Vampire Stories by Women: Venus, Outfangthief, So Runs the World…

Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: The very end of December 2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001).

“Venus Rising on Water” (1991), by Tanith Lee:

“Like long hair, the weeds grew down the façades of the city, over shutters and leaden doors, into the pale green silk of the lagoon. Ten hundred ancient mansions crumbled. Sometimes a flight of birds was exhaled from their crowded mass, or a thread of smoke was drawn up into the sky. Day long a mist bloomed on the water, out of which distant towers rose like snakes of deadly gold. Once in every month a boat passed, carving the lagoon that had seemed thickened beyond movement. Far less often, here and there, a shutter cracked open and the weed hair broke, a stream of plaster fell like a blue ray. Then, some faint face peered out, probably eclipsed by a mask. It was a place of veils. Visitors were occasional…”

Tanith Lee, you’re my favorite. Lee frames this story as a “clash between the future and the past” – I read it as something approaching cosmic horror, although here the cosmic is actually subsumed by more domestic monsters. Either way, Lee writes a humanity under threat.

A plucky girl reporter with the wonderfully foolishly exuberant name of Jonquil Hare goes exploring in a decaying future Venice, haunted by white rats, holograms of inhabitants past, and an ancient astronomer’s painting of a blue-skinned woman. (Lunar/aquatic blue-green, blue-yellow is the story’s sickly, unearthly color theme.) This not being the comfortingly rational universe of Tintin or Holmes, the irrational and unearthly win out, resoundingly declaring both their supremacy over and indifference to humanity. Jonquil is left in a destabilized reality. Sexual unease and gender ambiguity amplify the sense of murkiness, clammy fever dreams.

 —–

Another excellent name: Gala Blau’s 2001 “Outfangthief” takes its title from a Middle English term meaning “the right of a lord to pursue a thief outside the lord’s own jurisdiction.” This is the first splatterpunk – horror driven by extremity of violence, physical violence as emotional climax – I’ve read in a long while, and the effect does seem dated to me now. The villain’s cartoonish perversion takes away from the tragedy of the protagonist: a mother on the run from debts, who sees her teenage daughter drifting, and eventually, taken away from her.

Still, I was taken with Blau’s smoky, dire prose (“…Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently”) and Gothily surreal vampires (“The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t”). I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of her work.

—-

I saved Caitlín Kiernan‘s “So Runs the World Away” (2001) for nearly last because, as with Lee, I admire and enjoy just about every one of her works. “So Runs…” introduces us to Dead Girl and Bobby, whom I first met (achronologically) in the collection Alabaster. As in “Les Fleurs Empoisonnées” in that collection, cruel, eccentric, clannish undead who dabble in taxidermy make an appearance; the emotional center is the kernel of less-dysfunctional family formed by Dead Girl and Bobby, and Dead Girl’s subaqueous stream-of-consciousness as she fumbles to distinguish her memories from those of her victims.

“And at the muddy bottom of the Seekonk River, in the lee of the Henderson Bridge, Dead Girl’s eyelids flutter as she stirs uneasily, frightening fish, fighting sleep and her dreams. But the night is still hours away, waiting on the far side of the scalding day, and so she holds Bobby tighter and he sighs and makes a small, lost sound that the river snatches and drags away towards the sea.”

The story ultimately hinges on Dead Girl’s choice to separate herself, and her chosen family: to cut them loose from paralyzing and toxic influences. Ultimately, she declares herself distinct, individual (though not solitary), and therefore valuable. Like many of Kiernan’s stories, then, “So Runs…” can be read as being about the negotiation of an abusive relationship.

– E

Go to:

Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

Vampire Stories by Women: “Rampling Gate,” “Miss Massingberd”

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.25.2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001)

Inevitable disclaimer: I was obsessed with the first three books of Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (and her two historical-fiction novels) in high school; haven’t read her since then. Also, this summary/review is spoilery.

“The Master of Rampling Gate” (1984), Rice’s only vampire short story, reads like an adolescent vampire’s dreams of an adolescent girl’s dreams of him (Twilight inverted?) – it’s a sentimental Gothic confection spun mostly of lissome sensuality and wish-fulfillment. Rice’s prose flows creamily (I use that word because I can’t help but remember Anthony Blanche’s indictment of Charles’ jungle paintings in Brideshead Revisited: “It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers…”), but there’s troublingly little depth to it. Maybe she was taking a break from the unrelenting moral horror that the VC protagonists wrangle with?

Young, idly wealthy Julie and Richard arrive in the country estate of Rampling Gate, having been commanded by their late father to tear it down “stone by stone,” but instead find themselves seduced by its quiet luxury and meditative, timeless solitude. A few gasps and midnight encounters later, Julie learns that the true master of Rampling is a mopy, beautiful vampire who dates to the Middle Ages and likes reading her fiction. (It must be true love!)

There’s a horrifying flashback to the plague years to explain why Rampling Gate, and the vampire, must remain – they serve as monument to the plague-devastated village that once stood there – but the story reverts so quickly to the couple’s delighted honeymoon-planning that the plague episode ends up reading as an ornament to the tragedy of the eternally lonely vampire, rather than a reflection on human misery and the awfulness of history.

The whole thing is especially creepy because Rice keeps on insisting that the chief attribute of both Julie and the vampire is their innocence, even when he’s lovingly showing her visions of them feasting together upon ladies in red-wallpapered bordellos – because she has to become his vampire mistress, natch. Hooray for eternally prolonged adolescence!

—–

Tina Rath’s “Miss Massingberd and the Vampire” (1986) is a crisply written, very Britishly humorous little story. As in the other story that I’ve read of Rath’s, “A Trick of the Dark” (review in this post), the vampire offers sensual escape from a buttoned-up life, here that of a schoolmistress whose evening encounter in a churchyard tweaks her life slightly out of the polite course of things. It’s a story that, like Miss Massingberd, seems to be smiling to itself.

Go to:
Stephen Jones: bio and works reviewed
Anne Rice: bio and works reviewed
Tina Rath: bio and works reviewed

Madame Two Swords, by Tanith Lee (1988) E

Date read: 8.1.11
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is one of my most treasured finds from Readercon, picked up from the fantastic Somewhere in Time Books: Tanith Lee‘s 1988 limited-edition novella, with illustrations by Tom Canty. From the title and pastel cover I expected a tale of genteel swashbuckling, possibly YA; should have remembered that Lee never goes in for gentility. Elegance, yes – Lee is manically elegant – but never gentility.

Madame Two Swords starts in a familiar place for Lee: a sensitive, fearful, recently orphaned young woman in an early 20th-century alternate France is treated cruelly by both circumstances and humanity; her only spiritual sustainment comes from a book of poetry discovered in a secondhand shop:

“The blue cloth binding was quite pristine under its dust. It was a slender book, without lettering. I opened it out of curiosity.”

“The book was my talisman. Other girls wore crosses or medallions.”

The narrator is unemployed and evicted, and finds herself in dire straits, chased from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other: too middle-class for hard labor, too unskilled to be a seamstress, too unwilling to accede to customers’ advances to be a waitress in the seedier cafés. At the extremity of her despair – enter Madame Two Swords, a black-eyed old woman of terrifying intensity, in whose museum-like house the narrator comes to some strange realizations.

In this France, the Revolution was sparked by the poet-demagogue Lucien de Ceppays in the city of Troies. This Revolution culminated in the execution of the original revolutionaries, including de Ceppays, by the fickle mob, and the occupation of France by a fearful British monarchy. Inhabitants now speak “Frenish” as often as French, and labor in a depressed economy overseen by a puppet government. The narrator’s talisman-book is, of course, a volume of de Ceppays’ work, and contains besides a haunting watercolor portrait of him. The story quickly sees her devotion to his image and memory moving beyond girlish fantasy.

The final supernatural twist, when it comes, is powerful in effect, in large part because of the supreme delicacy with which Lee constructs the fleeting image central to the revelation. There’s an also-delicate but definite touch of gender-bending, which I wish I could discuss in more detail without being spoilery, but suffice it to say that I liked how Lee addressed its implications, a lot. This is a story that makes use of deeply Gothic-Romantic tropes (duh, Tanith Lee) yet resists being just romantic; it’s fierce and intelligent and ultimately insists on the dignity of all of its characters.

And so my love affair with Tanith Lee continues! If you like Revolutionary France and cross-lingual puns and intelligent Gothic fantasy, if you love Tanith Lee and beautiful books, you might consider treating yourself to a copy of Madame Two Swords.

Two more photos (can’t help showing it off!) under the cut:
Continue reading Madame Two Swords, by Tanith Lee (1988) E

The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Ba (2008) E

Date read: 3.17.11
Book from: Library
Reviewer: Emera

book umbrella

From the back cover:

In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-seven extraordinary children were spontaneously born by women who had previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, ‘To save the world.’ These seven children form The Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower… Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.”

The Umbrella Academy is clearly an enormous excuse for Gerard Way to make moody, tentacular love to all the tropes of the superhero comic. Father-figure issues, intra-team rivalries and romantic tensions PLUS frolicsomely deranged villains and a tortured, vengeful supervillainess PLUS nonstop, glibly surreal* storytelling = one gloriously dark, weird, and addictive series. I can’t speak to there being much real substance under the surface – other than Way’s manifest passion for superheroes and their particular brand of wounded humanity – but it’s a terribly stylish and entertaining comic, with occasional moments of real sweetness and charm.

Art highlights: Dave Stewart’s yummy colors – heavy on dark, desaturated oranges and purples. And I love the weight of Gabriel Ba’s figures, and their elastic, elongated torsos – makes for interesting stances and gestures. Also, I could stare at the cover forever. Hi, Vanya. What shapely F-holes you have.

(I know. I’m sorry.)

I devoured the first volume in one sitting, and am jonesing to get my hands on the second. Also, this may well be my favorite single line of comic-book dialogue: “And just as I suspected – ZOMBIE-ROBOT GUSTAVE EIFFEL!”

* The kids’ surrogate mother is an animate anatomical model. What’s not to love?

Go to:
Gerard Way: bio and works reviewed
The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 2, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (2009): review by Emera

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi (2009) E

Date read: 1.10.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

Snow White meets haunted-house melodrama meets quasi-vampire story with a decided hint of “Carmilla,” by the author of The Icarus Girl? Count me in. White is for Witching is the story of a family, and a house, distorted by the loss of a mother and a hidden history of trauma, xenophobia, and insanity. Miranda Silver blames herself for her mother’s death, and struggles with pica, a disorder that compels her to eat chalk and plastic. (I thought it might well be a pun on the “consumptive” heroine, in addition to hinting at Miri’s eventual realization of even worse appetites, and reflecting the novel’s motifs of misdirected desire and destruction from the inside out.) Her twin brother Eliot and bottled-up father Luc are too paralyzed by their own obsessions and griefs to do more than watch Miri on her slow course to destruction. In short, every character is an emotional closed circuit, furiously retracing the same neuroses without outlet or resolution. This includes, of course, the possessive and apparently sentient house, which has born witness to several generations of tortured Silver women.

For the first half of the book, I read with mostly detached fascination. Everyone is so icily clever and dysfunctional that I couldn’t really care about them, and as in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s prose sometimes verges on mannered. Paragraphs drift into prose-poetic fragments, and overlapping phrases signal transitions between narrating characters; I found the latter a particularly heavy-handed stylistic device. Similarly, many of the haunted-house tableaux – Miri’s waking dreams of streets lined with “pale people,” for example – are presented with an arranged, glassy nightmarishness, an alienating hyper-aestheticization. What saved the book for me from feeling (if you’ll forgive the pun) too lifeless was Oyeyemi’s dense layering of Gothic and folkloric tropes.

Continue reading White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi (2009) E

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962) E

Date read: 1.24.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Penguin Ink EditionsPenguin Ink editions, when will you stop being awesome? Cover art by Thomas Ott.

Shirley Jackson is the queen of opening lines:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the capstone in my mini Jackson-marathon of January; for some reason I’ve decided to review it first. It was her last novel, and contains almost all the Jackson trademarks: persecutory villagers, a haunted (not literally, in this case) house, thinly veiled wickedness and brutality, a split psyche, embodied here in sisters light and dark. Jonathan Lethem’s excellent introduction in the Penguin Ink edition situates these usefully in Jackson’s own life as the formerly shy wife of a university professor isolated in small-town New England, and in her sad decline as she succumbed to agoraphobia in her later years.

Merricat Blackwood. Oh, Merricat. She’s a typical Jackson heroine in that she’s determinedly childish and presexual; it’s hard not to read her relationship with the Blackwood house (like that other great Jackson house, Hill House) as an attempt to return to the womb. I also had a hard time remembering that she’s supposed to be 18, and not 12 or 13. A capricious, spiteful witch-child, she delights in hiding, in secrecy, in burying and nailing charms around the family estate, repeatedly drawing lines of protection around her and Constance and the house. (When interloping cousin Charles appears, Merricat hates him almost more for resembling her and Constance’s father than for his obvious mercenary aims; she strenuously rejects any masculine influence from their domain.) Her black cat Jonas follows her everywhere, and they “talk” to each other fluently. She loves thinking about the deaths of others: of her family, scandalously and mysteriously poisoned six years ago; of the villagers who hate them and blame fearful, fragile Constance for the murder. Above all, she’s monstrously selfish, a sort of funnel constantly drawing off Constance’s maternal attentions and lovingly described cooking.

Like any good trickster character, she’s both hateful and seductive. I couldn’t not identify with her flighty witchery – a good chunk of my childhood in a nutshell – all the while that I was increasingly repulsed by her emotional stranglehold on Constance. The violence in the book crescendoes shortly before the end, but the ugliness goes on from there, quietly, as Merricat proceeds to get exactly what she wants; it left me feeling more disturbed by a book than I have for a long while. At the same time, I couldn’t help remembering how much fun Merricat was, her wicked humor and her mocking embrace of dysfunction. Lethem’s introduction highlights Jackson’s talent for slyly “instill[ing] a sense of collusion in her readers,” reflecting “the strange fluidity of guilt as it passes from one person to another.” You can’t get much better at that than Merricat Blackwood.

Go to:
Shirley Jackson: bio and works reviewed

The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill (1983) E

Date read: 12.21.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

The cover-flap copy for this book is so absurdly, inveiglingly charming that I just have to post the whole thing:

What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a really literate, first-class thriller – one that chills the body with foreboding of dark deeds to come, but warms the soul with perceptions and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story by Jane Austen.

Austen we cannot, alas, give you, but Susan Hill’s remarkable Woman In Black comes as close as the late twentieth century is likely to provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero one Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.

So, yep, a good old English Gothic. Hill provides a smoothly paced, carefully detailed ghost story, meditative in tone and full of lovely, eerie descriptions of the silvery salt marshes and sudden “sea frets” (fogs) that surround the requisite abandoned mansion.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of much other praise for the book beyond words like “accomplished” and “polished.” Hill’s easy mastery of all the conventions of the genre – the meticulously built-up suspense, the confident young narrator whose rationality slowly buckles – has the effect of making it all feel rather tidy and expected, particularly since her prose feels about the same.  In the twisty-turny thrillery department – I guessed the overall shape of the plot about 20 pages in, and foresaw most of the twists after that well in advance.

All in all, a pleasantly chilly read for a winter night, with one or two lingeringly unsettling images, but nothing that really bit deep.

Go to:
Susan Hill: bio and works reviewed

The Book of the Damned, by Tanith Lee (1988) E

Date read: 11.1.07; reread once or twice since
Book from: Library originally; now personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

(There is nothing about this cover that does not amuse and please me. Consider it an honorary Bad Book Cover Friday?)

Tanith Lee‘s The Secret Books of Paradys are among the most exquisitely aestheticized and unabashedly Gothic works I’ve ever read, which means of course that I’m obsessed with them. The series is set in a parallel-universe version of Paris, known variously as Paradys, Paradis, Par Dis, and Paradise. (Lee has also written a more recent series about a para-Venice, The Secret Books of Venus, though I’ve yet to read them.) Each of the four volumes comprises interweaving, thematically unified stories. The books stand alone well, though they’re seeded with references to a few recurring elements within the universe – locations, names, a certain poet – and the fourth volume has a climactic finality to it. Each of the books is further themed by color (see what I mean about aestheticized?), frequently embodied in significant pieces of jewelry and, in The Book of the Damned, stained-glass windows. (Always makes me think of “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

The Book of the Damned takes as its themes sexual transgression and ambiguities of sex, gender, and identity, considered in three novellas. The first, “Stained with Crimson,” follows an ill-fated poet, Andre St. Jean, on a journey of sexual obsession in 19th-century Paradys. St. Jean is given a ruby scarab ring by a dying man on the hills of the Temple Church; soon after, he is introduced to the ring’s owner, the ineffably unobtainable Antonina von Aaron. Cue a game of predator and prey in which role reversals are linked with a cycle of death, rebirth, and sex changes. Oh yes, and vampires. I mean, obviously. This is perhaps my favorite out of all the Paradys tales, both for its sentimental associations, as it launched my Tanith Lee obsession, and for its no-holds-barred Gothstravaganza, ladled out in the most sonorous, decadent, purple-saturated language imaginable. Further layers of allegorical imagery incorporate Greek mythology (a Pan symbol, a trip down a deathly river) and the elements, the latter perhaps complementing the book’s primary-color triad.

“Malice in Saffron,” though little less wrought and hectic, takes a much grimmer turn. As with many of Lee’s works, its events are incited by sexual violence and abuse of women. The protagonist, Jehanine, is assaulted by her stepfather and rejected by her beloved brother. After fleeing the countryside, she finds shelter within a nunnery in medieval Paradys, but by night transforms herself into capricious, murderous Jehan, who roams the backstreets of Paradys with a gang of thieves. Like many of Lee’s vengeful heroines, Jehanine nears the brink of being consumed by her own desire for destruction, but ultimately finds peace and redemption. Jehanine, I suspect, is a distant Paradysian extrapolation of Joan of Arc/Jeanne d’Arc; her story also heavily references Cathar beliefs.

Continue reading The Book of the Damned, by Tanith Lee (1988) E

Not a re-read, but close enough

Re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in its entirety is one of those things that I’ve wanted to do for a while, but that looks increasingly unlikely to happen soon as the summer winds to a close. (nooooo….)

Luckily, Matthew Cheney (of The Mumpsimus) provides an alternative, in his Sandman Meditations over at heady comic-book blog Gestalt Mash. In each installment, Cheney provides commentary on one issue as he reads through the series for the first time; two installments are out so far. (A similar read-through essay series is also being offered for George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, with the added twist of commentary being provided by one new and one re-reader.) Graphic novels are not his expertise, but his background in film studies is obvious, as he pays close attention to details of shape, composition, color, and the flow of panels.

These won’t do much for anyone who hasn’t already read the series, or isn’t in the process of doing so, but they’re a fascinating, if largely technical way to revisit it.

– E

Go to:

Neil Gaiman: bio and works reviewed
Sandman, 10 (and maybe 5) years later

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier (1938) E

Date read: 2.8.09
Read from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Young, unworldly, and hopelessly shy, our nameless narrator finds herself swept off of her feet by the widowed and much older Maxim DeWinter while working as the companion of a wealthy American woman on the French Riviera. Maxim takes her away to his estate in England, Manderley, where the soon-disenheartened narrator learns that her lot is to live in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Rebecca was glamorous, flamboyant, the consummate wife and hostess; Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is fiercely devoted to her memory, and regards Maxim’s second wife as an interloper and a poor replacement. Between Mrs. Danvers’ cruel manipulations and Maxim’s moody secrecy – which the narrator fears is a sign that he still loves Rebecca – the narrator finds herself without allies in Manderley, and is driven both to uncover the truth of of what happened to Rebecca, and to come into her own as a woman.

Hmm, awkward summary. Anyway, I read this following Isaac Marion’s The Inside, and together they ended up being a one-two punch of delicious, delicious suspense. I couldn’t read Rebecca in anything less than 100-page chunks – addictive to the max, it is.

Continue reading Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier (1938) E