More of my catch up on some of the recent weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Yellow and Red”, Tanith Lee, 1998.
While I wouldn’t say this is a great story, it’s an enjoyable one.
This is one of those epistolary stories. Mostly it’s told through the journal entries of Gordon Martyce.
He’s recently come into an inheritance, the country home of his uncle. His girlfriend of five years, Lucy, is excited by this. It’s a chance to do all kinds of decorating.
Gordon’s not so sure. He likes living in his London apartment. Still, he goes to take a look, alone.
When Gordon arrives, he sees a gloomy house; the roof in some disrepair, surrounded by oaks.
The first ominous note is when Gordon can’t quite make out the odd cap on his grandfather’s windvane, “some Oriental animal deity” which he also was never able to see in photographs of the house.
And it doesn’t take long, less than a single night, for Gordon to decide he’s selling the place.
The day after arriving, he talks to his uncle’s old housekeeper, Mrs. Gold, who has offered to take care of him during his visit.
Gordon doesn’t really know much about his grandfather, who also lived in this house. He was a somewhat famous archaeologist. He takes a quick look through some of his grandfather’s notes on the excavations in the East of some tomb.
Mrs. Gold tells Gordon that his aunt was often ill, but no cause was ever found. Gordon’s cousins – two boys and a girl – died in the house as did their mother and father. However, if it was something in the house, none of the servants were affected says Mrs. Gold.
Going through some old black and white photographs to save a few for his father, Gordon, who has taken to drinking more than usual due to the oppressive atmosphere in the house, spills some whiskey on a few.
They discolor in odd ways. Yellow and red marks that almost look like some horrible yellow combination of toad and slug with red eyes, show up in the affected photographs. They are disturbing, but Gordon writes them off as pareidolia.
The next day, after a sleepless night wishing he was home, Gordon meets with the estate agent. The agent suggests that, if he wants to know anything about the house, he seek out the local vicar, Reverend Dale.
Just to put his mind at ease in re the photos, Gordon decides on an experiment. He completely douses some more photographs in whiskey. We don’t hear the results right away, just go to the next day’s journal entry which covers the meeting with Reverend Dale.
Dale asks Gordon if he is well. Gordon just replies he hasn’t slept well. People often don’t sleep well in that house says Dale. “In what way?” asks Gordon.
Dale tells him the Martyce family has been inclined to insomnia in that house, but not the servants. And he goes on about the family’s illness. Gordon’s grandfather may have lived to be almost 80, but Gordon’s uncle died when only 62, his aunt when she was just 50 after a long illness. The house is not healthy for his family.
When asked for an explanation, Dale gravely says, even though he is a clergyman, he has no “esoteric conclusions”; he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he does believe in “influences”.
Gordon’s grandfather was never sick into his sixties, Martyce’s grandfather, aunt, and uncle only succumbed to the mercy of death in their adulthood. Their children died young.
The local doctor noted some symptoms: inertia, low pulse, vertigo, headache, and an inclination not to eat (which Gordon is already showing). Their ultimate cause of death was not explained.
Dale is glad to hear that he’s leaving that night and sees no problem with Gordon selling the house. It only seems to affect his family. Gordon, asks, half humorously, if his family is cursed. Dale suspects, since the trouble started three years after Gordon’s grandfather returned from the East, that the camera, when taking pictures inside a tomb, captured something “not human or corporeal. Some sort of spirit.” Gordon bids Dale goodbye.
And then we learn the truth about Gordon’s experiment with the photos. The yellow and red
figure showed up in them. One even seemed to show the figure crawling on one of his cousins.
Gordon’s last entry is “Thank God I have got away.” But he doesn’t.
The final section of the story is from Lucy.
We hear that Gordon wouldn’t discuss his trip.
He went out every night with Lucy. He even gave Lucy flowers for the first time. She thinks he’s going to propose.
Then, when they went out for her birthday, the manager of the restaurant offered to take a picture of them, and Gordon got very angry. Lucy thought it was because the manager suggested they were engaged. It was the last night she saw Gordon after he dropped her off.
She did talk to him just once more over the phone about a week later. He said he was going to come by and collect the photos from that evening. Lucy doesn’t want to give them up because most of the pictures on the roll of film are of her family.
A day later a policeman comes by and tells him that Gordon died by suicide, throwing himself in front of a train.
Lucy goes to Gordon’s apartment to collect some personal things. She sees some photos, smelling of whiskey (she’s noted he drank more in his final days). They are of the pictures of their final night together. (It’s not quite explained how Gordon ended up with them. Did Lucy mail the film to Gordon?)
She notices that the one of Gordon has a “horrible big red and yellowish mark on the picture”. The implication is that Gordon realized the spirit, the curse, had already attached itself to him, and that drove him to suicide.
The final sentence has Lucy describing that photo:
And the oddest part of all, it was in just this place that it looked as if it was sitting square on Gordon’s shoulders, with its tail coming down his collar, and its arm-things round his throat, and its face pressed close to his, as if it loved him and would never let go.
It’s an interesting final interpretation of what the spirit is up to. Is it really expressing some fatal perversion of love?
Gordon is not particularly likable. In the first entry of his journey, we hear a bit about his relationship with Lucy. Supposedly he hasn’t given up on the idea of a family with her and marrying her. (Living together and having an illegitimate child is not really an option given that this story takes place in the interwar years in England.) Yet, at the story’s end, in Lucy’s letter, we learn that she has been desperately waiting for his proposal of marriage. He’s snarky about the housekeeper – though not to her face – and notes her mild malapropisms. He has little interest in his paternal grandfather’s career as a noted archaeologist.
In their introductory notes, the VanderMeers suggest this story is a homage to M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes”. I’ve read that story and they might have a point. In that story, the horror is to be found in ancient manuscripts and books. In Lee’s story, it’s found in photographs.