Friday, October 23, 2015

Vampiric tales by Tanith Lee and Harlan Ellison

If isfdb is to be believed, in 1984 SF Chronicle presented awards (based on reader voting) for "Most Attractive Writer."  Winning the Female category was Tanith Lee. Walking away with the award for the Male category (well, it looks like he tied with Thomas F. Monteleone) was Harlan Ellison,

These two lookers would be reunited in 2009's The Vampire Archives, edited by Otto Penzler and billed as "The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published;" it includes two stories by Lee as well as a tale by Ellison, and features their names prominently on its covers. The book is even dedicated to Ellison, whom Penzler declares is "the antithesis" of a vampire!

"Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" by Harlan Ellison (1976)

This story first appeared in the program book of the 1976 34th Annual World SF Convention, held in Kansas City, Missouri, the cover of which appears to depict an idealized image of Missouri native Robert Heinlein in a space navy uniform accompanied by a hot babe! This image (by George Barr) sums up so many of the conventional reasons that people give for why classic SF is great and why it is terrible that I am loving it sincerely and ironically with all my heart!

Ellison's story:  A man, Mitch (didn't we just deal with an unsympathetic Mitch?), goes to one of his regular singles' bars after attending the funeral of one of his girlfriends, Anne, a suicide.  Mitch is promiscuous, moving quickly from one woman to the next, and he didn't love Anne. Anne, however, fell in love with him, and perhaps killed herself over him.

We learn a little about Mitch and the singles dating scene as he recollects insulting a feminist (telling her in colorful language that if she didn't like "the system" she should go have a sex change operation!) to the cheers of the rest of the people in the bar. Then a pale girl approaches him, seduces him.  Back at her place the pale woman (Mitch never learns her name), I guess via the sex act, fills Mitch with the terrible loneliness felt by the women he has seduced and abandoned.  

This is a good enough story, apparently a criticism of men who seduce women and use them for sex, and perhaps of the whole culture of promiscuity we associate with the 1970s.  When last we read a story by Ellison ("Shattered Like a Glass Goblin") he was attacking the drug culture, and here it seems he is pointing out a possible dark side to the sexual liberation that came to the West in the 1960s and 1970s.  Since we always hear people celebrating the '60s and free love and all that, it is certainly interesting to encounter stories by somebody with unimpeachable counterculture bona fides like Ellison expressing skepticism about these social changes.  It is like encountering the cultural conservatism of counterculture hero Robert Crumb: surprising, exciting, and thought-provoking, and fun for all those reasons.  

Speaking of "thought-provoking," "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" is the kind of story that could serve as the impetus for one of those fascinating "What is feminism?" discussions.  (You know you love them!)  Is "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" feminist because it is about a woman getting revenge on a man who has used women for his own sexual pleasure and hurt their feelings, because it portrays a man forced to walk in women's shoes?  (Remember that time Fred had to put on Wilma's apron and do all the housework?  Groundbreaking social commentary!)  Or is "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" patronizing and patriarchal because it suggests women don't enjoy casual sex like men do and can't survive the 1970s' liberated dating scene, because it implies men and women are very different and perhaps women need some kind of protection?  Either way, a story which makes you consider such issues is worth reading in my book.

"Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Fur" by Tanith Lee (1984)

This one first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.  Talk about a lifeless, uninspired cover...zzzzzzz.

For some seventeen years the castle has been under siege by black-feathered blood-sucking bird people! Every night the Duke, whose wife and daughter were among the very first victims of the weird flying fiends, and the other aristos have loud parties or stuff their ears so they don't have to hear the avian vampires' flapping wings and eerie singing!  As our story begins, the leader of the vampire people, who are savages with no technology or literature, only their beautiful singing voices and their love for blood ("a perfect food"), named Feroluce, finds a narrow broken window and squeezes through it to enter the castle.  After being wounded in a fight with a lion from the Duke's menagerie, Feroluce is captured.

Rohise the simple-minded teenaged scullery maid has lived her entire life in the castle during this vampire siege.  When she sees Feroluce in his cage, she immediately falls in love with his beauty.  She contrives to liberate the monster, and flies off with him. Feroluce is rejected by his people, and he and Rohise become lovers, then die in the snowy mountains.  (Shades of Romeo and Juliet!)  In the final paragraphs we learn the dreadful secret of Rohise's birth and the horrible fate suffered by the Duke and his people.

This story is very good, full of striking images, great metaphors, various surprises. And of course as I have said on this blog before, I love Lee's somewhat old-fashioned, romantic and decadent writing style.  With economical strokes Lee also creates alien but believable cultures within the castle (hinting at the psychological and sociological effects of being shut up in a fortress, harried by vampiric raptor-people, for seventeen years) and among the vampires, who have little or no language but still have traditions and mores.

As we expect with Lee, "Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Fur" is full of outre sex references. The fact that the vampires have been hanging around the castle for seventeen years before getting inside is compared to foreplay, and Lee tells us the castle's fortifications inspire desire the way a woman excites the lust of a man by saying "No."  When Feroluce wrestles with the Duke's lion and drinks its blood their grappling is explicitly compared to sexual congress.  The image of the vampires flying around the castle, trying to get inside, made me think of sperm wriggling around an ovum, and the way Feroluce penetrates the castle and then finds himself captured within it reminded me of the prototypical male experience of pursuing a woman and then finding one's self ensnared by her, domesticated and severed from one's old life of freedom and friends.

Another triumph for Lee!

"Winter Flowers" by Tanith Lee (1993)

"Winter Flowers" first was published in Asimov's.  The cover of this issue resides on the borders of the "loving it ironically" and "rolling my eyes and groaning" camps.

Our narrator for this tale is Maurs, the captain of a small mercenary company in a fantasy version of medieval Europe.  He is a vampire, as are all of his soldiers--in this story vampires don't mind sunlight or garlic and can get killed by being stabbed or shot full of arrows like the rest of us. They do live for centuries (our narrator is like 300 years old) and have superior eyesight and that sort of thing.  And they love to drink blood.

At the start of the story Maurs and his men are in the service of a Duke, as part of his army, which is sacking a town which has just fallen to their siege.  This is a Christian region, in which witches and vampires are exterminated when discovered, so Maur and his subordinates have to try to hide their nature.  One of Maur's soldiers lets his lust for blood get away with him, and is caught drinking a boy's blood, and so is executed by being burned at the stake!  In order to keep their secret, Maur and his crew have to pretend they didn't know their comrade was a vampire and even help out at the burning!

After this dreadful episode, Maur and company leave the Duke's employ and march off into the countryside.  They discover a beautiful abandoned castle full of fine art, old books, and delicious food.  All this finery is an illusion--an even more powerful vampire, a gorgeous woman, employs the castle as a spider does a web, and she begins cunningly killing the mercenaries and drinking their blood.  Maur she desires to take as a lover, and uses hypnotic powers to excite his love and lust--will he succumb to slavery or kill her with his sword?

This is a good sword and sorcery story; fans of Conan and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Elric and Kane might like it.  I'm not quite certain what exactly "grimdark" is, but this story may qualify; atrocities are the norm and there are no characters whose ethics or morals would be considered admirable according to conventional late 20th century standards.  The vampire woman is an interesting and original monster because of her subordinate monsters, who are too weird and complicated for me to briefly describe; suffice to say they feel new and Lee does a good job of bringing them to life for the reader.  Those of us who pay any attention to speculative fiction and RPGs see lots and lots of monsters, and a monster that feels fresh is exciting; these minions of the villain are my favorite part of "Winter Flowers."

While I have compared it to a classic sword and sorcery tale by the titans of the genre, Howard, Leiber, Moorcock and Wagner, "Winter Flowers" still bears the characteristic marks of a tale by Lee.  Besides her writing style, there is the sex angle, of course; as in "Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Fur," we have a castle that, like a woman, seduces a man and separates him from his male friends and his society.  Rape is a prominent topic in the story.  The vampire mercenaries enjoy sex with women, but also apparently have sex with each other, and, when the opportunity arises, with young boys.  You can argue that the whole basis and point of the story is love and its relationship to sex, and that the decisions and choices Maur and the other mercenaries have to make over the course of the plot are all guided by their love for each other.


Three good stories, horror stories with vampires that also address the timeless human issue of sexual love and the catastrophic mess it can make of people's lives. Well worth checking out.


  1. Among the strangest of vampire tales is Lafferty's "Lord Torpedo, Lord Gyroscope." Strange because it seems like a tale of exaggerated superkids and you don't realize until the last paragraph or two that it's also a vampire tale. Highly recommended.

    1. Do you have a copy of Iron Tears? The edition with the cool robotic falconer cover apparently goes for one hundred bucks! Ouch!