Nestled somewhere between magical realism and alternate history, this slim novella shows Tanith Lee working with the vast store of information she amassed about the French Revolution. She used most of the material for her lone historical novel THE GODS ARE THIRSTY. In many ways, MADAME TWO SWORDS is like a darker sister to that novel.
Set in an imaginary French city under English rule, the nameless narrator finds a slim book of poetry and essays in a used bookstore. Stuffed inside of the book is the miniature portrait of the book’s author, with whom she falls in love with. Lucien de Ceppays is a stand-in for the very real Camille Desmoulins (and the subject of TGAT), the doomed pamphleteer of the French Revolution. De Ceppays is a poet and author of the treatise on human rights in this alternate city, which also had a monarchy-ousting revolution that in turn inspired a rampage of political terror. Lee uses a series of Gothic tropes—ranging from spectral occurrences to the coincidences that happen in such fiction—to introduce a theme that one does not find in much of Lee’s fiction. Bryonic heroes, destitute heroines, mysterious crones are all in the service of a tale about the narrator’s awakening sense of Social Justice.
It’s all told in Lee’s trademark decadent, ominous prose, which creates an intriguing subgenre—woke goth? She manages to capture both the horrid employment conditions of women in the turn-of-century and the fickle nature of mob-led movements as acutely as she did in that epic historical novel.
I am in possession of a signed and illustrated (by Thomas Canty) copy of this novella, which has been reprinted by Immanion Press.
I’ll be on a panel put on by the Baltimore County Public Library with authors David R. Slayton (White Trash Warlock), Alex Jay Lore (Empire of Light), and Barbara Ann Wright (The Noble and the Nightingale) on May 26. You can sign up for the free event here.
Hear me read my Jean Cocteau meets Bats for Lashes inspired take on Beauty and the Beast, called Fur & Gold. I read along with WC Dunlap, who also has a serialized novel coming out on Broken Eye Books!
I will be participating in a group reading in celebration of the release of Queer Space Force (put out by Neon Hemlock), a zine of speculative fiction by DC based writers this Saturday! Join me and Rasha Abdulhadi, Marlena Chertock, & Rashid Darden.
My story “The Magus Club” has been reprinted in Queer Space Force, a showcase zine of speculative fiction from writers based in or connected to DC, edited by dave ring, alongside work by Rasha Abdulhadi, Marlena Chertock, , Rashid Darden & Malka Older.
But wait! There’s more: On May 8th, there will be a group reading with the authors at 1 pm (EST).
The plot of this novel is relatively simple. Set in the early 1980s, it follows Travis Stillwell, a lone drifter who kills young women to fill up some void within himself, caused by a broken family and a touch of PTSD. Stillwell meets Rue, a young woman in a honky tonk bar that is more than she seems. After a one night stand with Rue, he wakes up with a deep, strange and insatiable hunger. As he drifts through small towns in the Texas desert, he ends up at the Sundowner Inn, a semi defunct motel/motor lodge run by Annabelle Gaskins, a widow and mother to her ten-year old son Sandy. At the same time, a Texas ranger named John Reader is investigating the murders of young women who frequent honky tonk bars.
The characters are archetypical and accurately drawn. We head hop from Stillwell, whose life is filled with ugly memories of his family life and the Vietnam war to Rue, whose fate is changed with a chance encounter with a mysterious nomad who curses her with murderous hunger, to the more quotidian existence of Gaskins and her son. Davidson’s take on vampirism (never referred to as such in the text, has such verisimilitude that it almost seems natural. Conversely, the author imbues the Texas landscape with a magical quality. In the Valley of the Sun combines languid lyricism with scenes of brutal violence reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s work.
Shirley Jackson’s work is disguised in the trappings of genre fiction, particularly horror and thrillers. What she really does is use the tropes of horror to create complex psychological character studies. The 2018 adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is refreshingly true to the thematic concerns of the novel upon which it is based. Set in the 1960s, the two Blackwood sisters live apart from the town over which their decaying mansion casts a shadow. Both are living sequestered away due to the scandalous murder of the Blackwood patriarch and his wife—they were poisoned with arsenic. Constance (Alexandra D’Addario) was acquitted but the town folk believe that one of the two sisters is guilty of the crime. Mary Katherine or Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) bears the brunt of the town’s abusive gossip when she visits for supplies. Merricat, who is portrayed as possibly on the spectrum by Farmiga, is a misanthropic loner who does arcane witchcraft-inspired rituals to protect the surviving members of her family, which include Constance and dementia-affected Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). Merricat buries dolls, coins and books on the manse’s overgrown grounds and casts curses on those people who are cruel to her. Constance stays in the house, where she cooks and cleans with an almost Stepford Wife devotion. The three members of the family all assiduously talk around the fatal events of the poisoning and the subsequent trial. Merricat believes that her spells are working until cousin Charles shows up out of nowhere, with an unclear agenda. Constance, who’s played as a wide-eyed, innocent ingenue by D’Addario, is charmed by Charles. Sebastian Stan’s portrayal is appropriately slick and two-faced. He’s frustrated that he can’t charm the taciturn Merricat like he can her sister. (Uncle Julian believes that Charles is his brother, and Glover gives the befuddled character a quiet dignity). Inevitably, the battle for Constance’s affection yields disastrous results. There are a lot of thematics at work here. There’s Jackson’s preoccupation with group hysteria, and the role of misfit women in a strictly patriarchal society alongside an exploration of trauma and the loss of innocence. I enjoyed the look of the film, with is period Popoluxe aesthetic, and it captured the delicate balance of black comedy, social satire and dark group dynamics that was in the book.