Dionysos as a Vampire: Tanith Lee’s The Blood of Roses by Craig Gidney

The Blood of Roses Volumes 1 & 2

The Blood of Roses, Tanith Lee’s obscure masterpiece, is back in print in two gorgeous editions put out by Immanion Press. Originally only published in Great Britain, it had a small print run before vanishing into the thin air of out-of-print-books. Lovers of Lee’s Gothic mode will find a feast of decadent imagery, grotesque character studies and fever dream-logic plots. It is filled with scenes of terrifying beauty and bone-chilling horror. The prose is mesmerizing; the word-paintings remind one of Gaudi’s architecture or wild paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

It’s an epic (700+pages) fantasy novel (influenced more by Peake’s Gormenghast series than Tolkien) about vampirism, religious persecution and ultimately, divinity.

The Greek god of the vine was one of Tanith Lee’s ongoing obsessions. She wrote:

Often misunderstood, Dionysos is far more than a wine deity. He is the Breaker of chains, who rescues not only the flesh but the heart and spirit from too much of worldly regulations and duties. He is a god of joy and freedom. Any uncultivated tangled and primal woodland is very much his domain.

The Blood of Roses is Lee’s ode to Dionysos, who resides in the character of Magister Anjelen, and it takes place in a medieval alternate world dominated by vast primeval forests. The old religion is one of nature worship, and joyous abandon, built around a massive World Tree. Another conquering religion, a particularly brutal form of Christianity, comes, and destroys this sacred treeand places a tortured martyr on the tree and makes the pagan worship forbidden. However, just as in our own world, pagan worship lives, appropriated by major religion. In this world, the pagan rites live in the shadow of Christerium, feeding upon symbols and myths of that dominant religion. It is a novel very much concerned with religion, in all its manifestations, from the oppressive to the ecstatic.

Dionysian characters abound in Lee’s oeuvre, perhaps most notably in the trickster-like Azhrarn, Lord of Night and Wickedness in her Flat Earth sequence. Anjelen is more serious than that immortal demon lord, though. He uses the tools of Christianity to resurrect the old religion.

His church and monastery offer sanctuary to the men and women who suffer under the yoke of the relentless patriarchal and cruel feudal world Lee has crafted. He is but one character in the book, which goes back and forth through time. A mosaic of lives are born and reborn in the pages—the maligned deformed son of a lord, Mechail; the ethereal but distant Anillia—all are drawn to the mysterious Anjelen and transformed by him.

The Blood of Roses is more than a vampire novel. Lee uses the theme of vampirism and blood-rites to explore mythology, eschatology and divinity. It might best be described as a visionary vampire fantasy, as Vampirism and its attendant rituals are synonymous with transcendent spiritual ecstasy. It is also some of the darkest fiction Lee has ever written. If an earlier vampire novel Vivia was “grim dark,” this one is positively nihilistic. Mechail and Annillia’s stories are filled with abuse, some of it sexual in nature. This darkness is balanced out by the moments of weird, transcendent beauty. Vampires are associated with moths, angels and gossamer-nymph-like ghosts.

The Blood of Roses was written at the height of Tanith Lee’s authorial powers. I contend that if it had been given the proper push, it would have been an award winner. Thanks to ImmanionPress and Storm Constantine, this novel will find a new and wider audience.

Craig Gidney, July 2020

Craig Laurance Gidney
is the author of the Lambda Literary Award nominated books Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories, Skin Deep Magic, and A Spectral Hue, numerous short stories and the award-winning young adult novel Bereft. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he daily resists against the current regime.

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