Weirdfictionreview.com’s 101 Weird Writers: #10 — Tanith Lee

The Triumph of the Unseen in “Yellow and Red”

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Tanith Lee (1947 – ) is a highly respected English writer 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. Along with Daphne Du Maurier, Lee has established herself as one of the preeminent writers coming to the weird from gothic fiction. “Yellow and Red” (1998) contains several of the Lee trademarks: atmosphere, a sensual style, and a creeping sense of dread. This story is also a favorite of one of our newest regular contributors to 101 Weird Writers, Desirina Boskovich, who sees in the story a tale of the uncanny and irrational bleeding into a supposedly rational world.

– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”

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Admirers of Tanith Lee frequently compare her to royalty, anointing her as nobility in the genres of the uncanny. Perhaps the comparison is suggested by the royal personages that people her fiction: kings and queens, princes and princesses, rulers of the mortal world and beyond. Still, the title is fitting. Few authors have produced such a prodigious body of work across so many genres. Lee has authored more than 70 novels and 250 short stories, spanning many subsets of the speculative and strange: futuristic science fiction, second world fantasies, Gothic horror and romance. She writes for both children and adults.

Because of the diversity of Lee’s oeuvre, her work is united more by its themes (death and mortality, deity and personhood, the fluidity of sexuality and desire) and its style (lush, vibrant, exotic, erotic) than any particular mode. Whatever her subject, Lee’s vision is intense and feverish; like many of her characters, she seems to navigate the waters of unseen worlds. And it’s difficult to resist the call of that spell; there’s something haunting about these visions. As the narrator writes in “Where Does the Town Go at Night?”

..it’s a sort of cool green echo in your chest. In your guts. It’s like a scent that you love because it reminds you of something almost unbearably happy, only you can’t remember what. It’s like a bitter-sweet nostalgia for a memory you never had.

Or as a character in A Bed of Earth describes the same feeling:

The outskirts of Heaven, this. I’ve known always. We must visit them sometimes, in dreams–

In dreams. But also in nightmares. And in “Yellow and Red,” the intrusion of the uncanny is decidedly a creature of the latter. “Yellow and Red” is narrated in an epistolary style; compared with much of Lee’s work, the voice feels reticent and restrained. The atmosphere is overpoweringly one of oppressive dread and creeping knowledge, rather than the phantasmagoric environment of more straightforward fantasy works like Tales from the Flat Earth or The Secret Books of Venus. Yet the world of the exotic is also present in “Yellow and Red,” lurking just below the surface, or right off stage. When the exotic does enter the story, it manifests as horror, perhaps because it is stranded in a world where it doesn’t belong.

On the surface, “Yellow and Red” is a typical haunted house tale, the story of a rational man slowly driven mad by the intrusion of the uncanny upon his heretofore unremarkable life. But it can also be read as a struggle between rationality — what is seen — and irrationality — what is felt. The narrator, who identifies strongly with the forces of reason, seems to figure rationality as a masculine quality, relegating the irrational and uncanny to the realm of the feminine. As the unseen and inexplicable seize power over his psyche, both his sanity and his masculine identity are at stake.

Narrated in diary form, the story begins when our hero, Gordon, discovers he has inherited a mansion in the country, by way of his uncle’s untimely demise. His uncle was preceded in death by his sister, his wife, and their two teenage sons, suggesting either a very unhealthy family or a very unlucky house. The narrator’s first glimpse of the house is marked by an enigmatic sign, an intimation that there are aspects of the place that resist the bright light of reason:

Above, was my Grandfather’s weather-vane, which I had never been able, properly, to make out in the photograph, but which my Father told me was in the shape of some Oriental animal deity. Even now it remained a mystery to me, between the leaves of the oaks and the moving, leaden sky.

From the beginning, the narrator associates the house with Lucy, the girlfriend left behind in London, she who has “stuck to me for five years.” Lucy, we’re told, “is terribly interested in the idea of an old place in the country.” He further consigns the place to Lucy’s realm, the realm of the feminine, asserting If it comes to that, she can do what she wants with the house.”

In the meantime, he settles into the dismal mansion and awaits the arrival of his late uncle’s housekeeper.

At about eleven thirty, the not very punctual Mrs. Gold arrived. I was not surprised. Women are generally unreliable. I have learnt this from Lucy.

Gossiping — as women do — Mrs. Gold takes up the tale of the unfortunate former residents of the place, and their mysterious falling ill.  But despite his own sense of unease in the house, the narrator brushes away her stories. Until later that evening, when he spills a drink on some of his uncle’s prize photographs. The accident reveals the first glimpse of the uncanny, though the narrator is reluctant to acknowledge it. Instead, he scolds himself for a seeming lapse into dreaded femininity:

I have often seen Lucy have little accidents like this. Women are inclined to be clumsy, I find, something to do with their physique, probably.

He calms his rattled nerves and compensates for his anxiety by choosing a book from the shelf: “some essays on prominent men, and this would have to serve.” At an unconscious level he seems to hope that this talisman of machismo can protect him from the exotic power of the curse.

Empirical evidence of the uncanny finally becoming unavoidable, the narrator visits the priest to receive a man’s take on the whole situation. “When I got to the vicarage door, and knocked, a homely fat woman came and let me in, all smiles, to the vicar’s den. It was a nice, masculine place…” Gordon and the priest have a man-to-man about the whole grisly business. The priest confirms Mrs. Gold’s intimations about the “unfortunate house,” as well as Gordon’s own fears. Only then can Gordon give credit to the horror he’s felt since he first stepped into the place. He flees the house, relieved to escape. He returns to his Lucy, and his flat in London with its “orderly room” and “sensible plain chairs.” But escape isn’t quite so simple; the uncanny resists our attempts to confine it.

Ironically, the structure of the story expresses a triumph of the feminine; the narrator’s ever-sensible voice is finally silenced, and the final act of the story is narrated by Lucy, who understands on some level that she has been replaced — by a curse. The story’s final chilling line places the horror squarely in the spot that Lucy herself once longed to occupy.

In the opening pages of “Yellow and Red,” the narrator says, “I am not fearful by nature. I always do my best, and am seldom in a position to dread very much.” He goes into his ordeal believing that misfortunate is a rational actor, only befalling those who truly deserve it. He views the universe as logical and reasonable, like himself. Likewise, he believes that hauntings and horrors only have an effect on those with weaker constitutions: women, for instance. But as he is overtaken by the otherworldly, his own haunting deconstructs his assumptions, collapses the distance between the rational and the irrational, and erases the space between him and those he considers his inferiors. He himself is superstitious and fatally weak.

In the broader context of Lee’s work, Gordon’s derision of the feminine can only be understood as a kind of delicious irony.  The female figures that people Lee’s work are luminous, powerful, transcendent; ferocious warriors, vengeful witches, cunning maidens, fecund mothers, and lovers whose desire is pure enough to transform destinies. The narrator of “Yellow and Red,” with his petty prejudices, begins to seem terribly weak and small.

Another story of Lee’s, “Where All Things Perish,” serves as an interesting foil to “Yellow and Red.” First of all, the structure of the story is similar. A detached male narrator, who at first does not grasp the significance of what he describes, narrates a series of events in the first person. Like “Yellow and Red,” “Where All Things Perish” juxtaposes bright and familiar London against the “dreary backwater” of Steepleford. A kindly aunt at first plays the role of Gordon’s Mrs. Gold, describing the rumors of terrible things gone by; the “local scholar” Mr. Farbody plays the role of Gordon’s priest, lending an academic and objective air to a nightmarish story that might otherwise be dismissed as an old wives’ tale. And the story’s central conceit is a seeing beyond, a revealing of what was previously unseen. Of course, the power to see beyond often causes pain and harm to those who possess it, not to mention a great deal of friction in the world at large.

But unlike “Yellow and Red,” “Where All Things Perish” contains within itself a reversal that refigures its so-called “witch” into an innocent virgin. (Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.) The female figure at the center of “Where All Things Perish” is characterized first as a fragile victim, then as a destructive and avenging force, and finally as an otherworldly being whose purity is too absolute for the fallen world in which she finds herself. Perhaps, in another story, the nightmarish creature at the heart of “Yellow and Red” might find itself equally redeemed.

2 replies to “Weirdfictionreview.com’s 101 Weird Writers: #10 — Tanith Lee

  1. Have you read “The Hidden Library of Tanith Lee?” It’s an academic look at her themes, though it’s a bit older and so only covers the earlier work. I’m a bit surprised that she isn’t more well-known in the states. Like one of my other favorites, Angela Carter, reading her is always a very sensual aesthetic experience.

  2. I have looked forward to new work by Tanith Lee ever since I first encountered “Companions on the Road” during the late 1970s. With the versatile Ms. Lee in our midst, I feel less acutely the lack of new supernatural fiction by the likes of William Beckford, Vernon Lee, Marjorie Bowen, Daphne du Maurier, Ivan Turgenev, Alexei Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, the French decadents, and Clark Ashton Smith, as Lee has given us much of the flavor and richness of these (and other authors) leavened with her own craft and imagination.

    Congratulations on a well-earned Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s World Fantasy Convention, Ms. Lee. Long may your work hold us in thrall.