Tanith Lee passed away on May 24th, 2015. I first learned this news very early on the morning of the 26th, while looking through my Facebook feeds. My heart shrunk back in my chest. I nearly burst out into tears, but the presence of even a few co-workers forced me to keep my workaday mask firmly in-place.
But the mask kept cracking, until finally I found myself quietly crying in a private spot in our office.
When someone asks me, “Who are your favorite authors?” or “Which authors influenced you?” – Tanith Lee is always there. And I have the Science Fiction Book Club and Clive Barker to thank for it.
Set the clocks back to 1988. I wanted to get my hands on a copy of Cabal. But the US hardback (which also contained unpublished sections of The Books of Blood) was out of my reach. So as I wandered through Crown Books, an insert in a paperback fell into my hand.
Back then, the SFBC advertised in small cardstock inserts tucked into paperback books. I found one advertising twelve books for just a few dollars – including a copy of Cabal. They listed other books as well, a few with warnings about “adult content.” Signing up for the book club using my newly established checking account was already a transgressive act – my family would rather I do something other than add more books to the shelves in my room – so I decided to add a few adult content books.
Two of them were by Tanith Lee. They were Nelson Doubleday collections of her Flat Earth Novels: The Lords of Darkness and Night’s Daughter.
What I found inside changed me. Tanith Lee’s prose cracked me open. They were strange and sensual, dark and beautiful. I devoured these books, and immediately went to two more collections put out by the book club for The Secret Books of Paradys. If the Flat Earth seduced me, Paradys enslaved me.
In The Book of the Mad there was a moment when the main character was struck by a snowball. Lee described the snowball as ‘warm as toast.’ And I believed it. I searched for more of her books. In the Little Falls Library some mad, wonderful librarian had stocked a copy of Arkham House’s Dreams of Dark and Light. I checked it out and took it home with me for as long as I could.
Lee was a secret for me in high school. I was open with my love for other authors – Kafka and Barker, for example – but I kept Tanith Lee to myself. It wasn’t until college where I would find other adherents to the secret faith. The owner of Seven Mountain Books kept the DAW paperbacks in stock when he could find them.
When I found out she wrote two Blake’s 7 episodes, I was stunned. I hold Sarcophagus as the single best ‘bottle’ episode of an SF series ever produced. No one else would have opened a show with a prophetic vision… and have the vision come true at the very end, after giving each character in the crew a moment to shine.
My devotions would continue, following through her short story collections and novels. I can’t claim to have read everything – she wrote constantly, until the very end – but I continued to search and read. And I will continue to do so.
In the last few years, publishers have lost her (aside from a devoted few). My only hope is her loss will re-awaken interest in her work. We’ll see new editions from Subterranean Press, and more of her young adult works will find their way into eager hands.
I’m going to be rereading her through the year, and digging into books I have not explored yet. It’s the best way I know to say thank you to an author who opened me to new worlds. I’ll leave this with last thoughts from her website:
Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave
behind us stories told – on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the
wind, on the hearts of others – there we are remembered, there we work
magic and great change – passing on the fire like a torch – forever
and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need
no words at all.