“Clockatrice”

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

Review: “Clockatrice”, Tanith Lee, 2009.

There’s a lot of Tanith Lee to be read, and I have read little. But I’ve never found her work disappointing, and this is no exception. The rich details of the story is going to be stripped out of the following description.

The story starts out talking about the death of a beautiful 16-year-old girl, Diana. She dies between midnight and one AM. That’s covered in the opening three-line paragraph.

Then we get a description of the gardens of Sessonby, England. In 1590, Queen Elizabeth even visited it. It had topiaries and giant astrolabes and magical creatures, wolfish foxes and snakes with enameled skins, “creatures of sorcery and impulse’. At its center is a giant sundial, perhaps designed by John Dee. Outside the garden are huge pines. Diana’s nurse told her a story about how a stag was killed nearby and a pine tree planted out of its body. 

Diana is in the garden for an assignation with her fiance, Robert. But he doesn’t show up. 

Out of the shadows comes a creature covered in scales that looks like chainmail and accompanied by the stench of poultry. It hisses and Diana feels herself turned to stone. 

The story then shifts to the present time with our protagonist, Dru, a freelance photographer. She is talking to Robert Trenchall, a handsome musician and actor. The grounds of Sessonby have been in his family for a long time. However, to pay the taxes and upkeep, he has had to have tours and events held at the gardens after he inherited them from his famous aunt. 

Dru asks Robert if he believes the story of Diana being turned to stone. He counters by asking her if she believes it. She says she does, and Robert responds by saying “Christ”. She playfully responds that Christ can undo any evil spell. Is Robert expecting him?

She reminds him that the night before, during a party with Robert’s actor friends, he said they could see Diana’s statue. He responds that nobody took him up on the offer. It was raining, and nobody wanted to leave. Instead, Robert then told the story of Diana’s death in 1594. 

But it’s a bright morning now. Dru sweetly asks if she should go to Hell then. Robert agrees to take her to the statue. The sky over the garden though, seems dark, as if viewed through polarized glass. The once immaculate hedges are in need of upkeep. The astrolabes and sundial are gone.

The statue is there, though, and amazingly detailed. Even the minute aspects of a moth’s wings on Diana’s head are captured though Dru is curious, since the clothes seem accurate for the time, why Diana has no ruff. Dru also wonders about the mechanics of being petrified. Why are Diana’s clothes also stone? They weren’t made out of living or recently living matter. Dru takes some pictures.

That night, Robert invites Dru to dinner, basically to seduce her.  (He claims he picked the wine just because he thought she would like it). Robert says he imagines Dru will be working her pictures up to sell. She says no, she can’t afford the “estate fees” Sessonby would charge. He says that, in other words, she’ll modify her pictures “then rip us off”. She denies that, calling him “Mr. Tenchall”. He insists on being called Robert and says of course she will. All the writers and photographers and artists who come to Sessonby do that. He does it when visiting other places. He doesn’t care if she does that. 

Then he asks her what she really thinks after seeing Diana’s statue. She thinks the story of Diana’s death could be true. “Peculiar stuff happens all the time.” She asks if, the first time he heard the story, he wasn’t astounded. 

His aunt first told the story, and it scared him. She implied that a cockatrice egg, perhaps obtained from the Middle East, was somehow caught up in the pine tree planted in the stag’s body. The cockatrice hatched from its egg the night Diana died. Dru again brings up the point about why Diana’s clothes petrified. Actually, he says, they weren’t. They were found ripped around the statue. The stone was carved, for the sake of modesty, to give it clothes, but her ruff was left off. The cockatrice was never found. 

Dru asksed why, the night before, he didn’t mention that detail. Because his friends were drunk, and it’s a creepy story. Robert, in fact, does believe the story. The two then go have sex. 

The next morning Robert’s steady girlfriend, Zuzi, shows up unexpectedly. To conceal their assassignation, Robert sends Dru packing. 

We then get back to Diana’s story and that of another Robert, her fiance, Robert Southurst. He was with his mistress who holds him in her grasp of “greed and menace”. Robert was having sex with another woman when Diana was turned to stone. 

Robert married another woman whom he came to hate and had a bunch of clever automata bult.  The strangest and largest was the “Grete Clocke”, a huge clock from which, at the stroke of midnight, an almost life-sized figure that looks a lot like Diana (who wasn’t even five feet tall at the time of her death) emerges, and the clock stops. The clock rested on two large “Crowing Cocks”, cockatrice-like figures. They had been heard to hiss. One servant girl claimed their heads moved one night to glare at her. 

Three nights before his death at age 71, Robert is in bed when a panel opens in a tapestried wall and out emerges the figure of Diana as she was in life, her clothes in tatters. She asks why he never met her that night. He claims not to even know what night she is talking about. She reminds him they were to meet. Robert then claims they did.  She then relates what it was like to see “the red back of his throat, like the stenchy gape of Hell” of the cockatrice. Diana raises her arms in supplication. Robert cries “Poor girl” and weeps. Diana vanishes. Robert tries to convince himself it was all a dream, but the knows it wasn’t. 

A secret Catholic, he confesses to a priest, who wrote it the story down. But the record was lost when the chapel with that record was burned in Cromwell’s reign. The Grete Clock no longer exists either, destroyed in a 1706 fire.

Dru feels annoyed at Robert and his ‘truly bloody awful manners” with both her and his American girlfriend. 

She decides to create something out of her visit to Sessonby. With the help of her assistants, she creates a mockup of the Grete Clocke complete with the cockatrices. She doubts such a clock ever existed, but she likes the story. She plans to photograph the mockup to include it with an altered version of the Diana story. 

Diana becomes Susan, wife of the villainous Francis Rustember. Francis sends Susan to the garden where she is to be murdered by two assassins. The cockatrices there are “roused by the aura of terror and sadism”, and assassins and Susan is turned to stone. Several years later, Susan steps out of the “whirling vortex” of the face of the Grete Clocke and confronts Francis. She has been imbued with the power of the cockatrice and says “Your heart is already like a stone . . . So be it, then.” The next morning Francis is found dead without a mark on his body. His corpse is oddly heavy. When it is cut open, his heart is found to be mad of granite. 

(Spoilers ahead)

Then, one night, Dru’s version of the Grete Clock comes to life. She hears hissing and, terrified, sees the cockatrices and the clock resting on them, emerge from her studio. They blow out her window and fly off. 

Her assistants are not pleased, thinking that she got drunk or had a party, and destroyed the window and clock though they do wonder why it’s not on the ground. She tells them to forget it and won’t tell them what she saw. 

A week later, Dru, in a wine bar, happens to see a newspaper story about her Robert. He had a very public argument with his live in girlfriend. She left for London after throwing champagne on him. Robert was found dead next morning with no signs of violence or drug use.  What the newspaper doesn’t say is that his body was very rigid as if filled with cement or made of stone. 

The story then jumps ahead three years with Dru and her new lover. He is horrified she is missing a little toe. She says a clock fell on it. What actually happened, though, is that the glance of the cockatrices petrified and it fell off, a “token payment” collected by them. She was sure she would be entirely petrified. When she staggered back to bed after the cockatrices flew off, she didn’t even notice the missing toe until she curiously limped to the bathroom the next morning.  She later found the stone toe under her pillows and kept it. It is a bit of an echo of Robert telling her, earlier, “You’re a hard lady, hard as stone.”

This tale strikes me as mainly a story on the power of the artistic imagination. Out of just her imagination, Dru recreates the cockatrices and clock after hearing the story of the Grete Clocke from Robert.

Is this a tale of revenge? Perhaps unconsciously. Robert doesn’t seem enough of a cad to deserve his fate, and Dru never planned to have sex with him. But then Diana seems to somewhat unreasonably want her Robert dead just because he didn’t share her fate. So you can say this is also a story of spurned women taking revenge on feckless lovers. But are the women just coincidental conduits for supernatural forces as manifested by the cockatrices? Whatever the case, the story, like most good weird stories, isn’t hurt by ambiguity and lingering questions.

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