The Curmudgeon


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Remorseless: Tales of Cruelty

Remorseless: Tales of Cruelty, Thomas Tessier's second collection after Ghost Music (2000), comes with a delightfully garish cover that points up the unashamed pulpishness of many of the stories. Nevertheless, there are subtler touches too.

Several tales work modern variations on traditional tropes. "Back in My Arms, I Want You" is a first-person account of obsessive self-deception which readers of Tessier's novel Rapture may find a little predictable; and "The Infestation at Ralls" is a bit of fun featuring a Dr Van Helsing whose command of the English language seems to have improved a good deal since that sanguinary little business of the Transylvanian count. The girl in "Goo Girl" is a victim of the push-button voyeurism that comes with the digital revolution; but her revenge is as poetically old-fashioned as one could wish, and gains an added chill from her not entirely poetic appreciation of the snow falling outside. The succubus in "For No One" attacks her victims through their fantasies of love or power, repaying the former with grief and the latter with paralysis; while the title character of "The Woman in the Club Car", whether ghost, premonition or simply an avatar of sudden loss, is altogether sadder though at least equally haunting.

"In the Sand Hills" and "Something Small and Gray, and Quick" feature protagonists whose surface confidence and self-sufficiency are undermined in opposite ways: the hitman in the first story by his physical surroundings and then by a supernatural horror in which he does his best not to believe; and the businessman in the second story by a psychological vulnerability which, at the end, manifests itself all too physically. "Fine, Until You Called", concerning an initially assertive and self-indulgent middle-aged man who receives an unusual intimation of mortality, will resonate with anyone who has looked at a list of symptoms and ended up self-diagnosed with an array of deadly diseases. "The God Thing", a comic horror about the efforts of a meat-headed body-builder to achieve physical perfection, opens in amusingly horrible fashion with a dozen decapitated monkeys and proceeds through increasingly grotesque stages as the hero's ever-increasing exterior charms are matched and undermined by the pharmaceutical apocalypse going on inside him.

"Premature Noxia" is an effective tale of curiosity leading to more or less arbitrary doom; the fate of the protagonist in "Club Saudade", though hardly deserved, reflects the more unfortunate side of his character and leads him to an unaccustomed, if necessarily brief, moment of self-honesty. This story's depiction of its protagonist's dark and dangerous underground journey is so effective that the monster at the end comes as something of an anticlimax; but given the man's own apathy, perhaps that is only appropriate.

Though probably for different reasons, the protagonist of the subtly titled "The Ventriloquist" shows an equally disturbing resignation to his fate. The story builds a surprising amount of suspense from an extended depiction of his session at a fortune-teller's, and leaves disturbingly ambiguous the matter of whether his future is being foretold or invoked. "The Inn of Distant Sorrows", the best story in the book for my money, is set in the mysterious Latin American territory first seen in "Blanca" and, like the earlier story, combines hints of the ghostly with the more brutal mysteries of the police state.

In addition, there are two short vignettes with twist endings: a form in which the effort involved is often inversely proportional to the word count, but Tessier brings them off nicely. "If You See Me, Say Hello" is a ghost story in which the twist is more poignant than scary; while the very brief "10-31-2001" uses fear of the terrorising Other to execute a devastating feint.

The book's copy-editing is unfortunately rather sloppy, with two separate characters in two different stories suffering incomplete name-changes: an error all the more irritating in that it's one of the few which can be cleared up quite painlessly using Microsoft Word's search-and-replace facility. Some evil demon or gargoyle has also been at the pagination, with the result that the contents list is two pages ahead. Still, though less substantial than Ghost Music and somewhat less varied in tone, the contents themselves are well worth your time.


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