Thursday, December 23, 2010

In Concert: The Collected Speculative Fiction of Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

Near the end of "The Man on the Ceiling," a story that won the Stoker, the International Horror Guild Award, and the World Fantasy Award, co-author Melanie Tem writes:

"It was hard for us to write this piece.

For one thing, we write differently.  My stories tend more toward magical realism, Steve's more toward surrealism.  Realism, in both cases, but we argued over form: 'This isn't a story! It doesn't have a plot!'"

I think that's an apt description of the Tems' different approaches to their solo work.  Their prose styles are also distinct: Melanie Tem's is smooth, more suited to her magical realism, while Steve Rasnic Tem's has a harsher, disjointed quality, fitting his surreal tales of loss and psychological degeneration.  Despite their different approaches, the Tems have written nearly two dozen collaborative stories over the past quarter-century, all of which are collected in the new Centipede Press volume In Concert.  These twenty-one finely crafted, insightful tales highlight the talent of both members of this husband and wife team.

Although I was most familiar with the Tems as writers of horror and dark fantasy, several of the stories included here are science fiction.  Some of those, such as the earliest entry, "Prosthesis," are dark, using aliens and alien worlds as metaphors for loneliness and fear.  But the title story, the longest in the collection, in which an old woman's intermittent telepathy brings her into contact with a trapped astronaut, is more optimistic, showing how human connections can ease the pain of life.  That may sound overly sentimental, but the story's observant portrayal of the elderly protagonist's life keeps it from feeling cheap or idealized.

The dark fantasy pieces included here frequently feature familiar monsters; vampires and vampirism are central to six stories, while two deal with zombies.  But the focus is not on these creatures as boogeymen, but on what they can tell us about humanity.  "The Tenth Scholar" appeared in a book called The Ultimate Dracula, but its true protagonist is the streetwise young woman who goes to him in search of an unlikely education.  The vampire mother of "Mama" offers a poignant metaphor for the devastating power of a mentally unstable parent, while "Nvumbi" puts a unique spin on a father's sense of isolation and impotence in a household dominated by women.

Ultimately, it is this interest in the human condition that defines and elevates the Tems' work.  As Melanie writes in "The Man on the Ceiling," a haunting, jointly-narrated metafictional meditation on family, love, and fear:

"And the world also has in it: Werewolves, whose unclaimed rage transforms them into something not human but also not inhuman (modern psychiatry sometimes finds the bestial 'alter' in the multiple personality).  Vampires, whose unbridled need to experience leads them to suck other people dry and are still not satisfied.  Zombies, the chronically insulated, people who will not feel anything because they will not feel pain.  Ghosts.

I write in order to understand these things.  I write dark fantasy because it helps me see how to live in a world with monsters."

It is because she and her husband understand this human darkness so well, and describe it with such sympathetic insight, that In Concert makes such a fine, harrowing volume of speculative fiction.

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