Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thomas Tessier - Wicked Things

Thomas Tessier's Wicked Things opens with insurance investigator Jack Carlson learning he's to go to the town of Winship to investigate a run of accidental deaths. When there, he soon discovers that things are not as they seem. Alas, exactly what they are like is never quite revealed. I'd say that this review has SPOILERs, but, to be honest, that would be implying that Wicked Things has a coherent plot to spoil. This is a generic horror novel set apart only by its numerous, numerous shortcomings.

To put it nicely, Wicked Things does not have too fast pacing or too slow; it has no pacing at all. To convey the utter aimlessness of this book, perhaps I should try and convey some of what happens. The first half of this slim novel (two hundred and forty-three pages total) quite literally consists of Jack faffing about. First, he attempts to speak to the man at the center of the claims, who appears nervous. Then he calls Jack and asks for a meeting the next day. Aha, this seems like where the case will be solved! Well, no, first Jack has to wander off and have sex with the secretary, though not without first acknowledging that: It was not a good idea to mess around with any woman connected with a case you're working. (p. 55) It's forgivable though; something, after all, has to happen around page fifty. After that, it's understandable to think the plot would get moving. Not quite. Instead, Jack investigates a few of the claims on their own and discovers… nothing. He goes to the prior established meeting, only to discover his contact killed, along with the woman he slept with. The killings tell him nothing. Left with no clues, Jack decides the best idea is more leadless investigation, none of which turns anything up.

To be fair to the novel, Tessier does have a decent detective voice going, one with enough dry remarks to keep it entertaining, but it never goes anywhere. Jack is a blank slate, characterized only by the occasional reference to prior loves that go utterly unsubstantiated. The only thing that stops him from becoming a full blown enigma is how damn boring he becomes once the reader understands that he's defined by nothing but a case there's no obvious reason for him to be personally invested in at all. Even the seasoned ring of his descriptions of prior cases soon seems hollow as the reader realizes that Jack is inept at discovering anything at all, though it's admittedly uncertain whether that's through his own limitations or more due to authorial roadblocks.

What I hope you're getting from all this is the complete lack of momentum displayed by this book. Quite literally, Jack Carlson causes none of the events of Wicked Things. Instead, things (of the nominally wicked variety) simply happen to him. His investigations reveal nothing; his interrogations are busts, one and all; his sources uncover nothing. Not only that, there is – as I said before – no reason for Jack to insist on staying the case once his boss urges him to pull out. Five pages from the end, Jack realizes that "Part of [him] wanted to Winship and the whole ungodly mess behind." (p. 238) Five pages from the end, the main character can only half bring himself to care and still can't think of a rational reason to remain. And the reader, despite Tessier's attempts at being both shocking and horrifying, can't either.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Throughout the first section, what Tessier's trying to do is clear. Winship, when first glimpsed, is paradise, and we're supposed to gradually realize the darkness within, something set up as early as the second chapter: It was the kind of area some people would call God's country, but they could have it. I see a pretty lake, and I can also see the big, ugly, old snapping turtle hiding beneath the surface, ready to bite off a chunk of my big toe. (p. 16) And so forth, snake in the Garden of Eden, and all that. The problem – well, one of many – is that Tessier is incapable of making us realize anything gradually. No, Tessier proves incapable of any levels of tension between climactic and flaccid. Jack is either strolling along confident or seeing a murderer in every bush. The town isn't so much sinister as segregated, with nice picket fences over here and a sin strip that would make large cities like Boston and Philly downright jealous (p. 204-5) over there. The insurance claims look completely and utterly believable, and then the owner shows up with some pals and rifles (fear not, though, reader! The situation's defused without anything so fascinating as backwoods murder). Put simply, we never see an idyllic community's dark heart; we just alternate between seeing the idyllic community and Hell itself.

As for the supernatural in the book, that's even worse. Mostly, we've got strange flashes, auroras, mysteries with the ground, and, above all, strange little children. But Tessier's style, reasonably assured as it is for interpersonal interactions and the dialogue that forms much of the book, falls horribly short when called upon to create any sort of atmosphere at all. No, the changes in tone that are supposed to feel disorienting and awe inspiring instead come off as befuddled and poorly lit slapstick. Of these, the worst is the aforementioned children, who supposedly sing perpetual and ethereal choirs but never rise above the image of elementary school kids wearing ghostly sheets. When they manage to beat up our tough guy detective protagonist, one doesn't conclude that they're super strong, just that, for a private eye, Jack Carlson has the bulk of a kindergartener.

The novel's second half, kicked off by the murder of Jack's initial love interest and the potentially scheming insurance agent, seeks to monopolize on the groundwork laid in the first half. This might have worked better if any groundwork had, in fact, been laid. As is, when a secondary character starts rambling about how  every single official in Winship – even the churches. Especially the churches. (p. 117) – are "like the Nazis, man," (p. 117) she doesn't so much come across as prophetic as she does unhinged. So how does Jack investigate all these people and even the churches? Why, by bumbling around accomplishing nothing and waiting for someone to hand the information to him, of course! I shouldn't give the impression that he's totally inactive, though. Jack does, after all, find a second girl to have sex with, this time an exotic dancer named Kelly who calls him daddy and gets wet when he talks.

And then we come the climax, which – as mentioned previously – doesn't have five pages build up. So, who turns out to be behind everything? How does the supernatural fit in? What does the mysterious Order of Saint Michael got to do with Winship? Well, the novel's last line sums it up pretty well: Paranoids are the only people who get it. (p. 243) As it turns out, every single person in the entire fucking town was evil, and every single one of them has nothing better to do than to ensnare Jack Carlson in the most convoluted web ever seen in inane fiction.

Now, I don't have an inherent problem with Everyone Dies style endings. In fact, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I've even written one such story. But the difference is that, first, mine was ten, rather than two hundred and forty-three pages long and that, secondly, it was not simply a standard story with the protagonist failing rather than succeeding at the end.

But no, that's not quite being fair to Tessier. This is not a standard man v. world story where the man loses. No, freed from the burdens of having to have it all tie together at the end, Tessier shows us a monumentally inept example of horror and detective fiction, where the reveal – they're all evil!!!!! – serves to do nothing but piss all over every single piece of character motivation previously established. If Jenny was evil, why did she tell him about the Order of Saint Michael in the first place? Why do people disappear? What do the tikes in white have to do with anything? Why didn't the townspeople, if it had no problems with murder, kill Jack Carlson days ago? Or when he's alone with them, as he is on dozens of occasions? How does such a small town have such a huge sin strip, anyway? Why are they in this whole conspiracy? Why does none of this make sense? And, above all, why should I fucking care? The final revelation that nothing makes sense leaves us with an utterly pointless and senseless story that spent its time not on showing the irrational nature of the world, or on conveying the author's most extreme and/or darkest visions, but rather on setting up threads that limped to nowhere and keeled over as they got there.

Also featured in this volume is the novella Scramburg, USA, an unrelated tale of small town justice that shares many of the main attraction's faults. We begin with local hotshot Howie Hackett out of town. Howie, incensed, sneaks back in to wreak some havoc with his friends. At this point I should point out that Howie's idea of vengeance has a lot in common with most peoples' ideas of domestic terrorism; he and his friends blow up cars and throw bombs at buildings. A town cop, determined to impress the newspaper mogul so he can win office as the biggest badass cop in town (and to not be outdone in the category of being complete psychotic), rounds up a fellow Vet, and they proceed to torture and execute Howie and his pals.

The characters are sketches, but much of Scramburg does prove entertaining in a slasher-esque, stuff blowing up kind of way, the allegory's not bad, and it's refreshing, after the main novel, to read something with at least the pretences of a fast pace. But there's one fatal flaw in the heart of Scramburg: the reader can never, even for a moment, fail to see Tessier's hand guiding everything towards the largest blast. Perhaps a part of this is that the novel's divided into neat sections, each of which focuses on one side and shows not a single setback for them until Tessier decides he's exhausted their possibilities for mayhem and switches to someone else in turn maiming/slaughtering the first group. But whatever the reason, not a single action here feels organic. How does Howie think terrorism's going to help him, exactly? Why do his relatively normal friends go along with this plan? Why, if the cop is trying to gain publicity, does he quietly kill Howie rather than arresting him? Why do Howie and his pals come back as ghosts to kill their killers, when the story up until then has had not the slightest hint of the supernatural? As far as I can tell, the answer to most of those questions is to attain the maximum amount of blood, and it certainly is attained, even if Tessier has to skimp on believability and common sense to get it.

On the cover of Wicked Things, there's a quote from The Washington Post saying that Tessier is one of horror fiction's best kept secrets. Some of you dear readers might have once noticed a similar quote adorning Thomas Ligotti's The Nightmare Factory, namely that Ligotti was the best kept secret in horror fiction. I know, I know, I bring Ligotti up all the time, and I really should stop. But I'm not the one who made the comparison here, now am I? The idea that Tessier is in the same league as Ligotti is, frankly, laughable. Tessier's brand of horror is the epitome of fun and mindless, but it fails even at that. I'll admit that I find the plot of Wicked Things, boiled down to its essence – private eye enters an evil town, is utterly overwhelmed and killed – rather amusing, in a sarcastically macabre kind of way. Tessier, however, fumbles every single aspect of the book's execution, ending with a product both nonsensical and actionless, aimless and devoid of spectacle. Let me put it like this: Wicked Things is rubbish. Don't read it.

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