Steve's Reviews

Ombres sur la Route

All translations from the French by Mary Maloof.

THE DARK THEMES OF STEVE RASNIC TEM

The first short-story collection of this American writer is in French

Steve Rasnic Tem was a relative unknown [in France] a few months ago, except among readers of the Territoires de l'inquietude [Lands of Unease] anthologies, where his name appeared on a regular basis. Justice is done, then, in the French publication of his first short-story collection, which is good contemporary fantasy.

Once again, it is Alain Dorémieux to whom we owe such a discovery. This promoter of French fantasy and science fiction writing (and of the authors who make the cut for his anthologies) found Tem while sifting through hundreds upon hundreds of new English-language short stories for the Denoël anthology series Territoires de l'inquietude [Lands of Unease]. Dorémieux dazzles us anew with his acute knack for uncovering talented new authors.

"Among them," writes Dorémieux in his introduction of Tem's collection, "there is one who has struck me with his troubling and disturbing little masterpieces, one who stands out from the rest and who is, in my opinion, the emblematic writer of the eighties, the most impressive and imaginative American fantasy author I have read since Richard Matheson or, for that matter, Lisa Tuttle."

The object of Dorémieux's praise, Steve Rasnic Tem, is 44 years old and is dedicated to the social reinsertion of disadvantaged children and teenagers. He has also produced a novel (not the best of his work) and some 200 short stories which have been published in American anthologies by Charles L. Grant, Alan Ryan, and others.

Tem is a well-known talent in the United States, but is not yet prominent enough for his short stories to be edited in compilation form there. Alain Dorémieux read some 150 of Tem's works, which had been disseminated in many anthologies, in order to decide which ones would be included. Dorémieux admits that narrowing the list down to 24 was a painful process. But these 24, which comprise the first collection of Tem's short stories ever to be published, are pearls.

Why did Tem choose to have them published in French, and by Denoël in particular? In this day and age, the dollar dictates that American bestsellers be veritable cinder blocks of 500 pages or more, ala King or Koontz. They are far from Steve Rasnic Tem's works in miniature: these small marvels have been chiseled to a length of less than ten pages.

Are Tem's works like Fredric Brown's, then? ask science fiction connoisseurs. In their conciseness, yes. In their tone, far from it. Brown navigates within the world of irony, by the twist that leaves everything in question. Tem, by contrast, pulls his reader through successively darker and more morbid neighborhoods and abruptly leaves him there. From that sudden abandonment is born the sharpest anguish.

But if Tem releases his reader into the center of a labyrinth of anguish, he sends his hero there as well - a hero which is, ineluctably, a lost soul. He is sure of his world and its certainties. Or rather, he clings to it, because he does not understand the universe that surrounds it. And when that universe imposes itself on his reality, that reality unravels and the hero is lost, little by little, in a magma of remorse for what he might have been, for not having fashioned his world in a different manner.

One of Tem's recurring themes is culpability, that of each of us before ourselves and one another: social failure, marital failure, professional ineptitude, the feeling of uselessness, the realization that one has not become the adult that a child dreams of being and, finally, the phantasmagorical regression into the closed world of childhood. But it is also the collective culpability of our society as a whole - a society that believes in inequalities, causes poverty, crushes the poor like aborted fetuses, and erects suburbs of filth, ghettoes, and death - that clips the wings of children's dreams.

Obviously, Steve Rasnic Tem holds a mirror to his readers. And a plunge into the depths of his work, even one that lasts no more than a few minutes, is terribly disturbing. But Tem's obsessions are riveting. Like reckless children, we plunge into one short text after another and submerge ourselves in the black ocean of our malaises, anxieties, and agonies, until the moment comes when we can no longer re-emerge . . . -- Jean-Claude Vantroyen

Writer of the Week, Steve Rasnic Tem: heartrending solicitude

Have American editors been ignoring the short story? Steve Rasnic Tem has written close to 200, dispersed in reviews or anthologies, since 1975. In 1988 he was crowned with the British Fantasy Award for Leaks, which was published in the third installment of Denoël's Territoires de l'inquietude [Lands of Unease] anthology series. Tem's first short-story collection is in French by the same editor.

The tastes of Alain Dorémieux, who translated the 24 short stories that appear in the collection, led him to select pieces that are categorized as fantasy or even horror. But Steve Rasnic Tem subverts these genres in a profound way. Like the great classics (one thinks more perhaps of Buzzati or Kafka than Stephen King), Tem's works are portrayals of the insidious invasion of the irrational upon the gray mundaneness of daily life. However, one cannot help but think his purpose is a different one. A heartrending solicitude for lost souls of all stripes - the excluded, the misfits, the marginalized people of a world without reference points or goals - haunts his pages.

His writing is infinitely restrained and displays a diffuse, discreet modesty, evocative of Raymond Carver (recently rediscovered through Robert Altman's film Short Cuts), the greatest short story author since Salinger. Tem's works are the same brief histories and involve the same themes, themes which arise from the banality of daily routine, which is sordid at times and often sorrowfully drab. But while Carver's work explores how people are snatched up by the machine and presages inevitable tragedies and pitiful aimlessness, in Tem's works the order of things comes undone, as in the setting revisited by one of the most beautifully written stories in the collection, the Oklahoman landscape during the era of the Dust Bowl. Elsewhere in the collection, a reservation of Native Americans, whose ranks have been eaten away by illnesses and alcohol, waits hanging somewhere between mourning and jubilation for a return to the original order (or disorder?) of things: the day when the Coyote will finally take over the world.

When that happens, will mankind be in the way?

Steve Rasnic Tem lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies. He writes in addition to working for the social reinsertion of troubled adolescents, of whom he has adopted several. He has a challenging task before him. When the indifferent whirlwinds of the sky draw close to the land to touch it, they seize the hearts of many a child with a lost look, reaping them for God knows what kind of harvest . . . -- François Rahier, in Sud Ouest: Regional Daily, Sunday, June 19, 1994.

OMBRES SUR LA ROUTE [DARK SHADOWS ON THE ROAD]

On a generic vacation highway, menacing shadows appear: are they the ghost of a dog killed by a hit-and-run driver? A generic classroom is invaded by tarantulas: is this the vengeance of a little sufferer? When you find yourself stranded in a small town - a generic small town that one could find anywhere - why are so many of its inhabitants walking around with crutches? Because they experience a vision in which they are bowlegged for the rest of their lives? Beginning with the first three pieces, Tem's short-story collection won't let you go until you have finished the last of its 300-odd pages. This collection positions Tem as one of the more formidable writers around today, one with a gift for imagination and a knack for suspense, as attested to by legions of fantasy fans.

As anthologist Alain Dorémieux emphasizes in the collection's preface, this is the first time that Steve Rasnic Tem's short stories have ever been published on their own, either in France or elsewhere. Tem, who has spent the last fifteen years publishing in various American reviews and anthologies, has not yet had the chance to see a selection of his hundreds of short stories gathered into an original collection - until now. It makes use of oversized themes. There are greatly anguished characters, and there are also, without a doubt, great agonies. Could this have something to do with his profession? (He works with disadvantaged children, a poignant metaphor for the world's misery.) It is entirely possible, since children - as well as the weak, disadvantaged, sick and homeless, minorities, and other unfortunates - form the compact battalion of pitiful heroes that populate his short stories . . .

"The return of Kafka," reads the caption on the banner of the book. The reference is a little too simplistic. Nevertheless, Tem's profound originality draws on various influences. One could cite Kafka, but Buzzati is a more plausible choice. His work borrows the latter's more modern, more strikingly absurdist approach. We read "City Fishing," a journey through a gigantic megalopolis with a sense that something is coming. Additionally, there are echoes of Ballard in Tem's clinical descriptions in the beautifully written, enigmatic ending story, "The Enormous Lover" (no bathos here), which could be a wink at The Drowning World. As for shades of horror, the red of opened flesh and scattered body parts (there is gore, but it is discreet), he is a brother of Clive Barker, another practitioner of slime and organs ("Bite," or "Bodies and Heads," a nod to the celebrated Romero film Night of the Living Dead).

Nevertheless, in spite of the references, the author possesses his own personal melody. "When Coyote Took Back the World" and "Dinosaur" are sister stories in which a very subjectified end of the world (the end of a drowned existence) is neither clichéd nor affected. One also encounters uncompromising descriptions of the ravaged underside of the American dream ("Derelicts," "The Poor," "The Overcoat"). (Another Raymond Carver - what a find!) Horror motifs, inasmuch as they are employed in fantasy writing, do not appear in the collection except when Tem uses them to underscore the slow agony of a familiar world, which is an integral theme of his collection. In his style there is as much acuity as there are nostalgia, despair, and compassion. A great author and a great book. A thank-you is in order for Alain Dorémieux, the man who discovered Tem and published his work in the Territoires de l'inquietude [Lands of Unease] anthologies, because he has reintroduced Tem to French readers through this collection. -- from L'Écran Fantastique, No. 137, July/August 1994

It's our world: one of disintegrating marriages, of parents overwhelmed by their biological or adoptive children who seem to belong to "a completely foreign species." A world of child laborers, child loners, and child unemployed workers confronted by the realization of their worst fears: spiders, worms, weird beings issuing from the underworld, accidents, sickness, and adult cadavers giving birth.

Yes, it's our world. One should venture very carefully, little by little, instead of plunging headlong into the work of Steve Rasnic Tem, which Alain Dorémieux presents to us via twenty-four short stories translated and collected in a single volume. Ombres sur la route [Dark Shadows on the Road] is a first because no American editor wanted to take a chance on publishing a collection by this prolific author, who has around two hundred short stories to his credit and who has been praised by Stephen King and Dan Simmons. Glimmers of hope in Rasnic Tem's work are few and far between, and they are always subdued by the protagonists' anguish. Borrowing from ancient mythology as well as modern works, the pieces of this collection are generally allusive ("A Mask in My Sack" and "Dinosaur" are superb examples) and insidious ("Scraps," "The Overcoat"). But the author does not resort to a slapdash narration; rather, he allows his readers to experience terrifying visions - such as a very odd front lawn ("Worms"), a father with a teething problem so serious that he ends up devouring himself ("Bite"), and a virus that transforms humans into zombies ("Bodies and Heads"). A new horror classic, one you should check out immediately. -- J.W. in A Suivre

The Nuances of the Nightmare

Born in 1950, Steve Rasnic Tem is best known for his poetry. Since 1980, he has written short stories, two hundred to date, that make him one of the most gifted and subtle American fantasy writers of his generation.

These texts have been distributed in many different reviews and anthologies, yet no one, until now, has had the bright idea (or the guts?) to gather them into a collection - least of all publishers in the United States. Alain Dorémieux, a talented writer and anthologist with a detective's flair for uncovering new talent, dedicated himself to choosing 24 of Tem's short stories and publishing them under the title Ombres sur la Route [Dark Shadows on the Road].

This collection, as the anthologist-translator points out in the preface, is in effect an extension of Dorémieux's series Territoires de l'inquietude [Lands of Unease] (part of Denoël's Présences fantasy offerings.) Six of Tem's pieces were presented in the first few volumes of this vast panorama of modern fantasy literature that mixes Anglophone authors with French writers.

In contrast to his numerous peers, who write longer and longer (and often more and more mediocre) works, Steve Rasnic Tem is a champion of the brief text. In the world of American fantasy writing, he is actually one of the more personal and talented authors and ranks with Dennis Etchison and Charles L. Grant.

Alan Ryan, who was a leader of the fantasy genre in the United States, paid a vibrant homage to Tem during the eighties: "One of his most outstanding qualities is his love and compassion for his characters, a compassion that only grows as their nightmares become darker and darker . . ."

And Dorémieux sums it up: "As all truly inspired fantasy writers, from Poe to Buzzati by way of Kafka, Steve Rasnic Tem builds his works into a catalogue where repetitive themes return in a compulsive fashion."

It is that intimate imagery, as transmitted through the force of his writing and his quasi-hallucinatory vision, that makes Tem a formidable writer and a truly inspired poet. One need only read such gems as "Worms," "The Men and Women of Rivendale," and "When Coyote Took Back the World" to be convinced.

Horror, through Tem's eyes, does not aggressively express itself in brutal, bloody scenes, and his style does not have the efficacity of a Stephen King so much as a Robert McCammon. On the contrary, this resolutely marginal writer explores, in his own way, all the nuances of the nightmare. -- Daniel Walther in DNA: Derniére Nouvelles d'Alsace, Regional Daily, May 25, 1994.

 The Disturbing Universe of Steve Rasnic Tem

Daily routine is always reassuring. But the irrational, inhabited by ghosts and fears, can rear its head at any time. What if . . . ? A simple yet terrifying question, laden with all sorts of anxieties, of the materialization of our nightmares. Steve Rasnic Tem disturbs you. It is not his style to write many lines on a situation, a chimera, a ghost, an irrational situation that is quasi-believable. Tem writes short texts which are the opposite of Stephen King's massive opuses. His fantasy short stories are always just enough and efficacious. Ombres sur la Route [Dark Shadows on the Road], a collection of 24 of his short stories, is his first collection and is as intelligent as it is imaginative and deeply original. A choice work in Denoël's superb Présences collection, which has turned out 15 more-than-respectable books in its three years of existence, notably Ray Bradbury's last two novels. From scattered shadows to an entire collection of them! -- Christian Robin in Courrier Français: The Weekly of the Charente-Maritime, June 3, 1994, No. 2594.

Something New from American Fantasy

Steve Rasnic Tem, born in 1950 in Virginia, has published close to 200 short stories since 1980. He works for the social reinsertion of troubled children and adolescents, which is no small part of the inspiration that plunges the reader into a terrifying universe.

Ombres sur la route [Dark Shadows on the Road] is composed of 24 short stories chosen, translated, and introduced by Alain Dorémieux, a master of his genre. These stories are among the best of "the most impressive and imaginative American fantasy writer since Richard Matheson." A nice compliment, if it's true. It can be verified, however, by reading Tem's "troubling and disturbing little masterpieces."

The characters of S.R. Tem are half-unhinged thinking machines who turn toward the abyss with an implacable logic, like an out-of-control car that advances inexorably toward a fatal wall. This passage is the central theme of the title short story of Ombres sur la route [Dark Shadows on the Road]. There are teeth-chattering stories of worms and spiders. For example, read the story entitled "Worms" and admire the last sentence. What a twist! This is a world of fear, of ghosts, of nightmares, but it never falls into the trap of the shock scene or gratuitous violence. It is devoid of chain saw massacres and horrible monsters coming from out of nowhere. However, there is the irrational, which is all the more convincing because it penetrates slyly, like a tiny insect, into the drabness of daily routine. Or, as in the story of the man who enters a clothes closet with a sack that contains a snickering carnival mask. The man knows that the mask is snickering at him, but he puts it on anyway. When he does so, the mask disappears. He dares not look at himself in the mirror. He leaves the closet just as a child approaches him. The reader knows that the child is going to see the mask and . . . Brrr!

Don't read this collection while alone at night or if you have heart problems. Or if you're suicidal. An excellent book if you love being scared out of your wits. This collection of 24 stories is a success. -- from La Liberté, July 5, 1994

If one has difficulty believing this collection's translator, Alain Dorémieux, when he praises its author, Steve Rasnic Tem - a poet who switched to writing fantasy short stories - it is only because no one has read anything as good since Richard Matheson. He has been complimented by such writers as Dan Simmons and Stephen King as a master of opaque terror. Tem divides his time between writing and working for the social reinsertion of troubled children, which explains the fearlessness with which he denounces the irresponsibility of adults in the face of the maladies of the innocent. Misfits of society, "losers" haunted by their inability to adhere to the norm, the heroes of Steve Rasnic Tem exchange their reality for madness, and the drab mundaneness of daily life is turned into an insidious, irrational, baroque nightmare. A street urchin allows himself to be persecuted by tarantulas, an office employee does not know the woman who says she is his wife, a man frightened of animals sees his front lawn transformed into a viscous sea of earthworms. In the phantasmagorical bric-a-brac of this disturbed world, one also finds an overcoat that changes into bloody intestines, the decapitated heads of patients in a hospital, and a paranoid father who is obsessed with biting. -- Jean-Luc Douin in Télérama, September 28, 1994

 

High Fantastic

New Compilation Honors State's Finest Storytellers

Colorado has been home to writers of speculative fiction for at least a century. Denver businessman Verner Reed wrote fantastic tales of the Ute Indians in the 1890s. Robert Heinlein lived in Colorado Springs in the 1950s. Today the state is home to some of the most highly regarded names in the field, including Connie Willis and Dan Simmons. This tradition is honored in High Fantastic, edited by Steve Rasnic Tem ''(OceanView Press, $34.95), a gorgeous oversized book reprinting some of the early authors with a generous helping of original fiction from current and future stars.

The oldest story, from 1935, is by the pulp writer David R. Daniels. Other representatives of the older generation are Stanley Mullen and William Jones Wallrich. Modern reprints feature both genre writers (Michael Bishop, Melanie Tem and Connie Willis) and mainstream authors (Joanne Greenberg, Reginald McKnight and Ronald Sukenick). Vance Aandahl is an often-overlooked literary treasure who has been writing brilliant short fiction for over 30 years. He contributes a uniquely wacky original story of Boulder in the '60s. Other contributors of original fiction include Edward Bryant, Greg Hyde, Wil McCarthy and Dan Simmons.

The stories show love and knowledge of Colorado, The only misstep I noticed was in Lucy Taylor's story of Glenwood Springs. She makes a fine, fantastic setting of the hot springs pool but falters at the end by trying to transplant a taxicab to this small town.

'High Fantastic" collects more than fiction. There is poetry by Anselm Hollo, Pattiann Rogers, Reg Saner and others. Publisher Lee Ballantine served as art editor and contributes a fascinating essay on artists and fans Roy Hunt and Stanley Mullen along with the generous illustrations. Contemporary art is represented by the Hector comics of T. Motley. Along with his original story about Nikola Tesla in Colorado Springs, Edward Bryant surveys the wide range of Colorado's sci-fi writing community, covering almost everything except Philip K. Dick's grave in Fort Morgan.

Only a few other states have had such volumes, although that number includes our neighbors New Mexico and Utah. "High Fantastic" is the most beautiful of the lot. It integrates art, poetry and history into a volume of major importance. -- Fred Cleaver in The Denver Post

Dated 1995 but only just seen, new Colorado genre anthology High Fantastic, edited by Steve Rasnic Tem, is worth the wait, gathering both reprint and original fiction from an impressive array of writers who live or once lived in that state. Our own Ed Bryant (a long-lime Coloradan) offers both fiction and non-fiction, near the beginning and end of this hefty volume, and each suits the book's range: set in the '20s (an era with some disconcerting similarities to our own time), the story "Calling the Lightning by Name" brings scientific rivals Tesla and Edison to a Colorado bar, then proceeds to evoke things both Lovecraftian and Wellsian - though the true horror here may be political; and later essay "150 Centuries of Fantasy, Give or Take", actually covers a similar range of genres, as well as years, in the region's fiction.

SF, fantasy, horror, slipstream, along with poetry both categorizable and non, there's so much material here (original and reprint), it would probably takc a graduate thesis to assess it all (though even a quick reading suggests that for all the brilliance on hand, the book might have benefited from a few cuts). I can only suggest some of the many highlights. A few reprints date back to the '30s and '40s, among them Stanley Mullen's "The Tavern of the Winds", an evocatively eerie little work steeped in a turbulent atmosphere which only seems to be Coloradan; a vintage illustration by local artist Roy Hunt accompanies the work. Although most of the black & white art is historical material gathered at the back, there are also some fine contemporary works by Margaret Simon associated with each of the book's rough Sections. Don't expect strict chronological order here. The Mullen is followed by an equally evocative original story by Don Webb, "'The Gold of the Vulgar", which takes the blend of the spooky and SFnal in the Bryant story even further.

Some of the writers included here may surprise you. Michael Bishop spent years in Colorado before moving to Georgia, and he's represented by his impressive first sale (1970), "Pinon Fall" - most definitely set in the state's arid eastern plains. Others have migrated to the region and taken it for their own - notably the fine horror writer Lucy Taylor, represented herewith the original "HeartPains", a beautifully written tale of eros, pain, and terror set in a Colorado spa.

Time, as well as place, can figure in stories here. Vance Aandahl's 'Good Colors" is a time travel fantasy whose heroine goes from the groovy Sixties in Boulder and Denver to the far grimmer Nineties - and is suitably appalled, while the Connie Willis reprint "Cibola" (debatably slipstream or fantasy) highlights the modern through a vision from the past.

And yes, Colorado can also be a home to SF. Reginald McKnight's "Soul Food" offers a grim view of extreme dystopia in what seems to be a future Denver and environs, while Gregory R. Hyde's "Broken Bones" is a powerful tale of hubris (both teenage and fully adult) as the world's tallest building rises above another future Denver. And dystopia takes on a particularly bizarre quality in the seaside Colorado of Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Between the Flat- irons and the Deep Green Sea". Millennia of Colorado history, from distant past to seaside future, serve as a backdrop to an original novella by Dan Simmons, "Looking for Kelly DahI", a beautifully crafted work interweaving an older man's problems, a young girl's enigmatic desperation, and an extraordinary nexus point in all those millennia. It's the work of a master. I'm running out of room to cover highlights - the mark of an impressive (and extensive) anthology -but be sure not to miss the fine work here by Melanie Tem, Michael A. Arnzen, Mark Budz (yes, the current Locus collator used to be a Coloradan and is represented by a powerful story), and Bruce Holland Rogers ... a partial list which still does not cover all the better-than-average fiction in the book.

In all, High Fantastic offers a very high percent age of successes to failures, gives the reader a superb sense of its state's many moods and times, and will probably exhaust only the reviewer who tries to take it all in at one gulp. And that's without any offerings from such notable present or one-time Coloradans as Sheri S. Tepper and David Zindell! -- Faren Miller in Locus

In 1987 the University of New Mexico Press released a collection of New Mexico science-fiction and fantasy authors entitled A Very Large Array edited by Melinda M. Snodgrass. At the time, the concept of a regional science-fiction and fantasy anthology struck me as rather strange, since the nature of these genres is at odds with the very notion of a regional literature. After all, what difference could it possibly make if the author of a short story about a starship odyssey or a novella about an encounter with a unicorn lived in New Mexico or New York or New Brunswick? The starship would still travel through hyper-space and the unicorn have a single horn and work magic, whether the author writing about them looked at a juniper-covered mountain outside his study window or the Empire State Building.

Of course I was wrong.

Any writer, science-fiction or otherwise, cannot help but be influenced by surroundings. Just as Samuel R. Delany noted that science fiction is really fiction about the present seen through the lens of an imagined future, so too does science-fiction and fantasy literature deal with the author's home landscape, even if that landscape has been transformed into a planet or a fantasy kingdom. After I read A Very Large Array, therefore, my misgivings about regional science-fiction collections vanished.

Even beyond the obvious fact that science-fiction and fantasy tales may he set in any geographic locale, thus making a regional approach to these genres viable, there are subtler effects that a region's geography and culture have upon an author that are evident to the careful reader, wherever the story is set and whatever genre it happens to be.

With High Fantastic, an anthology of Colorado science-fiction and fantasy authors edited by Steve Rasnic Tem, we now have the chance to examine the effect our own state has upon the writers of these genres. High Fantastic is a feast of imaginative, and captivating science-fiction and fantasy stories, poems and illustrations created by Colorado writers and artists. As a result, High Fantastic would delight both the aficionado of fantastic literature and the lover of Rocky Mountain regional writing.

In his introduction, Tem admits that most people would expect a genre story set in Colorado to be a Western, not science fiction or fantasy. But from his point of view, this expectation comes from a rather narrow sense of the state's narrative possibilities:

"Colorado, like all western states, has a history marked by sudden and explosive in- fluxes of people and ideas, followed by cycles of decline. ... I like to think that bizarre behavior flourishes in such an atmosphere, and Colorado has had more than its fair share of cannibals, hoaxes, cults, and oddball hermits. The lives of many of these figures would strain credibility if framed in fictional form --Alfred Packer and his meal on the mountain, the artist Christo and his giant curtain across Rifle Gap, P.T. Barnum and his petrified man, .... Leadville Chronicle reporter Orth Stein and his tales of a giant sailing ship preserved in a cavern fifty feet underground, Baby Doe Tabor and the rise and fall of her Matchless Mine -- but the nature of their characters has inspired many a poet, short story writer and novelist."

To prove his point, Tem's lead story in High Fantastic is "Calling the Lightning by Name" by Edward Bryant, the Dean of Colorado's science-fiction and fantasy authors.

In "Calling the Lightning by Name," Bryant spins off of an experiment Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current, performed outside of Colorado Springs in 1899.

In his introduction to Bryant's story, Tem explains that Tesla's experiment, an attempt to communicate with Paris, involved running electricity through a "three-foot copper ball mounted on a shaky wooden tower rising over two hundred feet." The results were 130-foot lightning bolts and a blown generator in Colorado Springs.

In "Calling the Lightning by Name," Bryant links H.P. Lovecraft's fictional mythos with this event.

H.P. Lovecraft was the author of the classic 1920s horror novels The Dunwich Horror and At the Mountains of Madness. Many of his stories played off a fictional pre-hisory involving "the Great Old Ones,"( an ancient race from another dimension, hostile and deadly towards humanity, which awaits the proper moment to retake the earth.

Bryant's "Calling the Lightning by 'Name" centers on a fictional meeting beween Tesla and Taiwa-Ta, a Ute shaman, who draws Tesla into the struggle against the Great Old Ones by taking him down a secret passage into the earth under Chimney Rock by Pagosa Springs.

"The two men scrambled down.the long, increasingly steeply angled passageway," writes Bryant. "No longer dug through the earth, it appeared to be cut roughly from native rock. There was moisture. Water -- or something more viscous than water -- dripped from the low ceiling, making the floor uncomfortably slippery. Light followed his vision precisely when Tesla turned his head. He wore the miner's helmet the workers in Telluride had given him after be had installed the alternating current power system months before."

In Bryant's story, Tesla's 1899 artificial lightning experiment had nothing to do with communicating with Paris, but was his effort to keep Cthulhu, one of the Great Old Ones, quiescent in his deep chamber beneath Chimney Rock.

But of the many strong narratives in High Fantastic, "Tall Skies" by Steve Rasnic Tem and "Looking for Kelly Dahl" by Dan Simmons are clearly the anthology's apex.

Tem's "Tall Skies" is a drifting, mystical journey across time through the lens of a dying Ute's dreams. At one point in "Tall Skies," a Telluride skier rides untouched powder into a time warp: "Then the ground shifted, and he heard the thunder again, louder, shaking the whole mountain, and he found himself looking up into the tall sky, even though he knew that wasn't the thunder's source, and saw the hole that had been bored there, and this blinding face peering through. He was with the snow now, taking the mountain with him in his descent, passing a weathered, broken sign - Liberty Bell Mine - as the air suddenly darkened and ancient shacks tumbled past him, men in old-fashioned clothing still clinging to the jagged beams, horses rolling, their saddles tearing off, their long necks bending, and then everything was white, and he could feel that brilliant face smiling at him."

Simmon's "Looking for Kelly Dahl," takes us on the wild ride that results when a young woman projects her former high school English teacher into a parallel world built by her powerful psychic powers and then traps him there.

In addition to the excellent fiction and poetry, Tem presents drawings by a number of Colorado artists.

While much of this visual material is rooted in the limited dimensions of genre illustration, there are a number of works which transcend these limits, including Roy Hunt's haunting "A Strange View of a River," which looks like something Thomas Hart Benton might have drawn while on peyote, and Archie Musik's snow draped mining landscape entitled, "Mountain Scene from The Gorgon."

Altogether, in High Fantastic Steve Rasnic Tem combines fine prose, captivating poetry, solid illustrations and superb book design to create a handsome and highly entertaining work that deserves a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in Colorado and its writers. -- John Nizalowski in the Telluride Times-Journal, Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 1997

Decoded Mirrors

STEVE RASNIC TEM, Decoded Mirrors: 3 Tales After Lovecraft. West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1992. 34pp. $4.95 tpb.

Reviewed by Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.

In Decoded Mirrors, Steve Rasnic Tem's subtitle 3 Tales After Lovecraft is itself interesting, since the question of what constitutes "Lovecraftian" fiction is one that has raged for years. Clearly Tem's narrative voice is not, nor should it be, similar to that of the Gentleman from Providence; Tem has his own quite effective style. What is "Lovecraftian" about this triptych of tales--"Decodings", "Guardian Angels", "Mirror Man"--is its concern with Lovecraftian settings and themes, and its probing into deep questions of human relations. One may protest that Lovecraft was little interested in this latter concern, in that he expressly cared not at all for humankind's problems. But that is the value of calling these pieces tales after Lovecraft, where "after" may mean either "under the influence of" or "subsequent to". Here it means both, intertwined, and what makes the second sense (as coloured by the first) pertinent is the fact that subsequent to Lovecraft's own work, fiction writers have explored problems in the psychology of human relations with ever-increasing avidity and candour; in Tem's stories it is as if some of Lovecraft's thematic working-out needed to await these developments for further exploration of the familiar settings.

Indeed, for veteran Lovecraft readers there is almost a kind of wish-fulfilment in revisiting old haunts--lnnsmouth, Providence--in Tem's contexts of more modem times and more complexly entertained human problems: failing marriages, father-daughter and father-son relations, anxiety, guilt. (One has a sense that it is possible to attempt this sort of thing and have it come off very badly, so that Tem's actual accomplishment here is remarkable.) Despite quiet suggestions of humour--what Lovecraft reader could hear of the Innsmouth Dermatology Clinic without smiling?--these stories have a deadly serious tone overall. In some ways--the troubled micro-perceptions of the characters, the seemingly shifting nature of the world at one's hand--these tales seem to show as much a modern Ramsey Campbell influence as anything, yet they continue to echo basic Lovecraftian thematic concerns, as when the narrator's degenerative father in "Decodings" is described as "trying to look behind things", or when the narrator in that tale, transported to Innsmouth, becomes fascinated with palimpsestic layers of handbills on a wall, peeling them off until she finds scrawls in a "pre-language". The narrator's feeling, in "Mirror Man", that reconstruction workers at a convention hotel may be "themselves applying the cracks and stains" instead of removing them is a Campbellesque sort of textual moment in a Lovecraftian setting (the Biltmore Hotel in Providence), so that a medley of influence-voices may be heard. Of course, one shudders to imagine Lovecraft's probable reaction to the description of Cthulhu, in "Guardian Angels", as having a face that "resemble[s] a woman's sexual organs"--but then these are tales after Lovecraft, a long time after, and the overall effect remains redolent of him. I would say that the Tem triptych is something Lovecraftian readers should peruse and enjoy. -- from Lovecraft Studies 27

Excavation 

Tem, Steve Rasnic. Excavation. Avon, NY, January 1987, 280p. $3.50 paper. ISBN 0-380-75173- 9.

Excavation is the first novel by Steve Rasnic Tem, a Colorado fabulist whose richly imagined tales of psychological and ghostly terrors have for several years appeared in genre magazines and anthologies. Stylistically akin to Ramsey Campbell and Charles L. Grant, Tem is a meticulous writer whose short stories evince uncommon care in creation of character and evocation of place. Happily, Tem has brought these strengths to the longer form; Excavation is a fine, sometimes scary novel.

Its focal character is Reed Taylor, a graduate student in archaeology who lives in Denver with his wife and two children. Indecisive, fearful, and prone to psychosomatic illness, Reed is an ineffectual father and husband who grows daily more remote from his family. His night thoughts are dominated by memories of Simpson Creeks, the country hamlet where he grew up. Reed's young life was dominated by his father, a 'hard- drinking, swearing, brutish bear of a man' who tyranized Reed and his mother. Father, mother, and a sister perished in a flood caused by the collapse of a coal waste dam. Reed, who had run away from home two months earlier, escaped the flood. But he cannot escape his past, the source of his incompleteness as an adult. Now, ten years later, Reed is compelled to return home to excavate his homesite.

Although Reed is the protagonist of Tem's novel, its real star is Simpson Creeks. It is a dead town, wasted literally and spiritually by the ravages of a rapacious coal company. But its spirit is alive with 'an old, rich hate.' By the time Reed gets home, horror has already come to Simpson Creeks. Things are going 'subtly wrong ... No one thing so obvious, but the accumulation of little events' - - an unnatural early morning fog, hulking shadows in the woods, visions of a ghostly woman with flaming hair, and strange scratchings from deep within the slab upon which the town sits. Reed's story parallels that of the survivors of the flood, whose guilt at conspiring in the evisceration of their land is buried as surely as the bodies of the dead. And, just as surely, both shall rise.

The consistency of the novel's imagery, which is primarily based on water and strata: 'the layers. Death upon death."; the psychological insight into characters, major and minor, and the vivid evocation of the spirit of Simpson Creeks, raise Excavation far above the level of most first novels. But ultimately, the power of this novel flows from its coherence; it is constructed like a fine watch, and at the end, as the psyches of its guilt-ridden characters and the raging heart of its locale merge, Excavation attains a powerful, unusually moving climax.

Now, when will an enterprising publisher collect the best of Tem's short liction? -- Michael A. Morrison in Fantasy Review #99, March 1987.

STEVE RASNIC TEM has been reknowned in short story circles for a while now, but this is his first novel-length work. Excavation initially seems to move like molasses, and it almost requires a stick-to-it attitude to keep turning the pages. As it turns out though, that persistence is worthwhile: while the beginning plot is unfolding so slowly, a simultaneous and very meticulous creation of mood and atmosphere is also going on. And once Tem molds his literary world into shape, the tension steadily accelerates and Excavation shifts into high gear.

The novel concerns one Reed Taylor and his return to Simpson Creeks, Kentucky, where he was born and raised, and where his family was killed by a mighty flood shortly after he ran away from home. Taylor has become an archaelogist in the intervening ten year period, and has returned in order to excavate his parents' house and land, which now lay under a substantial amount of mud. However, his arrival coincides with a series of strange happenings, including a wild bear attack and various apparent hallucinations. The borders of reality continue to blur as both Reed and the town are forced to confront their haunting past.

Tem is a stylistic master in the vein of Ramsey Campbell, and his substantial skills are worthy of attention. Tem is not on the same level with Campbell--but his star is definitely on the rise. -- R.M. in West Coast Review of Books, July/August 1987.

 

QUOTES & GENERAL COMMENTARY

"One of the most talented new writers in the field." -- The Washington Post

"[Tem's] stories have the compression of poetry. He is able to create rapidly a mood of menace and revulsion." -- Publisher's Weekly

"His denouements leave one drained and figuratively gasping. Tem's greatest talent lies in his presentation of subtle, unspoken horrors to which the reader's imagination must supply the grotesque afterimages." -- Fantasy Review

"In little more than half a decade, Steve Tem has come to rival Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell as a master of the psychological horror short story." -- Ed Bryant

"One of the horror genre's premier stylists." -- Fantasy Tales (England)

"A writer who combines a poet's precision of language with an abnormal psychologist's insightful grasp of just what kinks and terrors make most of us squirm." -- Twilight Zone Magazine (June '87)

"He has the ability to evoke images as clearly as if you're seeing them through Rocky Mountain spring water, and yet he can ripple that water when you're least expecting it and distort those images beyond recognition." -- Graham Masterton

"When he made his move into prose fiction, Tem brought with him a poet's ear and eye for the specific and telling image that lifts his work far above that of most of his contemporaries." -- Dennis Etchison

"The surrealistic nightmares he paints are disturbingly vivid, with the kind of intense and tactile reality most of us only experience in frightening dreams." -- Alan Ryan

"Steve Rasnic Tem has a poet's-eye view of the world and his love for precision of language . . . his trademark--concise characterization and a view of the ordinary that forces his readers to realize that ordinary need not mean safe." -- Charles L. Grant

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