Book Review: Figures Unseen by Steve Rasnic Tem

Steve Rasnic Tem’s name first came on my radar from an exceptional episode of Pseudopod, where his series of strange and autumnal “Halloween Street” stories caught my attention. Accordingly, I filed the name away for future research and subsequently started to notice his name pop up in bookstores, online discussions, and author interviews. People were saying good things, and in all actuality, they had been for awhile. I learned Tem had been writing for around forty years and Valancourt (rather conveniently, I might add) had a ‘greatest hits’ collection of his best work, with an icing-on-the-cake introduction by Simon Stranzas (Burnt Black Suns, which is an awesome collection and could easily be added to the best horror available on Kindle Unlimited). While Figures Unseen is my first real encounter with Tem’s work, I found myself enraptured by something distinctive and individual—the sometimes sad, sometimes terrifying, perennially acute voice of a new-old master.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a handle on what a writer can do. No one writes just one thing—there exists a spectrum  of ability. In Songs of a Dead Dreamer you can see Ligotti handle grounded, traditional horror that taps into the cosmic with stuff like “The Frolic.” Then, you can also see him go stranger, grimier, and more ethereal in stories like “The Nyctalops Trilogy.” Same author, different aims. In a collection, I want to see the breadth of an author’s talent. I want to see their range, but also through that range, I want to see the common-ground that overlaps into the Venn diagram of their actual identity. For me, I need to see the author between the lines—call it weakness, if you will, but I like to see even genre fiction through the lens of a human expressing something.

So, this was my chance to get a clear picture of the man who wrote those weird and spooky “Halloween Street” stories, and it honestly wasn’t who I expected. Figures Unseen reads like a melding of Raymond Carver and Franz Kafka. The stories are short and unmistakably human—taking place in the intersection of our lives and the weird. In this twilight, Tem manages to cut through our bullshit and show us a mirror image of our very real lives—lives plagued with both melancholy and absurdity. As the collection progresses, the stories keep getting more incisive and emotionally rich. More importantly, Tem’s observations and renderings of the human condition feel timeless, with their keen insight coaxed through surreal horror.

Strange families, or the danger inherent in the family unit is a theme that pops up throughout the collection. “City Fishing” turns father-son bonding into a nightmarish rite of passage. “Invisible” finds a man and wife crushed under the loneliness of their existence. “Grandfather Wolf” is perhaps one of the most interesting and affecting werewolf stories I’ve read, and surprisingly absent of any actual transformation—just a beautiful, tender story of a grandfather and granddaughter drawing together. Through all these and more, we see people struggling with change, expectation, and validation, but also with other people. When Tem’s characters bounce off each other, we glimpse their frailties, and in a broader sense, our own.

Tem’s only weakness is that some of his stories lose themselves in their own weirdness, where the dreaminess of his stories drowns out the characters and narratives and settle into mood pieces that, when coupled with more of their ilk, fly by in a flash, leaving the reader with only a vague impression of their identity.

Most of the time though, his writing is punchy and purposeful, bringing life to the whispiest of narratives. There’s a line from “Miri” that serves as a great example of not only Tem’s prose, but also his content. In it Tem writes, “For there was this other sad truth. Men who never expected to be loved, who’d never even felt much like men, had a hard time saying no when the opportunity arrived, because when would it ever come again?” In that mysterious Venn diagram, where I see not just the genre boundaries an author works within, but also, who they are—Tem delivers with concise and poignant observations delivered in lyrical prose. It stands to say, of all the books I’ve read recently, I spent the most time highlighting in Figures Unseen.

Tem finds the root of a feeling in each story he writes, and using his Weird toolbox, he goes about yanking them out, one by one, so that with each story finished, we’re left with the throb of a raw nerve. The confrontational aspect of horror demands not only a confrontation with the unbelievable, but also with ourselves. Through these stories, collected from throughout Tem’s career, we see the shadowed corners of our own world—the gazes we can’t return; the facts we can’t acknowledge. We’re left with Figures Unseen—an excellent introduction to an author who has been whispered about too long, and now deserves to be read, wide and loud.

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