And 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.
I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. This clever little line from an old Bob Dylan song sounds innocuous and playful enough, but in Finishing Touches, it takes on a dreadful, terrifying enormity. 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.
“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.”
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.”
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... and the reader is even a bit sympathetic, which is the scariest thing of all.
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 (to a lesser extent, his 1979 novel The Nightwalker also has a twisted sexual element). 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.
(This post originally appeared in slightly altered form as part of "The Summer of Sleaze" on the Tor.com website)