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The Man on the Ceiling: a Horror Reader Exclusive Review

Temmanonceiling The names Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem should not be unfamiliar to readers of dark fiction. For those few for whom these names are strangers, this Horror Reader certainly recommends immediate correction. Though I've long been more a fan of the Tems' short fiction than their longer works, this latest book (an expansion upon their multiple award winning, collaborative novella The Man on the Ceiling) has quickly rocketed to the top of my list of  Tem pieces. It is a marvel to read, insightful and informative. However, one enormous question lingers for this reviewer after finishing the work:  just what the hell is it?

The authors themselves dub it a biography of the imagination, and this acts as a pretty good encapsulation. However, while evocative, it does not really allow a beleaguered reviewer such as myself to find the proper box to check, the proper category to file this under.  Pity the uninformed reader relying on this reviewer's words (I suppose there might be one such being in the world; leave me my dreams, will you?), who might remain clueless as to the many faceted treasure that lays between this work's covers. Let me flounder for a spell, and perhaps my fellow Horror Readers might understand my difficulty.

While The Man on the Ceiling features its titular character "in the flesh" so to speak, and while he is something ghastly, this is not a horror novel. And while the book attempts to capture both the "authors" (for the narrators of this particular story are Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem, but are these the real deal or fictional creations-- ala J.G. Ballard? While the phrase "Everything we tell you is true" is repeated quite often here, this is by no means the literal truth.  It's a truth of a completely different sort, that of delicious verisimilitude) as individuals and as components of a "nontraditional" family, the book is not quite a memoir (fact and fantasy interweave without mercy, dropping the reader into a world far too wonderful, far too awful, and far too honest to be the everyday real world). While there are plenty of snippets of short fiction, this is no collection. These short stories do not really stand as well on their own as they do amongst the details in the rest of the work; less short stories than parasitic anecdotes, perhaps. While advice to prospective writers abounds, this is no mere "How To Git (sic) Published" volume. Where the narrators offer plentiful meditations upon the value and importance of story (again, as a vessel of truth), this is by no means the sole of wit and thought on display.  As with Whitman, this sucker is vast.  It contains multitudes...

Has this reviewer made plain the difficulty? Just what am I supposed to file this under?

Why nothing and everything, of course, and that's what makes a work like The Man on the Ceiling truly excel. It is actually sui generis. It is beyond genre and yet built from genre. A curious puzzle, engaging in its emotional honesty and clear voices. Indeed, there are two distinct voices to be found here. Alternating passages are written from Melanie and Steve's perspectives and each manages to share levels of intimacy often reserved for good poetry.

Through the manifold aspects, we find several recurring themes.  The importance of accepting responsibility, enduring the worst hardships, and attempts to define what a family actually means.  In this book, the family is composed of the Tems and their several adopted children (as well as parents and, eventually, grandchildren). While many joys have visited this family, so has tragedy. One of their sons committed suicide (Or did he? Was it some kind of convoluted accident? Could it have been prevented? These and other, deeper questions haunt the narrators, particularly since those narrators have the sort of minds that come up with those worst case scenarios called horror fiction). From this starting place, the novel then explores truly fascinating avenues, plumbing the depths of all those subjects I indicated above (and quite a few more) in a sometimes surreal, often hypnotic fashion (and bonus points for invoking that quirky mathematical term asymptotic!), but always, always returning to the concept of family. If this sounds suddenly unappealing, let this reader assure you:  The Man on the Ceiling deals with this topic in a classy fashion, deftly avoiding the clichéd, saccharine idealizations dominating our culture. Perhaps you are familiar with the sticky sweet model found somewhere between the Hallmark Card aisle and the latest Hollywood/Lifetime Channel tearjerker. My family shares little similarity to the type those tearjerkers champion, and while my family is certainly not like the one presented in this book, there are more elements from the Tems' account that I empathize with. As writer, as thinker, as son, as grandson, as husband.

Yet there is real horror to be found here. Not the safely removed sort, but the kind that crawls down your throat and sets to breeding inside your belly. The sort that all the best dark fiction authors regularly strive to evoke. These successes come not from producing simple entertainment, but from tapping into something far deeper in the subconscious, those uncomfortable levels of unflinching emotional honesty. In the murky depths of this honest place, fiction can become truly disturbing, striking a chord in the reader and transforming empathy into something altogether undesirable. There are several moments of purest nightmare in The Man on the Ceiling, more than I expected to find from the rather casual tone, in fact. Much to my delighted (and disturbed) surprise.  Open this book if you dare, and find something truly unique.

The Man on the Ceiling by Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem
384 pages
Wizards of the Coast Discoveries
Release: March 2008

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