Tanith Lee, who couldn’t read until she was 8 but started writing when she was 9 and went on to compose more than 90 science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels, died on May 24 at her home in East Sussex, England. She was 67.
The cause was breast cancer, said her husband, John Kaiine, an artist and writer, who is her only immediate survivor.
In 1980, Lee became the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel, “Death’s Master,” and last month she received the Bram Stoker lifetime achievement award from the Horror Writers Association.
Often incorporating female protagonists, she wrote erotic Gothic chillers for adults and modern myths for children. She reinterpreted fairy tales with even more frightful twists. (In one, Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is transformed into a werewolf to get rid of her abusive husband.) She also wrote lesbian fiction under the pseudonym Esther Garber.
“Tanith Lee’s lush fiction is marked by exotic venues, precisely and elegantly invoked, populated with passionate characters whose deep emotions drive them to outstanding feats of folly and bravery, sacrifice, and love,” Paul Di Filippo wrote in the online version of the science fiction magazine Lotus in 2013.
Lee was born in North London on Sept. 19, 1947, to Bernard and Hylda Lee, professional ballroom dancers. (Her mother was 15, reading a book of mythology, when she appropriated the name Tanith, a Carthaginian lunar goddess, for a future daughter.) She had what she later learned was dyslexia and was unable to read until her father taught her. She attended Croydon Art College and was working as an assistant librarian when she made her first literary sale, a 90-word bleak romantic vignette, which was published in 1968.
Her first books were children’s fantasies, and, after British publishers spurned her early adult novels, her career took off in 1975 with the publication of “The Birthgrave” by Donald A. Wollheim’s DAW Books, which spawned a trilogy.
“It felt like a rescue from damnation,” she was quoted as saying in The Telegraph. She followed with the series “Tales From The Flat Earth,” “The Secret Books of Paradys,” “The Unicorn,” and “The Claidi Journals,” as well as the children’s “Piratica” books and episodes for the BBC science fiction television program “Blake’s 7.”
“Writers tell stories better, because they’ve had more practice, but everyone has a book in them,” Lee said in an interview with Locus in 1998. “We need the expressive arts, the ancient scribes, the storytellers, the priests. And that’s where I put myself: as a storyteller. Not necessarily a high priestess, but certainly the storyteller. And I would love to be the storyteller of the tribe!”
A farewell to her readers appeared on her website shortly after she died.