Hampton Smolte was a member in dubious standing in the British Army, stationed in India during the Colonial period, who loved and hated India and did a terrible thing there that destroyed his faux upper-class family and household twenty years later.
On these bare bones of a story, Tanith Lee hung a great deal of words, and fanciful asides, and gave flesh to one of my favorite novels. Bones figure largely in the story, and ivory, and a small, dirty piece of ivory carved roughly in the shape of an elephant draw small, dirty Annie Ember out of her rough life in London and into the unhealthy artificial luxury of Sir Hampton Smolte’s English estate. Smolte’s estate, built in imitation of luxurious and dangerous palaces and temples from his stint in India, is his daily flagellation for his misdeeds, a misery for his wife and most of his servants, and a thumbing of his nose to his traditional English neighbors, who mock him but suck up to him when given the chance. His daughter “has owls in her tower” and his sons are damaged. Into this deteriorating fantasy land comes Annie Ember, removed from her stereotypical desperately poor slum life after abusive men take her sister Rose, a seamstress and prostitute, away from her. As a member of Hampton Smolte’s household staff, Annie rises quickly from scullery maid to imprisoned amusement for his sadistic oldest son. Her lure to the perverted upstairs fantasy world is an order from Lady Flower, Smolte’s wife, to sew for the youngest child, Elizabeth Willow. In short order, Annie finds herself in only superficially better circumstances than her sister. She sews bones into Elizabeth Willow’s dresses, she becomes the object of one Smolte son’s brutal affections and becomes brutal herself, finding her payment for servicing him tucked into low-brow novels pressed on her by Lady Flower, she is befriended by the other son’s willing lover . . . willingly beholden by karma.
Not everyone attached to Sir Hampton’s household is detestable. Annie finds some comfort in talking to the syce, Darius. Her power grows as the memories of India consume the Smolte family and they deteriorate into the fear, loathing, lust and prejudice they experienced as English colonizers. The horrific act that Hampton Smolte committed comes to life again in his house, and Annie realizes that she is somehow the catalyst.
Elephantasm is a story of the paranormal filled with a lot of real history that will make the reader cringe. Annie, her sister Rose who appears briefly in the beginning of the book, and Lady Flower would be tiresomely stereotypical in the hands of another author. But Tanith Lee had the power to make even a ghost grow and mature. Readers who prefer spare prose may be frustrated by Lee’s decidedly purple turn of phrase. There are whole episodes, like the dinner party with entertainment provided by trained monkeys, that I might have struck from the final draft. Lee used punctuation in an eccentric manner. That can be distracting. But if you skim in some places and look through the excess at the story’s bones, you’ll likely be left shaken and satisfied by the ending.