This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Tanith Lee’s epic bibliography is a daunting prospect for anyone daring to attempt explore it, but at least some effort here and there has gone into producing omnibus editions of significant works by her. Overlook Duckworth have produced The Secret Books of Paradys, a fat compilation of the series of books Lee penned set in the titular city. Paradys (or Par Dis, or Paradis, or Paradise – its name varies between tales and sometimes within them) is a sort of gothic funhouse mirror take on Paris, and Lee’s Paradys tomes tend to be divided into notional colour-coded books which each offer a different story of the city. Originally published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these are stories of horror, fantasy, and eroticism unfolding in a setting close enough to the real world to feel historical but counterfactual enough to feel fantastic. That all sounds like great fun in principle, but how’s the execution?
The Book of the Damned
This comprises the first three colour books of Paradys – each a separate novella with some themes in common with the others. Our introduction to Paradys comes in the novella Stained With Crimson, constituting Le Livre Cramoisi, narrated by Andre St Jean, a struggling writer who maintains a foothold in high society thanks to his friend and occasional lover Philippe. One day, returning home from a seance at Philippe’s mansion, Andre is accosted by a tattered man in the street, who gives him a ring with a magnificent red gemstone set in it, carved with the likeness of a scarab. Before Andre can enquire too deeply about it, the man flees, pursued by a horseback rider chasing him with dogs.
Philippe believes the ring belongs to society hostess Antonina Scarabin, and drags Andre along to one of her salons, but she denies that it has anything to do with her. However, the fateful meeting has now happened: Andre has become passionately obsessed with Scarabin, whose motivations and desires are maddeningly obscure. Over the rest of the novella we follow a strange trail of bloody killings, morbid internments, and shifts in identity – including Andre becoming Anna and Antonia becoming Anthony through some curious deaths and rebirths – and strange hints of vampirism creep about the edges, but the full implications of what we are reading are hard to grasp.
In essence, this is Lee applying Gene Wolfe levels of obscurity, allusion, and cleverness to Anne Rice levels of melodrama and purple prose. Andre’s behaviour is often absolutely disproportionate and over the top in a manner which would seem odd in the protagonists of most fiction rooted in modern assumptions of behaviour and dramatic licence (including fantasy which basically operates on a modern set of axioms about how people’s inner lives work), but absolutely fits the sort of early 19th Century gothic tone Lee is going for here.
Like much literature of that time, it’s entirely possible to appreciate the story without regarding Andre as being at all a heroic or admirable individual. (Think Wuthering Heights before it got romanticised by people who don’t cotton on to how Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship isn’t meant to be romantic and special and sweet and wonderful so much as terrifying.) That said, Lee’s attempt to mimic an appropriately archaic writing style means that it can be a bit of a struggle to get through. It’s mesmerising as you are actually reading it, but once it’s done it feels far from clear that the story is actually worth the struggle. Fortunately, the remaining stories are in a somewhat more straightforward style, but this is a bit of a speed-bump to encounter as the first story.
Le Livre Safran presents Malice In Saffron, which jumps back some four or five centuries or so. It is the era of Crusades and Black Death, and in the rural area north of Paradys where the previous story ended, the story of Jhane begins. Jhane is raped by her stepfather and, appalled at this and fearing he’ll make a habit of it, flees to Paradys where her favourite brother Pierre is an artist’s apprentice. When she finds Pierre and tells him what happened, he flatly denies the possibility and declares she must go home.
After fleeing from Pierre, a mysterious dwarf leads Jhane to not one but two sanctuaries. By day she works as a serving girl in a convent where the nuns, perhaps without even realising it, are worshipping Satan via a curious form of Gnosticism. By night she disguises herself as a man, Jehan, to the point of identifying as male at points in the story, and acts as the muse for a gang of cutthroat thieves who meet at an inn with a Satanic image on its sign. Jehan’s first order of business is to lead the thieves to Pierre, who is beaten, robbed, raped and left for dead by the gang; from this point on Jehan displays a massive capacity for evil (Jhane associating that with men), leading the gang on a campaign of vengeance and terror against all who offend his sensibilities. When the plague hits, it all changes – and by the end of the story, Jhane has integrated her personality with Jehan and had profound mystical insights into the demonic undercurrents of reality.
Out of all the playing with gender and transformations that Lee does over the Paradys material I read, this is perhaps the most successful one. In maintaining two identities, Jhane/Jehan is able to live in two entirely separate societies, each of which is rigorously gendered – namely, the convent and the thieves. In the process of fitting in those places, our protagonist gets to explore both male and female socialisation and gender roles – for instance, Jhane tends to get talked over, but Jehan talks over people.
Again, we aren’t dealing with a story concerned overly with presenting morally sympathetic role models, and if anything Jehan is perhaps one of the most reprehensible characters we meet in the series, just as Jhane may qualify as the most self-sacrificing; the intent seems to be that having been victimised by terrible men, Jhane/Jehan is not aware of a masculinity which isn’t toxic, and thus uses their masculine identity to wreak bloody revenge and do evil whilst their female identity is somewhat nicer. On the one hand this is an entirely legitimate feminist point to make, but on the other hand we are still left with the fact that this character has done some awful, awful things, and whilst they also do some nice things towards the end of the story it feels debatable as to whether those really constitute a redemption arc, though I’m not sure this is the sort of story where such an arc would be entirely necessary.
That said, the piece isn’t without some sense of closure – the end of story has Jhane and Pierre experiencing two different visions of Satan and the apocalypse – but because of the disparity of opportunity only Pierre’s rather cliched version is recorded for posterity. Jhane’s somehow feels like it has all the more validity for being personal to her.
The third book – Le Livre Azur, comprising Empires in Azure – takes place in Paradis, which seems to be Paradys somewhere in the hazy borderline between the 19th and 20th centuries – it’s an era late enough for telephones, trains, cars and photos, early enough for gaslight. Stylistically, the story is reminiscent of early Arthur Machen. Our narrator is a journalist who is collared by the mysterious performer Louis de Jenier at her favourite cafe; eventually deciding to hear out the story he promises her, she goes to meet him at a house which may well be that of Philippe from Stained With Crimson, where she witnesses a violent act and comes away with his diary, in which he documents the appearance of a ghostly woman who may well be the spirit of a murder victim from some years back – or might instead be someone far more ancient.
Once again Lee uses the story to play with gender; the narrator is a woman writes under the male pseudonym of St Jean as a nod to Andre St Jean, who used to live on her street (and perhaps even in her own apartment), and Louis de Jenier is a professional drag queen. This and other common links between the stories in The Book of the Damned – jewellery, windows, ghosts and whatnot – point to a hidden order of things that is unstated but underpins all the stories in the book, and deepens and recontextuslises what has come before – we get a hint, for instance, as to the identity of the ghost that appeared to Andre and Philippe in the seance that precedes the start of Stained With Crimson. As well as being a decent standalone story, Empires In Azur does a good job of tying together everything that’s come before it and making the overall vision of The Book of the Damned more cohesive as a result.
The Book of the Beast
Eyes Like Emerald, the Green Book’s tale, opens the novel by telling of Raoulin, who comes to Paradys to study at some point in time between the late medieval and early Renaissance. Through favours from a family connection, lodging is found for him in the gloomy house that used to be home to the noble d’Uscarets. With evil rumours swirling about his lodging place and glimpses of a mysterious woman walking the halls whose existence the aged servants deny, Raoulin is drawn into a mystery and uncovers the story of the fall of the d’Uscarets – of the curse that blighted their line, of how out of a mixture of duty and lust a young woman marrying into the family awoke that curse in her husband, and of what became of them all. Then we sidestep to the Purple Book, From the Amethyst, for the story of the curse’s origin during the Roman occupation of Par Dis, before we return to the concluding portions of Eyes Like Emerald, in which Raoulin must face down the curse with help from unexpected quarters.
Thematically we still have transformations on our mind, though gender isn’t played around with this time. Instead, we have the doom of the d’Uscarets, under which men of the line who suffer from the curse get possessed by an Assyrian rape-and-murder demon and turn into a bird monster if they have sex. (It skips enough men in the family to keep the family going.) This cuts uncomfortably close to the whole “men just can’t help themselves” fallacy, particularly since there are not one but two incidents related (due to the whole fateful parallels thing) in which a lustful wife of an accursed d’Uscaret, not knowing of her husband’s condition and under social pressure to consummate the marriage, gives her husband an Egyptian love potion which unleashes the beast within.
The problematic aspects of this are exacerbated when one of the wives in question seduces Raoulin and passes on the curse (which spreads a bit like a sexually transmitted disease) apparently on purpose – or, at least, not caring that this is the side effect of what she is doing. Whilst on the basis of her other work I am fairly sure that Lee wasn’t deliberately out to depict women’s sexuality as a sinful thing that leads men to destruction (despite the fact that this is how the protagonists in the medieval/Renaissance component of the story, male and female alike, tend to see it), it feels like for the most part The Book of the Beast doesn’t do enough to contradict that. Since the rampages tend to follow the use of these love potions, it could be read as being less a condemnation of the sexuality of the women using the potions and more a condemnation of the love potion trope itself, exposing it for the violation of consent that it is, but even then this would be a stretch.
Setting aside these issues, there’s also a sense here that the series has begun to repeat itself. The origin of the curse here, in particular, largely feels like an extended riff on the very similar origins of the ghost in Empires In Azure in The Book of the Damned, and somehow the overall novel seems shallower and less rich with hidden intricacies than any of the three briefer tales in The Book of the Damned despite having a substantially larger canvas to work with.
There is still, underneath all this, an extremely stylish and fascinating fantasy-horror story told in a gothic style, as The Book of the Damned has us prepared to encounter, but despite the narrative here having far longer to explain itself than any of the novellas in that, I am still left not clear as to where Lee was trying to go with this. A rather magnificent concluding section, in which the right woman’s sexuality purges Raoulin of evil, is entertaining enough but leaves me with further questions.
The Book of the Dead
This piece comprises Le Livre Blanc et Noir, a collection of short stories presented as the narrator guiding us through the main graveyard of Paradys and telling us the tales of the folk buried there. The first story, The Weasel Bride, made me lose my patience with the series altogether, being as it was an elaborate setup for a vagina dentata-based punchline that left me rolling my eyes and tutting “God, seriously?”
At this point I was broken of my desire to keep going with the Books of Paradys. The build-up in The Weasel Bride was very effective, but I wasn’t up for another story that spent a long time building up to an anticlimactic conclusion. Even Ovid eventually ran out of ideas for metamorphoses, and by now the series has fallen into a bad case of repeating itself; there is a fine line between exploiting a recurring motif and simply running out of ideas. Entertaining though The Book of the Damned is, it’s clear that Paradys only has so many tricks to offer and most of them appeared in there.
Apparently, in the final book in the series (The Book of the Mad) there’s some stuff going on with Paradise, Paradis and Paradys all existing in different parallel realities, which sounds a bit like an early take on the sort of stuff China Mieville was doing with The City and the City, but skipping to it I couldn’t get into it. I note that whilst the first two books in the series came out in a sudden burst, both appearing in 1988, the other two took longer to emerge, coming out in 1991 and 1993 respectively. I am forced to wonder whether this was due perhaps to teething troubles on the later books – or, for that matter, Lee losing interest in the sequence but her publishers egging her on for more Paradys stuff; certainly, it seems incongruous that the thoughtfulness that went into the first two books could otherwise have given way for the cheap shock of The Weasel Bride.