Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Secret Books of Paradys

This four-book series is linked by the milieu of Paradys, a city that's not so much a fictional analogue of Paris as a distillation of the Decadent, Gothic, and romantic aspects of its image. Populated by vain noblemen with decaying mansions, unappreciated poets drinking in darkened taverns, and lunatics locked into cruel asylums, Paradys is a perfect setting for the brand of lush, ornate horror that is, I think, the most distinctive of the many modes in which Tanith Lee writes. In both style and substance writing of this type can seem exaggerated, ludicrous, but for those on the right wavelength it captures something of the glittering intensity of obsession, a state of mind in which the exaggerated and the ludicrous seem natural, are in fact the only way to express one's heightened awareness.
Darkness closed on Paradys. But the night City was no worse, no more impenetrable, than a night in the country. This too had its own strange sounds, its own pitfalls, and generally the City gave more light than the forests, hills and fields, which were lit only by fire-flies, fungus, stars and moon. The City moon was made of dull plate, but lower down other luminosities shone out. High round windows in various towers of a college where the students pored late over huge books and parchments, dim bars of light behind iron grills and panes of sheep-skin. Sometimes, at the gates of a fine house, or along the river and its bridges, torches flashed on poles. But on the lower bank the hovels crowded to each other in sympathy, darkling, though here and there an occasional fire bloomed on stones in the street.
The Book of the Damned is made up of two short novels and a novella, unlinked in narrative terms but sharing recurrent motifs of duality, mutable gender, and romantic obsession. In "Stained with Crimson," the poet Andre St. Jean becomes infatuated with a mysterious noblewoman, but as you might expect the consummation of his desire comes at a terrible price, trapping Andre in a cycle of lust, violence, and revenge from which escape may take a very long time. In "Empires of Azure," Louis de Jenier, who makes a living and finds an obscure satisfaction in imitating women on the stage, rents a house in Paradys that proves already occupied, by a ghostly female presence to which he is fatally drawn.

These are fine stories, but the highlight of the first volume is "Malice in Saffron," an especially dark and disturbing meditation on such ambiguous distinctions as male/female and good/evil. Jehanine escapes a physically and sexually abusive stepfather to join her half-brother Pierre, the only remotely good person in her life, in Paradys. But her reception is not what she expects, and Jehanine soon carries out a cruel revenge whose consequences will come to haunt her. With nowhere else to go, she finds a bifurcated life in Paradys: by day the female Jhane, novice of the convent called the Nunnery of the Angel, and by night the male Jehan, leader of a band of thieves that terrorizes the city. Her existence has the febrile quality of a dream or a delusion, as pregnant with meaning as an allegory yet more potent in its fearsome strangeness than flatly symbolic fiction. Plague, satanic mysticism, festival, and a horrifying sacrifice are some of the components of this harrowing short novel.
He had of course lost himself on emerging from his apartment. There were no lights anywhere, only the worm-runs of windowless corridors on which the occasional door obtruded. Now and then, from perversity, he had tried these doors. Three gave access to barren chambers, empty of nearly anything. One had a shuttered window, another a candle-branch standing on the floor. (The branch was of iron, worth little. The candle-stubs had long ago been devoured by vermin.) A few other doors resisted his impulse. He fancied they were stuck rather than locked. Presently he reached an ascending stair he was certain he had not seen on entry with the hag. He paused in irritated perplexity, wondering if it would be worthwhile to climb. Just then a woman appeared and went across the stair-top, evidently negotiating the corridor which ran parallel to that below.
 She did not carry a candle, and that he saw her at all was due to his own light, and the pallor of her hair and skin which caught it. Her gown was of some sombre stuff, high-waisted as was now not always the fashion, and she held her hands joined under her breast. A stiff silver net contained her hair; it glittered sharply once as she glided by. That was all. She was gone literally in that flash. Her face he did not really see, yet her slightness, something about her, made him think her girlish.
Come to Paradys to pursue his education, Raoulin finds himself more interested in this woman-- this ghost, as he suspects-- of the ancient, decrepit house where he has taken a room. A disturbing experience with a local prostitute only increases his certainty that there is a story to be discovered, and eventually, he finds the woman and encourages her to tell it. Once she was Helise la Valle, daughter of one noble house and promised to marry into another, the d'Uscarets. Ignorant of what will come on her wedding night and overhearing whispers of some terrible rumor about her new husband's family, Helise waits in fear. But what happens after the ceremony, and what she does to stop it, are not quite the Gothic cliche one might be expecting.

It's true, though, that a curse haunts the d'Uscaret line, a curse the novel eventually traces back to Roman times, when the city was known as Par Dis, and a soldier called Vusca received a strange gift. Following the story of The Book of the Beast back in time has its fascinations, even though the core of it, once revealed, is not terribly complicated. Vusca's story is especially evocative. When the narrative returns to the present for its resolution, the thread of interest is lost, but the luxuriant, slightly antiquated flow of Lee's language carries it through to a satisfying conclusion.
Paradys too has its cemeteries, its little graveyards tucked out of sight, its greater yards of death that hug the churches, the cathedral that is called a Temple. It has its places of graves, between the houses in sudden alleys. Between the paving stones, here and there you may look down and see a name that paves the way, a date of beginning and the other of surcease. Even under the house floors now and then they will raise a carpet and a board and point you a grave: Sylvie sleeps here, or Marcelin. Paradys is a city of the dead as she is a city of the live, the half-live, the undead, and perhaps the deathless.
The Book of the Dead is a short story collection, its tales of the city linked by the cemetery in which the characters have been laid to rest. Generally I'm a great fan of Lee's short fiction, so it was a surprise to find this the weakest of the four Paradys books. None of the stories are bad, but without the elaborate structure of the longer works set in the city, they aren't particularly atmospheric, and too often the resolutions are disappointingly simple. "The Weasel Bride" carefully builds up a mystery about the tragic events of a wedding night, but its solution is a familiar, and rather crude, piece of folk mythology. "The Nightmare's Tale" is nicely written, but the Haitian voodoo on which it builds is too lodged in the popular imagination to become truly threatening.

Despite their limitations, a few of the stories make for pleasant minor reading. "Beautiful Lady" offers a nice, if ultimately irrelevant, twist on a basic concept, and the interplay between the eccentric, unsettling siblings who explain the history of "Morcara's Room" is far more interesting than the history itself. Perhaps the ultimate failing of the collection is that it doesn't consistently capture the particular mixture of eroticism, fantasy, and horror that makes Paradys a fascinating place to read about.
It was early afternoon, but as ever the daytime City was enveloped in gray mist. The sun had been invisible for years. The architecture of the City itself-- decayed, ruinous, romantic, and depressing by turns-- was visible in shifting patches, or regularly to a distance of seven meters. So that, as Felion climbed the long stair of a hundred steps, his world sank away into a sea of fog from which a few ghostly towers poked. And above, the Terrace of Birds began to form around a single dot of light-- which would be Smara's lamp. That is, he doubted anyone else would have climbed up here. The unhinged citizens of Paradise were also sluggish and indifferent, obsessed with rituals and trivia.
Felion and Smara are residents of a city called Paradise. But their inheritance from their late uncle includes a house with an icy labyrinth that leads to another city, called Paradis. That city, in turn, is ambiguously connected to Paradys itself. Is it one place at three different times, or three parallel realities? Who can say? What matters is that the distance between them is not insurmountable. In Paradise, Felion and Smara are as mad as any of the city's residents, but in a different way, and they hunger for something new. A second inheritance awaits them in Paradis, if they can handle the "cousin" who holds it for them. But Leocadia has troubles of her own.

Framed, as she sees it, for the murder of a lover, she is held in Paradis' asylum, given every luxury but certain that those luxuries are a ruse to cover poisons that will make her as mad as they claim she already is. Her art may be the only thing that can save her, but how will it be affected by what she discovers in the ruins of a former asylum, whose warders were killed and whose prisoners disappeared in a mysterious event many years ago? Meanwhile, in Paradys, a lovestruck young woman initiates a sequence of events that will lead to her imprisonment in a medieval madhouse, far harsher than the one in Paradis. Only the kindness of some of her fellow inmates might save her from the stupidity of the guards and the indifference of the sole doctor.

Subtle interactions among these storylines emphasize their parallels, but for the most part they function separately as stories of the tragic dignity of insanity. The interlocking structure gives a sense of great scope to a comparatively short novel whose stories are, taken individually, not all that complicated, and the sympathetic treatment of madness provides an appropriately moving conclusion to a series that has dealt with overwhelming emotion in all its wonderful and terrible forms. Paradys is as much a state of mind as a city, and we all go there from time to time. The Secret Books of Paradys is an excellent dark fantasy series, and an example of Tanith Lee's most striking and passionate work.

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