No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, September 10, 1996

Reigning Cats and Dogs -- Tanith Lee

A man is flycycling home from a rendezvous with his mistress when a huge black dog's head appears among the clouds. Another projected advertisement, he thinks; then the fiery gaze meets his, and he begins to fall …
The City of Reigning Cats and Dogs is never named, but it has recognisable parallels to Dickensian London; the elite quote Hamlet, Egyptian monuments stand on the Embankment, and a 'great domed cathedral' rises above the slums of Black Church. Most of all, though, this is the City of Dreadful Night: 'And all about a city hummed and sighed, and he did not know it or its name, nor any name for the blackness of the sky and air, which were night'.

Grace is a whore with the gift of healing, who imparts an incomprehensible sense of well-being to her clients. Saul Anger, abused and sold as a child, has risen to head the Brotherhood, a shadowy group of men whose desire is to cleanse the city of sin and corruption. Something sinister has come to the City; it is dog-headed, with glowing eyes, and it kills by perverting time - so that a child may become an impossibly aged crone, and an old man's corpse resembles that of an aborted foetus. Saul fears that the Brotherhood have created this monster, but he does not know how to combat it. It is Balthazar the Jew, to whom two mudlarks have brought a jade statue from the river, who tells Grace of the ritual that must be completed.

Tanith Lee's recent work has tended towards an almost impenetrable Gothic mode, full of blood and stained glass. Reigning Cats and Dogs is lighter and less intense than, for example, Dark Dance. Lee's wit, and her talent for visual description, are at their best here; images of cats and dogs recur throughout the novel, and there are a variety of neatly-turned metaphors for corruption and for the juxtaposition of science and squalor. Grace is a typical Lee heroine - 'helpless and broken, adrift on the sea of night' - and Saul's damaged personality echoes that of other male leads in Lee's novels; their appearances, and the pointed contrast between the two, makes them almost archetypal.

The elements of Egyptian mythology, although fundamental to the plot, are played down in favour of the evocation of a dark and terrible city, surreally Gothic without losing all human perspective. Farce, tragedy, eroticism, and a London that might have been.

Sunday, September 01, 1996

Bloodlines -- Marion Veevers

Bloodlines explores the myth of Lady Macbeth, and the curse of 'the Scottish play'. The lives of three women intertwine: the actress Abigail West (who's playing Lady Macbeth opposite her husband); Jennet, a country girl in Shakespeare's time, who is being tried for witchcraft; and, earliest of all, Gruoch - the original Lady Macbeth.

Gruoch is perhaps the most interesting of the three; married - or sold - to a old man while still a child, she falls irrevocably in love with Macbeth when he kills her husband and carries her off. Despite the romance, though, this isn't a sanitised Hollywood vision of the eleventh century; it's dark, and dirty, and there are enemies at every side. Gruoch may love her rescuer, but she is not blind to his nature - Macbeth is a warrior and a murderer, who will do whatever's necessary to further his ambitions.

Jennet's locked in a cell and tortured until she confesses to witchcraft - her plan to curse the King and his heirs. In vain she protests that the curse is not hers - simply words that her mother told her, which she has never understood. Again and again she protests that her handsome lover is not the Devil, despite his graces and his poetic words. She has dreamt, though, that he will live forever; but recounting her dream to her tormentors will not help her case. Already they are building Jennet’s pyre, and she remembers her own mother being burnt at the stake.

Abby's life seems idyllic at first, but as she plunges herself into the role of Lady Macbeth her behaviour begins to change - enough to make her husband suspect that she is suffering from mental illness again. Abby adores her husband, but she can't make him understand that she's not going mad; that the confusion, and the hallucinations, come from the past and not from her own mind.

There are parallels between the womens' situations: each loves a man who is beginning to mistrust her, but for whom she would do anything; each is threatened by the unwanted attentions of another man; and each has nightmares and 'waking dreams' of a high staircase, which must be climbed - even though what waits at the top is an unknown, but horrific, sight.

The 'curse' is there from the beginning, although none of the three women understand its meaning or its power until the climax of the novel. The usual, half-joking explanation for the 'curse' on Macbeth is that Shakespeare's witches recite a real spell ('eye of newt and toe of frog'). Bloodlines suggests a more plausible reason; a curse - or, more accurately, a prediction - handed down from mother to daughter, and concealed in the words of Lady Macbeth herself, rather than in the 'demented rantings' of the witches. the curse won't be broken until someone understands what really happened, almost a thousand years ago.

Bloodlines can be read at several levels. It's a gripping thriller; the three women's narratives are twined together without chapter breaks, and the nature of the curse - and its resolution - are revealed only gradually. In some ways it's a romance: Bloodlines could be compared to the novels of Barbara Erskine (who is perhaps the best-known author of this sort of historical fiction, which blends past and present), but Veevers focusses on the darker emotions, and the historical context in which the action takes place. And, while it's definitely a work of fiction, the underlying theories regarding the origins of the play are by no means lightweight. A good read, with an element of intellectual enquiry that's reminiscent of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.

The World on Blood -- Jonathan Nasaw

"Hi, my name is Nick, and I'm a recovering vampire." Blood is the drug - it heightens one's sense of reality, and it's 'the most powerful aphrodisiac imaginable'. - and the members of VA ("What's the V stand for?" "Very." "Very Anonymous?" "Very") are following the twelve-point plan to beat their addiction. This, I should add, is California.

Nick made his money writing vampire novels; he hasn't written any fiction for twenty years, since one of his boyfriends introduced him to the Real Thing. The aristocratic, cosmopolitan and immensely rich Whistler would be quite enough for Nick to deal with. He is even more mistrustful of Selene, Whistler's closest friend, who is High Priestess of a Wiccan coven which enjoys an almost symbiotic relationship with the Californian vampire community. None of Rice's sexless eroticism for Nasaw; his vampires are more than happy to trade bodily fluids with the witches. (And yes, of course there are female vampires; The World on Blood is neither conservative nor coy when it comes to sex, as so often it does).

Back in the Seventies everything seemed so much simpler. But contemporary California is a festering pit of therapy groups, and vampirism is just another problem to recognise, confront and overcome. The members of VA are a motley crew: the abused punk girl January, Deadhead lawyer Augie, and members of enough minority groups to satisfy even the most politically-correct reader. Every week VA meet and share their experiences of living without blood. It is all most worthy.

Then two things happen; they move their meeting place to a non-denominational church (thus encountering Betty, the lonely female minister); and Bev, who works in a blood bank, brings in the latest 'suspect' - beautiful Filipina Lourdes, who's been caught stealing a bag of blood in her first week on the night shift. Lourdes pouts prettily and tells them she doesn't want to give up blood; the rest of VA inform her cheerfully that of course she does ... Fortunately, one member of the group is similarly minded, and offers Lourdes the perfect excuse for not working day shifts.

So far, so good. The second half of the novel, however, moves away from the bright, brash, subversive romp, and towards a more conventional interpretation of the Californian ideal. Vampires playing at happy families?
Assessing their relationships and motivations? It could never happen in New Orleans ...

Nasaw has some interesting variations on the vampire myth. In The World On Blood, vampirism is inherited rather than transmitted, and vampires can reproduce Blood is a drug rather than a sole means of sustenance. (On the other hand, there are very few references to food.) The blood-drinking itself is oddly sanitised; the traditional rending and tearing has been replaced, at least in everyday life, by steel syringes and brandy glasses. It's clear that Nasaw knows his subject; there's a neat little précis of the vampire myth, and the novel is scattered with genre references - Lourdes, for example, discovered the joys of blood after reading Interview with the Vampire.

Despite the bloodletting and the orgiastic sex, there's something uncomfortably cosy about The World on Blood. It'd make a great soap: the characters are constantly coming to terms with themselves, and confronting one another in a variety of social tableaux.