Thursday 14 April 2016

A Different City

(March 2016)

This was my first encounter with the extensive works of Tanith Lee, and was a slightly contradictory experience. There was a lot to like about the three slices of gothic horror in this slim volume, but by many of the metrics I’d usually apply when deciding if a book’s ‘good’ or not it comes up short. Of course, this also begs the question as to how reliable those metrics are.

Mostly it’s stuff I guess we could call ‘structural’. These tales all revolve around the notion of retribution, of people receiving their just desserts. Given the current fashion for moral ambiguity there’s an almost retro quality about the black and white morality herein: bad things (eventually) happen to bad people and everyone gets exactly what’s coming to them, be it evisceration or transcendence. Though, on the flipside, perhaps my reading of this simplicity is itself simplistic.

Set in the fictional French city of Marcheval, in time periods seemingly moving slowly through the 19th century (gas street lighting has recently been introduced in the first story, and John Singer Sargent and Oscar Wilde are pointedly referenced in the last), A Different City shows us the lives of three wronged women, and the steps they take, more or less voluntarily, to right these wrongs. This volition, or not, is where my initial notions of structural simplicity start to look a little shaky. In both the opening “Not Stopping at Heaven” and the subsequent “Idoll” (which remains a terrible, terrible pun), both heroines are responding to situations in which they are, as a result of overwhelming social constrains, conspicuously powerless: at the mercy of the men in their lives, be they husbands, brothers, or (in a perhaps not insignificant inversion) step-fathers. And both women seek resolutions by, essentially, abdicating responsibility;  the deus ex machina of the fairy tale with a macabre twist, wherein it isn’t your fairy godmother who’ll intervene to save the damsel in distress, but the ravening hell-spawn, say, that emerges from your inner self in times of great emotional stress. The black and white thus starts to look a little greyer.

And this bring us, with pleasing aptness, to the final and most interesting of the story of the three: “The Portrait in Gray”. A pleasingly metatextual piece drawing not only from Wilde’s Dorian Gray but also Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, a picture of an anonymous society beauty which was infamous at the time for all the reasons you can read about here. It’s also another relatively straightforward revenge story, though in this instance it’s an artist inverting the preservative powers of Basil Hallward’s portraiture, instead using her abilities to curse a socialite who drove her brother to suicide. For all that it’s creepily and evocatively done, you are left wondering at the politics of it all: if we’re willing to forgive the butchery and apathy of the heroines in the previous two tales as understandable reactions to the constraints of their environments, then why does the femme fatale in this one not get extended the same allowances? It does, at least, make you stop to ask this question, so job done, I suppose.

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