What this entire “episode” with Tanith Lee has taught me is that our genre needs to grow up…
We have enshrined the period of time which most purely and evidently exemplifies its natural growth from its original Literary DNA – the period we call The Weird. But is that time representative of The End of originality in the genre, or was it a simple (though awesome) creative burst born of circumstance, of writers who could inform each other’s work via education, exposure, or direct contact and support…and then died with them?
I say that like the Horror Boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the period of Weird was an exception – a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime explosion of insight and creativity built on a contrived and flawed premise that men write more and better Horror. And it being over means nothing more than the rest of us go back to the drawing board – after a cigarette, maybe – but back.
But it also means our genre needs to be attentive to the next creative wave, the next influencers, because the future most likely is NOT Weird. Writers like Tanith Lee who opened a wound and let it bleed out its truth along with its poison are no less formative and influential than the Weird writers. For better or worse they, too, reveal our innermost fears, our prejudices, our imagined terrors. It is because a writer like Tanith Lee wrote about gender issues in the exact way that she did, that we have welcomed other authors who toy with other previously “forbidden” subjects and threaten to open even bigger cans of worms. We have so much further to go. Why are our knuckles being rapped and our heads being forcibly turned to worship the last mutually acknowledged Horror greats? Why are we only worshipping the works of primarily white men?
Our genre needs rebellious writers – writers like Lee who rebel by their natures. We need writers who push envelopes and test our tolerance, opening the very Literary doors we claim to want to pull from their hinges. Horror must grow and change to survive. We must embrace those Literary issues we claim we want. And we must defend them even when they are uncomfortable or unsavory.
We can start by acknowledging the contributions of Tanith Lee.
When Horror Is Literature
When we look at Horror history, we tend to see a lot of homogenization…
This is partly because the Horror writing community was smaller, more influenced by each other and what publishers would or would not publish – a social currency owned by the white male majority. But it was also because Horror has been patriarchically dominated for most of it publication history. That earliest of publishing booms which happened at the turn of the 19th century segregated our writers into two camps – one struggling to climb out of pulp into the Literary via books and reputable newspapers and magazines (led by men like Poe and Lovecraft); and one sentenced to cheaper pulp magazines where “women’s writing” was destined for women’s consumption only and made of less-permanent materials as its lesser value warranted.
This, was the true meaning, origin and purpose of what we call pulp: Critically deemed substandard written content meant to be read in the moment and tossed away because it had no Literary or relevant news value. This is where women’s Horror often wound up, along with Horror from men who might fall into disfavor by choosing to write for women, or to write the far-fetched, the unacceptable…the sensational…
So with fewer women’s writings surviving, and even fewer finding any measure of publishing or Critical success, is it any wonder that we were all left to assume that only white men wrote Horror, and the best of our genre carried a kind of identifiable, formulaic content, character and interest?
And when we look back at seminal works, why are we surprised that not only do those works have a cachet of coming from a narrow, homogenous type of writer, but that they also demonstrate a clear Critical relation to each other?
That these predominantly white male writers seem so much to have created a concise body of work is no mistake: it is what happens when writers are isolated in a singular pool where ideas are freely exchanged and respected. It is not unlike a school of writers with the same teachers and influences – because in many ways that’s what they were; writers whose successes taught each other. Yet they were also representative of a moment in time.
Each of us has one. Some of us use it. Some of us just write to see what happens.
For our genre right now to continue to look back with heavy sighs and great longing for the likes of Poe and Lovecraft is telling. It is not that those works are not worthy, but that we have mistaken a creative burst from the late 19th and early 20th century as the thing Horror was destined to be – ALL it was destined to be.
Talk about disappearing every writer that comes after…
When we consider that many of our early writers – especially Poe and Lovecraft – spent a good deal of time arguing the case of Horror being Literary to very astute and stubborn Literary Critics of the time, it comes as a disappointment to see that at the precise moment our genre has won the attention of those same Critics and our editors are hoping to groom more Literary elements in genre writing, we are stepping over authors writing about those very Literary issues.
We step over them like they are poisonous.
Is it because we are aware of how tenuous the attentions of publishers are right now? Because we are afraid we cannot risk losing a single dollar in sales? Because we are wary of alienating readers and fans whose idea of Literature is represented by a bunch of dead writers, or “issues” we have a predisposition to prefer? Is it because neither editors, publishers, nor our base has any stomach for diving head first into the pool of ugly modern issues? Or because they don’t have the guts?
Are we afraid we will “become” gay, or Muslim, or womanish, or poor, or immersed in wars, or become unChristian if we accidentally or on purpose read about those things? What exactly are we afraid of catching? Of discovering?
Horror has always had Literary DNA. Horror is always about the human condition and how we interpret and treat each other. That includes with regard to unsavory issues – especially unsavory issues.
Yet in contemporary Horror, we have a Literary desert. And it feels perpetrated. Orchestrated.
Hidden away within this whole mysterious disappearance of Tanith Lee thing are these two important questions:
Do we in the Horror genre have a “problem” with Queer fiction and open gender issues?
Do we demand and then reject Literary subjects, preferring to kill the genre rather than accept new subgenres?
At what point do we stop waiting for a bloom from the corpse of the Weird writers to rise and save Horror from itself? When do we begin looking at the issues that are disturbing modern writers in general and Horror in particular?
When it is ok to be Tanith Lee?
Any writer who writes utilizing or framing issues of the day – the social, cultural, racial, class, national, religious and historical issues – that writer is potentially writing Literature. Do it often enough and they are Literary. We don’t get to qualify which issues see daylight in a writer’s work. We don’t get to hide the work that scares us.
We don’t get to hide the Tanith Lees. Not even when things are confusing enough without her.
“Her books were often rather directly queer and feminist in their appropriation of fairy tales, fantastical and perverse worlds and creatures, and narrative tropes. She also wrote lesbian fiction under the pseudonym Esther Garber and weird fiction under the related name Judas Garbah, as collected in Disturbed by Her Song and Fatal Women (both available from Lethe Press).” https://www.tor.com/2015/05/29/tanith-lee-a-brief-retrospective/
We live in a push-me, pull-you world. Sometimes we are told that Horror as a genre is all-but-dead. Other times we are told we are in a Renaissance, finally escaping the Dark Ages (which I personally believe we are). But does what happened to Tanith Lee suggest the problem is a little bit of both? I think it does.
Just as Horror from the Weird generation has changed enough to be suspected of being truly dead, Horror as an extension of the 1970s-1980’s Boom is indeed on life support; we have exhausted all of the trite, commercial and exploitative plots and themes those times spun out from that brilliant center of storytelling. We have to be honest: at the end we got sloppy… desperate… cheaply gratuitous. There were very few good novels issuing forth at the same time publishing began to take Technology body blows – and at the same time (it was later theorized) a chunk of our fan base had aged out.
So much began to collapse all at one time: publishers, periodicals, editors, brick-and-mortar bookstores, newspaper with their book review columns, library budgets, education in the Liberal Arts, the field of Literary Criticism… It was a perfect storm. And everyone in the genre in every position in the genre was left to sink or swim, to figure out what it would take to survive. As the bodies began to wash ashore, one thing became crystal clear: what once worked no longer worked. Change was going to have to happen if the genre was going to survive, let alone prosper.
As a genre it was a sobering, pocket-patting moment. There was so much carnage, we resorted to counting our own body parts, too distracted by the fear for our own survival to protest the hemorrhaging of midlist authors and the death songs of editors and publishers everywhere. Some might even venture to say that this is why Tanith Lee seemed to vanish, why publishers ceased to publish her, and why we had nothing left in the tank to protest.
But that is a cop-out. With the Horror ship going down for the third time, we clung to writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell and Richard Matheson to save us all. That Tanith Lee used to be among that solid-selling list and then suddenly was not is what is noticeable. Even with her cross-genre dabbling, her control of the Gothic left trails of cobwebs from and to our genre. Why let go of a writer who consistently proved an ability to bring home the Horror bacon?
And is it because she started writing about Literary issues before we fully accepted that as a blatant, fully stated goal in Horror? Or was it the issue she chose?
We have to start asking these questions seriously in the genre. Accepting such writings does not make us an LGBT genre. But it does create a necessary subgenre… I mean, if we are going to be really serious about this Literary thing…Because even Literary Critics are – you know, those stuffy snobs we believed for so long were trapped in a Shakespearean tomb? Even THEY caught on… and they are the engine on the Literature train.
The Rise of Queer Theory: Can We Get There From Here & Why It Matters
Ok. So the subject matter is discomfiting for many. Imagine if you will what it is to live it.
This is why Queer Theory is one of the newest of the New Literary Critical Theories…because it is an actual issue with actual human consequences and casualties; it is the newest twist on our understanding of the human condition. But what is it exactly?
Queer Theory is specifically derivative of women’s studies, gender studies, and LGBT studies. The subsequent origination of what is called Queer Theory is a “new” Literary Critical theory created in the 1990’s to analyze LGBT (or “queer”) Literature – because it goes further and in different directions than its cosmic twin, Feminist Theory. It is called Queer to identify that the area of Literary Criticism dealing with Queer fiction which includes all LGBT concerns. It looks at the cultural and societal and religious roles played in affecting the LGBT population, and all areas of its suppression involving characters, behavior, plot lines or themes. But is it also about the indistinct borderlands in which many of us live.
Tanith Lee was one of our first Horror authors to get there, and to decide it should in some way inform her fiction because it affected her:
“Lee was asked about her recurring theme of ambiguous sexuality. She told the Innsmouth Free Press blog, ‘I think ambiguity intrigues me generally. Not just the hard-drawn line between male and female heterosexuality and lesbian/gay desire, which hard line may waver in the most staunch of the ‘straight’ or the ‘homosexual’ — but the shadings between wickedness and normality, evil and the divine. The state of human life and the god or demon within. The constant internal war that being alive can conjure.’” (https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction )
Wickedness and morality. Evil and the divine. Gods and demons. What part of Horror don’t we get?
But of course this new recognition by Critics does not guarantee either popular acceptance, nor that of publishers and editors. In fact, we see a rise of territoriality happening – perhaps some of it genuinely with good intent to protect the integrity of some genres. However, we also need to see the forest for the trees. The existence of an LGBT character – even as protagonist – does not make that story exclusively Queer Fiction. It may be also Queer Fiction. But what if it is also Horror or another genre?
Answer: then it is a subgenre.
Why is that so hard? If the emphasis is so Literary, so unquestionably about the experience of being LGBT, then the overarching and dominant character of the work is LGBT Fiction. But just LGBT characters? Characters wrestling with issues while frolicking with monsters? A way to twist plot or extort confusion? No!
We have maniacs in hockey masks and folk who like carving up lost teenagers for sausage in our genre repertoire. Never once have I heard these described as “suspense” or “thriller” or “psychological” fiction…Is that because it is all gratuitous and two dimensional? Why is cannibalism ok, but an LGBT character a direct sentence to Queer fiction, an expulsion from our genre and many others?
I think sometimes we are not capable of seeing patterns and hierarchy, happy to export any writing with a gender question into its safely contained, separate-but-equal “Literary” box… Just like we do with writers of color, because God knows it happens with other minority-voiced works, which suddenly become “Literary concerns” instead of Horror because “their audience is too small, too niche,” too burdened with social accoutrement…
Again: that is subgenre. But it may still well be Horror.
Why are we jettisoning perfectly good, Literary writers to Theory-driven categories?
Why, indeed, when we are demanding writers master Literary-worthy Craft? Then dinging those who actually dive into Literary issues?
Is our Establishment actually willing to say that if a story has “too much” Literary content, is too “controversial,” that is cannot be Horror? That therefore…pardon me… Horror is not Literature after all, if it “has to” include LGBT issues, race issues, women’s issues, or class issues? That acceptable Horror is contingent upon acceptable norms?
Is that REALLY what you are saying real Horror is? Then aren’t you ALSO saying Poe and Lovecraft were wrong and Literary Critics got it right the first time? And to be Horror is to be hack?
Because if our genre is not willing to grow with our population and its changes and cultural spurts, then its death is inevitable.
Our profiled fan base is shrinking, because the rest of the population is growing on without us.
Still Tanith, After All This Time
Horror is a big genre.
Every once in a while a trend will be born and flower and awe us all. Like the Weird (of which Tanith Lee was once generally considered a writer), those creative bursts humble every one of us – living on in immortality to torment writers and editors and haunt Critics. But they truly are just a burst of light.
We have to learn to let go. We have to be willing to look elsewhere for the next Poe or Lovecraft, for the next creative cluster, probably currently rejected if history is any indication. We cannot abide that. Our genre is not so deep in foundational authors and works that we should allow the ostracism to continue.
What happened with Tanith Lee could be debated, what with all of the Horrors we have been drowning in since Amazon rose from its industry-killing ooze.
But we should not ignore the obvious: the very real possibility that we are afraid of real Literature reframing our genre, that we fear one theory or one issue will rise up to hijack our future and change our audience the way we seem to feel everything we cared about in the world has been changed.
But isn’t that progress? Didn’t we tell all of the minorities and cultures we swept out of our way that in order to flourish ourselves?
Why not then as a genre? Why not go there in American Horror? In British Horror? In world Horror?
When exactly are we ready to shed the mask?
Alas, sexuality remains different, somehow more personally threatening.
“Faces Under Water is an alchemical supernatural thriller, set in a parallel Venice about 1701. Its hero is a very enraged and lost young man who is, in a way, acting as a detective in this water-girt city, and he comes across the most bizarre alchemical plot. In the midst of this is a beautiful woman who suffers from something which we have in our world: her face can’t move. She can’t show any expression, and she can’t talk. She can’t even blink or close her eyes. It happens at a time of Carnival, when everyone wears a mask – but her face is the mask...” (Tanith Lee) http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html
Is that the real reason we hide behind Lovecraft? Are we afraid of what moving on means in our tiny primal minds? Are we taking it personally? Running away when we should be embracing the variety of voices? The new monsters? The forgotten folklores? The old gods?
As scary as change is, stagnation is terminal. Are we ready to say “better dead than subgenres”? Do we really think we can stuff the genie back in the bottle? Clearly even stodgy Literary Critics could see the answer to that one…
Thank Cthulhu for Tanith Lee. We have proof that we once ventured out on that very Literary limb…before we got all paranoid and banished her to – of all things – Literature.
Writers like Tanith Lee represent gateway writers in a genre – ones whose work leads to even more exploration of topics or plots or character… to potential growth in new directions.
I believe Tanith Lee performed that function in Horror, her control of “ambiguities” leading us to try and then fully embrace a writer like Anne Rice (with her assortment of religious crises, amorous male vampires, erotica and adventures in B&D sex clubs), and then later to “forgive” a Clive Barker whatever imagined sin we previously ascribed to him…to accept a Gerald’s Game for the sake of the Horror…
I believe that Tanith Lee deserves a place in our canon as it becomes established, that Literary Critics need to bookmark her works for serious analysis as foundational for the 1970s and 1980s work in our genre. I hope that they will remember her when they go building our canon.
Tanith Lee planted seeds. And I can hear them growing.
Don’t you want to see the blooms?
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 from