My favorite author is named Tanith Lee. She is an unbelievably versatile writer with a varied body of work. I don’t love all her work, but some Lee books overwhelm me. I think of those books as articulating the baseline of my own emotions … or establishing that field of inquiry one might describe as the philosophy of love.
I once read a critic who called the French author Colette “a corsetiere of love”. If Colette is a corsetiere, then Tanith Lee is a surgeon with a scalpel — or rather, a more artistically violent profession, perhaps a sculptor with a knife.
My favorite of Lee’s short stories is called “The Glass Dagger”, which is part of the compilation The Book of the Dead; I don’t like the other stories in that book nearly as much. My favorite of her novels is Biting the Sun, although that could just be because I discovered it at age 14, and I felt like the main character was exactly like me. I have never felt able to satisfactorily quote these works, so they aren’t represented below. When recommending Lee’s work to newbies, I usually suggest starting with the compilation Dreams of Dark and Light and the fantasy sequence the Flat Earth novels, beginning with Night’s Master. There’s an incredibly awesome, detailed bibliography of Lee’s work at a website called Daughter of the Night.
I would give a lot to interview Tanith Lee, but I hear she’s reclusive. I’d direct you to her own website, which was once a tacitly lovely and sideways place; but it looks like tanithlee.com has been snagged by domain squatters.
Once upon a time there was a princess, outside whose high bedroom window a nightingale sang every night from a pomegranate tree.
While the nightingale sang, the princess slept deeply and well, dreaming of wondrous and beautiful things. However there came a night when the nightingale, for reasons of her own, did not sing but flew far away.
In the morning the princess summoned a gardener and told him to cut down the pomegranate tree. The man protested; the tree was a fine one, young, healthy and fruitful. But the princess would not relent. For as she said, all that one previous night a nightingale had perched in the branches, and the princess’s sleep had been very much disturbed by her song.
[from Disturbed By Her Song]
Love is everywhere … and the death of love. And time, which is built of the histories of death and love. Death and time I had always conceded, and acknowledged. And now I see plainly what love is. Not in you, pretty, mortal child. But in my arms that comfort you for wounding me, in my hands which soothe you for it, in my words which say to you, in despite of me, Do whatever you must. This lesson I will not remember. Nor shall I ever forget.
[from Delirium’s Mistress]
A rose by any other name
Would get the blame
For being what it is —
The colour of a kiss,
The shadow of a flame.
A rose may earn another name,
So call it love;
So call it love I will.
And love is like the sea,
Which changes constantly,
And yet is still
[from The Silver Metal Lover]
[This last one is both sad and cruel. You’ve been warned. The main character is a late-1800s gentleman who has stopped off at a village during a long, long train ride. We do not know where he was traveling to. In this village, he has just seduced a girl named Mardya. ~CT]
She was already dewy when my fingers sought between the fleshy folds of the rose. “No,” she said. She rubbed herself against me, arching her back, shaken through every inch of her. “No — no –”
“This will hurt you.”
“Hurt me,” she said, “I am yours. I belong to you.”
So I broke into her, and she whined and lay for a moment like a rabbit wounded in a trap under my convulsive thrusts no longer to be considered, but at the last moment she too thrust herself up against me, crucified, with a long silent scream, a whistling of outdrawn breath, and I felt the cataclysm shake her to pieces as I was dying on her breast.
… “Are you the one?” she said. “Are you my love? For always?”
“Always,” I said, “how else?”
“And my death,” she said. “Love is death. Kill me again,” she said, but not in any mannered way, though it might have been some line from some modern stage drama.
So presently, leaning over her, I “killed” her again. This time I even pinned her arms to the bed in an enactment of violence and force. Her face in ecstasy was a mask of fire, a rose mask.
Afterwards her eyes were hollow, like those of a street whore starving in the cold.
When I began to put on my clothes, she said, “Where are you going?”
“It will be best, I think. We might fall asleep. How would it look if the girl came in and found me here, in the frank morning light?”
“But you will come back tomorrow?”
“Your aunt invited me to luncheon.”
“But you will be here? You will not be late?”
“Of course I shall be here, of course not late.”
I kissed her, for the last time, with tenderness, seemliness. It was all spent now. I could afford to be respectful.
As I reached the open door, she was lying like a creature of the sea stranded upon a beach. Her delicate legs might have been the slim bi-part tail of a mer-girl, and the tangle of nightgown and hair only the seaweed she had brought with her to remind her of the deep.
… As I let myself out of the front door, and descended the steps, the air cut coldly in the icy deserts before dawn. It was almost four o’clock, and I had seen to my luggage beforehand. I need only go along to the station and there wait for the train.
Two doctors attended me at the point of my destination, one the man I had arranged, a month previously, to see, the other a colleague of his, a specialist in the field. Both frowned upon me, the non-specialist with the more compassion.
“From what you have said, I think you are not unaware of your condition.”
“I had hoped to be proved wrong.”
“I am afraid you are not wrong. The disease is in its primary phase. We will begin treatment at once. It is not very pleasant, as you understand, but the alternative less so. It will also take some time.”
“And I believe,” said the less sympathetic frowner, “you comprehend you can never be perfectly sanguine. There is, as such, no cure. I can promise to save your life, you have come to us in time. But marriage will be out of the question.”
“Did I give you to suppose I intended marriage?”
“All relations,” said this man, “are out of the question. This is what I am saying to you. The organisms of syphilis are readily transferable. You must abstain. Entirely. This is not what you, a young man, would wish to hear. But neither, I am sure, would you wish to inflict a terrible disease of this nature, involving deformity, insanity and certain death where undiagnosed, on any woman for whom you cared. Indeed, I trust, upon any woman.” He glared on me so long I felt obliged to congratulate his judgment.
The treatment began soon after in a narrow white room. It was, as they advised, unpleasant. The mercury, pumped through me like vitriol, induced me to scream, and after several repetitions I raved. One does not dwell on such matters. I bore it, and waited to escape the cage.
The ulcerous chancre, the nodulous sore, long healed, which had first alerted me, has a name in the parlance of the streets. They call it the Devil’s Rose.
… She died insane, I heard as much some years later in another city, from the lips of those who did not know I might have had an interest.
The condition was never diagnosed. Probably she had never even been told of such things. They thought she had pined and grown sick and gone mad through a failed love affair, some stranger who entered her life, and also left it, by train.
She had always had a morbid turn, Mardya Lindensouth, obsessed by dark fancies, bad things. Unrequited love had sent her to perdition. She was unrecognizable by the hour of her death. She died howling, her limbs twisted out of shape, her features decayed, a wretched travesty of human life.
Yes, that was what dreams of love had done for her, my little Mardya. Though in the streets they call it the Devil’s Rose.
[from “The Devil’s Rose”, a short story in the otherwise forgettable collection Nightshades: Thirteen Journeys Into Shadow. As a quick introduction to the story, Tanith Lee writes: “I have always said I find this one of the most horrific of my own stories. How many times it must, in some form, have happened. And, in more modern guise, still does. One wishes to assume a strong moral stance. Yet self-denial is a wicked thing. The air is always full of first-thrown stones.”]