Review of Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Figures Unseen”

Editor’s note: The following is a review for the short story collection, Figures Unseen, by Steve Rasnic Tem. We’re also featuring a story from this collection, “Red Rabbit,” which we invite readers to check out.

A little over seven years ago now, I read Steve Rasnic Tem for the first time. This experience came via his long short story, “The Man on the Ceiling,” which he co-wrote with his wife, Melanie Tem. To put it simply, this story helped broaden my idea of what horror and weird fiction could be. It frightened me and broke my heart in equal measure, this tale of dark shadowy presences, their status never fully literal or figurative but there nonetheless, affecting the Tems and shaping their lives whether they liked it or not. The writing was matter-of-fact and simple, but complex in the emotions it evoked; the strangeness of the story was strange, and the figure of the Man on the Ceiling clawed into my brain for years and resurfaced in my own moments of pain and sorrow.

Those strengths are ever-apparent in Steve Rasnic Tem’s Figures Unseen, published by the impressive Valancourt Books (who have been doing marvelous work bringing lesser-known Gothic gems back into print). These stories have been selected by Tem himself, taken from years of short story collections. After reading this new collection and reflecting on my own first experiences with Tem’s writing, I can say with certainty that he is a treasure for our field. His work, as I mentioned before, will haunt your imagination and your heart in equal measure, and it both expands and defines the genre.

If you have never read Tem’s work before, this would be an ideal place to start, since it crystallizes his strengths so capably. Tem has a knack for crafting believable characters that readers become easily invested in; we crawl inside their heads and feel their fears, sorrows, and desires as they try to make sense of their surreal worlds. We are so heavily embedded in his characters and how they feel about their circumstances that questions regarding the “reality” of these story-worlds ultimately become moot; what matters more is that they’re real to the characters, and therefore real to us.

Out Late in the Park” is an emblematic story in this regard. I spent a fair amount of time trying to reconcile all of its disparate aspects: a group of senior citizens playing baseball in a park with childlike attitudes; a strange woman with a dark red tongue who always seems to have insects in her mouth and disappears when the protagonist looks away from her; the confusing, indeterminate passage of time in the story, where even the characters don’t know what will come for them from one day to the next; and more elements I don’t want to spoil. Suffice it to say, the struggle to understand is the story. Near the end, the protagonist narrates, “Each morning we awaken to find that life is a bit less understandable.” This statement doesn’t just provide the guiding principle for this story. It could very well provide the principle for the collection as a whole. More importantly, though, that struggle always feels very real and, more often than not, full of sorrow.

What really impressed me in Figures Unseen was the range Tem displays with regards to the severity and kinds of surreality in the stories. In “The Bereavement Photographer,” the specter of weirdness is subtle, only cropping up in the title character’s suspicion that dead children come alive for brief moments of flickering anger and sadness when he takes bereavement photos for families at the local hospital; beyond that detail, the story could easily take place in our own world. In “City Fishing,” though, it’s hard to find anything that does feel like it belongs in our world. There is a father-son hunting trip, which is something that happens fairly often. That trip takes the characters into the heart of a crumbling city, though, down a street that plunges into a darkness which feels otherworldly and scary to the characters (and, again, to readers). The nature of what they are hunting is ambiguous, but definite enough to set a reader’s teeth on edge.

This is one of those collections where, because of the variety of approaches and styles deployed by Tem, the reader will very quickly gravitate to certain stories based on their preferences. “Angel Combs” is a personal highlight, as are “Wheatfield with Crows” and “The Figure in Motion.” I also enjoyed “The Company You Keep,” which, without spoiling much, could be read as a perspective-flipped version of Ray Bradbury’s “The Crowd.” “A House by the Ocean” is a slippery, melancholy ghost story as only Tem could tell, and “The Cabinet Child” put me in the mind of a very delicate kind of Victoriana-inspired fantasy, with an ending revelation that will, again, break your heart. “Red Rabbit,” which is reprinted here on Weird Fiction Review, is another highlight. If that story is your first exposure to Tem, much like “The Man on the Ceiling” was mine, expect the imagery and the emotional dynamic of that story to stick to you like honey, or something much darker and redder.

I will also say: if you pick up this collection and read it — and you definitely should — don’t just rest here. Explore Tem’s other work, which includes hundreds of short stories and several novels. His writing is a treasure trove, and it will provide inspiration for many a budding artist or writer, much like it did for myself. Tem’s writing makes the weird and the horrific deeply personal, and it clings to our imagination not just for its uniqueness, but also for the recognition at the heart of it that the horrifying sorrow of his characters is our sorrow, too.