These reviews originally appeared in Black Static #32:-
ANXIETY AND SPONTANEOUS EXHILIRATION: STEVE RASNIC TEM
Chances are if you’re at all familiar with speculative fiction, then at some point you will have encountered the work of American writer Steve Rasnic Tem, and certainly you’ll recognise his name if you’re a long time reader of TTA publications, as Tem’s stories have appeared in all three main titles. Tem is one of the finest and most versatile writers in the field of speculative fiction, one of those people whose mastery of his craft is such that he invariably gets tagged with labels like “a writer’s writer” and “critically acclaimed”.
Longer work from his pen is rare, so all the more reason to book in at the DEADFALL HOTEL (Solaris paperback, 301pp, £7.99), an establishment that feels like a cross between The Overlook and Gormenghast Castle, a labyrinthine building with hidden perils and pleasures, populated by creations that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the oeuvres of Bradbury and Gorey.
Richard Carter and his daughter Serena begin a new phase of their life after the death of Abby, his wife/her mother, taking up residence at the eponymous hotel, where Richard is to assume the duties of manager under the guidance of his predecessor Jacob Ascher, now serving as caretaker. But the Deadfall isn’t like any other hotel, and the guests who come to stay are often far from human, with their own special needs. And, having laid down the terms of engagement, Tem proceeds to unveil his tale in episodic instalments, so that you can, at a push, regard this work as a series of interconnected short stories.
There’s an encounter with aging were-creature Lovelace, who appears to be taking an unhealthy interest in Serena, to the point where he might cross a boundary, and so the guest must be dealt with in the way that only the Deadfall can. Another threat comes from an invasion of cats, with only Serena’s friendship with the King of Cats saving their lives. Richard himself becomes fascinated with one guest, the beguiling Marie Rosenow, and must eventually fight his obsession if he is to survive, instead of becoming one of the lovers she drains of life and vitality. A religious group hold their convention at the Deadfall, but their real reason for using the hotel is somewhat more macabre, with comparisons drawn between unthinking adherence to a cult and the zombie state.
A case could be made for the Deadfall as a house of horror, a menagerie filled with the genre’s most easily recognisable archetypes. Here be monsters, here be ghosts and vampires, were-creatures and zombies, and in the way in which he explores these tropes Tem hints at their origins in myth and folklore, the truths that they embody, and so in a sense the book becomes about horror itself, what it can represent. But that doesn’t mean he stints on the thrills and spills readers expect from horror fare in favour of some pseudo-profundity – there are more than enough genuine scares and moments of excitement within the rooms and corridors of the Deadfall to satisfy even the most jaded of genre aficionados, with the attack by the King of Cats and his minions a particular highlight. The work operates on several levels, and it’s perfectly acceptable to take it at face value and enjoy the book as an exercise in masterful storytelling in a horror mode.
Given the episodic nature of the book, it’s necessary to concede that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, with each segment furthering the greater story arc until we reach the destination Tem has in mind, the moment of self-realisation for protagonist Richard. In many ways the structure of the novel and the Deadfall itself mirror that of the funhouse through which Richard is wandering when we first meet him and from which he has to be rescued by daughter Serena, the child saving the man, a scene that contrasts the simple pleasure of the child when confronted with the unknown and the unease of the adult. And there are echoes of this dichotomy in the opposed viewpoints of Richard and the deceased Abby, one repelled by the idea of horror as entertainment and the other fascinated, one who wishes only to look away and the other finding catharsis of a kind in contemplating the worst that can happen through the medium of let’s pretend.
In the novel’s closing section, the discovery of a phantasmagoria in the Deadfall basement and a strange book for children produced by a previous manager in the library help Richard to a catharsis of his own, the moment of epiphany the plot has been aimed at, with his confession to Jacob of the true circumstances of Abby’s death and the guilt he feels. Richard is emotionally stunted, his rejection of fictional horror and denial of its real life counterpart amounting to the same thing, but within the walls of the Deadfall such avoidance becomes impossible. The experiences he undergoes at the hotel enable him to move on, to accept the errors of his past and forge a stronger bond with the daughter who so depends on him, so that eventually his tenure as manager comes to a natural end, all that has happened elevated to a rite of passage, one that has taught him valuable life lessons and empowered Richard to re-enter the world and deal with it on a more assured footing.
In the end, Deadfall Hotel is not just a fine work of horror fiction but also an examination of and rationale for our interest in the genre. Of course in doing all this Tem is preaching to the converted and everybody welcomes validation, even the rebellious curmudgeons who embrace literary horror, but the elegance of Tem’s prose and the nature of the strategies employed combine to raise this book above the vast majority of material in the field.
UGLY BEHAVIOR (New Pulp Press paperback, 220pp, $14.95) is a collection of nineteen stories grounded in the crime genre, though I’d argue that with the liberal use of gore and violence throughout the book could just as easily be pitched as horror.
It opens with the wonderfully economical ‘2PM: The Real Estate Agent Arrives’, a mini-masterpiece of prose precision that in a mere fifty five words shows what flash fiction can aspire to, a story by inference where the true horror of the situation lies in what we are not told, what we can surmise from the information given, with implications that are extremely disturbing, a case where not knowing is the greater of two evils.
‘Saguaro Night’ seems expansive by comparison. It’s the story of a young woman who goes to stay with her artist father at his isolated ranch, only to have the boyfriend she is trying to avoid follow, with dire consequences. The plot is driven by the characterisation of the three leads, with strong hints that the heroine’s attraction to “bad boys” is rooted in her father’s distant nature. This is the first of several stories in which the relationship between father and child is put under a microscope, with the former’s desire to protect the latter at their heart, but often perverted into unhealthy channels. Jimmy, the protagonist of ‘Rat Catcher’ is such a man, a father who will do whatever it takes to protect the innocents in his charge. The eponymous villain insinuates himself into the homes of the vulnerable, stealing toys from children to assuage his perverted urges, but Jimmy is a man who has a history of his own with rats and will not allow the catcher’s actions to go unpunished, the story holding our attention with a plethora of sleazy detail before the terrible end twist, which opens up a new dialogue about how far can you go before boundaries are crossed. In ‘Living Arrangement’ an old man is given the chance to atone for the sins of his past by saving his daughter from the abusive man she has fallen in love with, the narrative a subtle piece of manipulation, using a child’s story as the prompt to violent action. At the other end of the spectrum, the self-justifying narrator of ‘Blood Knot’ has a problem dealing with women’s issues, eventually killing his daughters rather than accept that they are growing up and becoming sexual beings, the story soliciting our understanding for this man who finds himself hopelessly out of his depth, while not in the least bit approving of what the character does.
Assaults on the most vulnerable, especially children, is a theme that recurs, though never presented in gratuitous or exploitative terms; Tem has nothing but compassion and pity for the victims, and refusing to look away or allow us to do so is a vital part of that. One of the most emotive stories, ‘You Dreamed It’ is told from the perspective of a young girl being abused by her stepfather, but Cheryl turns the tables on her persecutor, the cruelty and malice permeating the narrative crowned by a moment of delight at the ironic reversal of fortune with which it ends. There’s an almost fairy tale feel to ‘The Child Killer’, with echoes of the bogeyman and the pied piper who lures children away to some unknown fate. It’s the story of the sackman, an abductor of children whose deeds have elevated him to legendary status, but the monster is getting old now and a young girl finally brings his reign of terror to an end. There is little realistic about this story, with the suggestion that the character is weaving a fabric of lies, as gory detail after gory detail is laid out on the page, until a veneer of blood covers all, and the reader is torn between disgust and glee as an appropriate response to what is occurring.
K. T., the protagonist of ‘In His Image’, makes his living by manipulating images to client specifications, often producing things that are very sick, but when he helps the woman who lives opposite, forced by her boyfriend to wear a mask, K. T. realises that he himself is hiding from life. He aspires to alter reality itself to suit his needs, or at least attempts to do so with varying degrees of success, but in the end all such ploys are useless and the world comes crashing in, the upheaval all the more dramatic for having been so long held at bay. K. T. is lonely and dysfunctional, like many of the men who feature in these stories. ‘Friday Nights’ is the tale of just such a one, a man who goes to dances to meet women and finds empowerment through his dreams of murder, though there is never the temptation to act out his fantasy, at least not until one woman asks him out on a sort of date, the story rich with unspoken assumptions, character details that hint at so much more than is actually revealed. A man becomes a serial killer because he cannot stand ‘The Stench’ of women, but he allows his own body hygiene to go to pot and this is what gives him away, a story of misogyny and OCD type illness taken to horrific extremes.
In ‘Squeezer’ Tem chronicles the birth of a monster, a killer who squeezes his victims to death, only to then be outwitted and brought low by a child. ‘The Crusher’ is almost a mirror image of this story, with a protagonist who can crush anything and so becomes a professional wrestler as a way to avoid inflicting harm, but still a young woman wishes for his embrace, her own method of gaining catharsis for the terrors of her past, never thinking what she will do to a man who is essentially good by using him in this way, the story keenly felt and moving, so that we feel nothing but pity for the protagonist, despite what he does. Underlying both stories is a subtext about the fate of those who find it difficult to fit in with conventional society, with its expectations and mores. Whether monster or holy innocent, they are undone.
Maxwell and Jane interact in ‘Sharp Edges’, a Grand Guignol love affair between victim and killer, culminating in a welter of bloodshed and violent death, the story like a cross between Repulsion and Suspiria, the man’s desire to protect the one he imagines that he loves and who loves him perverted into a determination to preserve her from harm through blood sacrifice. ‘Wet Kisses in the Dark’ works by suggestion, the protagonist visiting his lover Liz, but all the lights are out and under cover of dark we get hints of some terrible action that has taken place, the story powered by the way in which the reader’s mind can be trusted to fill in the gaps.
Last of all we have the title story, in which rock singer JK feels compelled by his reputation for ‘Ugly Behavior’ to take each performance to a new level of shock and outrage, until finally he goes too far. It’s a story that seems to almost delight in cataloguing the singer’s excesses, though there is the hint of a softer side to him seen through the regard in which he holds his grandmother, desire for her approval, and underlying it all a subtext about how the creative urge can be perverted and trivialised, shock value replacing artistry. In fact you could make a case for most of these stories detailing what happens when normally healthy impulses, such as the need to reach out to others and the desire to protect loved ones, are directed into channels of perversity. It is the perfect end to a collection of strong stories, tales every bit as well written and insightful about human nature as the fiction for which Tem is best known, and perhaps even more macabre.
ONION SONGS (Chômu paperback, 370pp, £12.50) isn’t officially released until March, and usually I wouldn’t review a book before release but to omit such a significant volume in a feature on the work of Steve Rasnic Tem would have been remiss, and I’m sure the publishers will be happy to take pre-orders.
There are forty two stories in this career spanning collection, with several that are previously unpublished and the oldest dating back to 1981. While you can make a case for many of the stories being horror, and certainly horror aficionados are the book’s natural audience, that label is too restrictive. There are echoes of Bradbury in the endeavour, but it might be more appropriate to compare them to the work in short form produced by Richard Brautigan, with added elements of weirdness. Many of the stories are experimental in form. Most are very short, little more than word pictures, snapshots of incidents in the life of their characters. Nearly all are elusive, relying for their effects not on clarity of plot but on the beauty of the language, the metaphors Tem uses with such precision and the emotional truths that they convey on some instinctual level.
Opening story ‘Onion Song’ lays out one of the major themes of the collection, giving us an aging man’s soliloquy on how his situation is changing, memories shifting as dementia takes hold, so that he unwraps his life like an onion, and in a sense reinvents it at the same time. More prose poem than story, ‘The Sadness’ tells of how this emotion arrives in our lives when least expected, all the disappointment that accumulates until the feeling is made concrete. There’s a feel of Beckett to ‘The Messenger’, as a man sends telegrams to himself containing news of disaster, all leading up to the wonderful denouement in which the murder of the messenger is announced in a parody of the old adage about not blaming the one who brings bad tidings. ‘The Hijacker’ details the fantasies of a man strapped with dynamite and intent on taking control of an airplane, but at the same time he is somebody who cannot control the events of his own life.
The old men in ‘Out Late In the Park’ have intimations of the end of their lives, clues sown in the narrative that give their impending demise a surreal quality, as if nothing makes sense other than sadness. The father of the family delights in telling his children gruesome details of how their meals are prepared when they are out on a ‘Picnic’, justifying this casual cruelty with the argument that they need to learn what life is really like. A man’s life is reprised in his ‘Doodles’, each an incident in his undoing, the whole leading into the moment of his demise, a death that will echo the tragedy that haunts him and for which on some primal level he yearns. Death is embodied as ‘Night: the Endless Snowfall’, with the white flakes that fall endlessly from the sky formed from the bones of all those the story’s elderly protagonist has ever known.
The drug ‘Archetype’ transforms the life of a family, so that they all become archetypal figures, identified and defined by their roles as Mother, Father, Daughter etc., and subsumed to the needs of an omnivorous baby. The crimes of the ‘Shoplifter’ grow increasingly bizarre, until even the store manager is stolen, while ‘Attached’ commemorates the desire to create dependence in others, and shows how this can ultimately crush us beneath the weight of expectation and need, the story evolving into a metaphor for how the old and young stifle and handicap each other with ties that bind. ‘Jungle J.D.’ is an obliquely slanted story that takes all the grace notes of 50s teen culture, the kind of thing idealised in Happy Days and John Waters’ movies, twisting them through one hundred and eighty degrees to reveal the savagery, crypto-fascism and bigotry inherent in much material of the time.
Three vignettes make up ‘Cats, Dogs, & Other Creatures’, with a woman who regards cats as babies, a man who is overwhelmed by dogs, and a group of children who return to savagery in some primordial rite of passage. ‘How to Survive a Fire at the Greenmark’ juxtaposes instructions from a fire manual with the unraveling of Jane’s relationship with her lover, the matter of fact officialise growing ever more abstruse as events deteriorate, until the two strands fuel each other in a fiery finale. ‘Minimalist Biography’ does exactly what it says in the title, the flavor of a couple’s life together captured in terse sentences, ending on a poignant note, reminding them of the love they once shared and how it has been replaced with habit. ‘The Changing Room’ is a memory palace of sorts, with the story’s protagonist unable to bear one particular thought from his past, a terrible moment of sadness that he cannot face.
A mother’s love appears to bring her dead son back to life in ‘Charles’, but she is forced to accept that she must let go, the story operating on two levels, superficially a zombie tale but completely different from most that have gone before, informed by sadness and a casual amiability so that at points it feels a depiction of the animosity between any parent and child, those separated by the rejection embodied in phrases like “dead to me”. ‘The Figure in Motion’ was my favourite story in the collection, showing how a bereaved man transforms memories of his wife into performance art, his efforts eventually becoming redundant as an initially fascinated world moves on, hinting at a nullity to all our attempts to cling to those things lost to time. Strange light bulbs throw a couple’s life together into stark relief in ‘The Glare and the Glow’, the story made all the more compelling by the protagonist’s love of literary quotes. ‘Slapstick’ has a very simple premise, depicting a world in which all people dress as clowns to go out to work, even though their actual jobs may be quite ordinary, the device used to illuminate the futility and drabness of the nine to five daily drudge.
Set in the Paris of the post-WWI years, ‘The Multiples of Sorrow’ tells of a man who wishes to be relieved of his philosophy and ends as somebody who is a vacant space, bereft entirely of direction in his life, the story asking pointed questions about the nature of identity, exactly what makes us who we are. Disabled ‘Fish’ has an encounter with the truly monstrous, learning that there are far worse people in the world than the brother who resents him, the story stretching a metaphor and then snapping shut like steel jaws with its final revelation. A patient at a mental hospital proposes that the elevator be replaced with a ‘Merry-Go-Round’, but the real crux of the story lies in why the patient is hospitalised at all, given his obvious intelligence and the circumstances that led him to the institution. The illness that devours an elderly man is characterized as ‘The Green Dog’ in a reflective story that put me very much in mind of House of the Seven Gables, in particular Hawthorne’s depiction of the dead judge in his room, parts of the narrative told from the perspective of the dead man’s mirror image.
‘A Dream of the Dead’ is a simple piece in which the wishes of the dead overwhelm the desires of the living, their cold regard sitting in judgement on our world, while in ‘Aphasic World Syndrome’ a man wonders if in fact it is the world itself that is acting wrongly, providing the incorrect objects for the words he uses, the story touching on the power of names, and how they define the things they label. ‘December’ gives us a city covered in snow, with the elite losing control and dead bodies inexplicably placed in the white clad streets only to disappear when the thaw arrives, the story strange and evocative, portraying the malleability of political power and its helplessness in the face of the outré.
‘The Mask Child’ is labelled a play for puppets, the text marking the plasticity of identity and conjecturing that ultimately we have no real existence at all, are simply the sum of all the various masks we wear at different times in our lives. Similar thoughts occur in ‘Shuffle’, the events in a man’s life, his various attitudes, delineated by the laying out of a deck of cards, the methodology of the story like a mirror of some complicated Tarot spread.
‘Twelve Minutes of Darkness’ contains twelve vignettes, each examining a different aspect of darkness/evil, looking at how various people deal with this terrible thing in their lives, achieving an almost mythic quality.
Aptly enough the collection finishes with ‘An Ending’, in which a disabled man replays events in his life, memories fading into each other, and perhaps with a hint of suicide at the close, or maybe murder as a metaphor for the loss of things once loved dearly. Like nearly all the other stories in this impressive collection, it’s a piece rich in ambiguity and with a visionary flavour, a work that is as impressive as it is impressionistic. I won’t be at all ambiguous in declaring Onion Songs the strongest collection that I read in 2012, and recommending that you acquire both it and the other two titles reviewed here. You are in for a treat.