Summer of Sleaze is 2014’s turbo-charged trash safari where Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction and Grady Hendrix of The Great Stephen King Reread plunge into the bowels of vintage paperback horror fiction, unearthing treasures and trauma in equal measure.
I was fortunate enough to discover the horror novels of Thomas Tessier back in 1989, when I began working in a used bookstore just out of high school. Horror junkie that I was, my favorite authors were still limited to King, Lovecraft, Barker, Campbell, and a few of the splatterpunks. So I was grooving on the fact that I had access to all the beat-up old paperbacks in our horror section; it was time to branch out.
At the time of course I was an aspiring horror writer myself, so I wanted to know who else was out there and what else had been done. Maybe it was the Ramsey Campbell blurb on the cover of Finishing Touches (originally published in 1986, Pocket Books paperback from 1987), or maybe it was the promise of illicit thrills in those ribbon-bewrapped, ruby-tipped female hands that drew me to the book and take it home (why, I could take home any book I wanted!). Impressed by it, I then read a couple of his other books—The Fates, Shockwaves—and rather enjoyed them all, but when I began my blog Too Much Horror Fiction, I realized I couldn’t recall anything about them! Weird. Time for a reread…
Rereads can be tricky, especially when a quarter century has passed between. Readers change, mature, move on, give up, crave more challenging (or less challenging, whichever) literature. What was once revelatory at age 18 seems obvious and banal at 35. The opposite, happily, was true with Finishing Touches. I couldn’t believe how I’d forgotten the powerful dark undercurrent of eroticism that propelled it. Perhaps it was because it evinced a maturity I was unfamiliar with on first read, a sense of obsession I couldn’t quite grasp yet.
So many horror writers utilize the scary power and mystery and thrill of sex to snag indiscriminating readers, or they think publishers are more likely to buy a book with graphic or tawdry sex than one without. Whichever it is, few horror writers have written novels which so successfully fuse our erotic lives and our nightmare lives (Clive Barker certainly has, Anne Rice has, but they’re brand-name horror). I don’t mean to sound crass but to put it another way, Tessier writes like he’s actually had adult sexual relations with another adult, rather than the usual juvenile T n’ A that was so prevalent in horror of the day. Now sure that kind of approach can be good for a laugh or an easing of tension, but when in Tessier’s more literate, more intimate approach (he began his career as a poet), he illustrates how sex and horror entwined can create fiction of a most disturbing kind.
Finishing Touches begins with American Thomas Sutherland, just out of medical school, idle and alone, visiting London for six months before deciding what the rest of his life will be. He casually meets an older, odd little cosmetic surgeon drinking alone in a pub. Roger Nordhagen invites him out for nights of carousing in which Sutherland gets to see a London of elite establishments, the likes of which tourists never see. One such place fulfills dark fantasies, a playpen for the pampered few. But these dark fantasies will pale and recede once Sutherland meets Nordhagen’s assistant, Lina Ravachol. All alabaster features and raven-black hair, confidence and mystery, she soon has Sutherland willingly in her thrall. Sutherland is astonished that she desires him sexually, and their acrobatic, fantasy-driven trysts make him forget all about his past American life. Step by step Sutherland descends, all too believably; he seems a willing participant. How could he not be? Eventually Lina and Sutherland forge an unimpeachable bond in a moment of orchestrated horror, of sex and death, with an unwitting young woman (orchestrated, that is, by Nordhagen and Lina herself). Sutherland is now complicit, his darkest fantasies made flesh and blood, and Nordhagen can reveal himself as a modern Marquis de Sade.
Espousing a philosophy of cruelty, its necessity and ineluctability, the good doctor now shows Sutherland his life’s work, deep beneath his London offices, his medical talents have reached their fullest and most depraved potential. And it is obvious he wishes the young American and Lina to continue his mad work after his death from drink. Sutherland dares to ask, why?
“Why, why, why.” Nordhagen’s face brightened with interest. “You might as well ask why the Mayan civilization collapsed, why Kennedy rode in an open limousine in Dallas, why we came down out of the trees. What is why? There is no why; there is only now, and this, this now.”
Told in first person in a clear strong voice by a man who slowly comes to face the fact that he can plumb depths of moral—and sexual—insanity, but remain psychologically intact and even thrive, Sutherland is well aware of his descent. “There was a malignancy in me I could not explain away,” he states clearly. An exploration of men and women and the madnesses and obsessions they can succumb to and embrace, and even, perhaps facing extinction, use to forge meaning in the teeth of raw dumb nature, Finishing Touches resembles no other horror novel I’ve read. And even at the end Tom and Lina (whose namesake she seems to aspire to) desire to be a part of that nature, “instead of trying to steer it ourselves, we would have to learn to let it go its own way. Death and terror will follow, like leaves falling out of trees.”
Rapture followed in 1987; the story of a cool, calm sociopath, it contains nothing like what you see on the Warner Books paperback cover. Tessier’s prose and conviction kept me riveted. While Rapture isn’t as decadent or perverse as Finishing Touches, eros plays a large motivating factor in the disintegrating mind of Jeff Lisker’s growing obsession with an old high school friend (platonic, however), Georgianne. Both are now in their thirties and living successful lives on opposite coasts. When Jeff’s father dies he goes home for the funeral and tracks down Georgianne, in full stalker mode. He follows her from her home and pretends to “accidentally” bump into her as she runs errands. Soon he’s having dinner with her and her husband Sean, whose sarcasm, condescension, and impatience simmer barely below the surface (or is that just Jeff’s insecurity?). Jeff also meets Bonnie, their brilliant teenage daughter just out of high school—Bonnie, who looks not unlike Georgianne 20-odd years ago. Jeff’s fantasies kick into gear…
In one moment, Jeff decides he will simply take Georgianne from Sean. That’s all there is to it. No matter how. Georgianne will fall into his arms, and Bonnie would come after.
Sean was on the way out; he just didn’t know it yet. And why not? Why the fuck not? “Take her,” he said aloud. “I’ll just take her!” And as he said this over and over again, he fell in love with the words, what they meant and the sheer beautiful sound of them. He seemed to be completing a sentence he’d begun to form during some previous incarnation.
Tessier is also adept at the psychological study. His great trick in Rapture is that he so slowly guides us into Jeff’s mind, its rationalizations and inventions, its almost charming delusions, its grandiose planning and seeming lack of guile, that we don’t quite realize just how crazy he is—and when we do, his plan still makes perfectly logical sense. It’s why the book is so readable: it’s all easily believable, since the characters and situations feel so real. In writer of lesser skills, a couple of twists in Rapture would seem forced; Tessier makes them seem like destiny.
He had treated the whole thing like a problem at work… you let it simmer in the depths of your brain, and sooner or later the answer will come to the surface. It was, he reckoned, an essentially creative process…. He belonged to the select handful of individuals who had the courage, imagination, and sheer will to create their own destinies.
One step follows another, problems arise and are dispatched, all leading deeper and deeper into a conflagration of desire and death. “Desire” is key as well, as Tessier understands and presents sex not as exploitation, but as human nature. Jeff’s sex life, as well as his fantasies, are on full view in Rapture, and in this, we truly see his self-absorption. Women are to be dominated, to play along with his every whim, they are to pretend; they are not real in and of themselves. When the novel opens, he’s having sex with a woman young enough to still be living with her parents (“You won’t tell your parents?” “Not if you come back.” “You got me.”). Jeff’s almost willfully letting himself be blackmailed, but we know it’s only a game he’s playing.
I own most of Tessier’s novels now and look forward to reading them all, although I’m not sure if they can top the darkened sexual nature of Finishing Touches and Rapture. Tessier doesn’t simply toss in a peep-show of naked flesh willy-nilly; his horrors spring from honest exploration of our erotic impulses. His precise, sinuous prose, his empathic sense of human failure and delusion, and his effortless ability to pinpoint and expose the secret self that drives and even dooms us all make Thomas Tessier a horror writer that will satisfy the discerning horror fan.
Will Errickson covers horror from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s on his blog Too Much Horror Fiction.