I’ve often wondered what makes something popular. Why does one author’s work sail to the top of the New York Time’s Bestseller List, while another author- who is just as good, if not better- continually publishes in a vacuum?
I’m not talking about E. L. James, or Stephanie Meyer, or any of those types of authors when I say bestseller. I think they’re the literary equivalent of One Direction, or Justin Beiber. They’re popular for a time, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and rushes out to buy the product everyone else is buying, and then it’s over. I’m talking about authors who consistently put out quality work, but ultimately no one knows who they are.
One such author is Tanith Lee. Maybe you’ve heard of ‘The Silver Metal Lover’, or ‘The Black Unicorn’? That’s Tanith Lee.
I discovered Ms. Lee the way I did so many authors as a preteen, through the short story collections edited by Marvin Kaye. The first collection I owned was ‘Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural’, and the Tanith Lee story was ‘When the Clock Strikes’.
Originally published in ‘Red as Blood- or Tales of the Sister’s Grimmer’, ‘When the Clock Strikes’ is a retelling of ‘Cinderella’ that owes more to the bloody Grim version than to Walt Disney. The step-sisters aren’t really wicked, just vapid and dull witted, the step-mother isn’t evil, she’s just ordinary, but that’s only the beginning of how this tale differs from the one we’re familiar with. Witchcraft, revenge, and a gorgeous clock that may be cursed, are all wound together to create a tale full of textures you can practically feel, and colors so violent and rich you can almost see them.
About the clock,
“I thought you might care to examine the clock. It was considered exceptional in its day. The pedestal is ebony and the face fine porcelain. And the figures, which are of silver, would pass slowly about the circlet of the face. Each figure represents, you understand, an hour. And as the appropriate hours came level with this golden bell, they would strike it the correct number of times. All the figures are unique, you see. Beginning at the first hour, they are, in this order, a girl-child, a dwarf, a maiden, a youth, a lady and a knight. And here, notice, the figures grow older as the day declines: a queen and king for the seventh and eighth hours, and after these, and abbess and magician and next to last, a hag. But the very last is the strangest all. The twelfth figure: do you recognize him? It is Death. Yes, a most curious clock. It was reckoned a marvelous thing then. But it has not struck for two hundred years. Possibly you have heard the story? No? Oh, but I am certain that you have heard it, in another form, perhaps.” ‘When the Clock Strikes’ by Tanith Lee
Tanith Lee was one of the first authors to take the fairy tales we all know and love and twist them into dark fantasy. Taking her cues from Angela Carter, who rewrote ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as ‘The Company of Wolves’, she made the genre her own.
Even more than ‘Red as Blood’, I love her ‘Tales from the Flat Earth’ series.
In ‘Night’s Master’, the first book of the series, the central character is Azhrarn, the Prince of Demons. He roams the nighttime world wreaking havoc, causing chaos, and destroying the lives of humans too self centered or greedy to see his machinations. His demon nature makes wickedness a game, a game he is all too pleased to play until he is asked a fateful question: What is the Prince of Demons afraid of? The answer is surprising, and what Azhrarn is prepared to do in the face of his greatest fear raises his character up from a mere genius of wickedness to a savior.
The second book in the series, ‘Death’s Master’ won Ms. Lee the British Fantasy award. She was the first of only four women to ever win this prestigious award, and she definitely deserved it.
It is still possible to find the omnibus editions of ‘Tales from the Flat Earth’ collected in two volumes on Amazon or ebay. There were reissues of several of the books from Ms. Lee’s own imprint TaLeKa, but these have been discontinued and further editions cancelled, making the ones available ridiculously expensive.
Before her death, the continuation of ‘Tales from the Flat Earth’ was promised with a full length novel, ‘Earth’s Master’, and a short story collection, ‘The Earth is Flat’. I sincerely hope these books are published, but as with so much of Ms. Lee’s work, only time will tell.
It’s been almost two months since we lost the brilliant Tanith Lee. Maybe you’re like me, and you know how tragic her loss is to the worlds of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Horror. If you’ve never read her work, I have posted some links below to sample a bite of her delicious prose. She was truly one of the greats, and she will be missed by those of us who love her.
‘When the Clock Strikes’- http://goo.gl/7Gxf4K
‘The Parable of the Cat’ from ‘Delusion’s Master’- http://www.redwoods.edu/instruct/agarwin/parable_of_the_cat.htm
‘The Origin of Snow’, an independent short story featuring Azharn- https://prunesquallormd.dreamwidth.org/71282.html