Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Man on the Ceiling

I've never been much given to philosophical ruminations on the "nature" or "purpose" of horror or dark fantasy or any type of speculative fiction.  It's a large, abstract question, and like most large abstractions it bores me silly.  Such questions invite the answerer to indulge in banal, often self-serving generalities, offering nothing that's interesting or really, deeply true.  Beyond that, I have little interest in the metaphysical, the metaphorical, the spiritual as ways of approaching human existence.

How, then, to explain my enthusiasm for The Man on the Ceiling, a 2008 novel by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem that expands on their 2000 novella of the same name?  Novel and novella alike are, among other things, an attempt to explain why the Tems write dark fantasy and what doing so means to them, in terms that often brush up against the laden metaphors I so dislike.  What makes the difference, I think, is the sentiment that appears in the first line of the novella and on the first page of the novel.

"Everything we're about to tell you is true."

And it is.  The authors go on to say, "Don't ask me if I mean that 'literally.'  I know about the literal.  The literal has failed miserably to explain the things I've really needed explanations for.  The things in your dreams, the things in your head, don't know from literal."  That's another sentiment I ought to despise.  Maybe this is a sign of my own limitations, but I've never needed any frame of reference beyond the literal to make sense of the world.  So why don't I despise it?  Because, while some of the book may not be "literally" true, much of it is.  As the back cover of the novel versions notes, this is a work that "blurs the line between memoir and myth, where story and reality blend to find the one thing that neither can offer alone: truth."  The Tems are not merely spinning abstractions about the purpose of writing.  They are explaining, with reference to the tragedies and joys of their own family life, as precisely as they can, what their writing means to them.

It would be easy to be glib about this.  Too often the presence of a fictionalized version of the author in horror fiction is a gimmick, a way to provide a veneer of "reality" to a ghost story or something similar.  One could dismiss the way the Tems use "the man on the ceiling," a shadowy figure seen by night, as a metaphor for the fears and weaknesses that lie beneath the surface of even the happiest family's day-to-day existence.  But there's a directness to way they write here, a poetry of simplicity that makes the metaphor work.
I follow the man on the ceiling around the attic of our house, my flashlight burning off pieces of his body, which grow back as soon as he moves beyond the beam.  I chase him down three flights of stairs into our basement where he hides in the laundry.  My hands turn into frantic paddles that scatter the clothes and I'm already thinking about how I'm going to explain the mess to Melanie in the morning when he slips like a pool of oil under my feet and out to other corners of the basement where my children keep their toys.  I imagine the edge of his cheek in an oversized doll, his amazingly sharp fingers under the hoods of my son's Matchbox cars.
But the man on the ceiling is a story and I know something about stories.  One day I will figure out just what this man on the ceiling is "about."  He's a character in the dream of our lives and he can be changed or killed.
The original novella, slightly altered, makes up about 50 pages of the 370 page novel version.  The new material continues the examination of the Tem's lives through the framework of story, of their lives as an act of storytelling, of storytelling as one of the ways in which people keep themselves alive.  There are times, it is true, when this longer version seems too long: too diffuse, too repetitive, too reductively aphoristic.  But there is always the pull of family history to give the novel a shape, to remind us that this is not merely writerly contemplation but real human beings confronting their real lives.
Moments cast in amber.  Invisible rooms.  Reality puddling.  Breakthroughs from and into the divine.  I hasten to protest: Steve and I don't always live like that!  Not everything is fraught with Meaning.  Like everybody else, we bumble through most of our daily lives attending to basic maintenance: doing laundry, going to the dentist, stocking up for whatever disaster might come, getting a haircut, walking the dogs, earning a living.
But even in the daily doing of what must be done, transcendence finds a way to creep in.
Looking back over this review, I can't help but feel that I've done what I've accused others of doing, shaping sentences that please me, gliding smoothly over the surface of a topic without getting inside it as I ought to.  But I'm unable to explain precisely what it is that makes The Man on the Ceiling work.  I sometimes suspect that, despite the air of contemplation I aim for when writing reviews, my reasons for liking and disliking things are deeply primal, inexplicable, irrational.  Maybe everyone's are, and the very act of reviewing is simply a form of barking at the dark.  Probably not.  But at this moment it's something I can believe, the story I want to tell.  And at this moment, perhaps, that makes it true.

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