English writer Tanith Lee (1947 – ) is a deeply respected and major force in the fields of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, with over seventy novels and hundreds of short stories to her credit. She has been a regular contributor over many years to Weird Tales magazine. She has won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Nebula Award multiple times. Although there were many Tanith Lee stories we could have reprinted in The Weird compendium, a story titled “Yellow and Red” (1998), won us over because it exemplifies several of the Lee trademarks: atmosphere, a sensual style, and a creeping sense of dread. In the story, something is wrong with a series of photographs, as the narrator describes it, without giving away too much, as “a beastly thing. I fear I cannot convey how vile, nor what a turn it has given me.” In the interview, Lee talks about the story as well as weird fiction…. – Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Weirdfictionreview.com: Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? And what childhood books do you remember reading that were definitely more of the weird variety?
Tanith Lee: SF was certainly a mainstay of our household, not to mention such as Dickens, Shakespeare and Chekov–all of which have their claims to superb weirdness. I, being (then undiagnosed) dyslexic, didn’t learn to read until almost 8, (my father finally taught me in a few months) after which I made up for lost time. We were a non-TV family too, until I was 12–we couldn’t afford one. But the radio produced wonderful stuff–plays by Louis MacNeice and adaptations of William Golding, for example. I’d heard these by the time I was 7.
I can’t recall anything specifically Weird among my omnivorous greedy reads, though Theodore Sturgeon’s “Silken Swift” caught my imagination and kept it, as did the stories of Saki–such as “Gabriel Ernest” and “Sredni Vashtar” [included in The Weird – eds.]. My environ was quite strange also. My parents were dancers, moving endlessly where the work was. I was often up at midnight in glittering dance venues. And my parents and I would frequently discuss Hamlet, or Dracula–or Rider Haggard’s She. I’ve no doubt all this had its due effect.
WFR: Do you personally see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and “the gothic”, and does it matter to you as either a writer or reader?
Tanith Lee: In purely concrete terms I do see differences, but never care. For me, all genres or sub-genres, can and should be mixed when a writer wants to. (We all do, one way or another, anyhow.) Genre doesn’t matter to me, as reader or writer, providing it’s what I wish and need to read and write (and wallow in) at the time.
WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?
Tanith Lee: It comes down to personal taste, I think. There are things I read years ago and couldn’t connect with, that I now find stupendous. As for having it said about my own work, I can’t remember an instance it has been, at least not directly. If it were, again, they have every right to their own opinion. For me, it won’t influence anything. I never either sell anything short or set out to overdo. I always try my best. That doesn’t change.
WFR: When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?
Tanith Lee: Well again, it will be my personal take, I’d guess. Maybe my understanding can’t, in that particular case, stretch that far–and maybe it will next year. The only time things really do fail me is when the writing goes flat, or seems to–once more, the opinion is mine, and can also be wrong.
WFR: Can you tell us a little bit about the spark for the story “Yellow and Red,” reprinted in The Weird? It has all of your hallmarks: a genuinely creepy supernatural element, interesting characters, gorgeous writing, and great atmosphere.
Tanith Lee: Thank you! The spark for “Yellow and Red” was that –happened! (Luckily the swift demonic curse seemed not to be in tow…) What went on was this. My husband (writer/artist John Kaiine) was experimenting with some of his hard copy photographs, effecting them by hand to produce various layers and textures, to be used in forthcoming artwork. He used oils, bleach and even some alcohol (sacrilege, I know). The resulting effects were often intriguing. But… On a couple of the photos this peculiar red-yellow image appeared. It was of the sort of shape described in the story–horns, eyes, etc: John sometimes gifts me with plot ideas, and this one was soon in my mental file. The time-frame and characters then presented themselves to me. It was written fast. This is one of my own tales that appalls me, still.
Tanith Lee: Naturally I can’t speak for anyone else. I seem to go solely on instinct–and also I am in some, to me, completely familiar way, ‘told’ how to do it. I don’t hear voices, I’d better add, just find the vision and the syntax, the Voice are in the driver’s seat. I’m the car, though I do take part entirely in the process of the journey. (If I get anything wrong, that is a failure of my mechanics, some instruction missed or nuance not quite negotiated.)
WFR: Finally, if you had to pick one weird writer who is overlooked and needs to be resurrected and better appreciated, who would it be and why?
Tanith Lee: I hope I’m in error here, but I think generally Mervyn Peake is still not properly valued. His incredible 3-volume epic (the 4th volume cut short by his early illness and death) of the Groan Dynasty and their habitat, Gormenghast, is unique–in that word’s true meaning. There was nothing like it. And where there is, somewhat, now, that is due only to the exquisite influence of his work on others. He wrote like no one else. His was, and is, a Voice that–though I suppose it is copy-able–stays yet unreachable. His structures–words, images–his moon-high illuminations and abyssal shadows are frankly inimitable. He breaks the rules, even of Weird, while remaining one of the kings of it. Here and there Peake can, admittedly, be a densely-forested read, but these passages are, too, like a graceful movie of perfect camera-work and lighting. Like paintings coming calmly into life. Or riotously. The sequence circles on itself like music, and then one falls out into the glowing, breathable water of his prose. Peake can terrify and make laugh, and shock and tantalize–and break your heart. He can do it in 10 pages. Or 3 words. Unique, as I said.
One thing, though, if anyone hasn’t and means to read his books, make sure the version of the last Gormenghast novel–Titus Alone–is one of the post 1970 editions. The first printing was ruined by deranged and stupid (which is the most unforgivable?) editing. The proper edition, as Peake wrote it, strides forth from the beautiful Gothic fantasy of the first 2 volumes, into an astonishing SF-Steampunk novel. Seamlessly born of its forerunners, it reaches back to them in bitter and yearning ways.
So there is the Who, and why!