Figures Unseen by Steve Rasnic Tem is a collection of horror tales for grownups. Oh sure, if a reader really wants to find them, there are ghosts and werewolves and corpses and other staples of the commercial side of the genre to be found. But there is also a boy on a fishing trip in an impossible city with nary a stream in sight. There is a poverty-stricken family whose empty life somehow becomes filled with mysterious combs. The horror that lies at the hearts of these stories, even in the stories that do include ghosts or monsters, isn’t derived from some external supernatural threat that’s set up to be defeated or overcome—or not—by a hero or protagonist.

Instead, the real impact is delivered in the more visceral sense of unease that comes from within, a feeling most commonly experienced in bad dreams. It is the recognition of a wrongness, a realization that things in the world are not quite as they should be, even though we and all of the people around us behave as if everything is normal. It is the feeling that our life is constrained to track where things don’t make sense (figuratively, or in the case of the story “Escape on a Train”, literally). There is no authority figure, no one to impose a sense of order, and we have to wonder, is this wrongness a product of our own perceptions or is it the outside world around us that has gone terribly askew? Although we don’t really and honestly believe it, we must conclude it is we ourselves, and not the world, that is somehow wrong. Otherwise, why and how could everyone around us act as if all is right and normal? Why do we ourselves act as if all is right and normal?

This collection, selected by the author, contains just shy of three dozen stories. The shortest is four sentences. That’s just one paragraph, not even a quarter of a page. The longest clocks in at only eighteen pages. The low word counts may tempt the reader to consume several stories in one sitting, but this would be a mistake. Each story is an intense experience in and of itself and is best fully digested before one moves on to the next. Even the one-paragraph tale, “2 P.M.: The Real Estate Agent Arrives”, deserves a period of rumination and contemplation. The full implication of what is communicated in fewer than sixty words is in equal measure terrifying and, unfortunately, plausible.

The book begins with “City Fishing,” the titular story from a previous collection of Tem’s work from the year 2000, which was a collection of more than thirty new and reprinted tales. “City Fishing” is a good choice to start the book. In addition to being one of his strongest pieces, it establishes the mood for his style of storytelling. The main character—and through this character, the reader—understands life has somehow gone badly sideways, but few of the other people involved appear to feel quite the same way. Indeed, they seem to revel in the wrongness of the world, all the while ignoring it. It’s a theme repeated throughout the collection and one that makes these stories so masterfully distressing.

Figures Unseen - Selected Stories (cover)Next up is “Angel Combs,” another story that begins in a setting of normal and familiar, if depressing, reality. It then takes the reader afield and into the weird. “Angel Combs” is perhaps not so unsettling as Tem’s other stories in that the strange events are, for the most part, recognized by the characters as being something that is out of the ordinary. But the tale deserves particular attention in that this story is referenced in the book cover illustration, a whimsically disturbing text-based piece by the ever-talented Henry Petrides.

Much of the collection has to do with family and the duties and obligations owed to one’s parents, siblings, spouses and children. This theme is another characteristic of Tem’s work that allows his stories to burrow right to the core of the reader’s emotions. A killer clown in the sewer, to cite a more mainstream example from the genre at large, is something that can be brushed aside as fantastical. But for a person to feel oneself to be a failure at work and subsequently to condemn their family to life in a nasty, tumbledown house, well, this is the meat of true-life dread. For a person to scrimp and save in order to buy their child just one nice thing, only to be humiliated when it turns out the savings are not nearly enough, this is the potatoes of real-world despair. The narratives may be different from one another, but there are common threads among the stories: ‘I didn’t pay close enough attention to my sister and she was taken.’ ‘I was late to pick up my son from school and he was run down by an unfathomable quirk of nature.’ ‘It was because of my life choices that my mother was injured and her health failed.’ These are the types of things that can make grown, mature adults lie awake in bed at night in a state of unease, and these are the types of situations with which Tem builds his fiction.

All of the stories from Figures Unseen have been previously published. Whether by design or chance (and given Tem’s workmanship, it is difficult to believe any aspect of his writing has been left to chance), the order of presentation of the stories works well in that Figures Unseen places some of the strongest pieces at the very beginning of the book, helping the reader to understand what can be expected of the tone and pacing of the collection. “Firestorm” is an exceptionally solid work that anchors the center of the collection, and stories such as “Grandfather Wolf” and “The Bereavement Photographer” take the reader down the home stretch toward the final story, “Red Rabbit,” which closes the book out in such a manner that leaves absolutely no doubt as to Tem’s voice and his mastery of the craft.

The introduction is by Simon Strantzas, himself a respected writer and editor of short weird and horror fiction. Even for readers already familiar with Tem’s work, Strantza’s piece is well worth reading before moving on to the main event. And for anyone who has not previously encountered the stories of Steve Rasnic Tem, Strantza’s background information and commentary should be required reading, not because Tem’s fiction doesn’t stand on its own, but because there is so much more to be experienced from it when the reader is in the proper frame of mind. Strantza sets the stage for a more complete enjoyment of the work.


By Raymond K. Rugg

Raymond K. Rugg writes, reviews and researches SF. He is the editor of the speculative fiction anthology Life on the Rez: Science Fiction and Fantasy Inspired by Life on America’s Indian Reservations. A transplant from West, he lives in New England with his wife, author/historian Ariel Rodman.

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