It may be short, but Tanith Lee’s 1998 novelette “All the Birds of Hell” is one of those pieces that smolders in the brain long after the final word has been read. The imagery, the atmosphere, the sentiment—individually and combined have an impact felt beyond the page. Opening with a man arriving at one of the world’s most unique museums for a six-month stint as curator, he’s given a quick rundown of the facilities by the exiting curator and left to himself. Russia in the depths of a fifteen year winter, his lonely outpost, a former mansion, houses the sealed bodies of two lovers who took sleeping pills and then exposed themselves to freezing temperatures. Their frozen, lifelike corpses on display for those able to make the lengthy trek to the rural mansion, the man’s lonely duties are of quiet and contemplation.
From the howl of wolves to the chill of loneliness seeping off the page, “All the Birds of Hell” eases its way to a haunting conclusion. Thoughts set moving, one gives way to the next about what it means to the characters, and to the meta-story. Its essence of dark fairy tales and science fiction, something undeniably human nevertheless binds the pieces together. Overall, an eerie, affecting story not easy to forget.