Robert Brouhard's Antics in the Review Zone

In Concert: The Collected Speculative Fiction

by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

review by Robert Brouhard

Today's book, boys and girls, is In Concert: The Collected Speculative Fiction by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem and it is due out in August 2010 from Centipede Press.  Now, take note, the title of this book might or might not mean what you are thinking right now.  There is no singing involved, but this book does contain duets, so to speak (dang, no free compact disc).  A group of duets in which some are strange, some are beautiful, and some are intriguing.  In other words this book is a collection of the collaborative writings of two award winning authors, the Tems.  Yes,  they are husband and wife, and they are both accomplished writers on their own.  I have no idea how much each of the works in this beautiful book are full collaborations or if they are just, "Hey honey, why don't you say this here," types of deals.   Either way, it doesn't matter.   There aren't any strange shifts within any of the stories that show you that a new person is writing, which is great!

To be honest, I've never read a book or a short story by either Tem before, but I was more than happy to get a review copy (a paperback galley to be exact) to see how the stories were and share my thoughts with you.  I had heard of Steve Rasnic Tem before… but, of course, that is a hard name to forget.  I also have one of his novels in my "To Be Read" pile.  I can't really review the actual final book materials and artwork of In Concert since the hardcover version is going to have some full color artwork and be bound, well, as a hardcover.  The final version of this book will have a wraparound cover by Salvador Dalí, endpapers by Max Ernst, color plates by Marc Chagall, and be signed by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem (all of which were not included in the review copy I received).  There are, however, four wood engravings by Howie Michels in my review copy that are fascinating.  They are very unique, non-traditional, woodcuts.  Usually, wood engravings have a dry, stiff upper-class-ness to them or a biblical simplicity, but these are very loose and somewhat jarring in a couple of cases. I found myself looking at each one for awhile when I came to them.  They are placed at the beginning of the stories that they relate to. So, they won't distract you while you read… but feel free to go back and re-look at the woodcut after you are done with those stories that have one just to catch the little bits of the story references that are in them that you may have overlooked the first time. 

This collection contains the short story "In Concert," but a very observant reader will notice the term "in concert" being used in a few of the stories to show two things working together in unison.  I could hazard a guess that the authors use this term as an "in-joke" when they are writing together, but I could be wrong.  Either way, it gives the collection a running cohesion.  Has there ever been a husband and wife writing team before?  Yes.  Have they written enough to fill a collection of speculative fiction?  Probably not.  This book feels very unique.

In Concert is printed almost totally in publication order (from 1986 to 2010).  I have no idea if this is all of their collaborative output from that time period, but it is certainly a huge spattering of material.  To be honest, the book starts off with a Science Fiction tale that left me wondering if I was going to truly enjoy this book or not.  Not a bad tale, but a little weird for my tastes.  I really wasn't expecting any horror in the rest of the book after reading this story about aliens that are fascinated by human beings and use human prosthetic limbs in abundance to show it.  The twist ending, if that is what it was supposed to be, was easily seen well before I got to it. Enough so that I was saying to myself, "Okay, okay, blah blah blah, just say it/show it already…We all know it!"  Ha ha.  Maybe they shouldn't have started the book with it, but I still think having it in publication order was a good choice from a historical standpoint.  There is horror in this collection, and there is fiction, bizarreness, darkness, a touch of sci-fi, and some pieces that just defy categorization.  

If you are a Mary Shelley or Frankenstein fanatic, you will love the short story in here called, "The Icy Region My Heart Encircles."  If you've never read Frankenstein (SHAME!), you will still enjoy this little tale, but a large percentage of it will zoom past you.  If you know a lot about Mary Shelley herself (kudos to you), this tale will fill you with delight with its wealth of inside information.  I suggest that the average reader do a touch of research on Mary Shelley's life and family life (via an encyclopedia or Wikipedia or even a biography) before diving into this.  It will make the story sing to you a little more.

A lot of passages throughout this book are amazingly beautiful to read.  Some sentences belong in your best poetry collections.  There are similes that ring out like bells over flowering fields and images that you see so vividly in your mind's eye that they are hard to shake off.  Most of it isn't too convoluted, but it isn't your average 6th grade reading level stuff either.  This is what I call, "smart literature."  No fluff included.  It makes you think… and it may make you re-read or even grab a dictionary once or twice (if you really want to know more).

Some of the short stories are more about the journey than the destination.  It is easy to have a group of short stories that are all great but constantly disappoint with their endings.  Thankfully, only a tiny amount of these have endings that are unsatisfying, but even those you might not mind because you've just had a delicious meal and don’t care that the dessert is chilled bat testicles.   

I'll be honest.  I didn't like every story in here.  One left me confused and in a foul mood.  Another had one section in it that disgusted me so much that I almost didn't want to continue reading the book (but even that sick and twisted bit was still strangely beautiful).   I don't want to go into detail about this just because I don't want to stop you from giving this short story collection a try.   My cup of tea is different than yours.  Your favorite story of all time may be the one that I like the least.

If you've run across a Steve and Melanie Tem story before in another collection and didn't like it, I urge you to find another one of their stories and give it a try.  They don't re-hash their ideas.  Each story is extremely unique.  The final cover of this book will be a Salvador Dalí piece (not the same as my review copy), and that is very fitting.  Dalí's work is bizarre, beautiful, and fascinating… a lot like the stories in this collection.  And like Dalí's art, taking this collection one piece at a time is a good idea because taking in too much at once may make your head spin.

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