This is how vampires work. They’re like drugs. They make us feel. They make us want more. We know they hurt us, but it’s just so good, and we’re just so fucking empty that we’ll do anything for a pleasurable death, since it’s so much better than a boring life.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Birthgrave [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tanith Lee, introduction Marion Zimmer Bradley, book 1 of the Birthgrave trilogy, 80s cover by Ken Kelly.
The Birthgrave was Tanith Lee’s first published novel for adult readers, and the first novel of hers that I’ve read. The Publishers Weekly review excerpt in the jacket copy stresses its size, and compares the protagonist to Robert E. Howard’s Conan. But it’s not such a very big book by today’s fantasy standards. At just a little over 400 pages, it’s fairly modest among the doorstop novels the genre has come to produce.
The acute storytelling might justify the comparison to Conan, but the central character actually couldn’t be more dissimilar. A much closer comparison would be Moorcock’s Elric, who is in many ways a schematic anti-Conan. Lee takes that reversal one step further with the change of gender. For style, pacing, and mood, I found myself more reminded of Gene Wolfe’s multi-volume fantasies — but it appears that Tanith Lee got there first, so I can wonder if she influenced Wolfe.
The protagonist is a nameless survivor of her own cruel, sorcery-wielding race, who adopts different identities in the course of her interactions with humanity. She is obscurely cursed, and brings misery and death to her casual and intimate contacts alike. There is an allegory here, for those who want to read on that level, made especially plain in the anagnorisis of the final twenty pages. (Feuerbachian philosophy, Freudianism, and feminism can each be useful to interpret the message of the story.)
There are a number of passages of hallucinatory vividness, and I found the entire novel quite engaging. The ending is almost too tidy, and I can see why some readers resented its deus ex machina qualities, along with what might seem like an abrupt shift in genre. But at the same time as it imposes that dislocation, the book returns to the business of its beginning in a way that makes it whole.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Adventures of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, introduction by Lin Carter. (See instead: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.)
This first volume of the 1970s paperback series reprints seven out of the ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, including several of the earliest. These began in the 1920s and quickly became a staple of Weird Tales, where they appeared nearly every other month. They were not a serial, however. There is no overarching plot nor development over time of the central characters, who are stock types of an occult investigator and his medical doctor amanuensis. In general, the stories rely on broadly-drawn characters and stereotypes in order to maintain a high tempo and to create a quotidian background for shocking crimes and supernatural menaces.
The sleuth de Grandin himself is an amusingly exaggerated, sword-cane-wielding, mustachioed, gallic scientist of diminutive stature. Most of his adventures take place in the hometown of his host and colleague Doctor Trowbridge, Harrisonville, New Jersey. Being a European in America allows de Grandin to make amusing asides castigating Prohibition, religious bigotry, and other forms of American provincialism. “Today your American courts convict high school-teachers for heresy far less grave than that charged against our Jeanne [d’Arc]. We may yet see the bones of your so estimable Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhumed from their graves and publicly burned by your heretic-baiters of this today” (53, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!).
The narrator Trowbridge maintains a naïve skepticism in the face of exotic events that grows less believable with each passing tale. One of the strengths of the stories is their use of menaces drawn from folk traditions and popular culture (vampires and werewolves, for instance) while allowing that the common lore may be inaccurate in its details. Thus the reader can see where de Grandin’s hypotheses are leading him–while Trowbridge refuses even to consider such fanciful notions–but the tension of the unknown is maintained, along with a sense of the “scientific.”
In those points where de Grandin explains or employs occultism as such, the details tend to be fairly flawed. For example, Trowbridge describes a hexagram (and the book even supplies a diagram) but de Grandin calls it a “pentagram” (182). In another adventure, de Grandin calls elemental spirits “Neutrarians,” a term I hadn’t previously encountered, but which appears to have been coined by Elliot O’Donnell in his Twenty Years Experiences as a Ghost Hunter.
These stories are not great works of literature, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever mistaken them for such. They are pulp paragons, and one of their attractions is their great variety, from the piracy-and-cannibalism yarn of “The Isle of Missing Ships” to the parapsychological crime mystery of “The Dead Hand.” Quinn’s de Grandin stories frequently served as the basis for the cover illustrations of the numbers of Weird Tales in which they appeared. Even reading them in this mass market paperback reprint, it is easy to spot the moments in the stories that would be chosen for this honor. They usually featured a naked woman in peril. “The Tenants of Broussac” (scene on page 67) and “The Man Who Cast No Shadow” (153-4) are the two stories in this collection that were realized as cover art in their magazine appearances, and it is easy to note Quinn offering similarly “graphic” climaxes in every tale.
“Think not that we have acted toward you in a spirit of persecution,” said the nun. “The mysteries which have alarmed you will be explained at a future period, when your soul is prepared by penance, self-mortification, and prayer to receive the necessary revelation. In the meantime, ask no questions, forget the world, and resolve to embrace a life devoted to the service of Heaven.”