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A Pretty Mouth is a collection of four short stories and one novella on a supernatural theme: eldritch horrors and dark sorceries abound here, and Tanzer is evidently following in the footsteps of H. P. Lovecraft. The stories are presented in reverse chronological order, the first, "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs" taking place in an English seaside town in the 1920s, while "The Hour of the Tortoise" and "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" take place in the same stately home in the Victorian age and the late eighteenth century respectively. "A Pretty Mouth," the novella that gives the collection its title, takes place in Wadham College, Oxford in 1660, on the cusp of the Restoration of the monarchy, while the last of the stories, "Damnatio Memoriae," goes all the way back to Roman times.

Some of these places and times are evoked more effectively than others; sadly, none of them are ever made truly vivid or believable. There are two distinct traps for the writer of historical fiction. On the one hand, she can do too little research and make elementary errors, which results in a setting that feels unreal. On the other hand, she can show off a little too ostentatiously about the research that she has done, as if wanting to make sure all of it gets used whether it's relevant to the story or not, which results in a choppy, stop-start narration as the story is frequently interrupted so that the narrative or characters can mention facts the author wants the reader to know that she knows. Unfortunately, these traps are not mutually exclusive. There's nothing to prevent an author from falling into both of them at the same time, and that's precisely what happens to Tanzer here, over and over again. It doesn't help that she's dealing with an unfamiliar country as well as a set of long-gone time periods. A number of her historical errors could have been made by any author, but a British author would be less likely to assume that Wadham College, Oxford had "semesters" or "academic advisers" in 1660 (since it doesn't have them now), or that there might be "taffy shops" or "ice-cream parlors" to be seen in an English seaside town in the 1920s.

With the first story, Tanzer set herself a high bar to clear by deciding to try for a Wodehouse pastiche—indeed, "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs" is effectively Wodehouse fanfiction, since it features both Jeeves and (briefly) Bertie Wooster, and the Junior Ganymede Club. This is an odd decision for two reasons. First, Wodehouse's virtuoso wit is highly distinctive and almost impossible to match, and the presence of Wodehouse's own characters only makes it all the clearer that Tanzer's skill is not up to the job. Second, there is really no need for Jeeves to be in this story at all, as opposed to some original manservant character. The role he plays does not require any particular brilliance or ingenuity, and it seems rather a waste to introduce Jeeves into a story and then fail to use his established skills and characteristics.

Those reservations aside, the story serves reasonably well as both a standalone story in the Lovecraftian mode and as an introduction to the common thread tying this collection together: the macabre and sinister Calipash family, English aristocrats with a penchant for the dark arts and a tendency to produce pairs of sinister opposite-sex twins every few generations.

The second story, "The Hour of the Tortoise," relies as much on pastiche as the first does, if not more so. In this case the source Tanzer is pastiching is pseudonymous Victorian erotica of the kind published in The Pearl, which is probably less well-known than the works of P. G. Wodehouse, and certainly less well-crafted. Tanzer's skill at imitating others' styles unfortunately outpaces her characterization here. The heroine, Chelone, is little more than a stereotype, the kind of anachronistically spunky proto-feminist young woman found frequently in historical novels, and the fact that she writes pornographic stories for a living gives Tanzer a chance to imitate the voice of the Victorian eroticist. She manages this with aplomb and enthusiasm—a little too much enthusiasm, if anything, for the imaginary erotic interludes are frequent, and do not acquire a purpose to justify their presence until the very end. A great deal of the dialog is both predictable and faintly unreal, with the air of having been copied from a copy of a copy:

Sister, do think—if she had not been discovered perusing the Private Library, inducing the anger that made our loathsome brother wish to destroy it, then we never would have thought to create a Guardian to protect our family legacy from future well-meaning fools! Ha! (p. 55)

It is unlikely that any human being has ever spoken like this in real life. A moment later, the same character remarks "Rather Gothic, really," which may be intended as a mitigation for the unlikeliness of the dialog; sadly, this is too little, too late. It is not very long, but "The Hour of the Tortoise" still manages to overstay its welcome.

"The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" is by far the most successful story of the collection. It is here that the Lovecraftian influence becomes most explicit, as the titular twins speak the R'lyehian language and worship an ancient sea monster. It is still something of a pastiche, this time of the Gothic novel, but it is more consistent in its tone than the others, and perhaps for that reason it succeeds in creating a real sense of menace. Here, for instance, the well-named Mr Villein steals the newborn twins away from their wet-nurse:

Though an infant's wail would rouse her in an instant, footfalls masked by thunder were too subtle for her country-bred ear, and thus she did not observe the solitary figure that stole silently into the nursery in the wee hours of that morning. For only a few moments did the individual linger, knowing well how restive infants can be in their first hours of life. By the eldritch glow of a lightning strike, Mr. Villein uncorked a phial containing the blood of the two-headed kid now buried, and he smeared upon both of those rosy foreheads an unholy mark, which, before the next burst of thunder, sank without a trace into their soft and delicate skin. (p. 66)

Even here the prose is a little overripe, but perhaps no more than is appropriate for a Gothic pastiche, and the atmosphere is genuinely and effectively creepy.

The title novella features an appearance by the infamous poet and libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, as a student at Wadham College at the age of thirteen (as indeed he was in reality). If he had been the main character, it might have been a halfway decent story. But he is not. The main character of "A Pretty Mouth" is Henry Milliner, who is possibly the most tedious main character I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. Henry is an amoral buffoon with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is not likeable, not admirable, not attractive, not even particularly interesting, and it is a struggle to understand why any of the other characters (such as the Earl, or this generation's set of creepy Calipash twins) want to spend any time with him. So much time is spent on Henry's adventures in sex and social climbing that the supernatural side of the story—the only aspect that even approaches the status of "interesting"—gets sidelined over and over again. Dogs are turning up mysteriously dead all over Oxford, and St John Calipash has a pair of spectacles that can see souls, and yet for some reason Tanzer chooses to waste pages and pages on Henry's arguments in class and his attempts to ingratiate himself with a secret society composed of people he doesn't even like. By the time the supernatural plot came back into view, I had lost all interest in the story and was simply longing for it to be over.

It was a relief to turn from "A Pretty Mouth" to "Damnatio Memoriae"—but not for long, because sadly that story's protagonist, the historian Petronius, is cut from the same cloth as Henry Milliner. Tanzer is clearly trying here to depict the mindset of the ancient Romans, and is evidently aware that that mindset was in many ways alien and unpleasant by modern standards, but just as with her Victorians in "The Hour of the Tortoise," her efforts don't go far enough, so that her Romans come across more as modern people who are playing fancy-dress than as members of a genuinely different society. Petronius, for instance, reflects that "his History of Sicily had sold better than anyone—especially his publishers—had expected" (p. 203). Really? His book "sold"? He had "publishers"? No, it didn't, and no, he didn't. Not in ancient Roman times, when literacy was limited to a small elite, and the printing press was unknown, so that making a single copy of a single book meant hiring scribes to write it out laboriously by hand. This single sentence reveals a failure to really think about the differences between ancient times and the present.

There are three chief faults in the stories in this collection: the historical settings are unconvincing, the characters tend towards flatness, and the prose is at best workmanlike, at worst both sloppy and overheated. These are recurring faults that reappear at intervals rather than being evenly distributed throughout the stories, so that at moments they recede and the Lovecraftian weirdness has a chance to work its sinister magic. The most effective aspect of all the stories is the supernatural horror, and when Tanzer allows the vile monsters and shadowy sorceries to take center stage, things trot along nicely. The raven-deity in "Damnatio Memoriae"; the psychoscope in "A Pretty Mouth"; the undersea monsters in "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins"; the golem in "The Hour of the Tortoise"; the octopus-creature in "A Spotted Trouble"; these are all fine inventions, creepy and vivid and considerably more interesting than the costume drama shenanigans of the human characters, who only really come alive during their brushes with the supernatural. Sadly, there are too few of these moments for A Pretty Mouth to be worth recommending.

Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.

Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.
One comment on “A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer”

In one of those odd little coincidences I just finished this today. I'm still mulling it over, but I was more taken with it than you were.
I went in pretty much blind. I knew it was meant to be a little weird, but other than that I wasn't expecting horror or anything else. I can see that if you were expecting to get a full-on Cthulhu affair then you could be underwhelmed. I clearly wasn't though, so that just came as a bonus.
The anachronisms you highlighted jumped out at me as well (and there are lots more where those came from). I'd assumed that they were deliberate though, and in general thought they were a nice and effective way of undercutting the less fluid aspects of the styles she was aping. There were a number of points where I was frankly starting to get slightly bored of whatever style she was writing in, only get jolted out of it by something obviously out of place. This happened often enough for me to believe that effect wasn't accidental.
Likewise, there so obviously weren't publishers or sales charts in ancient Rome I'd kind of assumed Petronius was meant to be a joke on self-obsessed authors of the present day. I could go on, and each to their own, but a lot of what you obviously viewed as bugs I'd interpreted as features. Plus I'm a bit too fond of smut and innuendo for a man of my age, so there's that...

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