Review: “The Man on the Ceiling” by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

Cover artGenre 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: http://www.m-s-tem.com/tems/blog1.php/home

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Review: “Isis Unbound” by Allyson Bird

Isis Unbound coverWith a nod to Frankenstein, and Shelley’s poem, Prometheus Unbound, as well as references to pulp adventure stories, Isis Unbound by Allyson Bird is a hugely entertaining and staggeringly original first novel which combines steampunk with dark fantasy and horror. It’s easy to understand why it won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel.

Set in an alternate 19th century Britain, the tale unfolds in a Manceastre rules by a governor general related to a descendant of Anthony and Cleopatra. A new Cleopatra (a direct descendant of the original) makes an appearance, too – and the image of the queen on her royal barge in the city’s shipping canals is truly memorable.

But the tale really begins with Chief Embalmer Ptolemy Child’s two daughters, Ella and Loli, aged eighteen and ten, who are being instructed in the secrets of the mummification process when the dead begin to rise and roam the streets as zombies. The cause is infighting between the Egyptian Gods, who are busy trying to kill each other and Isis, the goddess who takes the dead to the other world, has been murdered by her sister, Nepythys.

The undead are not, however, your typical brain-eaters of current popular fiction. Instead they are creatures of pathos. We feel deeply sorry for these people, who are neither dead nor alive, yet long to be fully in one state or the other. The true villain of the novel  is the Governor, with his horrific political machinations, tortures and murders. The Gods themselves are not much better, though their motivations are somewhat different from the governor’s, and politics – albeit celestial politics – play a role in their shenanigans, too.

There are no heroes here, but complex and flawed human beings, such as Ella herself, an opium addict, and often rather selfish.

In the fantasy genre in general, I find many novels far longer than they need to be. With this one, it’s the opposite – if anything, Isis Unbound is on the short side. In other words, I wanted more! The reason I say this is that there is so much going on. Isis Unbound is fine example of world-building on a compressed scale. Indeed, had the author written one volume just from Ella’s point of view, another from the point of view of the Gods, and a third from the evil governor’s, it could have worked as a trilogy. Which touches on a small aspect of the novel that did not appeal so much – multiple character points of view in individual chapters, which can be confusing at times. I would rather have a single point of view, if not for the entire novel, at least chapter by chapter. Having said that, plenty of big name writers sometimes do the same thing, so it may just be my personal preference.

The other very minor carp was that I felt the prologue was unnecessary. Prologues are a trope of many fantasy novels, and often read like info-dumps. Personally, I would have rather seen these details folded into the story rather than loaded at the front, although I also question whether the prologue was necessary in the first place. It’s such a fantastic story as it is that being dropped straight into the action would have done the job perfectly well, sans prologue.

Isis Unbound is by turns creepy, startling, and riveting. The mix of steampunk and fantasy and horror is unique, as far as I am aware. A truly wonderful novel, full of adventure and emotional depth, as well as terrific writing. I can’t wait to read what Allyson has in store for us next.

On a side note: I could easily imagine Isis Unbound as an HBO series, given the success of Game of Thrones at the moment.

Allyson Bird’s website is: http://www.birdsnest.me.uk/