Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
SF Mistressworks exists to review science fiction books written by women and published before the beginning of the twenty-first century. While two of those criteria are quite clear, genre can be a nebulous thing. Yet it makes little sense to err on the side of caution in such matters – it’s the fact that the books reviewed here were written by women that is of paramount importance. In other words, the occasional piece of fantasy or mainstream may appear on this site – providing, of course, it’s not too overt, and it has some connection with science fictions that do fit within SF Mistressworks’ remit. Which is why Women as Demons by Tanith Lee, a collection of short stories which are mostly fantasy, is being reviewed here. Admittedly, it was originally published by The Women’s Press and quite clearly states “sf” at the bottom right of the front cover. And the back-cover blurb also says, “In this rich and varied collection of fantasy, science fiction and horror stories…”. Given all that, it would seem churlish to exclude the book because it’s not heartland science fiction. So here we go…
Women as Demons contains fourteen stories, which originally appeared between 1976 and 1988, and two original to the collection. Most are from the late 1970s, and were published in a variety of magazines and paperback anthologies.
‘The Demoness’ (1976) is straight-up fantasy. A woman waits in a tower, and is visited by a man and he learns the hard way that she is a succubus. Some time later, another man visits, a friend and brother-in-arms of the first, but he does not succumb to the succubus’s charms and rejects her. So she sets off in pursuit of him. The story tries for a Matter of Britain atmosphere, but doesn’t quite pull it off. The title character is pretty much the embodiment of the collection’s title, but she still feels like a fairy-tale staple. It didn’t seem as though the story added much to the cliché, and for much of its length it felt somewhat over-written.
‘Deux Amours d’une Sorcière’ (1979) is another fantasy, and is not dissimilar in broad shape to ‘The Demoness’. A beautiful woman kept by an older man meets two young heroes and falls for one of them. Everyone assumes she is in love the blond of the pair, so to protect the brunet, the true target of her affections, she plays along. Her sugar daddy is unhappy, however, and arranges for the putative lover to be murdered by footpads. This is one of those fantasies where it all feels a bit like some 1960s romance of the Age of Chivalry but with names slightly changed – eg, Parys, Jhane…
‘The Unrequited Glove’ (1988). Once you’ve finished groaning over the title, you slowly realise this is quite an effective little horror tale. A Mediterranean resort in the early part of the twentieth century, all very Bonjour Tristesse meets The Talented Mr Ripley, and an obsessive young woman falls for the local desirable playboy. He casts her off once he’s had his fun, she takes it badly… and one of her gloves remains to haunt the playboy until he eventually meets an untimely end. Like the previous two stories, this one relies a lot on atmosphere, and Lee is skilled at generating the necessary ambience through her use of language.
‘Gemini’ (1981) is the first of the science fiction stories in the collection, but its setting is not explained. The narrator appears to suffer from a fear of other people – she refers to it throughout as It – but in this world she must work in “Service” for a specified period every three months. She chooses a job which would limit her interaction with other people, but is soon given an assistant, a young man, who tries to get to know her better. So she kills him. The setting is vague, as is whatever It is.
‘Into Gold’ (1986) is, I think, set in Roman Britain, although it is hard to be sure as Lee gives few details. A fortress commander and his sidekick become de facto leaders of a small town, and under their rule it begins to prosper. Foreign traders appear, their caravans festooned with gold, and the commander takes a fancy to the chief trader’s daughter – who apparently can turn objects into gold. She stays and marries the commander, but the sidekick is suspicious of her. She has a child by the commander, but when she takes it on a trip to a distant village to cure its sick residents, he follows as he’s convinced she plans to either perform witchcraft or run off with the child.
‘The Lancastrian Blush’ (1989) is original to Women as Demons, and though it pretends to historical fiction – as its title would suggest – it’s pure fantasy. A Yorkist on his way to Bosworth Field has doubts about his allegiance. En route he comes across a strange castle, and falls in love with the lord’s daughter. Castles weren’t actually that common, even in the fifteenth century, as they are hugely expensive to build. The lord of the castle magically keeps the Yorkist prisoner so he won’t fight at Bosworth Field (incidentally, the battle was not known by that name until at least 1510, twenty-five years later). The Yorkist manages to escape, with the help of the daughter, fights in the battle, and does indeed swap sides.
‘You Are My Sunshine’ (1980). I have no idea if the title was inspired by the song made so famous by the Muppets. I’d like to think it was. The story originally appeared in Chrysalis 8, one of a paperback anthology series, so it seems unlikely. As, in fact, does the premise of the story. Leon Canna is a sort of chief steward aboard a starship. The story is framed as his testimony after the total loss of the vessel on which he served (he’s the sole survivor). Canna claims the disaster was caused by a woman, but his interrogators are unconvinced… so he explains what happened. He persuaded a dowdy young woman to use the starship’s solarium, which is a side-benefit of the starship’s method of refueling itself from suns. The more unfiltered sunshine she takes in, the more beautiful – and radioactive! – the young woman becomes. And she’s in love with Canna. It ends badly. The central premise of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is, quite frankly, nonsense, and its “Plain Jane to charismatic beauty” plot is no better.
‘The One We Were’ (1984). Reading this collection, it occurred to me that Lee’s somewhat florid prose was best-suited to this sort of near-Gothic horror fiction, much like the earlier ‘The Unrequited Glove’. Here, a famous writer of “historical romantic novels” in Paris is persuaded by a popular clairvoyant that she is a reincarnation of a minor poet who had died young a century or so earlier. The writer obsesses over the poet, changes her appearance to match the one existing photograph of him, and collects everything and anything she can find about him. And then a young man appears, who also believes himself to be a reincarnation of the poet – and was informed as much by the same medium, in fact. There’s really only one way it can end. And so it does. Bizarrely, most of the characters are named, but some use that fin de siècle convention of an initial capital and an em-dash.
‘The Truce’ (1976) is one of the collection’s few science fiction stories, although it is well-disguised. Two warring tribes – it is implied this is a post-apocalypse world, but it’s not categorically stated – try to make peace by joining a member from each in a sanctioned relationship. But one tribe rejects the other. It comes as no surprise to discover that one tribe is female and the other male. This is the sort of “Shaggy God” story that used to crop up regularly in sf magazines back in the 1940s and 1950s.
‘The Squire’s Tale’ (1980). A knight and his squire pass through a clearing in which a witch has been burned at a stake. At the next town, the squire discovers he is turning into a woman, and is driven out of the castle. He has become possessed by the witch. And that’s pretty much all there is to this story – the setting is identikit Fantasyland, the central premise is obvious from the second page, and the narrative neither resolves the squire’s situation nor uses it to make any kind of commentary.
‘Discovered Country’ (1989). An ultra-rich woman in a future in which the Solar System has been settled has a son whom she ignores for much of his life. But when he turns thirty-two, she welcomes him into her life, though neither seem especially happy with the arrangement. So they go their separate ways. Then she dies suddenly, and she has one last bequest, something he must do in order to inherit her vast wealth. The title refers to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”. This is a story that succeeds more on its prose than its plot.
‘Winter White’ (1978). Crovak is a Conan-like chief of a clan who, while on a trip, discovers a strange flute in an abandoned “drom-hall”. He blows the flute, which makes a noise like a woman in pain. And from that point on he is haunted by a woman in white that only he can see. And over the following months he gradually falls to pieces. There’s a Celtic fantasy feel to this story, although the central character smacks more of the Cimmerian barbarian than Pryderi fab Pwll.
‘Written in Water’ (1982). The sole survivor of a global pandemic finds a young man who has apparently dropped from the sky in her garden. He’s clearly alien and cannot speak. She looks after him, but after an abrupt epiphany in which she realises – or supposes – he was sent to Earth as an Adam to her Eve, she kills him. And that’s it. Another Shaggy God story which, although it subverts the trope, still manages to be somewhat obvious.
‘Mirage and Magia’ (1982). This one is Lee channelling M John Harrison, and it’s quite effective. A mysterious woman enters the town of Qon Oshen, and at regular intervals entices young men to her magically-protected mansion. The following morning, they are found wandering brain-dead. A master thief breaks into the house and discovers that the woman is searching for someone, and that the young men appear to be captivated by the thousands of mirrors which decorate the house’s interior. And then a mysterious young man appears in Qon Oshen… This is a story which relies more on its prose style than it does its plot, and it works pretty well in that regard.
‘The Thaw’ (1979). This story also appears in Pamela Sargent’s 1995 anthology, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years. In the future, they have finally discovered how to resurrect those who have cryogenically frozen their bodies, but it seems the first person they resurrect is not quite what they expected. Though she appears to be Carla Brice, her descendant, there to welcome her and help her adjust to the future, learns there is something far from human about her.
‘Northern Chess’ (1979). A female knight happens open an investment of a magician’s castle. The sorceror is dead, but this is his last standing castle and the knights are determined to destroy it. But its magic has beaten them at every turn. Unused to the concept of a female knight, in fact downright misogynistic about it, the knights motivate her to have a go at the castle herself… and she succeeds. Because the magician’s curse said it would be destroyed by “no man”. Yes, it’s really that corny.
Sadly, the title of Lee’s collection promised more than I felt it delivered. Fans of her writing might well enjoy it more than I did, but in terms of what I was led to expect, I was disappointed to find mostly stories of women as femmes fatales, women whose agency existed only in counterpoint to that of male love interests, and women who formed one half of a romantic situation. For all Lee’s fancy prose and inventive – albeit often vague – settings, and her obvious facility at various styles and modes of genre, the stories themselves were not especially original, and their dénouments were all too often all too obvious. I was hoping for something a little more subversive, something that was more of a commentary on the roles women characters play all too often in genre fiction. But this is not that book.