Tanith Lee: Why Was One of Horror’s Best Female Writers Blacklisted? A Women In Horror Month Tribute (Part 1)


This is what I remember about reading Tanith Lee:

Dark, haunting prose that made me feel like I was reading it with the lights out; potent and pregnant narrative that was so Gothic and eerie that I thought of Poe; characters that to this day remain vibrant in my head…

I remember devouring paperbacks written by Lee – full of envy of her mastery and use of language, somehow more accessible and less lofty than that of writers like Anne Rice, but the kind of prose that lingers long after it is read. And I remember being stupid enough to give those books away. It was a product of the times, that way of thinking – trusting that decades could scroll by and one would always be able to find another paperback copy somewhere. I was wrong.

Years later, when I wanted to re-read and compare her vampire trilogy The Blood Opera Sequence to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, I went looking to repurchase those books. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I could not find them. I could not find anything by Tanith Lee anywhere. I looked in vain for decades…She was neither in used bookstores, new book bookstores, nor Amazon at the time.

It struck me as odd: Lee was a Horror standard for a while, part of that now extinct Horror Section. In fact, that was how I found her. And while I don’t remember any reason ever being given as to why she seemed to have simply evaporated, her books missing from bookstores, what I found out much later surprised – and disappointed – me. It caused me to look with wrinkled brow at our Establishment – the same way it did when we “mysteriously” lost Clive Barker.

Because now she HAS died; we quietly lost Tanith Lee with little more than a peep from the Horror genre. Only the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres claimed her body of work:

“’Lee died peacefully in her sleep May 24, 2015 after a long illness,’ according to Locus Magazine…More details have not emerged; in 2010, Lee revealed she had been treated for breast cancer on at least two occasions.” https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/05/26/409726390/prolific-fantasy-and-science-fiction-writer-tanith-lee-has-died

What happened to Tanith Lee?

TL1

Something Rotten: When the Establishment Goes Too Far

It appears to be about sex. And that is weird, because isn’t all Horror in some way about sex?

This time however, it was even about the Literary stuff: about the underpinnings of feminism and gender issues – about gender identity and sexual orientation. Tanith Lee, you see, never shied away from LGBT characters, storylines, or situations. What exactly was it about Tanith Lee or her writing that “someone” saw to it she was blacklisted? And worse, that she was never even told WHY she was being blackballed? Was she Anne Rice before Anne Rice was cool? Was she ahead of her time – at least for the Horror Establishment?

No, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you have never heard of Tanith Lee. Even those of us who loved her work have consistently found it hard to find her work – especially in the United States, and especially after the Technology Extermination Plan of all things print. We have as a genre, in fact, lost a lot of accessibility to older titles because of Technology…Lee included.

But Tanith Lee was also increasingly hard to find because of what appears to be nothing less than bullying – the professional kind, by the very people who should be immune from nasty, personally motivated censorship – all because of her alleged queer writing as it was claimed she claimed in later work was channeled through a dead gay man. Indeed, there are such quotes, but they are (in her defense) not waved about in crazy fashion, but delivered with the matter-of-face sincerity of personal belief.

Yes, okay. I get it. Most folks are just not into the whole New Agey spirit channeling thing left over from the 1970’s. But let’s be honest: true or not, believed or not, the woman wrote awesome fiction – relevant fiction; and everyone has their right to their own beliefs. With some of the first featured gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual characters in Horror and thereby “popular mainstream” fiction, what Lee did was make an important contribution to contemporary fiction – including our genre.

While some may argue (as though to distance themselves from an awkward author scenario or politically delicate LGBT fictional subjects) that if this was part of the emergence and journey of Queer fiction (and thereby more “Other” than Horror), doesn’t that make it all the more important to the Horror genre?

Sure, it becomes yet another subgenre. But isn’t it also an important one? Doesn’t it Literarily speak to our times? Doesn’t it educate its readers?

Why, really, was Tanith Lee ostracized? This, after having written almost 300 short stories and over 90 novels… and in multiple genres including Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Poetry, and Mysteries, often credited with breaking the glass ceiling in genre, and being the first female writer to win the British Fantasy Award.

Why, indeed? Does Horror have some sudden, new and exclusive sacred criteria? Are some subjects, some human conditions suddenly taboo?

And is there a reason Lee and all of her work seems banished from Horror (at least while she was alive and it mattered, ye Best Of people…) whereas openly gay Clive Barker is welcomed back whenever we can get him? Why is Lee treated differently? Hasn’t she paid her dues? Earned her laurels? Does she go too far because her characters are clearly wrestling with gender issues and identity? Or because she claims she sees dead people…and takes notes?

Says Lee of her exile in an interview five years before her death: “Recently, alas, with today’s climate, I have apparently been outlawed by those large “major” companies through whom, for over thirty years, I’ve previously had quantities of work. I don’t entirely understand that, either. But naturally I hope that things will improve, and that all the very good young and new writers I have glimpsed around me will prosper, female and male together. (Gidney)

TL2

Photo by Beth Gwinn https://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

 

Women in Horror: On Living Down to Stereotypes

Yet again a female writer has drawn the ire and fire of influential powers and publishing houses… all because someone in power saw the need to exact punishment for freedom of artistic thought and speech.

In fact in the 1990’s, Lee so struggled to find publication and her readers toiled to find her works in kind, that many of her fans often wrote to enquire if she had died. Between the damage that Technology had imposed upon the Publishing industry and some self-righteous censorship, we almost lost her works entirely.

Why is this? Could it be that because her work was so sexually infused that “someone” decided she needed to be reined in lest she burst the sexual bubble so many of us have been forced and coerced into living in?

Is Horror so the personal property of a certain type of white male writer that only certain types of infractions are to be tolerated – the ones that titillate the ruling class? Not the ones the rest of us struggle with, or struggle to understand?

Already we see a trend toward censorship within the genre – the long list of plot themes or damaged characters we are told “not to bother” to write. We are told stories about surviving sexual assault or child abuse are not welcome – at least if they are “troubling” tales instead of Harry Potter-magic-overcomes-all types of tales. For some reason, all of a sudden it is not a preferred thing for Horror to represent the honest truth – something that should have many a late nineteenth century female Gothic writer spinning in her grave.

Is this part of something bigger? Is this about uneven censorship against rebellious – dangerous – women? Women who confront and sometimes live in politically precarious waters? Is that why we insist on clarifying that Lee is “normal”… feeding readers details that explain that she is “married and heterosexual” ? (https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction

 

TL3

On the contrary, describing human monsters and exquisite details of sexual violence on women as part of a plotline is somehow ok. A woman’s death and dismemberment the Establishment will allow, but harping on the PTSD that comes from survival is just too much of a downer. Boring. Unworthy. And God forbid if we tackle gender identity along with it.

What the hell kind of message is that? And should we be surprised then that we have that same heavy hand of censorship plucking works out of our canon that contain certain unsavory details we don’t want to “have to explain” to our youth?

I don’t want to have to explain The Holocaust, either. But some things are righteously necessary.

How is it that the one single largest social challenge of the day – that of gender identity and sexual orientation is so freaking scary that we cannot abide its literature?

And are we really so shallow as to feign that fear and abhorrence forced us to draw insinuation that channeling a dead guy for a novel is just frankly too “crazy” a notion, and gender-muddy characters too horrifying to keep publishing Lee?

What was so scary? That the dead guy was dead, or that he was a gay dead guy? Anybody got an attic?

TL4

Lee’s worthy Vampire Trilogy…

At what point do we grow up and start acting like reasonable adults so all of us and our children can simply breathe? At what point do we stop running ahead of the coach in an attempt to prevent an imagined accident?

I most certainly “get” it…I repeat, I grew up in the sixties and seventies. And no one wants life to be complicated for our youth, and our brains are all weary thinking about this stuff. But it is we who are complicating it. What was it my generation harped on so long and so loud? Live and let live?

And what about that whole Literary argument? The Big Goal of Horror? Tanith Lee was always there, right in the mix of all things Feminist Theory:

‘I was very interested by the eastern idea of death as a woman, which I used in the ‘Flat Earth’ books. In the type of eastern literature where death was personified as a woman; women were considered dangerous and untamed and pariah material, and that was why death was in female form. Conversely, in the western literature where I came across death personified as a male, it was because men were seen as powerful, and death was seen as powerful, so he had to be male. So it’s two ways of looking at death, as well as two ways of looking at gender.” http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

Since when is a competent writer’s taking on a contemporary and contentious subject like feminist or LGBT issues by writing believable characters seated in that controversy NOT ok? NOT Literary?

It may not make us comfortable. But maybe we don’t deserve to be.

TL5

Still Mistress of Her Domain

If I had to point to the one influential female writer of Horror in the 1980s other than Anne Rice, it would be Tanith Lee.

Renowned for her use of poetic prose and imagery, she is also known for writing the previously referred to other vampire series…The Blood Opera Sequence, a trilogy of books titled Dark Dance (1992), Personal Darkness (1993), and Darkness, I (1994) and a Horror standard, The Secret Books of Paradys, which included The Book of the Damned (1988),The Book of the Beast (1988),The Book of the Dead (1991), and The Book of the Mad (1993).

Let me say it again. Over 300 short stories and 90 novels. And awards…my God the awards:

Nebula Awards

  • 1975: The Birthgrave (nominated, best novel)
  • 1980: Red As Blood (nominated, best short story)

World Fantasy Awards[31]

  • 1979: Night’s Master (nominated, best novel)
  • 1983: “The Gorgon” (winner, best short story)
  • 1984: “Elle Est Trois, (La Mort)” (winner, best short story)
  • 1984: “Nunc Dimittis” (nominated, best novella)
  • 1984: Red As Blood, or, Tales From The Sisters Grimmer (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1985: Night Visions 1 (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1987: Dreams Of Dark And Light (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1988: Night’s Sorceries (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1999: “Scarlet And Gold” (nominated, best novella)
  • 2006: “Uous” (nominated, best novella)
  • 2013: Life Achievement Award[32]

World Horror Convention

  • 2009: Grand Master Award [33]

British Fantasy Awards

  • 1979: Quest For The White Witch (nominated, best novel)
  • 1980: Death’s Master (winner, best novel)[34]
  • 1980: “Red As Blood” (nominated, best short story)
  • 1981: Kill The Dead (nominated, best novel)
  • 1999: “Jedella Ghost” (nominated, best short story)
  • 2000: “Where Does The Town Go At Night?” (nominated, best short story)

Lambda Awards

  • 2010: Disturbed by Her Song (nominated, best LGBT speculative fiction)

 

She didn’t deserve to be sent into the darkness. And we, her fans, need to insure she is not kept imprisoned there.

Reports Laura Flood in an article on Lee, “Lee has written tons of books; these are some of her earliest, and rather hard to get hold of. It’s a shame, as are her comments to Locus that “if anyone ever wonders why there’s nothing coming from me, it’s not my fault. I’m doing the work. No, I haven’t deteriorated or gone insane. Suddenly, I just can’t get anything into print”. And on her own website she says:”As for new novels, earlier plans are becalmed. When I know I’ll let you know. Otherwise, no ‘large’ house at the moment has taken any interest in any of my work. Macmillan and Hodder both refused/dropped offered proposals. Tor passed on reprinting Red as Blood. Others I have approached don’t reply at all.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee

On what planet is this ok? And how do we move forward respecting our own Establishment – editors, publishers, Critics all – if this type of blackballing is acceptable practice when a woman “gets out of line” in our genre? Or even the Clive Barkers among us?

Why hasn’t anyone in “authority” bothered to address this, and all of the mysterious exits of writers who clearly chose to “shake the dust from their feet” and give up on Horror?

”Suddenly, I just can’t get anything into print. And apparently I’m not alone in this. There are people of very high standing, authors who are having problems. So I have been told. In my own case, the more disturbing element is the editor-in-chief who said to me, ‘I think this book is terrific. It ought to be in print. I can’t publish it – I’ve been told I mustn’t.’ The indication is that I’m not writing what people want to read, but I never did.” http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

“TOLD I MUSTN’T”!?! By what Power? By which Horror God? I want names.

Because when a writer’s entire catalog is suppressed, when you cannot find her work and you don’t even know if she is alive because NO ONE is publishing her…How can anyone possibly say with truth that she is writing what people don’t want to read?

I wanted to read her. I wanted to repurchase books I stupidly got rid of in various moves. I wanted her back on my bookshelf because I am PROUD to have her there. And I wanted to read more of what she was writing – no matter in what genre, no matter with what kinds of characters… No matter if she thinks a dead gay guy is channeling it. But the caveat was and remains I cannot find her…

It took a while for me to find out why. And it has made me furious.

Says Storm Constantine in the introduction of a recently “republished” ebook edition of Dark Dance:

“…printed copies of the novels have been unavailable for many years. Immanion Press’s republication of this trilogy is part of our commitment to help keep Tanith Lee’s work available in book form – as we believe good books should be. Any reader who has not read Dark Dance before should leave this introduction – or review – until they have finished the book…” Storm Constantine, November 2017, Dark Dance (The Blood Opera Sequence Book 1) (Kindle Edition)by Tanith Lee, Storm Constantine.

Thank you, Immanion Press, for being the one light in the darkness – for seeing exactly what Tanith Lee’s fans have known for decades, and for giving her back to us.

Now it is time for the Horror Establishment to reclaim her, to demand she be included in the evaluation of foundational authors in the Horror canon elect. It is time for an apology if not an explanation of shortcomings and owning the misstep.

Tanith Lee deserves the recognition we so stupidly refused her in Life. What say you, Horror Establishment? Will you make this right?

So here it is: this is my attempt to poison the minds of the Tanith-deprived: READ TANITH LEE. Wherever and whenever you find her work. You will not be sorry. But you may need to weigh in, to make sure we keep bringing her name up to Literary Critics for our genre. For sure, she will be one of the most fascinating writers that you never heard of in Horror.

And as for our genre, for our Establishment, for those who sent a perfectly good Horror writer into the arms of another genre and backlist oblivion: congratulations. You proved Lee right… she most certainly was a dangerous woman…

And for a brief time, she was ours.

TL6

1947-2015

“To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are – whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish – that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman.”… (Tanith Lee), The Birthgrave

 

References

Constantine, Storm. Introduction. Dark Dance: Book One of the Blood Opera Sequence by Tanith Lee © 1992, 2nd edition 2017, eBook edition through KDP 2018 An Immanion Press Edition published through KDP, http://www.immanion–press.com

Ennis, Dawn. “ Remembering Tanith Lee, Celebrated Author of Queer Science Fiction.” Advocate,       May 26, 2015. Retrieved 1/30, 2019 from https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction

Gidney, Craig. “Tanith Lee: Channeling Queer Authors.” LambdaLiterary, September 13, 2010 as retrieved 1/9/2019 from http://www.lambdaliterary.org/interviews/09/13/tanith-lee-queer-authors/

Flood, Allison.“World of fantasy: Death’s Master by Tanith Lee.” Alison Flood’s world of fantasy Books , Fri 27 Aug 2010 06.05 EDT, as retrieved 1/9/2019 fromhttps://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee  

“Tanith Lee: Love & Death & Publishers” excerpted from Locus Magazine, April 1998), as retrieved //10/2019 from http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

 

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