Thursday, 13 March 2014

Here with the Shadows

The first word of the first story in this book is Jewel.

It's the name of a character, but also seems apposite given that this collection is a diadem of strange, luminous tales. A diadem found in a dusty attic, perhaps, by someone who has not had a wonderful life. 

Tem's characters are beset by the past in some form, and as a result they often function rather ineptly in the present. Thus in 'Back Among the Shy Trees' a son returns to his parents' home and rediscovers his childhood. It is a horror story, but one that could never be a horror movie because almost everything significant occurs in the protagonist's mind. He is someone who owns no books and watches no television, but 'always read the newspaper religiously, front to back. It explained the world' - the last of a series of deftly-placed revelations that reveal a damaged soul.

Tem wears his erudition and his influences lightly, but anyone familiar with the weird genre will spot nods to Charles L. Grant, among many others. The traditional 'tale of terror' is alive and well, but transformed here into something that is of its time and yet oddly timeless. Thus in 'Est Enim Magnum Chaos' a group of older men make the familiar deal - those who die will try to contact the others from The Other Side. The story is oddly optimistic, a good example of an 'anti-horror' story that works.

That said, there are no happy families within these pages. In 'The Still, Cold Air', the prodigal Russell takes possession of his late parents' home, having let them down and sponged off them for years. The description of his exploration and his realisation that he may not be alone in what is literally a tumbledown home is masterly stuff. There is a touch of Walter de la Mare about the feel of this and other tales, but Tem is more direct. There is a cold clarity in his depiction of people and places.

Tem clearly loves old houses and the stories they contain or suggest. 'G is for Ghost' sees a man who has lost all his loved ones begin to gut a Victorian home on behalf of a wealthy young people. Once a builder, Lewis is now unable to do anything but destroy the old. He finds a manuscript in the fabric of the house. It is the story of a ghost child. This tale within the tale is unfinished, and it's debatable whether the revelation of someone else's grief helps Lewis come to terms with his own. 

Admirable touches of weird humour are subtly placed here and there, but wit comes to the fore in a few cases. The absurd Raymond in 'Breaking the Rules' tries to follow every superstition he is aware of, and lives a life that hampers his social life more than a little. His attempt to woo a young lady does not go well, but perhaps this is down to the unseen presence of his mother? There's a distinct Twilight Zone vibe to this one, and to 'Telling', in which an artist's search for a perfect house leads to a clever variation on the haunted picture theme. The story is doubly effective because it's told from the point of view of the artist's hapless lover, who can't help but share her fate because, by falling for her, he can no longer 'tell the difference between sense and nonsense'.

A very different take on the problematic nature of love is 'The Cabinet Child', the only period tale. In early 20th century America a beautiful but eccentric woman marries a shallow, greedy man. As often happened they end up leading separate lives, and he fathers no children. After his wife's death, however, he discovers that she managed to fulfil her desire for a child in a strange fashion.

Another recurring theme is that hell, or a close approximation thereof, consists of being trapped forever in the same moment in our lives. This is true of the maybe-killer in 'Inside William James', and of bereaved Trina in 'These Days When All is Silver and Bright'. The sense of being trapped by, or lured back to, a terrible incident also informs the superbly unsettling 'Wheatfield With Crows', which features a ghost that is convincingly unconventional.

Taken together, these stories demonstrate why a neglected, uncommercial literary discipline is important. As many have observed, all novels are flawed to some extent, but it is possibly to produce a perfect short story. Some of those perfect stories are here. 

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