by Molly Tanzer
248 pages, Lazy Fascist Press
Review by S.P. Miskowski
My first encounter with Molly Tanzer’s delightful fiction occurred at the 2011 World Horror Convention, where Tanzer read an excerpt from "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins." This cleverly cockeyed story of inappropriate devotion between 18th century aristocratic siblings first appeared in the Innsmouth Free Press anthology Historical Lovecraft. It was soon reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books). Around the same time Cameron Pierce at Lazy Fascist Press invited Tanzer to turn the growing history of one peculiar family into a book. The result is A Pretty Mouth, and I haven’t had this much pure, crazy fun reading a work of fiction in a long time.
For anyone looking for a good read, this is it. Tanzer knows how to tell a tale. The pacing is expert and the characters are immediately engaging. A Pretty Mouth is definitely a page-turner. Yet each period Tanzer recreates is specific and wildly vivid. Nothing is tossed off. The underlying foundation for the book is a solid grasp of history, language, and philosophy. So the more you know of British history and the more classics you have read, the more fun you will have.
The book is comprised of four short stories and a novella. Each tale is set in a different era and may be read and enjoyed separately. Together they form a substantial arc, revealing hundreds of years of strange (often supernaturally strange) behavior among the highborn Calipashes. The mysterious origin of the family curse is withheld until the last story, creating dramatic suspense while the author traces several generations in reverse chronological order.
"A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs" takes place in Edwardian England at the Marine Vivarium, a resort hotel catering to the whims of the aristocracy. There Alastair Fitzroy, the twenty-seventh Lord Calipash, frets over the impending demise of his family’s estate and wonders how to get his sister to stop languishing all day in her bath. The Lord Calipash is at a loss until he bumps into his old school chum Bertie Wooster. It seems Bertie’s valet Jeeves is a wizard at solving problems.
The audacity of introducing these characters to assist in a Wodehouse-worthy situation is matched perfectly by Tanzer’s facility with prose style. The entire story is recounted by Jeeves as an entry in the Club Book of the Junior Ganymede Club for Gentlemen’s Personal Gentlemen. The language and historical references could pass for original Wodehouse, if not for the aquatic creature in a tank in the basement, and the amphibious inclinations of Lady Alethea in the bathtub. The conclusion is both fitting and hilarious.
"The Hour of the Tortoise" takes us on a Victorian Gothic journey. If the author has missed a theme from that privately kinky, publicly repressed era I don’t know what it might be. Our heroine Chelone travels by train to her former home in the country, to visit her dying patron, a crusty old man to whom she may or may not be related by blood. Chelone was banished from the estate years ago and eventually earned her meager living by writing tales of erotic intrigue for a popular though disreputable magazine. Throughout the story Chelone weaves her Gothic fiction until the fate of our heroine and hers become inextricably entwined.
This darkly romantic story is worthy of a Bronte, except for the naughty bits written by our heroine for her demanding editor. The naughty bits are hugely entertaining, by the way. The language, setting, and characterization are flawless; all contribute to a keen portrait of an intellectual woman undone by patriarchal power. The madwoman in the attic has nothing on our fair Chelone.
In "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins," Tanzer ranges over the ideas and influences shaping society during the Seven Years’ War. In Devonshire the ancestral home of the Lords Calipash sprawls across the countryside, dominating the landscape while reflecting a mania for architectural and garden design. Nothing is too ornate or superfluous to be considered worthwhile. The style of Tanzer’s prose in this section would please Henry Fielding, and readers are frequently reminded that the shocking events presented are intended purely as an example of unacceptable behavior. In other words, it is a romp and it is delicious fun.
For the novella "A Pretty Mouth" and the short story "Damnatio Memoriae" the author mixes anachronistic language with historically accurate detail and strikes a perfect balance. "A Pretty Mouth" takes place at Wadham College, Oxford in the 17th century. The boys who attend the prestigious institution are typical of their age and degree of privilege. Their nefarious adventures will strike a chord with readers fond of stories about school days. But this magical tale is a far cry from the idealized world of Harry Potter and his little chums. These boys woo and taunt and brutalize one another. Their secret experiments are matters of life and death–and sex. In a stunning reversal we catch a glimpse of the vast gulf between genders in an era when girls were expected to sew and sing while boys studied Greek and Latin and grew up to rule the world.
Finally, "Damnatio Memoriae" takes us to the shores of Britannia circa 40 A.D., where our hero Petronius stumbles through an unwanted trek led by a female barbarian. Along the way we meet the ideal Roman soldier, who turns out to be an ancestor to all of the Lords Calipash we have encountered in the previous stories. To find out where that trek leads and how the dashing and courageous Roman acquires the family curse, you will have to read the book. Lucky you!
For reviewing purposes I requested and received an advance reading copy of A Pretty Mouth from the publisher, Lazy Fascist Press.