Friday, June 26, 2015

Dark Dance by Tanith Lee (1992): Going to the Darklands

Oh my Goth is this a lovely cover! Taken right from the back of a Siouxsie Sioux record or ripped from the pages of Propaganda magazine, it's a perfect image to appeal to the reader who wants romance tinged with a hint of death and black nail polish: Let her taste the forbidden, the erotic, the evil... Yeah, potential readers of 1992's Dark Dance know who they are. The bats have left the belfry...

Tanith Lee is a writer I've been meaning to read for over 20 years. A prolific British author whose many, many paperback novels combined elements of fantasy, horror, science fiction, myth, and fairy tales, it was her recent death, alas, that made me realize I needed to do that now, and so I picked up Dark Dance, the only book of hers I own, published by Dell as a title in their ground-breaking Abyss line. Like many novels from Dell/Abyss, it isn't only/just/quite a horror novel. Nothing is scary, or even meant to scare, but there is foreboding and threat, a gloomy old house near a cliff-side overlooking the sea, a secret family made of members of indeterminable age clad in black, and the promise of illicit pleasures. We are in Gothic romance territory here, as will become clear early on.

The dance begins on a foggy London day as 29-year-old Rachaela Day arrives at her paltry job in a dingy dank bookshop (She hated computers, they frightened her. She liked old things... she was happy only with printed words). Her mother, a bitter and resentful woman, has been dead several years, and Rachaela's found herself utterly thankful for the release. She knows little about her father, who pretty much disappeared before she was born, although her mother complained about him and his ne'er-do-well family, the Scarabae (a weird name to go with a weird fly-by-night man). Into the bookshop then comes a man with a letter for Rachaela, from a law firm representing her father's family: as the back cover of Dark Dance tells us, the Scarabae beckon to Rachaela, inviting her to their family estate by the sea. And all travel expenses included!

Desiring something more in her life but unsure what, she accepts the summons to the Scarabae home after her apartment building goes up for sale, quitting her bookseller job in a fit of pique (I was a bit disappointed when this segment concluded; I do love tales set in dusty old bookstores!) and is driven up the seaside coast. In the house, faceless and black but for its one lit window (I told you we were in Gothic romance land!), she is met by Miss Anna and Mr. Stephan, very old, thin as twine, one female and oen masculine,and at that borderline of age where the sexes blend, these two had sustained their genders. At dinner she meets the  rest of the Scarabae, more than a dozen, each with their own role save the oldest, Uncle Camillo, who labors under some kind of juvenile dementia, galloping about the endless halls and rooms as if on a horse only he can see. One of them at least was insane.

Warner Books UK, Feb 1993

Removed from the world at large, the family's only contact a hired driver, with rare trips into a desultory village some miles' walk away for supplies, Rachaela spends malingering days and nights in the home. The reader feels the claustrophobia of the Scarabae estate, its bizarre stained glass windows and winding halls, locked doors and silent inhabitants. She hears snippets of the family history: superstition, outcast, pogroms, escape, told in hundreds of years. Vampires? Perhaps. She learns her father is called Adamus and he lives in the tower (of course!) but he comes and goes as he pleases, a mystery almost even to the others. He seems to spy on her in the night, accompanied by an enormous black cat. When she finally confronts Adamus, it goes about as well as expected:

"You dropped me like a lost coin. Less than that."
"I meant to make you. I tried with many women. The Scarabae seed is reluctant. It inbreeds better. But your stupid and soulless mother had, surprisingly, the correct ingredients to accommodate me..."
"All her life she hated you and what you'd done. She made me pay for you."

Rachaela resents Adamus, certainly, and comes to resent her captivity, which she's told again and again is a freedom. But just as I was beginning to feel a little worn out by the constancy of Rachaela's entrapment in the house, she makes her escape, back to the village she'd visited earlier for supplies. Rachaela misses the infrequent train to London, sits in a church to pity herself, and then turns round to see... Adamus. Who's come for her, who seduces her there in the church pew:

"Yes, I want to fuck you. Come back and be fucked by me."
"Now you're speaking the truth, you bastard."
"Now I'm speaking the truth. What's the problem? The family will be thrilled. They'll revel in it. It's happened over and over, mother with son, father with daughter. Brother and sister. Two-thirds of them are inbreedings of one kind or another, several twice over. A charming little intimate orgy has been going on for centuries. Secret pleasures of the house. And what other values hold you back? The criterion of the church, of morality and the world? It's nothing to you. Come to me and let me give you what you want."

It works. In an erotic trance, she lets Adamus sweep her back to the house Scarabae. What follows is a night of torrid sex, imagined with stylish high-minded eroticism by Lee (A harp string plucked in her loins... glissandi of fires. He kneeled in prayer between her thighs, his face cruel as an angel's... Her own tongue moved on him in sympathetic sorcery) till the next morning, when Rachaela is disgusted and angered by what's transpired. Once again she escapes, and this time, she will not return. In a way she will not need to return, for now she has brought a bit of the Scarabae with her: Rachaela learns she is pregnant with her own father's child. Like her own mother, she is merely a vessel for this immortal family, nothing more than an incubator. The plan all along. It's all too clear why Rachaela's mother was so horrible to her. Will Rachaela be like that to her own child? There's an unsettling scene when she visits a doctor to try to get an abortion but he patronizes her ("Children are wonderful things. Special... Think of all those women who long to bear a child and are unable..."). Ugh. The patriarchy!

The narrative moves up over a chapter and little Ruth is now seven, mostly cared for by motherly neighbor Emma, whose adult children are grown and gone. Rachaela regards Ruth with distaste, unsurprisingly, but Ruth is no abused or put-upon child; she's secretive, weird, self-possessed, and actually rather ugly (that strange white face of an elf). When Emma moves away, Rachaela and Ruth are wary of one another, estranged in the same flat, till a few years pass and Ruth begins to learn of the Scarabae, and a strange man is lurking about, and Ruth herself will escape to that darkened house by the sea, clad in black, searching for the man who fathered her. It is Rachaela's worst fear realized: for Ruth to be the child-bride of Adamus: Just before midnight Scarabae's betrothed came downstairs. She looked like a bride in Hell, in her dress of blood...

I found Lee to be a lovely and melodic writer, with prose that sings (to a Yank like me) in that British lilt, reminding me at times of Ramsey Campbell or Clive Barker. Language must serve the story, and so Lee can use "maenad" and "bacchanant" in the same paragraph and get away with it. More than get away with it; she escorts you through a hazily-lit twilight world of ambiguous vampirism and motherhood, her protagonist a young woman who abhors her mother and has never known her father. When this dark dance is over, she will know her father in ways which will make her abhor herself. Rather than creeping you out, Lee's approach to events seem removed from the real world, occurring in some demimonde where myth and fable entwine.

If you're in the mood for a kinda slow, moody, insular novel with sharp tinges of the Gothic but no horror to speak of, told in a style that's perceptive and sensual, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Dark Dance. Vampires? One never knows for certain. But one thing is: I will definitely be reading more Tanith Lee.


2 comments:

Jack Tripper said...

I really dug her stories in those old Charles L. Grant-edited SHADOWS anthologies ("The Gorgon," from SHADOWS 5 was especially good), and I always wanted to check her novels out. Then I looked online and saw that she had written something like a hundred novels. For some reason that's always been a turn-off for me, as if the author just pumps 'em out all willy-nilly. It's silly of me, as prolific authors like Michael McDowell and PK Dick have proven, but it's still a bias I have. Your review convinced me to give her a shot.

Erin @ Paperback Stash said...

Great review. I have this one to read thanks to a mass-buy from a friend. I'm more excited about reading this after your review.