Tanith Lee
A woman with blonde hair using a sharpie to sign something.
Raising money for the Alzheimer's Research Trust during the 2011 campaign Match It For Pratchett (Terry Pratchett)
Born(1947-09-19)19 September 1947
London, England
Died24 May 2015(2015-05-24) (aged 67)
East Sussex, England
Pen nameEsther Garber[1]
Judas Garbah
GenreSpeculative fiction
Notable awards1980 British Fantasy Award, 1983 & 1984 World Fantasy Award
John Kaiine
(m. 1992)

Tanith Lee (19 September 1947 – 24 May 2015) was a British science fiction and fantasy writer. She wrote more than 90 novels and 300 short stories, and was the winner of multiple World Fantasy Society Derleth Awards, the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Horror.[2] She also wrote a children's picture book (Animal Castle), and many poems. She wrote two episodes of the BBC science fiction series Blake's 7 (Sand and Sarcophagus).[3][4]

She was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award best novel award (also known as the August Derleth Award), for her book Death's Master (1980).[1][5]


Early life

Tanith Lee was born on 19 September 1947 in London, to professional dancers Bernard and Hylda Lee.[6][7][8] Despite a persistent rumour, she was not the daughter of Bernard Lee (the actor who played "M" in the James Bond series films between 1962 and 1979). According to Lee, although her childhood was happy, she was the "traditional kid that got bullied," and had to move around frequently due to her parents' work.[8][9] Although her family was poor, they maintained a large paperback collection, and Lee read weird fiction, including "Silken Swift" by Theodore Sturgeon and "Gabriel Ernest" by Saki, and discussed such literature as Hamlet and Dracula with her parents.[10] Lee attended many different schools in childhood. She was at first "incapable" of reading due to a mild form of dyslexia, which was diagnosed later in life, but when she was aged 8, her father taught her to read in about a month, and she began to write at the age of 9.[9]


Because Lee's parents had to move for jobs, Lee attended numerous primary schools, then the Prendergast Grammar School for Girls.[7][8] After secondary school, Lee attended Croydon Art College for a year. Realising that was not what she wanted to do, she dropped out of her course and held a number of jobs, including file clerk, waitress, shop assistant, and assistant librarian.[7][8][11]

Writing career

She began publishing with The Betrothed (1968), a short story privately printed by a friend, but started serious writing with several children's fantasies. Of these, The Dragon Hoard (1971), her first novel, is a comic fantasy, in which an enchantress compels the quest-ridden protagonist to shapeshift into a raven at unpredictable moments. Princess Hynchatti & Some Other Surprises (collection of linked stories in 1972) puts its cast through various travails. In Companions on the Road (1975) the companions are the villains, a trio of hellish revenants who kill through their control of Dreams as they search for the holders of a magic chalice. The Winter Players (1976) – assembled with the previous book as Companions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two Novellas (1977) – dramatises the interaction between a young woman and the accursed wanderer whom she ultimately redeems. Even in these early works, several characteristic motifs dominate: the Rite of Passage whereby a young protagonist comes to terms – often via Metamorphosis – with his or her extraordinary nature, and strives for Balance in a riven world; vivid, but indeterminate, landscapes serving as almost interchangeable backdrops for psychic dramas; and a fine indifference to any moralistic settling of scores, her tales tending to close with Good and Evil characters settling into uneasy equipoise.[12]

Her first professional sale came from "Eustace," a ninety-word vignette at the age of 21 in 1968. She continued to work in various jobs for almost another decade, due to rejection of her books.[7][11] Her first novel (for children) was The Dragon Hoard, published in 1971 by Macmillan.[7] Her career took off with the acceptance in 1975 by DAW Books USA of her adult fantasy epic The Birthgrave – a mass-market paperback. Many British publishers rejected The Birthgrave so she approached DAW Books. Lee subsequently maintained a prolific output in popular genre writing.[6][7][13][14] The Birthgrave allowed Lee to be a full-time writer and stop doing "stupid and soul-killing jobs."[15]

During the nineties her "career went through the doldrums" because of trends in publishing.[16] Major publishing companies were less accepting of Lee's later works.[11][17] The companies which Lee worked with for years refused to look at her proposals.[18] Smaller companies were publishing just a few of Lee's works. The refusals did not stop her from writing and she had numerous unpublished novels and short stories.[18] Letters from fans asked if she were dead because no new work had been published.[18] Lee tried changing her genre, but to no success. However, Internet sales succeeded in reviving her writing.[16]

Book sales

Lee had "quietly phenomenal sales" at certain periods throughout her career.[18] When she tried changing genres, some of her works were liked by critics and published by small publishers, but it made no difference. The royalties were good before the publishers went bankrupt.[18]

Personal life and death

In 1987, Lee met artist and writer John Kaiine.[7] In 1992, the couple married.[7] They lived in the south of England.[9]

Lee died at her home in East Sussex of breast cancer on 24 May 2015.[19][20]


Lee often uses the transitional character of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age stories. For instance, the protagonist of Lee's The Birthgrave undertakes a journey to understanding her identity and culture.[21]

Lee's two longest werewolf stories, "Wolfland" and Lycanthia, follow Lee's custom of reversing the images of popular culture icons. Lee approximates the werewolves' behaviours according to the social and hunting patterns of wild wolves. In altering this trope, she endows werewolf stories with a new and more positive mythos.[22]

Lee's 1971 debut was the children's book The Dragon Hoard; her first adult book was The Birthgrave in 1975.[23] Lee's prolific output spans a host of different genres, including adult fantasy, children's fantasy, science fiction, horror, Gothic horror, Gothic romance, and historical fiction. Her series of interconnected tales called The Flat-Earth Cycle, beginning with Night's Master and Death's Master, is similar in scope and breadth to Jack Vance's The Dying Earth.[24]

Night's Master contains allegorical tales involving Azhrarn, a demonic prince who kidnaps and raises a beautiful boy and separates him from the sorrow of the real world. Eventually, the boy wants to know more about the earth, and asks to be returned, setting off a series of encounters between Azhrarn and mankind, some horrific and some positive. Later tales are loosely based on Babylonian mythology. In the science fiction Four-BEE series, Lee explores youth culture and identity in a society which grants eternally young teenagers complete freedom. They are even killed and receive new bodies, gender and/or identity over and over again. Lee has also written a historical novel with The Gods are Thirsty, set during the French Revolution.[24]
During the late 1980s she published three collections - Dreams of Dark and Light (1986), Women as Demons (1989) and The Forests of the Night (1989).[16]

A large part of Lee's output was children's fantasy, which has spanned her career from The Dragon Hoard in 1971 to the more recent The Claidi Journals containing Wolf Tower, Wolf Star, Wolf Queen and Wolf Wing in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[25]

Lee was published by various imprints, particularly depending on whether she is offering adult fiction or children's fantasy. Her earlier children's fantasy novels were published in hardcover by Macmillan UK and subsequently printed as paperbacks in the US often by DAW, with occasional hardcovers by St. Martin's Press. Some of her work was only printed in paperback, mainly in the US by DAW in the 1970s to the early 1980s. She has received some small press treatment, such as the Arkham House edition of short stories Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction of Tanith Lee in 1986, and in the first "Night Visions" instalment published by Dark Harvest.[6]

Writing style

Lee's style is frequently remarked upon for its use of rich poetic prose and striking imagery.[24] Critics describe her style as weird, lush, vibrant, exotic, erotic, rich, elegant, perverse, and darkly beautiful.[26][27] The technique she used is very descriptive and poetic to match the themes she used in her mythical stories.[28] She was praised for her ability to balance her weird style with the challenges of writing a faraway world,[29] but some critics counter that her style is not always easy on the reader; she sometimes leaves the reader with unanswered questions.[28]


Lee's writing frequently featured nonconformist interpretations of fairy tales, vampire stories, myths, and the fantasy genre;[24] as well as themes of feminism and sexuality.[1][30] She also wrote lesbian fiction under the pseudonym Esther Garber.[31] Other than feminism and sexuality, Lee used a wide range of other themes in her stories. From 1975 to 1980, she began writing Gothic science fiction; her first Gothic novel "Sabella or the Bloodstone" features themes of loneliness and fear.[26] Lee's most celebrated story "Elle Est Trois", which examines the relationship between self-destruction and creativity "has themes of psychosis and sexuality, the subjugation of women, and the persuasive power of myth interwoven through it". Myth is again apparent (along with race) in her stories "The Storm Lord", "Anackire", and "The White Serpent".[24] Three unique horror series were produced by Lee in the '90s; the first story, The Book of the Damned, features themes of body thievery and shape-shifting. Themes of homophobia, racism, and sexism are seen in Lee's sequence The Blood Opera, and The Venus Cycle features themes of love, loss, and revenge. Her collection Disturbed By Her Song features themes of eroticism, despair, isolation, and the pressure of an unforgiving and unwelcoming society.[32] These themes reoccur in her 1976 novel Don't Bite the Sun where the characters are involved in a very erotic lifestyle and the protagonist experiences despair. Eroticism shows up again in her novel "Death's Master" which examines the childhood origins of eroticism and the "later conflicts that arise from it". The sequel to Don't Bite the Sun, Drinking Sapphire Wine, is thematically similar to her other works, in that it features themes of Death and renewal, sexuality, and love. The theme of recognition also appears in Drinking Sapphire Wine, where the characters are forced to recognize others and themselves in a world where physical form is so readily alterable.[24]


Tanith Lee was influenced by multiple genres, including other writers, music, movies, and "small things".[33] Her Flat Earth Series was inspired by a game she played with her mother; some of her other works are influenced by fairy tales her mother told her. Much of her work comes from "small things" rather than major inspirations.[34]


Lee was inspired by writers and playwrights, including Graham Greene, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bowen, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Angela Carter, Jane Gaskell, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, William Blake, Anton Chekov, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Ibsen, August Strindberg, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, James, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault, Jean Rhys, John Fowles, John le Carré, Brontë family, E.M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Ruth Rendell, Lawrence Durrell, Elroy Flecker, and Ted Hughes.[35] Lee considered Virginia Woolf and C.S. Lewis to be influential on her from a young age.[23]

Other genres

Lee was influenced by painters, movies, television, and music. She cites Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Dmitri Shostakovich (whose symphonies influenced certain scenes in Anackire), George Frideric Handel, Annie Lennox and Johnny Cash as musical influences. Film influences include Ben-Hur, Caesar and Cleopatra (with Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains), Coppola's Dracula, The Brotherhood of the Wolf (subtitled version), Olivier's Hamlet. The various Quatermass TV series and films inspired Lee, along with the films Forbidden Planet (1956), Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999). The TV version of Georg Büchner's play Danton's Death (1978), inspired her to write her French historical novel. The painters that have inspired her include Vincent van Gogh, Cotman, J. M. W. Turner, Gustav Klimt, Rousseau, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and several pre-Raphaelites.[23][33]



Nebula Awards

World Fantasy Awards[36]

World Horror Convention

British Fantasy Awards

Lambda Awards

Infinity Award


  1. ^ a b c Robin Anne Reid (2009). Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Overviews. ABC-CLIO. pp. 38, 199, 219. ISBN 978-1-4391-5014-6.
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  4. ^ "Blake's 7 - SAND - Review". www.hermit.org. Retrieved 15 May 2024.
  5. ^ Alison Flood (2010). "World of fantasy: Death's Master by Tanith Lee". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 30 June 2011. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  6. ^ a b c Darrell Schweitzer (1994). Speaking of Horror: Interviews with Writers of the Supernatural. Wildside Press LLC. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-1-880448-81-6.
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  8. ^ a b c d Moran, Maureen F (2002). "Tanith Lee". British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Since 1960 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. 261.
  9. ^ a b c Jeff Carlson (2 August 2011). "StarShipSofa Interrogation: Tanith Lee in StarShipSofa No.175". StarShipSofa. Retrieved 1 October 2012. - An audio interview with Tanith Lee
  10. ^ Luis Rodrigues (2011). "Tanith Lee on the Weird". Weird Fiction Review. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  11. ^ a b c Craig Gidney (13 September 2010). "Tanith Lee: Channeling Queer Authors". Retrieved 16 October 2012.
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  13. ^ George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois (2010). Songs of Love and Death: All-Original Tales of Star-Crossed Love. Simon and Schuster. p. 361. ISBN 978-1-4391-5014-6.
  14. ^ "Tanith Lee – Author Guest of Honour". World Horror Convention 2010. 2010. Archived from the original on 30 June 2011. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  15. ^ David Carroll; Kyla Ward (1994). "A History of Horror: On the Lee Side". Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  16. ^ a b c Kaveney, Roz (1 June 2015). "Tanith Lee obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 October 2022.
  17. ^ Alison Flood (27 August 2010). "World of Fantasy: Death's Master by Tanith Lee". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 October 2012..Contains different text than other Alison Flood article.
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  19. ^ "Locus Obituary". 26 May 2015.
  20. ^ Roberts, Sam (1 June 2015). "Tanith Lee, Fantasy and Horror Novelist, Dies at 67". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2 June 2015. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  21. ^ Haut, Mavis (12 November 2015). The Hidden Library of Tanith Lee: Themes and Subtexts from Dionysos to the Immortal Gene. McFarland. ISBN 9780786483686.
  22. ^ Heldreth, Lillian M. (1989). "Tanith Lee's Werewolves Within: Reversals of Gothic Traditions". Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 2 (1 (5)): 14–23. ISSN 0897-0521. JSTOR 43310205.
  23. ^ a b c "Tanith Lee: Love & Death & Publishers". Locus Online. April 1998. Retrieved 17 March 2009.
  24. ^ a b c d e f Mavis Haut (2001). The hidden library of Tanith Lee: themes and subtexts from Dionysos to the immortal gene. Wildside Press LLC. ISBN 978-0-7864-1085-9.
  25. ^ Pam Spencer Holley (2009). Quick and Popular Reads for Teens. ALA Editions. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-8389-3577-4.
  26. ^ a b Craig L. Gidney (March 2005). "Delirium's Mistress: The Weird & Beautiful Fiction of Tanith Lee". Morbid Outlook. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  27. ^ Desirina Boskovich (3 September 2011). "101 Weird Writers: Tanith Lee". Weird Fiction Review. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  28. ^ a b "Two Reviews: Thor (2011) and Night's Master by Tanith Lee". Wordpress. 30 September 2012. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  29. ^ Alison Flood (27 August 2010). "World of Fantasy: Death's Master by Tanith Lee". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  30. ^ Angel Fernandez (2003). "Tanith Lee". Modern and Traditional Fairy Tales, San José State University. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  31. ^ Donald Haase (2008). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales: G-P. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 568–569. ISBN 978-0-313-33443-6.
  32. ^ Mandelo, Lee (20 September 2010). "Queering SFF: New Books-Disturbed by Her Song by Tanith Lee". Tor.com. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  33. ^ a b Administrator (17 November 2009). "Tanith Lee Interview". Innsmouth Free Press. Retrieved 15 October 2012. - An interview with Tanith Lee
  34. ^ T.J. McIntyre (March 2011). "Author Spotlight: Tanith Lee". Fantasy Magazine. Retrieved 15 October 2012. - An interview with Tanith Lee
  35. ^ Teresa Edgerton (November 2004). "The Object of Desire – Our Interview with Tanith Lee - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: Forums". SFF Chronicles. Archived from the original on 3 December 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2012. - Our interview with Tanith Lee
  36. ^ World Fantasy Convention. "Award Winners and Nominees". Archived from the original on 1 December 2010. Retrieved 4 February 2011.
  37. ^ "Announcing the 2013 World Fantasy Award Winners". Tor.com. 3 November 2013. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  38. ^ Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2 June 2006. Web. 13 October 2015.
  39. ^ Hardy, Graham. "August Derleth Award." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 5 October 2014. Web. 13 October 2015.
  40. ^ "Tanith Lee Announced as 2024 SFWA Infinity Award Recipient". SFWA. 12 March 2024. Retrieved 12 March 2024.

Further reading