T.E.D. Klein, Reassuring Tales (Subterranean Press, 2006)
He heard the creak of ancient floorboards, the scurrying of rats, and the squeak of hand-forged hinges as a massive oak door was slammed shut. From somewhere below came the crackle of flames and the clamking of metal on rock. Footfalls echoed from a monstrous stone staircase and reverberated through the gloomy halls.
Which was odd, on the face of it, since he was living in a studio apartment.
-- T.E.D. Klein, "Curtains for Nat Crumley"
T.E.D. Klein has never been truly prolific. The 1980s saw the publication of several short stories, in addition to his novel, The Ceremonies, and the terrific novella collection, Dark Gods. Klein also edited magazines during that period, and his editorials were always a joy to read. Then something happened. A second novel, Nighttown, was on Viking's 1989 schedule but has yet to surface. And, whether due to writer's block or simply a personal choice, the 1990s saw only four short stories from him (and the anomaly of a screenwriting credit for Dario Argento's film Trauma).
Reassuring Tales, Klein's first book since Dark Gods, brings the new four stories together with earlier ones that were never collected, and a 3,000-word introduction from the author (not included in my reviewer's copy). And that's it, making for a very slim volume. But Klein's work was always a perfect example of quality over quantity, and these stories are no different in that respect. Some may be upset, however, by the $40 asking price, especially since fifty of the 160 pages are taken up by the classic novella, "The Events at Poroth Farm" (the thematic inspiration for The Ceremonies), which has somehow gone uncollected but has surely been read multiple times by long-time fans (for whom this publication event is undoubtedly geared). But I'm sure that there will also be fans who are just as glad to have it alongside its fellows for once.
Despite the soothing title, readers need not be concerned that the author has chosen a new sort of literary direction; there's nothing at all "reassuring" about these "tales." In "Camera Shy," afather notices something odd about his daughter's wedding photos, and "Growing Things" is an unassuming little tale about a couple and their fixer-upper, while "Magic Carpet" (a rarity originally published in a fanzine) reminds us not to think too much about things that seem impossible.
Klein finds the strange in an everday situation and sneaks it up on you. He is so good at this kind of layering that my opinion of a given story would sometimes change as the skins were peeled away. Like how "Ladder" -- the story of a man who knows God has a plan for his life, but doesn't know what it is -- went from interesting but unremarkable, to disappointing as I tried to guess the ending, to exceptionally clever when it threw me a curve that at the same time was completely faithful to what came before.
This style is familiar to viewers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone; Klein was even the editor of the latter's namesake magazine for four years. (A perfect example of this is found in "Curtains for Nat Crumley," wherein the story of a retired collection agent whose life is changed forever is revealed piece by piece until we realize that what's really going on isn't anything at all like what we thought.) On the surface, this description would seem to imply that Klein's writing is cliched and out-of-date, but there is a reason why those two shows are as popular today as they ever were: They're still highly effective! Klein's stories will stand the test of time as well.
"One Size Eats All" is the perfect campfire tale. Not only does it take place on a camping trip, but the ending is also ideal. I could hear it being read in a spookily triumphant voice, and it affected me the same way those stories did when I was younger: I simultaneously got chills and laughed out loud. "S.F." starts out with a listing of all the different phrases these letters can stand for, and then manages to include a number of them in this story told by a great-grandmother in a letter to her "Willie, precious." Epistolary stories are hard to get right, and Klein manages to inject an unexpected level of pathos, too. "Well Connected" is the only story that is just okay, simply because once you get to a certain point, it is easy to predict the outcome, and because the ending itself is not presented in an especially striking manner. But even journeyman Klein outshines most.
Also included in Reassuring Tales are two versions of a television treatment (presumably never before published), either of which would have been perfect for an episode of Amazing Stories, called "They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore." Klein has somehow managed to create two different tellings of what is essentially the same story: A man's childhood subscription to a pulp science-fiction magazine, cancelled by his strict aunt due to her disapproval of its content, is mysteriously reactivated. The difference really comes in the characters' reactions to the event.
Finally, "The Events at Poroth Farm" wraps everything up nicely. It's obvious why this novella has become a classic of the form: It is truly remarkable. It begins slowly, eases into a leisurely pace that suits it perfectly, then keeps up that pace for the duration, all the while surprising us with portions of unease along the way -- never where expected, and always welcome.
It is formed around such a simple plot that it is difficult to summarize without losing the element of surprise. A New York lit professor, eager for a break from Manhattan's hectic pace, decides to spend his summer living on a Mennonite farm in New Jersey, where he will have plenty of time to prepare for his fall curriculum by reading the wide selection of gothic horror novels he has brought with him.
Then weird things happen. That's really all I can say. How these strange events tie together within the narrative is part of the joy of reading this story for the first time. "The Events at Poroth Farm" chilled me. It left me uneasy and its effects have stayed with me for days. As a bonus, it also left me with a reading list of gothic horror novels, a genre in which I am woefully underread.
So, I guess I'm sold. Reassuring Tales really is worth the price, and the wait. Horror fans shouldn't hesitate to plunk down their hard-earned cash for this new T.E.D. Klein collection . . . because who knows how long we'll have to wait for the next one?
Check out some of the other offerings from Subterranean Press.