Genre fiction, fantasy and horror in particular, is often hidebound and stifled by its own conventions. We seem to want the more obvious monsters and demons, in as colourful and thrilling ways we can meet them. Yet, in the end, the most popular forms are the literature and media of reassurance: we need the baddies to die in the end. But life isn’t like that, which Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem’s brilliant book, The Man on the Ceiling so ably demonstrates.
I use the term “fiction” loosely, however, since this work is not fiction, but rather an imaginative joint autobiography with fictional elements – and everything told within its pages, as the authors state repeatedly, is true. It started life as a chapbook, and I first read it in its short form in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, so was delighted to discover that it had become a full length book.
So what’s it about? Interesting question. On the surface it’s about Steve and Melanie (writers both of genre fiction and highly respected as such) and their family of five adopted children. It’s about their journey through life, the joys, and griefs, the ordinariness and the strangeness of it all. It’s about how story makes us who we are. How we make stories to try to understand and cope with the challenges of living day to day. And it’s about the man on the ceiling, the real shadow presence in their family’s life: demon and angel both; and neither one of those things. It’s also about how, sometimes, story and words, are simply not enough: Steve overwhelmed by the death of one of their children, retreating to his attic room or driving without paying attention; Melanie trying to keep everything together, for the sake of the other children, and her husband as much as anything. It’s about how they try to make new stories after the appalling catastrophe.
By the time I’d reached the third chapter I had wept several times. It’s not often a book can make me cry, and this one did…last time that happened was with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Everything in this book is true. It’s the human condition, and anyone who reads this can empathise or relate to what is within these pages, just as we know (if we’re paying attention) the man on our own ceiling.
The Man on the Ceiling is filled with true terror – enough to make the reader’s mind chill with how real it is. But it also contains humour, drama, joy and sorrow. Most of all it is full of love. The way all great stories are. And, believe me, this is a great story. And it’s all true, of course.
The Man on the Ceiling smashes through the confining walls of genre, with originality, boldness, wit and, as much as anything, superb writing. By any measure a masterpiece and if there was justice it would have won a few mainstream literary prizes. But it didn’t because, in the end, it’s just a horror story – isn’t it?
Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem website: