lupine form he blasts it, only to find that he has killed his wife.

Of course the police don't believe his crazy story, so Irving is hanged, and then his children, werewolves like their mother, are free to terrorize the English countryside.  Anna Medea was not a monster, but some kind of sorceress who had been using her arcane knowledge to get the kids under control.

"Anna Medea" first appeared in Amazing, and in 2009 was included in Tempting the Gods, the first volume of The Selected Stories of Tanith Lee.  I liked it.

"Meow" (1982)

"Meow" tells the story of a wealthy young woman, orphaned when her parents die in a car crash.  They leave her their house and their five cats.  Shy, with no friends or family, the girl becomes unhealthily attached to the house and the cats, to the point at which she begins acting like a cat herself, scratching wooden furniture and eating from a bowl on the floor.  We hear this story from the point of view of the woman's cat-hating boyfriend, an aspiring novelist who pays the rent by doing a magic act.

Like "The Gorgon," this story first appeared in one of Charles L. Grant's Shadows anthologies.  I guess this means they count as "quiet horror," and it is true that nobody gets tortured or dismembered or even killed in either of them.  (Well, not counting the pigeon.)

An enjoyable story.


Three above average stories, one of them, "The Gorgon," different and surprising.  So far I am quite pleased with The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales.

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