(2017) Tanith Lee, NewCon Press, pbk, £12.99, 288pp, ISBN 978-1-910-93558-3
This is a collection of short stories by Tanith Lee but, unlike most collections, it is neither simply her latest collection nor the considered choice of an editor. NewCon Press, in the form of Ian Whates, decided to publish a collection of her stories as chosen by her friends - hence the title. The twelve stories were originally published between 1979 and 2010 and each is followed by a note from the friend explaining his/her reason for selecting it. In addition, Ian provides a two-page introduction to Tanith herself.
The first story is ‘Red As Blood’, where the Witch Queen is deeply worried about her young step-daughter Bianca. When the time comes will she turn after her mother, who’s death during childbirth marked the end of the blight that had infected the land since the king married? The tale is delightful and gentle as it merges ideas from the Sleeping Beauty story with aspects of vampirism.
‘The Gorgon’ is set in modern-day Greece. A writer, feeling the need to get away to somewhere quiet to concentrate on his writing, arrives on the island of Daphaeu. Soon he becomes obsessed by the small island just a quarter of a mile off the shore; he would like to go there but nobody will take him, offering one excuse after another. Eventually a local warns him that it is the home of a Medusa. Undeterred, he swims to the island and finds the lady that lives there. He will not come back the same. The story has elements of horror, but the horror is within the writer and it is too slow and languid to be scary - but it does leave an impression.
Set in the castle of the Cursed Duke, ‘Bite-me-Not or Fleur de Fur’ tells of Rohise, a scullery maid. Hardly anyone notices her, they are much more concerned with those that live outside. Perched amongst the crags of the mountains, the winged, human-looking, vampiric creatures seek blood for their sustenance and Feroluce, their prince, probes the castle’s defences every night for a way in. With a little court intrigue thrown in, it is a tale of love and loss in strange places.
‘Jedella Ghost’ tells of young girl, maybe 18-years old, who wanders into a small country town. Jedella appears bright and intelligent but knows so little about almost everything; you might think she was strangely mad or else wonder how she could be so ignorant of so much. She does not even know where she came from, other than she walked there. Eventually John Cross sets out to retrace her path and discovers the truth of her strange childhood, learning that without meaning to he has become responsible for her future and well being but that she can never be quite like anyone else.
The titular ‘Medra’ introduces us to an apparently young Earth woman who lives alone on the eighty-ninth floor of a hotel. The world was deserted over a hundred years ago and she is the sole occupant of the planet but, as the hotel and the city are completely automated, Medra wants for nothing. These days she rarely leaves her room, lying motionless for hours every day, just experiencing curious mental states seemingly taking her here and there. Jaxon, an adventurer, lands his shuttle on the edge of the city, hoping to locate and make his fortune from an old machine of colossal energy rumoured to be hidden somewhere within it. Instead he finds Medra. She helps in his quest but it is fruitless and eventually he returns to space, little realising her true purpose or his part in the scheme of things.
‘The Ghost of the Clock’ takes us to an old house, just outside a seaside town. The company Laura worked for in London has recently folded and, currently jobless and next best thing to penniless, she finds that for the moment she has no option other than to live with her Aunt Jennifer. She soon realises that her aunt’s generosity is not what it seems; an unemployed niece makes for a very cheap servant, a down-trodden skivvy. Near her bedroom at the back of the house, close to the kitchen stairs, Laura finds a clock, an ugly, unpleasant clock. She learns there is a story to it and it might harbour a ghastly memory.
In ‘Cold Fire’ we find ourselves with Pete on a boat somewhere in the seas off Canada, right up in the northern Atlantic. Corgen, the captain, is doing one of his shady deals with a passing tramper when it insists he take on an extra cargo and deliver it. Somewhere in the background is a government ship and it wants them to tow a large chunk of ice up to the Arctic, no questions asked, and leave it there, hidden amongst the rest of the ice. Fear grows amongst the crew when they realises that there is something very strange frozen in the ice; something perhaps very old and long frozen, something that the government needs kept well out of sight.
Set near the Spanish border, ‘The Crow’ is an atmospheric story that follows Judas and Georges as, when out walking one day, they come across an elderly couple. They are invited into the house and whilst Marija is just a kindly old woman, there may be more to Patxi Cuerca. It is a meeting Judas will never forget.
‘White as Sin, Now’ is a set of small scenes which between them gradually build to tell a story. The King having died, his Queen Innocin, said once to have been a kitchen worker, mindlessly wanders the castle and its environs looking for the daughter she thinks she once had. Her wanderings are observed by the dwarf Heracty who lives in the menagerie owned by the Prince (who in effect rules the kingdom). We learn of a baby girl found at a doorway, and the girl Idrel who wakes into what must be a life after death, also wandering the environs of the castle, and of the priest who has strange dreams of a vampiric wolf.
The afterlife is the subject of ‘After the Guillotine’. Following their executions four people each wake to find themselves in situations not unlike normal life but, as they come to realise, less and less so as the hours pass. They are on the astral plain and have the time to take stock of their lives, assess what meant what, before moving on, free of the confines of the physical plain.
Olvero the Scholar has had a bad day in ‘Taken at His Word’; his latest epic has been rejected by the City’s Governor. In disbelief of his rejection, Olvero sits down to write another piece but only one word appears - vampire. No matter how long and how hard he writes, the sheets show only the same word, time and time again, and he sinks into a penniless oblivion. One night he sees a glow; his piles of papers are clean and white as the ink has left the paper and taken on a life of its own. A plague hits the city; one day a man is healthy and active but the next morning finds him dead and bloodless, and there is never a witness as to how.
We finish with a longer story, ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’. A decade ago the city was flooded and people now live on the upper floors. Yse lives in a glass-loft where she spends her days as a writer. We follow her as she writes a tale set on what might be a Caribbean island, a tale which tells of young Antoinelle and her marriage to the much older Gregers Vonderjan. Something malignant arrives on the island and they know it is coming, but no-one expects it to be a piano. Meanwhile, Yse finds an old piano, floating but trapped in the tree outside her window, and has it brought inside. It too is rather strange. Are the pianos connected, and will they both bring about similar fates to their owners? And what are those fates?
Each of these stories is different and each is interesting and absorbing, and with each the style varies, atmospherically fitting the tale to be told. It is not obvious when reading but rarely does a story have a specific location, being merely, say, a house near a seaside town, yet the image of the location still comes easily to mind. It is the background which is relevant and the stories effortlessly capture that. The characters are interesting and chosen to tell their stories as only they can. Depending on how you read them at least half the stories contain a vampiric element yet it is never the obvious, Dracula-type of vampire, instead always something different or more subtle.
Each of these tales delighted, the collection is a tour-de-force to use the hackneyed expression, and they are a tribute to an excellent writer with a vivid imagination and the skill to share it with us. Every book I read by Tanith Lee leaves me liking her writing more. I am beginning to wonder if her works have got their hooks into me in some weird, vampiric way? I would not put it past her…
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