When it comes to short stories, Tanith Lee is easily one of my top ten weird fiction writers, a versatile, stylish author who never bores and often combines the seductive with the terrifying in a way achieved by few others. But after an unfortunate encounter with one of her early epic fantasy novels (which was interesting but seemed much too long) I’ve not read much of her longer fiction. I’ve decided to address this recently by investigating her ‘Colouring Book’ series (Immanion Press), a relatively recent sequence of stand-alone modern Gothic novels which all have titles referring to colours. The first two I read, Greyglass and To Indigo, are both good concise, sharply-drawn fantasies anchored in the modern world of urban England and combining a feeling of magic with acerbic social comment. I particularly enjoyed To Indigo, which was very funny at times and reminded me of Ruth Rendell at her 80s peak despite not really being a crime novel.
I’ve now just finished Killing Violets: God’s Dogs, in fact the second of these seven books. This is very different from the other two I mentioned; it’s set in 1934, across several European locations both real and imaginary. The waifish heroine, the unsubtly-named Anna Moll, is rescued from starvation on the streets of a grey European city by a mysterious wealthy john called Raoul, who falls in love with her and brings her to live with his family in their mansion in the English countryside. But this isn’t the stroke of luck it appears to be – the Basultes are a very funny lot and treat their servants execrably, while the servants themselves are intensely malicious, feral and peculiar in other ways. Raoul begins to neglect Anna and she is forced to participate in a variety of degrading psychosexual games. It all seems a far cry from her past in the warmer European city of Preguna, where she fell in love with a young accountant after an early life of rootless roaming. But these memories, too, have a dark side which the reader discovers in a series of flashbacks.
The basic plot is realistic, but this is a novel with an extremely fantastical feel to it. Virtually all the events – from a simple conversation to a frenzied orgy – are surreal and the whole thing is cloaked in a highly-coloured, dreamlike atmosphere that is much more like a fairy tale than anything else. This is enhanced by the confusion surrounding location – Preguna doesn’t exist, and we never learn exactly where in England Anna has been brought, although it sounds like the West Country. It does, however, come with a good deal of pointed social commentary (with themes such as the identity-altering nature of domestic violence, physical beauty and ugliness, and the class system.)
Ever since Angela Carter the updated or subverted feminist fairy tale drenched in sex and violence has been a staple of fantasy literature, but I’m not a great fan of this type of writing myself. Lee is definitely one of the better practitioners of this kind of thing (and as I’ve said, her talents also range far beyond this register) but ultimately Killing Violets felt a bit predictable in its imagery and plot, especially as regards the pervy bits at the Basulte’s grotesque home. The flashbacks to Preguna felt fresher, though, and in the last two decades of her career Lee seems to have become a much more economical author who doesn’t outstay her welcome. She is able to paint vivid scenes with apparent ease and can sling around hosts of original metaphors without breaking a sweat.
Largely on account of this, the satisfying depth of her heroine, and her often lovely turn of phrase, I did enjoy the book. It’s not at all a happy novel though, and is quite a suffocating experience. I’ve heard it said that Lee’s early novels tended to have a very bleak view of gender relations and romance, and if that’s the case then she’s definitely getting back to her roots here. I actually really enjoy the sunnier side of her writing that is on display in many of the stories written in the last decade of her life (such as the charming ‘Thuvia, Made of Mars (Spilt Milk)’ and ‘Why Light?’), but you can’t expect the sun to shine all the time, especially not in Gothic literature!