Wednesday 5 July 2023

Review: The Secret Books of Paradys by Tanith Lee

 I was given The Secret Books of Paradys as a present. An eight-year-old girl gave it to me as an end of year present. I unwrapped it and saw a book boasting of ‘a high quality mixing of eroticism, horror and aestheticism’ and ‘top notch demonology…an exquisite and appalling mix of lust and horror, sexual pleasure and loathing, yearning and revulsion’. It seemed a strange choice. I asked the girl what had made her choose this book for me, her reply;

“It was the biggest one in the shop.”

I’ve read a lot of gothic novels on this blog, tracing them from The Castle of Otranto, through the Radcliffe years and to Dracula. All the books seem to be in response to Walpole’s original challenge, to mix the interiority and groundedness of a novel with the imagination and flair of older stories. I still think the genre peaked early with Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, but later gothic novels still had interesting results, such as The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. One of the interesting things about The Secret Books of Paradys is its relationship with the gothic, because these books are less gothic and more goth-ish, or even, simply goth. It’s a book that owes more to The Cure and late The Damned then it does Anne Radcliffe. It’s eyeliner and leather trench coat gothic, Byron via pantomime.

Interestingly, all the chapters are headed by quotes from poems, with Shelley, Blake and Coleridge being used. The most used poet though is Swinburne, signalling a greater fondness for the Decadent school. Aubrey Beardsley would have had a lot of fun illustrating these stories. The decadence is also fitting with the setting, Paradys, an alternate reality Paris with the decadence turned up to eleven, which we meet in various points of its history. 

The Secret Books of Paradys are actually made of four books, the first being The Book of the Damned. This is a collection of four novellas, featuring characters being pulled inexorably into some horror of other. 

The first, Stained with Crimson is essentially a vampire story. A man is given a broach and wishes to give it back to a noble lady. She is not interested in him but his friend, and his friend quickly succumbs to an obvious case of being sucked to death by vampire. However, when the protagonist sleeps and shares blood with her, she is quickly reported dead. A duel follows with her brother in which the protagonist is killed, and then wakes up as a woman. Realising that the brother vampire is his love having changed sex, he hunts him down and they have sex again, changing the vampire back into a woman. When vampire woman kills our protagonist, she wakes up again as a man - the implication is that they will now spend eternity hunting each other, having sex, swapping sex and killing each other.

What drove me crazy, was the mechanic that meant his friend died after the vampirism but he forced the vampire to change sex and later did himself. There seemed to be no reason for this to happen and I racked my brains over it without result. The aim to create a heightened, poetic discourse also made the book easy to parody. When we are told that a woman has a ‘cowl of hair and coals of eyes’, or that ‘timelessly, time advanced’, the lush-o-meter entered into the silly territory.

The second novella in the first book, Malice in Saffron, is more straightforward but nastier. A young woman is raped by her father and escapes into town to get help from her brother. When he doesn’t, she finds herself in a convent by day as a well-behaved nun, but sneaks out at night as the sadistic male leader of a gang of thieves. There first job is to rape and beat up her brother and she uses her position to get revenge as well as score good prizes. Her male side develops into an independent figure, embodying all the evil she sees in men.

Weirdly, the convent may be worshipping Lucifer as a beautiful angel - it’s never made clear if this is happening, and if it is, whether the nuns know it or not. There’s also a suggestion that the window they worship to was put in by her brother’s boss, who is sneaking all sorts of satanic iconography into churches. 

When a plague hits, she becomes a selfless nurse as her female self, leaving the male self behind. She even finds her poor injured brother and nurses him to health by chopping off her arm and feeding it to him when he is weak. Then she goes and prays to the window is taken.. somewhere, presumably by Lucifer.

It’s funny, because the religious elements in this story raise questions about how different Paradys is to our world. There are far more murders and rapes (I hope) and a thinner line between a world of beasties and eldritch horror than ours, but they have Christianity (albeit in churches with names that sound strange to us). Later on, it’s revealed they also have a similar history, including Egyptians and Romans - though Haiti has a different name. I think in the similarity of Paradys and our world, especially religiously, there’s the influence of the gothic. Those works (such as The Monk) are so reliant on Catholicism and older forms of Christianity, that they can’t be completely laid aside in this world.

The last novella in the first book is Empires of Azure. It styles itself as a 1920s noir mystery and is all about a possibly haunted house and its strange occupant. This occupant is a drag show performer who is remarkable for being more than just an imitation of womanhood but to embody it when on stage. This performer is most likely gender-fluid and that fluidity has made them the perfect vessel for the ghost of a hermaphrodite Egyptian priest/ess. It was the most directly written and probably my favourite of the three.

What makes the three novellas notable, is the way each story features an element of sex or/and gender switching. From the sex-swap vampires, to the shadow male persona to the gender-fluid performer, the character’s sexual permeability either draw an eldritch beast to them, or are a result of contact with an eldritch beast. The other three books are concerned with sex and gender but those interests aren’t as explicit in them. They raise questions about how much we fear finding out that gender is more porous and less contained than we realise - in a world where the demon world is also less sealed off than it is here.

The second book, The Book of a Beast is more like a novel, though it’s probably better described as two nesting novellas. 

The first is about a student from the countryside who stays in a dilapidated manor in the city. There’s no one there but two aged servants and a possible ghost. One day he goes to a brothel and mentions to the prostitute where he’s staying, her response is to kill herself with an acidic douche - something is up. He pursues the ghost, who is actually alive, a young woman married into the family years before. She tells him about how her husband turned into a harpy-beast when they had sex (something he was trying to avoid, but she drugged him). She then drugs the student and, as they having sex, she ages and putrefies. He now has the harpy-beast in him and must avoid sex.

The middle is all about a member of the Roman garrison of Paradys when it was first founded. He makes a deal and unleashes the harpy-curse into his bloodline. Then we return to the student and his attempts at exorcism.

This novel had the first hint of humour in this world. The beginning, when the student explores the obviously haunted house, Lee is having a lot of fun with the tropes of haunted houses. It then veers away from that gothic beginning, settling more into the Decadent elements to be expected in Paradys. It also has a lengthy Roman section, which weirdly reminded me a little of Naomi Mitchison’s Behold the Man, a story about Jesus’s crucifixion. There was a similar attitude from the soldiers about following different Gods for practical purposes, as a result of the Roman’s Pax Deorum. 

The third book, The Book of the Dead is a collection of short stories. It again has a more playful tone than the previous books, taking the form of a tour through a graveyard. It’s a little like one of those anthology horror films and the crypt keeper is less formal than previous narrative voices. It’s also a nice conceit that each story happens at a later date than the last, taking us through the City’s history. 

Being short, the stories often have a little twist or punch at the end, often ending on an irony. This book has vagina dentata, a cursed room and a woman with a little homunculus that kills people. There was a voodoo story told in a fictional Haiti called Ha1issa - which raised more questions about what places were the same and which were not.

A particular favourite story was Lost in the World, a pastiche of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s tale, in which a Professor Challenger figure is laughed out of academia for believing in a lost world ruled by a giant. He sets off alone and finds it, but sees no giant. As he is picked up by a huge flying beast to be murdered and fed to chicks, he realises the marble buildings in the distance were the bones of a massive, dead giant. He smiles as he goes to meet his doom.

Though the stories seem slight compared to the previous books, I connected much better to this book as Lee is having more fun with her creation. The best gothic works are those that acknowledge and enjoy the silliness as much as they revel in the drama - it’s that which makes The Monk so good. I had felt that the straight goth-face was too plastered on to crack a smile and it was great to see it.

While I’d enjoyed the previous books of Paradys well enough, it was the fourth one, The Book of the Mad I really enjoyed. 

It takes place in the Paradys the reader has got to know and two alternative versions, Paradise and Paradis. Both these versions seem to be in the future of Paradys, which is portrayed in the late nineteenth century. Paradise is a hell-hole, drinking the river gets you drunk and society seems to have absolutely collapsed. Paradise seems a much nice place, with clean air, helpful technology and a functional society. The book takes a chapter in each place in turn, telling a story that comes together in a very strange way.

In Paradys, a fifteen-year-old girl has been cosseted her whole life, being saved for the marriage market. She is called a baby, still plays with dollies and is constantly reminded how she looks nine or ten. On a visit to the theatre she falls in lust with an actor and when she goes to visit him, he thinks she’s a prostitute and rapes her (biggest problem with all these books, the constant rape). He is himself later sodomised to death with a beer bottle.

The trauma of this event drives the girl mad and she is put in an asylum. It’s the very worst kind of asylum as can be imagined in any gothic or sensation novel, with sadistic keepers and beastly conditions. One of the ‘treatments’ is actually something they used in Bedlam. The recipient was put in a large swing and spun until sick - the idea was that the vomit would settle the humours of the patient, and patients were often a lot more compliant after it.

The patients find a bottle of Penguin Gin, which the keepers are always swilling. They create a mythical land called Penguinia, where everyone is happy and the snow is warm. Then one day, the asylum floods with a tidal wave of gin, which kills all the keepers, and a giant kaiju penguin ushers them into this magical world where they are healed and happy.

This unlikely event is created by the action in the other two worlds. In Paradis, the nice future, the reader meets Leocadia. She’s a pampered, rich artist who feels superior to those around her. She’s the opposite of the main character in Paradys, she’s independent and powerful, and not very nice really.

Her cousin is after her inheritance and trying to stir up stories about how mad she is. One day, after being rude and snotty in a restaurant, Leocadia comes home to find her lover murdered. Then she does snap and is taken to a mental hospital. This hospital is next to the old asylum, where a tide mark still shows a mysterious flood which destroyed the place. The mental hospital is comfortable and she’s given all the comforts from home, even her chilled vodka breakfast. As the reader sees it through her eyes, everything about the place seems menacing and the doctors inscrutable and dangerous. 

One day, her canvases have been taken away so she decides to paint a huge mural based on the bottle of gin she found whilst exploring the ruined asylum. It’s her painting that creates a magic spell that unleashes the giant penguin that saves the people in the old asylum. It also helps her recovery and within six months she is ready to go home and live a happy life.

In Paradise, the hell-hole world, a brother and sister are distinguished by the fact they are not in an incestuous relationship. For some reason, never really established, they have to kill someone every few days. Their uncle has left them his house, which includes a giant ice maze that gives them access to Paradis. They are the ones who hid Leocadia’s paintings and killed her lover, thus putting her into the position to paint a giant penguin and unleash one in the past. They are then crushed by a giant penguin ice sculpture.

The penguin itself is one of the many eldritch beings in the worlds of these stories and is concerned with healing. All the events in the worlds have happened to heal the mental patients in the most peculiar and elaborate plan ever.

I really liked this book, it fulfilled everything the Paradys books had potential to be. It used the hints of actual gothic literature, the Lovecraftian beasties - even the intentional shock elements found in the other stories and made something fun and even quite moving. I’m not much inclined to visit the goth/fantasy genre very often, and I wouldn’t read the first three books of Paradys again but I’d happily re-read this one. I wondered a few times whilst reading these books if the effort was really worth it but I was very happy to find myself at a giant mind-healing penguin.

Not Tanith Lee, it's that one from Shakespeare's Sister, but it's how I picture Tanith Lee.

No comments:

Post a Comment