The Curmudgeon


Saturday, August 26, 2006

Thomas Tessier

Among the novels of Thomas Tessier, his first, The Fates (1978), is both typical and exceptional. It's exceptional in that it has almost no plot and a large cast of characters; the story portrays the murderously destructive effects on a small town of a mysterious, possibly supernatural force; perhaps a malignant relative of Bradbury's blue globes in The Martian Chronicles. Fortunately, the ways in which The Fates typifies Tessier's work are mostly virtuous: it is literate, compact (none of Tessier's books so far has stretched to four hundred pages), and feels no obligation to finish on a happy note. Although one of the characters, a college teacher, has done some pontificating about the causes of the phenomenon, at the end of The Fates the destruction is no closer to being understood, let alone stopped, than it was at the beginning.

Tessier's subsequent novels retain the concision of The Fates' apocalyptic vignettes, and put it to the service of ends more private and intimate if not necessarily less horrifying. His second book, The Nightwalker (1979) is told almost entirely from a single point of view, that of a quiet young American, adrift in London, who is periodically overcome by an uncontrollable, apparently reasonless urge to inflict mutilation and death. The book leaves open the question as to whether his violence is the result of post-Vietnam trauma or something supernatural, like lycanthropy; among the scenes I find most disturbing is that in which the young man consults a medium, who observes portents of malice and destruction in his very physique.

No less a pessimist than Ramsey Campbell described Shockwaves (1982) as "remarkably dark", but the book seems generally underrated. Tessier wrote it on commission for Nightshades, a series of "dark romances" which does not appear to have survived beyond the first four volumes, and found it a far from enjoyable experience. To me, the horror elements of Shockwaves seem the more harrowing for emerging from a narrative that starts like an unusually literate and well-characterised Harlequin romance. A college student finds herself in love with, and subsequently married to, an up-and-coming lawyer; but the point where the Harlequin romance would have broken off (wedding bells, prospects, rich and happy ever after) is exactly where the heroine's troubles begin: her gradual discovery of the insensitivity and amoral careerism underlying her husband's charming exterior is interwoven with the gradual approach of a ghostly avenger known only as The Blade. Again, the ending is the bleakest possible, a terminal shattering of the heroine's romantic illusions coupled with the seemingly endless persistence of the horror that destroys her.

Tessier recovered from the trauma of Shockwaves by writing one of his richest and most personal books, and the only one in which the main protagonist is a genuine innocent - a child, in fact. Phantom (1982) is also written in a more evocative, less pared-down style than the previous novels, allowing Tessier to show in loving detail his young hero's friendship with two mildly eccentric old codgers in the seaside town to which his parents have moved, and to create such atmospheric set-pieces as the boy's solitary visit to an abandoned, haunted spa. Beginning with his mother's near-fatal asthma attack and climaxing with a prolonged, disturbing fever-dream of afterlife, Phantom concludes on a note of hard-won optimism that is quite unsentimental and anything but cheap.

Ramsey Campbell described Finishing Touches (1986) as something he wouldn't have dared to write himself; which, given the kind of things Campbell has dared to write, indicates his own generosity as much as Tessier's radicalism. Indeed, Finishing Touches is by far the most extreme and misanthropic of Tessier's books (I trust nobody imagines I intend either of those adjectives as a complaint), a non-supernatural horror story more strange and more disturbing than most writers could manage if they overturned half the laws of physics. Tom Sutherland, a young New England doctor on holiday in London, falls in with semi-retired plastic surgeon and bar-room philosopher Roger Nordhagen, who introduces him to a very, very exclusive club and his exotic and evocatively-surnamed assistant, Lina Ravachol. Nordhagen, who prides himself on providing "the finishing touches" to nature's imperfect efforts, has a shocking moral and surgical horror hidden away in his basement; but the end of this horror - the death of Nordhagen and his victims - is merely the end of Sutherland's own initiation. Very few writers would have sufficient imagination to take Nordhagen's finishing touches beyond mere murder and self-indulgence by Sutherland and Lina; although murder and self-indulgence certainly play their part, Tessier does manage it, to the extent that one is forced to admire not only his artistry and rigour, but that of his protagonists as well. The relationship between Lina and Sutherland is Nordhagen's final work of finishing, and it surpasses his prior achievements much as those surpassed the achievements of Vlad Tepes, Burke and Hare or Jack the Ripper.

Tessier's next two books are also non-supernatural, but are a little more like conventional thrillers, though expectably neither of them is the least bit average. Rapture (1987) is the story of Jeff, a successful self-made businessman who decides that the true love of his life is a girl he knew in college, and who knows absolutely that he is also the one for her. He applies to the business of tracking down and pursuing her the same calculation and attention to detail which no doubt made his IT firm such a success; and when he finds that she is married, with a teenage daughter, and disinclined to consider him more than a rather casual friend, he is forced into drastic action. Like Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, Jeff does not care for murder until the blindness or foolhardiness of others makes it absolutely necessary; unlike Ripley and some of Highsmith's other killers, he is not particularly likeable, or even particularly interesting except in the manner of some poisonous entomological specimen. It's a tribute to Tessier's ability that, despite taking place almost entirely in this single, obsessive, narrowly efficient but wholly unsympathetic consciousness, Rapture grabs the interest and holds it mercilessly.

A less driven, more expansive and generous work, Secret Strangers (1990) is the story of Heidi Luckner, a teenager whose father has suddenly disappeared. The difficulties resulting from her mother's inadequacy and her own resentment at her abandonment and increased responsibility prompt Heidi to an amoral rebellion: when she discovers that a neighbouring couple are involved in a suburban sex ring with under-age paramours, she and her boyfriend try to blackmail the couple, leading to ever more harrowing revelations. Secret Strangers is a moral horror story; like Rapture, it involves people who never see themselves as corrupt no matter how badly they behave, but Heidi's youth and confusion make her a far more sympathetic and redeemable character than Jeff. The element of chance in Heidi's surname points up the book's final irony: is it bad luck that makes us go wrong, or are we, like the Nightwalker, doomed to evil by our very genes?

Since Secret Strangers, Tessier has been far less prolific, though his work continues to retain its originality, intelligence and unpredictability. During the nineties he produced only one further novel, Fog Heart (1997). The book concerns two married couples, in each of which one partner holds a terrible secret, and their involvement with a frail, suicidal young medium. Three set-piece séances, each more eerie and frightening than the last, draw the main characters towards self-knowledge, danger and death. In its depth of characterisation, its plot and pacing, and its carefully constructed atmosphere of unredeemed grief and guilt manifested as supernatural dread, Fog Heart is a masterpiece.

In 2000, Tessier published his first book of stories, Ghost Music and Other Tales, a superbly varied collection which includes such works as "In Praise of Folly", in which a connoisseur of architectural oddity finds himself at the centre of a weird, mad monument; "I Remember Me", a quasi-science-fiction story chronicling the end of the world through progressive amnesia; "A Grub Street Tale", a charming story of literary revenge which, like Karl Edward Wagner's "The Last Wolf", holds a special appeal for such brilliant but unsung talents as the present writer; "Curing Hitler" and "The Banshee", about the ways in which good deeds don't go unpunished; and "The Dreams of Doctor Ladybank", a novella in which the eponymous psychiatrist exerts telepathic control over a couple of low-lifes. "Blanca", another story of an idle American in a foreign land, effectively combines police-state terror with supernatural apprehension; and sketches such as "In the Desert of Deserts" and "Nocturne" combine atmosphere and unexplained mystery in a manner worthy of Robert Aickman.

Tessier's most recent book is Father Panic's Opera Macabre (2001), a short novel which, like Shockwaves, begins gently only to plunge protagonist and reader into nightmare. A successful young writer of bland historical fiction, on holiday in Italy, encounters an eccentric, Croat-descended family and commences a delightful affair with its most attractive female member. When the lovers play with the wax masks used by the family during its circus past, the writer discovers that his mask won't come off, and is thrust into a hallucinatory landscape in which uniformed troops commit horrifying atrocities. It's a long, shocking and, on first reading, baffling passage which once again shows Tessier's disinclination to make things easy; the horrors are never explained within the story itself, and only an afterword detailing the activities of the Croatian Ustachas during the Second World War provides some context for the reader.

Tessier continues to publish short stories, and at present is working on a new novel called Wicked Things and a second collection. It's to be hoped that this portends a new and sustained period of activity; at the moment, just about the only thing wrong with Thomas Tessier's books is that there aren't more of them.


  • At 7:01 p.m. , Blogger lester said...

    Appreciated the details about Tessier. Just finished Fogheart, and seemed that it felt unfinished, un-resolved with the ending. From your blog, I guess this is how all his work is. Too bad, as I like his writing style, but also enjoy some sort of definitive resolution, whether good or evil triumphs, in my stories. Will continue to read him, for now. Thanks.

  • At 2:23 a.m. , Blogger Will Errickson said...

    Great overview of an underrated writer. I'm in the middle of The Nightwalker and absolutely loved Finishing Touches.


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