Tanith Lee’s 1983 collection of re-imagined fairy tales, Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, is by far my favourite Tanith Lee book. It’s not just that the stories in it are wonderful. I picked it up on a whim when I was a lowly security guard at a particularly unpleasant post1. The mass-market edition of Red as Blood had a very convenient property from my perspective: it fit into the inside breast pocket of a uniform without leaving a telltale bulge. I read and reread it a lot in late 1983, early 1984.
I have not reread it in years and years. As my Because My Tears Are Delicious to You series has shown, not all old favourites stand up to a reread. So how did Red as Blood stand up?
Stories without dates appear to be original to this volume.
“Paid Piper” • (1981) • short story
A piper visits a small town that is obsessed with empty convention and the blind pursuit of wealth. Only a washerwoman’s daughter embraces the gift the piper willingly offers; she is spared consequences that visit the rest of the town.
In addition to being a re-look at the Pied Piper of Hamelin, this is an example of a world where gods are dependent on (and aware that they are dependent on) human worship. The piper’s actions are driven by this.
I am not entirely certain of the history of the stories in this book but whether or not it was intended, they do seem to fit into one colourful setting.
“Red as Blood” • (1979) • short story
Only the Witch Queen and an unexpected ally stand between the Kingdom and the Witch Queen’s malevolent step-daughter.
Aren’t all aristocrats vampires, at least in an socioeconomic sense? And Snow White is above all an aristocrat.
“Thorns” • (1972) • short story
Cursed by the Thirteenth Lady, the castle slumbered for a hundred years. Now the sole means of their salvation has arrived. Or so it would seem. But can they ever truly wake?
Unintentional I am sure, but this retelling of Sleeping Beauty reminded me a little of the Urashima Tarō folktale, although it is, in its way, even more terrible than that classic. Or perhaps the relevant model is Oisin.
“When the Clock Strikes” • (1980) • short story
Cheated of her birthright, a witch sets into motion a dreadful and disproportionate retribution that will take two generations to play out.
The retribution is also needlessly convoluted. But that’s what you can expect from people who worship the Dark Arts.
Speaking of the Dark Arts, it’s not clear to me any of the godlike beings in this are actually evil so much as constrained by the roles they play in the mythology. The Lucifer-analog who shows up from time to time does not seem half as malevolent as the Prince of Demons in the Flat Earth stories.
The Golden Rope • novelette
A witch shapes her ward into the perfect gift for the Prince of Darkness. She will learn to her cost that she does not understand the master she serves half as well as she thinks she does.
I think what people call what the witch does to the Rapunzel analog “grooming.” And not the good kind. It’s an explicitly horrible situation that offers little hope of an eventual eucatastrophe. At least, not if the witch is right.
“The Princess and Her Future” • short story
Given a magic ball that can reveal her future, the princess is quite sensibly hesitant to use it. But the ball’s master is determined to have her play her role in his story.
The important thing the ball could have told her is that the most significant fact about her future is how short it is likely to be, once she crosses paths, even inadvertently, with a demonic frog prince.
Wolfland • (1980) • novelette
Summoned to her wealthy grandmother’s isolated estate, a well-born girl discovers that her heritage includes so much more than mere wealth.
I think I just discovered why I am inordinately fond of In the Company of Wolves.
Black as Ink • novelette
A jaded aristocrat encounters a mysterious girl whose irresistible charms conceal a dark and tragic past.
This was the only story in the collection that did not work for me. There are two reasons. I have never watched Swan Lake and when I read this, I had forgotten about the concept of the Badger Game (which of course is featured in passing in Star Well).
Beauty • novelette
Abandoning Earth’s fairytale past for an interstellar future, the cost of terrestrial prosperity is an ongoing surrender of selected young people to the aliens who have so helped humanity. Precisely what purpose the youths serve is unclear; none will explain. One young woman will find her exposure to her alien host profoundly alienating.
Even by the standards of science fiction, the biology in this is wacky.
This edition includes some competent interior artwork by Tanith Lee. I don’t think of her as an artist, but ISFDB lists at least a dozen works in which her art was featured. Clearly my grasp of her talents is too narrow.
As has often been pointed out to me, I don’t often talk about prose, almost as though I was profoundly tone deaf to that sort of thing provided that it was not utterly Baen-al. This is one of the exceptions; Lee’s prose did manage to penetrate my general indifference. It isn’t just the skill with which she reweaves each story but also the way she plays with words. Reading her sentences is addictive.
I must admit that I was worried about rereading this, fearing it would now fall dreadfully short of its remembered excellence. I also managed to time my reread poorly, as writing this coincides with FASS (Go See FASS!) and I had underestimated the demands of certain aspects of my position. But I didn’t need to be worried. I don’t know if this is the best collection Lee ever wrote, although I am inclined to think it is. I do know it is still my favourite.
1: A condominium tower with 300 residents. About one in a hundred people are complete dicks, so that meant I had to deal with three of them on that job. Still better than my previous job, one that caused me to wake up feeling sick every morning, once I remembered I had to go to work. But that’s not saying much: my summer job as a teen cataloguing waste chemicals in an environment gloriously free of safety regulations was better than working at that previous job.