Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Tanith Lee: "Il Bacio (Il Chiave)," "The Beautiful Biting Machine" and "The Isle is Full of Noises"

In 2015 Telos Publishing released Blood 20: Tales of Vampire Horror, a collection of stories by Tanith Lee.  I looked over the volume's table of contents at isfdb, thinking to use it as a guide to what Lee stories I should read next, and picked out three interesting titles that were readily available at the internet archive.  Let's try these stories by the talented Ms. Lee on for size.

But first, links to my blog posts about four stories presented in Blood 20 that I have already read:

"Il Bacio (Il Chiabve)" (1983)

This story made its debut in Amazing, in an issue with an ad for Star Frontiers, a game my brother and I spent many hours playing, an interview with R. A. Lafferty, and a poem by Thomas Disch.  The art in this issue is also pretty good.  Definitely an issue worth checking out.    

"Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" takes place in 15th-century Rome.  Four rich young men, the eldest no older than twenty, are hanging around at one of their homes, drinking, gambling, and talking.  One of the men, Valore della Scorpione, is so good-looking it is hinted that his friends have a homosexual attraction to him, and the third-person omniscient narrator suggests he is like the group's god.  Part of Scorpione's attraction to these aristocrats is that he is a bad boy, his family having a bad reputation and he being a man who owes everybody money and refuses to pay these debts.

Scorpione proposes to his cronies a way he might get out from under these debts.  He produces a key and says it is the key to the bedroom of a beautiful female relative of his, and suggests they dice for the key--the winner of the key can go to the woman's room and have his way with the lovely woman--he promises she will not resist his attentions.  If Scorpione should win the key his debts are forgiven.

As we saw recently when we read The Birthgrave and its sequels, Lee does not balk at including in her writing stuff that might offend or disgust people.  Before the dicing for the key can begin, a guest of the host arrives, a tall arrogant Jew in fashionable attire, Olivio di Giueda, a talented painter and experienced alchemist, and some of the characters and even the narrator say things that are quite anti-Semitic.  One of the four men even storms out rather than sit with a Jew, and di Giueda, with whom the host has a business relationship, takes the empty seat.

Knowing this was a vampire story before starting it, I had been primed to scrutinize each character with an eye towards whether he might be a blood-sucking fiend.  Sexy and charismatic Scorpione was, of course, a prime suspect, but when di Giueda arrived he joined Scorpione near the top of the list--not only is he tall and commanding and all that, but in his repartee with the three remaining aristocrats he seemed to be exhibiting some pretty intimate knowledge of ancient times.  Could both Scorpione and di Giudea be vampires?

The men dice for the key--Scorpione plays foolishly, as if he wants to lose.  When the dicing is over di Giudea has the key, and to the chagrin of the other gentiles, Scorpione leads the Jew off to the promised lady's bedroom.  It turns out that the key unlocks a tomb--in which lies a dazzlingly beautiful woman; she died 150 years ago of plague but, uncannily, her luscious form has been preserved.  In the tomb we readers are witnesses to eye-popping events redolent of incest and necrophilia and learn who is and who is not a vampire.

A solid icky vampire story noteworthy for the surprisingly acerbic stuff about Jews--it is hard not to think Lee is suggesting that Jews and vampires are sort of similar, that both constitute out groups whom the mainstream accuses of arrogance and of drinking Christian blood.  As I read "Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" I wondered if di Giueda, the talented and well-dressed Jew who is hobnobbing with the aristocracy of 15th-century Italy, was meant to remind readers of Benjamin Disraeli, the well-dressed Jewish intellectual who became a leading politician in 19th-century Britain and friend of Queen Victoria and who thought that the Jewish people were a sort of natural aristocracy. 

"Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" was included in a 1993 pamphlet of essays about Lee put out by the British Fantasy Society called Tanith Lee: Mistress of Delirium, and since has appeared in three different Lee collections, including a French one.

"The Beautiful Biting Machine" (1984)

"The Beautiful Biting Machine" first appeared in a small run chapbook that was illustrated by Judy King-Rieniets and signed by Lee and King-Rieniets; five years later in 1989 it was included in the anthology Arrows of Eros.  I read the story in the 2013 collection Space is Just a Starry Night.  

This is one of those stories in which mysterious things happen and are described obscurely, and then explained fully at the end of the piece.  I have to admit that, while I was in the middle of the story, trying to figure out what was going on, I thought the story would end ambiguously and I would never really know if my guesses had been correct, and was a little disappointed that Lee just explained everything at the end.

Anyway, I'm just going to tell you what is going on in the story--remember that this blog is super-spoily by design.  

It is the future!  The human race has colonized the galaxy and has peaceful interactions with all kinds of intelligent spacefaring aliens.  Our story is set on a "pleasure planet" where a Mr. Qire owns a sort of brothel that caters to clients with a peculiar fetish by providing them a robot to have sex with.  This robot (described in detail by Lee, who also describes in detail the decor of the robot's chamber the way she customarily describes rooms and settings in her work) has the form of a sexy vampire woman--the brothel's customers are people who find the idea of being attacked by a vampire sexually arousing.  The robot has been programmed to bite people and suck their blood, but only a little blood, not a life-threatening amount, and everything is sterile and sanitary and the robot injects drugs in the johns in order to make sure their wounds heal quickly and so forth.

The sex robot is a very complex piece of machinery, and works to fine tolerances, and in fact has malfunctioned a couple of times and accidentally killed clients.  A very skilled technician is required to keep this thing in proper working order so it won't kill clients, and luckily Qire has just such a dedicated man on staff--Beldek.  

One day Beldek is in the robot's elaborate chamber, conducting delicate repairs.  One of Mr. Qire's other employees, a "runner," sneaks in to the chamber.  This runner wants to have sex with the vampire girl robot, but can't afford the fee, and Mr. Qire doesn't give freebies to the staff--the runner bitterly assumes that Beldek has sex with the robot all the time, but he is wrong.  He finds Beldek not having sex with the robot, but drinking the blood that has accumulated inside the in the course of its normal operations.  Beldek is a vampire, a real vampire, and drinking the blood legally and nonlethally collected by the robot is easier and safer than hunting victims down the way vampires had to in the old days.

Beldek has to keep his secret, of course, and kills the runner by letting him have sex with the robot (ostensibly a bribe so he'll keep mum about Beldek's secret) and signaling the robot to kill him.  

Lee stories are often full of strange and even disgusting sex, and one of the tricks in this story is--before revealing the vampiric nature of the robot--allowing us readers to think that the robot performs fellatio, that Beldek's" kink" is that he drinks other men's ejaculate, and that the runner is slain by having his penis bitten off.  

This story is well-written and cleverly constructed and all that--it is certainly not bad--but I am feeling a little underwhelmed by it, maybe because 1) Lee just tells you the answer to the mystery at the end and 2) the answer (this dude is a vampire!) is no big deal because there are hundreds of vampire stories out there and Lee herself has written dozens of them.  The idea of some freako secretly drinking other guys' semen on the regular is more shocking and sickening than the revelation that we have here yet again another story about a vampire.

For another thing, I have to question why "The Beautiful Biting Machine" is set on an extrasolar planet and why are there so many minor characters who are nonhuman.  The same exact story could have just been set on Earth in the near future and had a fully human cast.  Is all that standard space opera stuff in there to serve as chaff, to divert reader suspicions that the story is in fact about a vampire, which Lee keeps hinting with puns (Beldek is said to be "re-vamping the computer program") and motifs (the brothel is only open at night and actually sinks into the ground at sunrise?) 

Objectively this is a better story than most of the stories I read, but somehow it is rubbing me the wrong way, maybe just because I expect a lot out of Lee.  (And it doesn't help that the version I read had typos that I suspect were scanning errors, like "The door had dosed.")

"The Isle is Full of Noises" (2000)

"The Isle is Full of Noises" first appeared in Marvin Kaye's anthology Vampire Sextette, and it is in a scan of that book which I read it.  In the intro to Vampire Sextette Kaye tells us that the volume is his 22nd anthology and that it was actually Lee's idea.  Kaye also offers some interesting literary criticism, including a list of what he considers the best vampire stories (I have blogged about most of them) and a brief discussion the post-Anne Rice vampire craze.  An introduction actually worth reading.  (Remember when I took Kaye to task back in 2019 for the intro to Haunted America?)

"The Isle is Full of Noises" is like 90 pages long, set in a coastal city which a decade ago was partially flooded.  Some people, including Yse, the protagonist, live on the upper floors of buildings whose lower stories have been underwater for ten years and are today haunted by barracuda.  This is a great setting and Lee (whose work Kaye in that intro calls "poetically crafted") does a great job of bringing the image and atmosphere of such a weird and creepy place to life.  

This story is all about illusions, delusions, and fictions, our inability (and unwillingness) to distinguish truth and reality from fantasy and unreality and the way the real and unreal influence and interpenetrate each other.  Yse is a fat middle-aged woman, a writer who lives alone and pursues what little satisfaction she can by vicariously living through her characters and by following the career of a TV star she met briefly years ago, Per Laszd, a man she is in love with but with whom she has never spent a private moment.  Her friend Lucius, a gay man, seems to similarly enliven his life through fantasy--he has a scar on his neck that he sometimes claims is a shark bite and other times claims was given him by a vampire with whom he had sex.  

Large portions of "The Isle is Full of Noises" consist of chapters of a novel or long story Yse is writing about a beautiful teenager living in the early 19th century, Antoinelle.  Where Yse is independent, Antoinelle hates independence and spends her entire life dominated by others.  A cruel young man ruins her reputation, and then cruel relatives punish her by exiling her to the country where an aunt gives her the silent treatment for months.  Antoinelle then comes under the control of a powerful man with a voracious appetitive for sex, Vonderjan; it turns out Antoinelle also has an inexhaustible lust for sex.  In contrast to Yse's sexless life, Antoinelle and Vonderjan have sex for hours and hours every night, their couplings ferociously loud, Antoinelle screaming in ecstasy as her husband manipulates her body.  After taking revenge on those who had tormented Antoinelle, Vonderjan carries his bride away to a Caribbean island where he has an estate. 

Yse's writing incorporates everyday things from her daily life as well as reflecting her own unsatisfied desires.  Vonderjan is directly based on Per Laszd the TV star, for example.  Through the story Yse not only lives out her lust for Per Laszd, but inflicts on him punishment for his crime of not noticing her--after his marriage Vonderjan has a run of bad luck and his business fortunes collapse, as if Antoinelle, like a vampire, is sucking the life out of him.  Yse's story is full of clues that are probably red herrings  that Antoinelle is a vampire or that Vonderjan is a vampire; the actual vampire in Yse's story is so bizarre and surreal that Lee pushes our willing suspension of disbelief to the limit--it makes sense that she didn't present this vampire as her own creation but as that of a perhaps mentally disturbed character.

A pianoforte is washed up by the tide onto Yse's doorstep, and she has it carried into her rooms and incorporates it into the story of Antoinelle.  The blacks who work the fields on that Caribbean island sense a terrible monster has come up from the sea, and Vonderjan finds that something, a pianoforte, has indeed washed up on the island.  A monster actually does begin terrorizing the island, and it is never quite clear if the monster is just carrying the piano around with it as it stalks the island or if it actually takes the form of a piano the way a traditional vampire can take the form of a wolf.  Yse's text seems to be suggesting at times that her white and black characters experience the presence of the monster in different ways, with a mixed race man, a clerk come to the island to assess Vonderjan's estate for liquidation, able perhaps to see what is going on from both a European and an Afro-Caribbean perspective.  

Whatever the monster's relationship to the piano may be, it has six limbs and a tail and I guess is sort of like a giant monkey.  This creature climbs through the windows of the estate to have sex with women, Antoinelle among them, penetrating them with multiple appendages.  The arrival of the monster destroys Antoinelle's relationship with Vonderjan and throws the island into turmoil, so that everyone who is able to flees the island--Antoinelle stays there with the monster.

In real life, the arrival of the pianoforte seems at first to signal an improvement in Yse's looks and health and social status, but cataclysm is not far behind.  The story ends with a catastrophe that may involve Yse committing suicide and/or being seduced and murdered by a vampire disguised as Per Laszd or maybe by some monster; said vampire or monster may have climbed out of the pianoforte or out of Yse's writings.  All we can be sure about is that Yse, the pianoforte, and her writings vanish and some months later the pianoforte washes up on a shore with her broken body encased within it--some feel sharks are to blame, no doubt a callback to Lucius's shifting claims about that scar on his neck; Lee leaves us room to accept or reject the idea that vampires are real in Yse's world.          

This is a challenging literary story (it may be based on The Tempest, a play I remember nothing about) full of ambiguity and allusions as well as fetishistic sex.  While I was reading it I thought it felt long and lacking in narrative drive.   

I also feel like the monsters are a weakness in the story, and not just because a piano that walks around terrorizing people is ridiculous, and the six-limbed giant fuck monkey is like something from a pornographic parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom novels.  Antoinelle and Vonderjan are interesting characters with psychologies and back stories and relationships with multiple minor characters--family members, lovers, servants, etc.  The half-white, half-black clerk is also good, with his own back story and personality and relationships.  But the monster that shatters the Vonderjan marriage and upends the entire society of the island just comes out of nowhere--a six legged giant monkey who hides in a piano or disguises itself as a piano doesn't fit in the milieu of 19th-century Earth, and Yse/Lee offer no satisfying explanation of how it got there.    I guess we are supposed to see the crazy monster as the product of Yse's (crazy?) psychology--Yse tells Lucius that the monster is the product of Antoinelle and Vonderjan's sexual obsession--but there is no depth to it so it is not very interesting or very believable.  As for the vampire that perhaps had sex with Lucius and perhaps murdered Yse, like the vampire in "The Beautiful Biting Machine" it feels a little incongruous in a science fiction setting and like the piano monster in Yse's lost manuscript it isn't fleshed out enough to feel real or engage the reader's interest.  Maybe the vampire is just supposed to be a reflection of Lucius and Yse's unfulfilled desires and/or a representation of how they are frustrated because they are marginalized in our heteronormative patriarchal society, but that is just not very satisfying.    
So, I have my reservations about "The Isle is Full of Noises," but it is still worthwhile--all of Lee's vivid images, clever phrases, many clues that are perhaps just distractions and her focus on some of my favorite topics (like sex and suicide) outweigh the issues about which I have complained.  The story would reappear in not only Blood 20, but the Lee collections Sounds and Furies (Shakespeare again) and Tanith by Choice, a "best of" collection.


I guess I have been pretty critical of these stories, but by any objective measure they are all good.  Tanith Lee is like Thomas Disch or Gene Wolfe in that she has real traditional literary talent, works hard to craft each story--on the level of the individual sentence as well as on the larger level of the story's structure--and often produces stories that are difficult or challenging, either because they are hard to figure out or present bold and possibly offensive subject matter or both.

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