Steve Rasnic Tem is perhaps a slightly lesser-known but undeniably distinctive author whose short, dark fantasies have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies over the past several years. Calling this latest collection of stories “his first foray into crime fiction,” however, as New Pulp Press’ jacket blurbs would have you believe, is a tad misleading.
As Tem himself points out in his introduction to UGLY BEHAVIOR, these stories are “about the terrible things we do to ourselves and each other,” and later notes, “The other thing that sets these stories apart from the majority of my work is that no fantasy elements are involved. These terrors here are the daylight terrors of human interaction.”
So while some of these interactions are indeed criminal, there are no familiar mysteries here, nor crimes awaiting the intervention of some private or public law enforcer. Rather, these stories give us the same kind of creepy shudders we enjoy from the more menacing works of such notables as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson and Joe R. Lansdale.
The 19 stories vary in length. Leading off the collection is “2:00pm: The Real Estate Agent Arrives,” which — in just five lines, and with the precision of a poet — presents a disturbing scene that instantly embeds itself into your memory. Slightly longer, but no less potent, is “The Cough,” where a man suffering from both a nagging cold and the unexplained disappearance of his wife suddenly discovers that his two maladies are frighteningly related. Then there is “Stones,” a tale of a man who, whenever overcome by weakness, finds solace in a place of huge boulders and repays the stones through a haunting ritual.
Some of the more memorable, longer entries include “Rat Catcher,” where a homeowner hires a sinister local exterminator to rid his house of the hairy vermin, only to later learn the unsettling motive behind the rat man’s skills. “In His Image” tells how the routine life of a professional photo manipulator in his cluttered apartment is turned upside-down by the visit of a woman who lives down the hall — and wears a mask covering half her face. The title story is about a rock star renowned for his bitter, hate-filled lyrics and outrageous stage antics until he experiences the ultimate tribute from a fan.
The longest and most notably subtle among them all is “Saguaro Night,” published for the first time in this collection. A daughter recalls the final days she spent with her father, an artist and a lifelong loner, and how their lives and her father’s work was forever altered by a unannounced visit from her jilted boyfriend.
At just under 220 pages, UGLY BEHAVIOR is amazingly varied in its settings and plot concepts. It comes highly recommended to those who savor late-night chills regardless what time of day it is, and is a wonderful introduction to Tem’s remarkable creativity and stylings. —Alan Cranis