Review: “Magritte’s Secret Agent” by Tanith Lee

5 of 5 stars.

The uncanniness of a Magritte is both what this tale describes and accurately depicts as a young store clerk and art student, the narrator, becomes enamored with a beautiful, yet unresponsive young man in a wheelchair. The man’s mother and caretaker, Ms. Besmouth, is an uninviting woman. However, the narrator takes the opportunity to deliver goods to the Besmouth house so that she can see the man, Daniel, again.

The Besmouth house sits at the end of a lane atop a cliff overlooking the sea. Oddly, their house has a brick wall built up around the side of the house facing the ocean so that it can never be seen and all the windows on that side of the house have been boarded over. The young woman gets begrudgingly invited inside where she finds out that Daniel does not talk, nor bath himself, nor get himself into or out of bed.

The narrator finds another excuse to go to the house. This time to offer service to do shopping for the family. After returning from the errands for the family, the young woman and the mother get drunk and the mother admits that she never married, Daniel was shamefully born after a rape on the beach. The beautiful, naked perpetrator disappeared into the surf after the attack never to be seen again.

A week later, and still obsessed, the narrator shows up drunk to the Besmouth house and kidnaps Daniel, taking him down to the sea that he has never seen. And he responds . . .

The descriptions of Magritte paintings and the familiar yet “not right” essence of their surrealism is beautifully in sync with the speaker’s loose grasp of what she experienced so many years before in that frenetic week. Coupled with the speaker’s altered state, she still can never be sure what exactly happened creating a wonderful sea-side urban legend with supernatural underpinnings.

This story appears in the latest anthology edited by Paula Guran, Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, published by Prime Books. “Magritte’s Secret Agent” first appeared in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, May 1981.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

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