Who Goes There?
Tanith Lee debuted in the ’70s and kept it up as a one-woman writing factory until her death in 2015. Her output, on sheer quantity alone, is formidable. Not really a practitioner of SF, Lee made fantasy her game at a time when the market for fantasy publishing was just starting to pick up. Interestingly, her short fiction seemed to appear more often in Asimov’s Science Fiction (under Shawna McCarthy and later Gardner Dozois) than in, say, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As both a novelist and short story writer, she was dauntingly prolific and her vision seemingly never wavered, running the gamet from sword-and-sorcery to weird fiction. She has the rather unique honor of winning both the World Fantasy and Bram Stoker awards for Life Achievement, these wins being emblematic of her immense contribution to what we now call dark fantasy.
As a side note, I asked on Twitter sometime ago about authors who’ve gotten more than one tribute issue in the magazines. Fritz Leiber was the only example I knew of then (he got tributes in Fantastic and F&SF), but wouldn’t you know it, Lee also got two! On top of being a frequent contributor to Asimov’s in the early days, she also appeared in the revived Weird Tales (or one of its revivals anyway, it’s a long story), which ran at least one issue dedicated to her. Might also be responsible for the second, but I wish I could dig up that one Tweet and confirm it easily. Oh well. Regardless, Lee is undoubtedly one of the big names in horror and dark fantasy. Which makes it all the more a shame that I didn’t like the first story of hers that I’ve read.
First appeared, fittingly enough, in the October 1984 issue of Asimov’s, and yes, it’s on the Archive. The most convenient reprint I can think of is The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, also simply titled Vampires, edited by Alan Ryan. I’ve cited this anthology before (it’s a useful volume), but don’t worry, I think this is the last time I’m bringing it up. I want to talk briefly about the weird history of Asimov’s as a tertiary fantasy magazine, despite its name. Gardner Dozois would notoriously nab a lot of stories that would otherwise have been published in F&SF, or even Realms of Fantasy, reinforcing what was in hindsight a stifling borderline monopoly on the part of Asimov’s in the ’90s. The tendency for Asimov’s to venture outside SF did not start with Dozois, though, as Shawna McCarthy, during her brief but impactful editorship, also occasionally picked up raw fantasy, “Bite-Me-Not” being just one example. Funnily enough, McCarthy would later become the fiction editor for Realms of Fantasy, a position she held for much longer, though her earlier editorship remains more often cited by far.
I said upfront that I’m not fond of this damn thing, but most of the qualms I have with “Bite-Me-Not” belong in the spoilers section. Things start off well enough. We have a castle which has shut itself off from the rest of the world, with a duke (known as the Cursed Duke) who keeps everyone within practically held prisoner, though we’re not immediately told that conditions are this dire. Why is this castle shut off? Why is nobody allowed to enter? What are they so afraid of? There’s an air of mystery and even a bit of the macabre, although very quickly we run into my chief issue with “Bite-Me-Not,” which is Lee’s Frank Herbert-esque style of third-person narration. What I mean by this is that we aren’t planted in the perspective of a single character, or even stay with one character on a scene by scene basis, but rather change perspectives abruptly, paragraph by paragraph. This is a problem that gets worse as the story progresses, but things start simple enough. We have the Cursed Duke, and we have Rohise, a young maid whose relationship with the Duke is sort of enigmatic.
Is the Duke the protagonist? Is Rohise the protagonist? The latter is certainly closer to the correct answer, but we get to know very little about Rohise and indeed she doesn’t have many lines, all things considered. Lee’s style of narration reads like an old-style fairy tale to an extent—it’s very telly, if that makes any sense. We get descriptions of character actions and we’re told about character motives as filtered through the third-person narrator, but we don’t actually get to read these characters’ thoughts. What Lee does much better is scenery, and there’s a lot of it. The castle is this grand and yet desolate thing, like a corrupted Eden, and there’s this passage early on about a vast garden, so encompassing that the Duke even has lions in captivity. The garden is the most important location in terms of action, but it also holds the closest the story has to a MacGuffin: the Nona Mordica, otherwise known as the Bite-Me-Not.
At the furthest, most eastern end of the garden, there is another garden, sunken and rather curious, beyond a wall with an iron door. Only the Duke possesses the key to this door. Now he unlocks it and goes through. His courtiers laugh and play and pretend not to see. He shuts the door behind him.
The sunken garden, which no gardener ever tends, is maintained by other, spontaneous, means. It is small and square, lacking the hedges and the paths of the other, the sundials and statues and little pools. All the sunken garden contains is a broad paved border, and at its center a small plot of humid earth. Growing in the earth is a slender bush with slender velvet leaves.
The Duke stands and looks at the bush only a short while.
He visits it every day. He has visited it every day for years. He is waiting for the bush to flower. Everyone is waiting for this. Even Rohise, the scullery maid, is waiting, though she does not, being only sixteen, bom in the castle and uneducated, properly understand why.
Personally I think the Duke is wasting his time by not growing marijuana plants in this big fucking garden of his, but to each his own. The Bite-Me-Not is a curious invention of Lee’s, as it’s a plant with implied supernatural powers, or at least a profound aesthetic quality that it makes it highly valuable, and yet nobody knows for sure what makes it grow. The bush is the only one of its kind that we see, and how it’s described leads us to believe it has something to do with vampirism; this is a red herring. The Duke is also presented at first as a tragic figure, given his solitude and the loss of both his wife and daughter, but this too turns out to not be the whole story. Why we’re not simply anchored in Rohise’s point of view, I don’t know; she’s the more relatable character, despite not being written that vividly, and her ignorance would only add to the mystery. Imagine living in a castle your whole life and how that might affect your personality. The story would practically write itself, but no, we have to make due with this.
It’s at this point that we change locales and are introduced to a raced of winged humanoid creatures that live in the mountains and caves, being weak to sunlight and only going flying once the sun has gone away. We’re told that the Duke’s daughter had been killed by one of these creatures years ago, and since then they’ve been biding their time, waiting for the perfect time to infiltrate. The Prince of this tribe of vampires, Feroluce, is our second true protagonist, although, being a non-human creature, he doesn’t have any dialogue. Even so, Feroluce is the most thoroughly characterized of our trio of main characters, which says something about his human counterparts. The vampires subsist on blood (and water, but that’s not important), and unlike many vampires they don’t just feed on human blood, though human blood is something of a delicacy to them. I always wonder why vampires in most fiction feel the need to only go after humans, and I appreciate that here they basically function like any other animal.
Speaking of animals, Feroluce’s first victim in-story is not a person, but one of the lions the Duke keeps as part of his menagerie. Feroluce breaks a window in one of the turrets and ventures into the castle in the dead of night. We get two big action set pieces in “Bite-Me-Not,” and the first is when Feroluce fights one of the Duke’s lions, which turns out to be a closer battle than Feroluce had anticipated, yet the brutality of it turns out to be very much to his liking. There are certain tropes deeply associated with vampires: one of them is vampirism as a metaphor for sex. With a few exceptions (the vampires in I Am Legend are totally asexual, if I remember right), a vampire hungering for and/or taking a victim is conveyed at least subliminally in sexual times, the vampire being both a dietary predator and a sexual predator. Take how Lee writes this fight between Feroluce and the lion, for instance, how Feroluce somehow gets an erotic thrill from the ordeal:
To the vampire Prince the fight is wonderful, exhilarating and meaningful, intellectual even, for it is colored by nuance, yet powerful as sex. He holds fast with his talons, his strong limbs wrapping the beast which is almost stronger than he, just as its limbs wrap him in turn. He sinks his teeth in the lion’s shoulder, and in fierce rage and bliss begins to draw out the nourishment. The lion kicks and claws at him in turn. Feroluce feels the gouges like fire along his shoulders, thighs, and hugs the lion more nearly as he throttles and drinks from it, loving it, jealous of it, killing it. Gradually the mighty feline body relaxes, still clinging to him, its cat teeth bedded in one beautiful swanlike wing, forgotten by both.
Truth be told, I would find this all a little weird, if not for the fact that Feroluce, despite his humanoid appearance, is closer to a highly intelligent bird than a person; as such, his mentality is quite different from ours. Replace both parties with a typical human vampire and a typical human victim, though, and you see what I mean. Unfortunately for Feroluce, the fight has injured him more than expected, to the point where he can barely move, let alone head deeper into the castle in search of human prey. Unlike the typical vampire, which is conditionally immortal, the winged people can age and die like any other animal, not to mention they’re highly photophobis. In hindsight, Feroluce not actually getting to kill anyone aside from some animal in-story seems like an easy way out, a convenient way for us to sympathize with him more, but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Naturally Feroluce gets caught and, not being strong enough to combat the people in the castle, is held captive quite easily.
I imagine there’s an alternate timeline very similar to ours where “Bite-Me-Not” is a shorter, more concise, more psychologically driven story, where we actually get direct insight into the minds of these characters, and where the episode with Feroluce in the castle is basically the second of three acts. Unfortunately we’re not in that timeline. Feroluce getting caught and imprisoned sounds like it’s setting up the third act, when in actuality there’s a whole damn second half of the story that we’re about to get into. I don’t wanna spend all day on the second half, but I’ll just let you know now that I’m gonna be a little mean about it.
There Be Spoilers Here
The second half of “Bite-Me-Not” really blows. I don’t know how else to say it. Not that I would call the first half all that scary (but then I’m not sure if Lee was necessarily going for horror here), but whatever was intimidating about the winged people before has now been thrown out the window. Feroluce has gone, literally overnight, from a foreboding and somewhat deviant creature of darkness to a thing of pity. The thing is, he could still be a foreboding creature even when held prisoner; a fox is most dangerous, after all, when it’s cornered. You’d think that the people of the castle would have Feroluce killed outright, but this is not so; the Duke is convinced that blood from one of the winged people will feed the Bite-Me-Not and make it bloom. I’m not sure how the Duke could possibly know this (and actually it turns out he’s not even right about that), but more importantly, why does Feroluce have to be put on display on the garden for everyone to see, making a big show out of his would-be execution? Couldn’t they just kill him first and then harvest his blood if that’s what does the trick?
For reasons that at least at first are totally elusive to us, Rohise stops the execution, grabbing a sword and actually killing one of the castle guards before freeing Feroluce. This came as a total surprise to me, but not for good reasons. For one, Rohise has been such a passive character up to this point that her suddenly taking control and doing something so outrageous felt totally out-of-character. I would understand the suddenness of it better, too, if we actually got to understand Rohise’s mentality, but we’re just sort of told about how she feels about some things. Rohise rescuing Feroluce and all but falling in love with him at first sight is baffling, and could theoretically make sense, but as is I can’t make sense of it. I especially hate how the perspective is constantly shifting during this scene. Anyway,nce Rohise and Feroluce escape the castle, something else unexpected happens: Feroluce doesn’t immediately kill Rohise and drink her blood. Indeed the two are now a bit of pairing, surviving in the wilderness together, and we get this one paragraph about their newfound relationship that really pushed a button of mine.
They are not alike. No, not at all. Their differences are legion and should be unpalatable. He is a supernatural thing and she a human thing, he was a lord and she a scullery sloven. He can fly, she cannot fly. And he is male, she female. What other items are required to make them enemies? Yet they are bound, not merely by love, they are bound by all they are, the very stumbling blocks. Bound, too, because they are doomed. Because the stumbling blocks have doomed them; everything has. Each has been exiled out of their own kind. Together, they cannot even communicate with each other, save by looks, touches, sometimes by sounds, and by songs neither understands, but which each comes to value since the other appears to value them, and since they give expression to that other. Nevertheless, the binding of the doom, the greatest binding, grows, as it holds them fast to each other, mightier and stronger.
I almost find this paragraph insulting. There is so much heavy lifting the narrator tries to do here that could’ve been far better used actually developing the characters. We are told, not shown, why Rohise and Feroluce are such opposites and why opposites attract, or at least bond in a hopeless situation. Having been presumed dead, Feroluce is no longer the Prince of his tribe; they now see him as at best a nuisance, and worst as a new food source. The two are now forbidden from both the castle and what Feroluce used to call home, and if other vampires don’t get them then the elements probably will. I would care more, but we’re still kept at arm’s length, not being able to dive deep into the minds and emotions of these characters. On the one hand it makes sense that there wouldn’t be much dialogue at this point, since Feroluce can’t speak, but we could at least get some internal monologues, right? Some streams of consciousness? Anything beneath the surface? I feel like I’m grasping at air here.
But that’s not the worst of it.
Do you wanna know what makes the Bite-Me-Not bloom? Do you really wanna know? It’s not the blood of a vampire: it’s love. Supposedly. I find this about as believable as the moon being made of cheese. That there’s a distant epilogue which explains (via a third party who was not alive during the events of the story) the Duke’s motivation for keeping Rohise around, along with the true nature of the Bite-Me-Not, only adds salt to the wound. I struggle to think of a short story I’ve read recently whose conclusion is more poorly conceived and whose third act is more poorly structured. And the disingenuousness of it! If we’re to believe that the bond between Rohise and Feroluce is true then we ought to be shown it, as opposed to being told, “Nah, trust me on this one.” Admittedly I was expecting a much darker ending, or at least something less straightforward, but it’s all framed so romantically as to become diabetes-inducing. I expected better.
A Step Farther Out
“Bite-Me-Not” has the dubious honor of being the first story I’ve reviewed for this blog that I just plain didn’t like. It’s not terrible. Tanith Lee clearly has a style worked out for herself, even though her constant perspective-changing is maddening. I think what really bothers me about this, conceptually, is that its attempt at old-style romanticism is so bogus, so unearned, so saccharine that it almost feels like a joke. I feel like surely there must be something more substantive here that I’m missing, but I can’t find it. While the winged vampires whose diet consists entirely of fluids is somewhat original, the originality is wasted on an invented species which is not presented as all that scary, nor all that plausibly pitiable. In a classic murder mystery, the killer needs opportunity, method, and motive to have a plausible connection with the victim, and much the same can be said for character writing. While we’re given a bit of opportunity and method with the Duke, Rohise, and Feroluce, we’re basically not given any motive, despite a last-minute effort on the all-seeing narrator’s part to do so. Much like a fancy-looking meal that provides very little nutritional value, “Bite-Me-Not” looks nice but seems to have next to nothing beneath the surface.
Obviously this will not be the only Tanith Lee story I’ll ever read. Her position in fantasy is too prominent and her output is both legion and varied; it would be unfair to write her off based on a story that may or may not represent her at her strongest. Still, I have to admit I’m a little wary. I talked with a friend of mine about stories I’ll be reviewing for this month, giving her a list of works, and she said the only author of the bunch she had read previously was Tanith Lee—and she’s not a fan. I think I get why now.
See you next time.