Young People Read Old SFF

The Gorgon

Tanith Lee

Young People Read Old SFF

15 Feb, 2018

Tanith Lee’s career spanned six decades and genres from mystery to horror, from science fiction to fantasy. Over the course of her career, she published over ninety books, some of which I have reviewed, and won or was nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, the Balrog, the World Fantasy, the British Fantasy Award, the Locus, among others. Surely somewhere in her vast body of work is something young readers would like. 

Readers suggested either The Gorgon or Red as Blood and since I couldn’t locate copies of the latter, I went with the first. World Fantasy Award jurors liked it enough to give it the best short story WFA in 1983. What will my Young Readers think of it?

I really enjoyed this story. It’s intriguing and mysterious and reminded me of a bit of mysteries that I read as a child in which the tension is just below the surface, spurring you on to what will hopefully be an unexpected conclusion. If someone told me there was a gorgon out on an island just out of reach I would want to find out the truth the, too. And so Tanith Lee mirrors the story of Medusa, twisting and turning it to suit a more modern version of the myth. I loved the way that Lee characterized the gorgon by keeping her coolly indifferent to the interloping narrator. She reveals only what she wants to about herself and on her terms, even though the narrator gets so drunk he can’t help but to finally ask. somewhat rudely. Lee even makes a reference to Greta Garbo, which I love as a fan of old films and classic Hollywood actresses and, of course, of Garbo’s own famous I want to be alone” line. Stories like this one that straddle the real” world with elements of the fantastic are my favorite, perhaps because they are easy for me to imagine and attach a meaning to. The ultimate meaning of this story doesn’t come easy, though, and the author admits that it’s not necessarily supposed to in the linked author spotlight about her. I am still thinking about the final two lines of the story: What they say about the gorgon is true. She has turned me to stone.” Stone because he saw the truth, his own privilege and inadequacies reflected back to himself? Of course the reader wonders (or, at least I do) if he was changed by the experience and what he might do with his newfound knowledge back on Daphaeu. I, for one, am glad to have discovered this author now and looking forward to reading more of her work.


For some reason for the first half of the story I pictured the narrator as female. The whole thing could probably have been done without revealing the gender of the narrator and not lost anything. Speaking of the narrator, they do not respond well to alcohol. They should probably keep an eye on that if they become that belligerent and rude after a few glasses.

The island itself was lushly described and I would love to visit. It reminds me of places I have been, deep in a forest.

I kept waiting for the hostess to be revealed as a sorceress or something great and terrible. Turns out it is just a sad tale of knee-jerk reactions to medical conditions and someone building their entire life into a monument to their disfigurement rather than just getting on with it. I suppose there is an attractiveness to going all-in on the Phantom of the Opera dramatics, rather than just living a more normal life with a constant low-level sting from reactions to your face.

I can only posit that the narrator’s loss of motivation or ability to write comes from shame at having been such a jerk.


This story seemed as if it was written in an earlier time than when it was published. It reminded me of the Modernists: living in their heads and over-romanticizing the past and the un-industrialized places of the world. (Note: I was not a fan of studying Modernist literature. It was just too boringly languidly angsty for me — too much literature from rich layabout ne’er do wells.)If I had run across this story in a literature class, I wouldn’t be surprised. It almost begs to be picked apart for use of literary device and historical/mythological references. If I had discovered this story on my own, I would not have classified it as genre writing — not sci-fi, fantasy or horror. Perhaps a woman with an unpleasing face is not so horrible to me. And nowadays, isolation and loneliness is so everyday that it’s lost its fantastical and horrific edge.That said, I did enjoy the descriptions of the islands. They were almost characters in themselves — indeed, I wish the characters were as mysterious and complex as the setting. One particularly good line was that Each age imposes its own on the past.” It brings to mind how different eras of movies and television put on classic literature. Or how different eras impose oddly contemporary fashions and technology into science fiction claiming to be in a distant time period.And I suppose I’m doing the same while reading these stories: I’m imposing my own personal overlay onto the past.


By the end of this story I was really hoping that she was a gorgon, so the annoying (and racist) narrator could be turned to stone and we’d be done with him.

This story turned out to be horror after all, but just the horror of how ableist the whole thing is. The disabled woman doesn’t even get to have a name other than to compare her to Greek horrors, and is apparently isolated on her island because everyone is terrified of her looks. And the narrator guy, after pushing past her set boundaries after she was nice to him, seems to conclude that he’s been damaged by just seeing her without a mask?

I suppose this holds up well in the sense that the setting doesn’t seem to particularly date it. But this is not a story I want to read.