A Hog’s Head Halloween Book of Spooks
Edom’s streams shall be changed into pitch,
its soil into sulfur,
and its land shall become burning pitch;
Night and day it shall not be quenched,
its smoke shall rise forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste,
never again shall anyone pass through it.
But the desert owl and hoot owl shall possess it,
the screech owl and raven shall dwell in it….
Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts,
satyrs shall call to one another;
There shall the lilith repose,
and find for herself a place to rest.
–Isaiah 34, NAB
From her vague origins as she-demon and development through Hebrew midrashim and other ancient texts, the Lilith of legend became the first wife of Adam, rebellious long before Eve listened to a snake. Through another turn of history, she’s identified with Lamia, a child-killing Greek monster and vampiress. In MacDonald’s Lilith: A Romance, which is far more horrific than romantic, she is both.
The book doesn’t begin with Lilith herself. It begins with a young Englishman, a mutilated book, and a ghostly librarian. The latter morphs into a raven and leads the Englishman, Vane, through a mirror into a strange fairyland, where Vane is immediately invited to die.
The ensuing tale gave me nightmares. It gave the girls in my book club nightmares. From the first contact with the riddling raven, heavy Gothic imagery makes this an appropriate October read, though a dangerous bedtime one. Cold chambers in which people sleep indefinitely, a desert full of distorted monster-creatures, vicious giants, warring leopardesses, frightening travels under the moon, arguing skeletons in a wood, and the demoniac Lilith herself connect powerfully to the dark side of the imagination.
The title character appears first when Vane finds her unconscious, naked, and emaciated, about halfway through the book. All Vane’s English chivalry kicks in, and he cares for her with the reverence he believes to be the due of womankind–unsuspecting of her nature, even when he begins to wake with little swollen wounds like leech-bites. He rouses her to life and spends much of the rest of the book unable to shake that early chivalry, submitting to her cold-hearted demands and even letting her suck his blood, unwilling to deny a regal and beautiful woman, though she turns out to be the enemy of all children. Vane’s mistakes with Lilith prove deadly as he falls in love with her motherly daughter, Lona, and tries to protect Lona and her adopted children from their would-be murderess.
MacDonald covers a number of themes native to Gothic stories and fairy tales: the continuum between humanity and inhumanity, the relationship of mothers and children, and–the point upon which both Vane and Lilith must satisfy the narrative–obedient surrender to death. (A hundred years later, working from the same mythological tradition, Harry Potter would begin cycling through the same themes.) The storyline itself looks both backward and forward in literature; it shadows Dante’s path through the dark spirals of hell, and one can see parental hints of its form and features in various C.S. Lewis inventions: Digory’s and Polly’s waking of Jadis on Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, for instance.
The tale drives firmly toward redemption, reaches it–and then swerves at the last moment, ending in unexpected ambiguity, confusion, and darkness. It ends as the Divine Comedy might have, had Dante written just one more canto. But the near despair of the last chapter never suppresses the one narrow, bright line of hope, which is all the more brilliant for the black sorrow surrounding it. “I wait,” says Vane; “asleep or awake, I wait.” And the strange sadness of the work is suddenly, inexplicably beautiful.
Have you read any of MacDonald’s dark fairy tales? Are you familiar with the Lilith/Lamia mythology? Do you recommend any other works on this character?