“The Gorgon”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Gorgon”, Tanith Lee, 1982.

The narrator – at least at the beginning of the story – is vacationing and writing on the Greek island of Daphaeu. He becomes intrigued by another, unusually verdant, island just a quarter of a mile offshore. He would like to visit it and learn more about it, but none of the islanders will answer his questions or take him over, not even for a great sum of money. 

Finally, one, miming the mythical face, tells him a gorgon lives on the island. 

The narrator swims over. 

He comes across a European style house, a faun statue (though only from the 1920s), and beautiful carvings in a green marble that shines at dusk. There is also a satyr like figure (actually, just an old man), and a woman. 

The narrator is intrigued by her, her surroundings, her clothes (an inheritance from her mother since she says she has no money), and, of course, the plastic mask she wears. He asks to stay and talk with her. She is blonde, somewhat imperious, and notes his Greek is good, but she knows English and ten other languages. 

He is served a lunch with wine, falls asleep, and then wakes up and dines with the woman.

However, the woman, whose mask has no slot for her mouth, will not dine with him. 

The narrator does not trust her (and thinks of Circe and the poisoned dinner she served sand raises, not seriously, the possibility of vampirism) but is “somewhat in love with her”. 

(Spoilers ahead)

Drunk with more wine at supper, he asks why she wears the mask and finally goads her into taking it off. Her face has

“eyes bursting from the head, the jaw rigidly outthrust, the tendons in the neck straining, the mouth in the grimace of a frozen, agonized scream, the teeth visible, the tongue slightly protruding”.

It is the gorgon face of mythology. “You have seen,” she says with a “nuance of humor”. She explains that, when she was very young, she had a “form of fit or strike”. “Various nerve centers were paralyzed”. To cure the condition required an impossible operation on her brain. She underwent therapy to learn to talk and eat. The mask was made in Athens. She only eats alone and bids him good night. 

The next day, the narrator returns to Dapheau and leaves Greece. 

He compares what happens to him next to a loss of religious faith or the death of a spouse. 

He ponders the Medusa:

so appalling to the eyes and, more significantly, to the brooding aesthetic spirit that lives in man that she too was shunned and hated and slain by a murderer who would observe her only in a polished surface. 

And he also ponders the woman underneath the mask, what her true personality is:

And yet, now and then, I hear that voice of hers, I hear the way she spoke to me. I know now what I heard in her voice, which had neither pain nor shame in it, nor pleading, nor whining, nor even a hint of the tragedy—the Greek tragedy—of her life. And what I heard was not dignity either, or acceptance, or nobleness. It was contempt. She despised me. She despised all of us who live without her odds, who struggle with our small struggles, incomparable to hers. ‘Your Greek is very good,’ she said to me with the patronage of one who is multilingual. And in that same disdain she says over and over to me: ‘That you live is very good.’ Compared to her life, her existence, her multilingual endurance, what are my life or my ambitions worth? Or anything.

And, the narrator says, this is the last story he will write.  The myth of Medusa is perfectly accurate. She has turned him into stone, a metaphorical “inescapable disease”.  Earlier in the story, the narrator noted the futility of plans if, say, aliens invaded. We cannot prepare for such things, only must endure them.

Tanith does an unusual thing in this story. She takes the famous myth of the gorgons whose stares petrify, rationalizes it, but yet still preserves its mythological effects albeit in a symbolic way.

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