Thursday, June 4, 2015

Reigning Cats and Dogs

Over the years I've met more than my fair share of writers that I admire, but meeting Tanith Lee in 2004 was an absolute treat. I was living in London at the time, and had the opportunity to go to a signing event for the newly reissued Mammoth Book of Vampires. The way it worked was you shuffled down the line of authors, each one signing your copy of the book and chatting a bit. When I got to Tanith Lee, she looked at me and said "You must be one of my fans." I'm not sure what gave it away; maybe it was the fact that I was wearing black velvet, maybe it was the way I obviously held her in awe.

Tanith Lee was literally two-fisting glasses of white wine and cracking bawdy jokes all evening. She was incredible.

Her writings are also incredible. Admittedly, they aren't to everyone's taste. Her fantasy and science fiction work are dream-like, not gritty or cast in the mold of epic sagas. Her characters are chimerical; I've always wondered if Ovid's Metamorphosis was a formative influence on her, as the transformation of physical and spiritual forms is a leitmotif running throughout her work. Her prose is rarely spare; it runs toward purple, but never breathlessly so. She is unafraid to write of eroticism in place of base sex or gratuitous sexual violence; she was more of a symbolist than an escapist, I think. She's certainly more Gothic than populist.

Tanith Lee's fictional worlds have been a huge influence on my own writings. You could hand me any of my Gothic, fantasy, or horror efforts and I could point out something that has her inimitable brand upon it. (Look at the World Between's nation of Scarabrae, then go read Lee's Dark Dance, for example.)

Since she recently passed away, I had it in mind to read another of her books. I have a large cache of her books that I've collected over the years; whenever I see a novel or collection by her in a used bookshop, I buy it. I haven't read the majority of what I have, but I treat them each as a singular bottle of vintage to be opened and enjoyed when the time is right. 

The one I reached for last week was Reigning Cats and Dogs. According to the bookmark I found tucked away in my copy, I picked this up in a shop in Whitby. I had heard that this was her "steampunk" novel, even though it was written before "steampunk" was a set of generic expectations. I should have known better: I went in expecting the usual light-hearted Victorian-with-contraptions jaunt. I was in for something entirely different, and far more rewarding.

There are what we might think of as steampunk tropes throughout: there are steam-powered conveyances, an alternate take on nineteenth-century history, and a few characters that seemed cribbed from the pages of Dickens. The ideas and symbolism in Reigning Cats and Dogs are rich; the secret society who commit murder to protect the larger populace was especially fascinating. But Lee's world-building results in a stranger fictive fabric woven from strands of the Victorian fascination with Egyptology, the dynamics of gender and sexual difference, and questions posed by modernity. (The ever-present and ominous advertising in her world is nearly as threatening as the unleashed violence stemming from one of the protagonists.) 

Reigning Cats and Dogs is surprisingly dark. Don't let the easy pastels and quaint Victorian garb depicted on the book's cover deceive you. The early portions of the novel establish a London-like City that is rife with prostitution, sexual abuse, poverty, and crime. Reinventing the Ripper's crimes in Whitechapel as a supernatural killer at work in Black Church, Lee dwells on how our past traumas inform the horrors of the present. The end is mystical, inward, and requires some work on the reader's part. 

If you find a copy, dusty perhaps on some second-hand bookseller's shelf, make an effort to get it to come home with you.

If you haven't read anything by Tanith Lee, you could always start with her award-winning story "The Gorgon," which can be read here for free.