Well, after seeing several horror fiction websites mention Tanith Lee’s novels over the years, I’ve been meaning to read one of them. But, when I looked online for second-hand copies, they often seemed to be slightly on the pricer side of things. So, when I saw that a second-hand copy of Lee’s 1980 fantasy novel “Kill The Dead” was going cheap, I decided to check it out. And I’m so glad that I did 🙂
So, let’s take a look at “Kill The Dead”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (but I’ll avoid major ones).
This is the 1990 Legend (UK) paperback edition of “Kill The Dead” that I read.
The novel begins in the leaning tower of a decaying house beside a mountain road. A young woman called Ciddey Soban stares out of a window and sees a mysterious man in a dark cloak walking along the road. Panicked, she warns her sister – Cilny – to hide.
The man on the road, Parl Dro, is a famous exorcist who is searching for the legendary city of the dead, Ghyste Mortua. But, when he nears the house, he senses something. So, he enters the garden to investigate. Ciddey rushes out of the door with a knife and tries to threaten him. More amused than frightened, Parl leaves with a promise to return.
In a nearby inn, the star-struck locals are more than happy to tell Parl all of the gossip about the Soban family. Yet, they are disappointed that Parl doesn’t want to do anything about the ghost they suspect lives with Ciddey. On his way to bed, Parl plays a sneaky practical joke on a musician called Myal who tries to pick his pocket.
The next morning, Parl climbs a nearby hill and watches the villagers throw stones at Ciddey’s house. To Parl’s surprise, Myal joins him on the hill to remonstrate about the fact that the purse he’d stolen contained nothing but stones. The two of them talk for a while and then go their separate ways, both of which lead towards Ciddey’s house…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is excellent 🙂 Once you get used to Lee’s writing style, you will be rewarded with an enchantingly atmospheric, gloomily gothic and beautifully bittersweet tale that will draw you in and leave you tearful and astonished when it is over. Seriously, this novel is astonishingly good. Imagine a mixture between an Alice Hoffman novel, a 19th century ghost story and an episode of “Game Of Thrones” – and this should give you some idea what to expect.
Interestingly, it’s a bit difficult to categorise this novel by genre. It has elements of a traditional ghost story/horror story, elements of gothic fiction, elements of dark fantasy and elements of “grimdark” fantasy. It’s a tale that is hauntingly tragic, gloomily morose and bitterly bleak and yet it also has a heart and soul to it that you might not expect. Despite the fantastical trappings, this is very much a human story about loneliness, sorrow, redemption, memory, genius, self-loathing and psychology.
The novel’s fantasy elements are fairly interesting. In essence, the novel only really has one fantastical element – ghosts. But, by focusing on the mechanics of how ghosts are created and dispelled, this novel has an intensity to it that stories with lots of different fantasy elements don’t really have. Seriously, by just using this one fantastical thing as the main focus of the story, Lee gives the novel much more depth than you might expect. Not to mention that the novel’s ghost-based elements also contain some hints of vampire fiction too 🙂
The novel’s medieval-like settings are really atmospheric too. With the exception of one mystical location (Ghyste Mortua), none of the other locations are named. They are just small villages, crumbling houses, desolate plains etc… and, yet, rather than making these locations seem generic, this just adds realism and atmosphere to the story. In addition to lots of well-written descriptions, the fact that these rural locations are so ordinary that they aren’t even named really helps to add emphasis to the “long journey” theme and bleak atmosphere of the novel too.
In terms of the characters, this novel is exquisite. Not only is the begrudging friendship between the terse, mysterious and morose ghost-hunter Parl Dro and the optimistic, but tragic, musician/thief Myal Lemayal a huge part of what makes this novel so interesting, but both characters get loads of characterisation too 🙂
In addition to this, the novel’s antagonist – Ciddey Soban – comes across as a very chilling, yet thoroughly realistic and tragic, character too. Seriously, the main characters in this novel are some of the most well-written that I’ve ever seen.
And not only that, even the briefly-glimpsed/described background characters seem intriguing and real too. Seriously, the characterisation in this book is so good that it can even make you care very deeply about an inanimate musical instrument. Yes, a musical instrument is a character in this book – and it works!
In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is utterly brilliant… when you get used to it. In short, the novel is written in a highly elaborate and ultra-formal 19th century-like style which will probably seem “overwritten” at first.
It is the kind of book that casually uses phrases like “such a dwelling betokened the proximity of the village” and even taught me a new word (“concupiscence”) too. But, Lee uses this style for a good reason. Not only does it add to the historical/fantastical atmosphere of the story, but it also gives everything in the story a level of atmosphere and depth that might catch you by surprise.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really interesting. At a gloriously efficient 172 pages, this novel is that wonderfully rare thing – a short medieval fantasy novel 🙂 Due to the highly formal and detailed writing style, this novel is very much on the slow-paced side of things. But, once you’ve got to know the characters and immersed yourself in the setting, the story becomes so compelling that the fact that it moves slowly just means that you have more time to enjoy it 🙂
As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Thanks to the vaguely medieval setting, the elaborate 19th century-style narration and the really well-written characters, this novel is timeless.
All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. Yes, it might take you a while to get used to the writing style, but it is well worth putting in the effort. This novel is an atmospheric, poignant and compelling gothic/dark/grimdark fantasy story that is filled with some of the best characters you’ll ever see. Plus, it is a short fantasy novel too 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.