Weird Beauty: The Weird Fiction of Tanith Lee

While Tanith Lee (1947−2015) is mostly known as a fantasy writer, much of her short fiction existed in that interstitial region between genres. Not quite horror, or fantasy, her work in this mode would most comfortably fit in the weird tale category. Lee’s ‘weird’ fiction had a distinct gothic tone, and was often underscored by her eccentric wit. Her work was decidedly not Lovecraftian. Tanith was influenced more by authors like Daphne Du Maurier (the vein of  dark romanticism that runs through Lee’s work), Angela Carter (like Carter, she played subversive games with fairy-tale tropes), and Clark Ashton Smith (she inherited Smith’s atmospheric neo-Decadence) among others. Starting in the 1980s, Lee published a variety of weird fiction in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine and the venerable Weird Tales, and her mid-career retrospective, Dreams of Dark and Light, was published by Arkham House Press.

The recently released Immanion Press collection The Weird Tales of Tanith Lee showcases the stylistic diversity of her approach to weird fiction. The shortest piece, ‘An Iron Bride,’ is set during an eighteenth century European war; it is unapologetically romantic, and owes more to Brontës than the Cthulhu mythos. ‘The Persecution Machine’  is a gleefully eccentric romp about a man who’s hunted by horrible steampunk-like automata that has a Roald Dahl-like manic energy. ‘When the Clock Strikes’ is one of Lee’s dark fairytale retellings, where the Cinderella character is an agent of epic revenge against a misogynist creep. ‘Antonius Bequeathed’ is a tender, comic and bizarre fable about aging.

These disparate scenarios and thematic trajectories are all joined together by Lee’s evocative prose, which perhaps, is her unique contribution to the weird fiction cannon. Lee’s prose is febrile, sensual, imbued with an ominous wit. She was one of genre fiction’s premier stylists.

Tanith’s descriptions of an underwater city of Selkies (here styled as Shealcé) are so rich and lustrous, the language becomes a character in and of itself:

It seemed to Huss Hullas like a city of chimneys, for the curious hollow formations twisted and humped and ascended over each but all went up – in places ten times the height of a man and more – and at their tops they smoked and bubbled, and that was the air brought down into them by the Shealcé themselves, in their chests and in their fur, which gradually went up again and was lost in the water.”

— ‘Because Our Skins Are Finer’

She uses wordplay, particularly in her titles (‘Elephantasm,’ ‘Clockatrice,’ ‘Reigning Cats and Dogs’ are few examples) and her characters often break the fourth wall, distantly aware of their own mythological roles.

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Lee insisted that for her, writing was almost like channelling spirits. She wrote her fiction (all 90 novels and 300 short stories and novellas) longhand in a kind of trance. She was subject to the dictates of her imagination rather than by market forces. Her late period work, mostly published by the small press, defies neat categorization. These pieces are as influenced by the weird, the liminal and disquieting as her mainstreamed published work is, perhaps even more so.

Her loosely connected (and unfinished) Colouring Book series mixes several genres, including thrillers, ghost stories and in one case, science fiction. All of the Colouring Books deal with darker psychology, and Lee samples genre tropes like an old school hip-hop mixmaster. The first book, L’Amber, is the most straightforward of the series. Set in 1980s London, it’s the story of a twisted love triangle with overtones of the work of Patricia Highsmith. The next book in the series, Greyglass, is a haunted house story about dysfunctional maternal bonds. Like the ever changing house in the story, the story hops genres, from ‘realistic’ character studies to crime fiction. The supernatural element, a kind of living metaphor, is absent for most of this strange novel, which recalls the hallucinatory work of British cult novelist Anna Kavan. To Indigo mixes a kind of metafictional cult-of-personality Chuck Palahniuk-stylized thriller with a Decadent alchemical fantasy novel. Ivoria is a hybrid of detective fiction concerning a possibly cursed piece of ivory. Killing Violets, set in 1920s is Downton Abbey as imagined by Lars Von Trier. The final novel Cruel Pink is another play on the haunted house trope, peopled with the strange inhabitants of a London apartment building across different time periods, ranging from the 1700s, to contemporary times, to far-future and post apocalyptic times. Lee’s prose for some of these under-appreciated works is pared down or she adopts a cagey first-person narrative technique.

Lee also wrote novellas and stories along with her half-brother, Judas Garbah, where she actually ‘channelled’ a mysterious author named Esther Garber. Fatal Women: The Esther Garber Novellas are darkly surreal lesbian fiction, both contemporary and historical. All are written with feverish intensity and recall, at times, work by Colette, Anais Nin and Sarah Waters. The second collection, Disturbed By Her Song incorporates the work of Judas Garbah. His two pieces, Ne Que V’on Desir and The Crow are classic weird fiction with a homoerotic twist. The first piece is about a man who seduces all of the men on a train bound for Russia, then inexplicably turns into a wolf. The second piece, set in Spanish countryside, is about two male lovers who have a chance encounter with a magician.

Tanith’s final novel, Zircons May Be Mistaken, is a mosaic story about zombies and ghosts. It just might be the most optimistic post-apocalyptic zombie horror novel ever written, full of pathos and humor.

Because Tanith Lee got her start in Sword & Sorcery fiction, her tremendous contribution to the weird tale is often overlooked. Lee’s weird fiction was less concerned with cosmic existential dread. Instead, with her opiated prose and dream-logic plots, she found dark beauty in the weird.