The Curmudgeon


Saturday, June 02, 2007

Wicked Things

According to the front-cover blurb for Thomas Tessier's new book, Wicked Things, Tessier is, in the opinion of the Washington Post, "one of horror fiction's best-kept secrets". It seems to me a singularly irrelevant and irritating thing to say, as though Tessier's most important literary quality were the fact that the Washington Post's book reviewer happened, until a short while ago, to be ignorant of him. Other annoyances include a chunk of cardboard junk mail inserted half-way through the book, perhaps on the assumption that American literacy rates will improve if novels have commercial breaks; and the fact that Scramburg, USA, which occupies the last ninety pages of the 340-page volume, is summarily dismissed on the back cover as a "bonus novella". Still, packaging aside (though in all fairness, and greatly to the publisher's credit, the book appears to have been proof-read by a literate human being rather than a spell-checker), it's good to see a new Tessier book appear at last, and the fact that it contains two works instead of one is certainly a bonus.

The start of Wicked Things - a first-person detective story, narrated by an insurance investigator looking into a sudden rash of claims in a small, remote community - makes it appear a rather conventional thriller, and the early stages of the case proceed in time-honoured fashion as the investigator, Jack Carlson, arrives at the suspiciously placid town, finds the local police unsympathetic, interviews possible suspects, and is eventually confronted with murder. It's only some way into the book that one discovers that its nearest relative in Tessier's previous output is not Rapture or Secret Strangers - his non-supernatural, psychological horror novels - but Shockwaves, in which the formulaic conventions of the romantic novel are set up and worked out in the first third, only to be cut to pieces during the rest of the book.

The possible presence of the supernatural in Wicked Things is adumbrated very subtly, in ambiguous hints and portents. The sky over the town displays a peculiar luminescence, like the aurora borealis; perhaps that is indeed what it is, but the ground in certain places also seems subject to strange visual effects. On a couple of occasions Carlson has visions of a dead, moon-barren landscape, but perhaps this is a psychological symptom; certainly, in view of the little he says about his personal life, his later comment "Nothing in my history" seems more painfully apt than he intended.

Like all the best literary investigators, in pursuit of the truth Carlson outstays both his welcome in the town and his employer's patience. He discovers an apparently fanatical religious cult and a red-light district whose mores might be routine for Hamburg or Amsterdam, but are shockingly alien to small-town America; again in the time-honoured fashion, he confronts the pillars of the community with what he knows and tries to bluff them into thinking he knows more; but, as Ramsey Campbell has observed in connection with the novels of John Franklin Bardin, the conventions of the detective story are invoked only to be undermined, and the outcome is pure horror. The dénouement is swift, sudden and nasty, and will likely be seen by some readers as a cheap trick; I suspect, given Carlson's religious unbelief, that the ending is in fact an economical hint at a fate worse than death. Certainly it indicates that Tessier has lost none of his willingness to take risks.

The novella, Scramburg, USA, has a tidier plot and an ending which is neatly ironic rather than nihilistic. Frank Bell, the Schramburg captain of police, is asked for help by the town minister, whose teenage foster-son is proving troublesome. As the boy is eighteen and no longer legally entitled to live in his foster-parents' house, the captain obliges by ordering him to leave town, and beats him up into the bargain. The boy and his friends take revenge during the Fourth of July holiday by committing various crimes against property, whereupon the captain and a buddy of his - a veteran of enhanced interrogation techniques - take drastic action to end the bout of anti-social behaviour.

Set during the year of the Cuban missile crisis, the novella administers its own vicious beating to the hypocrisy, small-mindedness and sadism underlying Kennedy's famous victory. The rampaging teenagers are troublesome enough, but two of them are orphans who spent their infancy in the Town Farm, a poorhouse-cum-lunatic asylum; while the family lives of the others are unsympathetic at best and otherwise merely brutal. The police captain helps the minister from pure ambition, because the minister's influence can get him made chief of police; the minister himself recognises this and uses it, interrupting the story of his family's woes with a businesslike declaration of political patronage.

When the missile crisis erupts in October, the editor of the local newspaper pontificates about what should be done: take out Castro, and if the Kremlin doesn't like it, take them out too. "That day is coming sooner or later, and we might as well get it over with while we've got the clear edge in firepower." The escalation of violence between the authorities and the teenagers exemplifies the mutual assured destruction that results from this charming mindset. Translated from the Dutch, the town's name means Scratchville; scratch Schramburg 1962 and find, at least in part, USA today.

While neither Wicked Things nor Scramburg, USA is quite up to the standard of Fog Heart, Finishing Touches or Secret Strangers, both of them are terse, brutally effective pieces. Each is short enough to be read at a sitting; which, given their relentless build-up of suspense and horror, can perhaps be counted one of the book's few mercies.


  • At 1:54 am , Blogger Beans said...

    Thom (as he prefers to be known as) Tessier is a great guy and a straight shooter.

    I met the guy by picking up the phone and calling him (he has a LISTED number in the town he credits in all his novels).

    I lived nearby. How did the conversation go?

    "Hi, this is Mike. I know you are a horror author and wanted to say hello to you."

    Tessier: "Oh yeah? Com'on over and let's have a beer".
    (I kid you not).

    The guy's writing area is a computer, a TV and thousands of books.

    Read him. He is the real deal.


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