Dead Trees: Shockwaves by Thomas Tessier

It was the early years of my decades-long love affair with horror fiction. I blazed through the Stephen King books that had been published at the time, with Pet Semetery being the most current. It was 1983 — a very good year for the genre, with even better things were on the immediate horizon. I eagerly devoured the Peter Straub books that were available, and they were among the finest pieces of fiction I had ever read. I enjoyed books by James Herbert, Whitley Strieber, Ramsey Campbell, John Farris. I read landmark novels by brilliant talents such as F. Paul Wilson and T.E.D. Klein. There were numerous markets for short fiction, and I was blown away by pieces from Karl Edward Wagner, Richard Christian Matheson, and Dennis Etchison. And of course I marveled at the works of Charles L. Grant. The field was on fire, and it was an incredible time to be a fan.

It was late in ‘85 when I bought a well-read paperback of Thomas Tessier’s The Nightwalker. I took Stephen King’s recommendations of horror books seriously, and if he said that a book was worthy of my time, I made a point to find a copy. At the time I was living on a boat. It was cold, and sparse, but my needs were met. I was trying to save up to get my own place, but one extra-cold Saturday I went and paid for a motel room for the night. A nice warm bed, privacy, and even a TV for the evening. I read The Nightwalker in one sitting that afternoon.

I liked many of the writers I had been reading, but this was sometime different. The Nightwalker had the literary finesse of Peter Straub, but the writing was more economical. Perhaps even more intimately human. The Nightwalker remains one of the finest books on lycanthropy ever published. If, indeed, it is even about a werewolf.

Fast forward one year. I had finally gotten my own house. Sure, I was renting, but it was mine. Shopping around a used bookstore one morning, looking for titles and authors of interest, I happened upon another book by Thomas Tessier. The cover of it was absolutely atrocious. I almost felt embarrassed to buy it, but I don’t usually let that sort of thing affect me.

Shockwaves was part of an aborted series of dark romance novels called “Night Shades: The Darker Side of Love.” I think there were only four books in all, and I never bothered with the other ones.

It was a cold day, I was comfortable on my futon, and Christmas was less than a week away. I didn’t have any family, but friends would be in town for the holiday, and I knew we’d have a good time partying. So I was inordinately content that day as I began reading Shockwaves. And the foreword of the novel will warm the cockles of any true blue horror fan.

A young couple are returning from a drive-in where they just watched a double feature of Dawn of the Dead and The Corpse Grinders. The boy is horny, the girl is cautious. She fends off his advances and sends him away at her parent’s doorstep, but another young man knocks on her door. This new stranger charms the young lady, then he brutally murders her.

As the novel proper begins, the reader is introduced to Jackie, a pretty and pleasant, but rather naive college student. Somewhat adrift in her life, Jackie makes the acquaintance of a dynamic and powerful attorney. Brooks is older, driven, and has political aspirations. Jackie is swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance, and they are quickly married. Maybe she should have been suspicious of his obsessive, almost bloodthirsty commitment to capital punishment.

Their relationship at first seems like a real-life fairy tale, but the romance sours quickly. Brooks gradually spends fewer hours with his newlywed, and devotes his time and passion to his career. Jackie has everything she ever dreamed of but love and happiness. Things worsen as Brooks becomes abusive, and she begins to discover evidence that he is corrupt. Gee, a corrupt lawyer? I told you she was naive.

Meanwhile the killer, known by the press as The Blade, continues to kill. Traveling, winning the trust of women, and mutilating them. The fates of Jackie, Brooks, and The Blade seem to be inexorably tied.

In other words, don’t expect a happy, Cinderella-style ending to this dark fairy tale.

I was entranced by Jackie’s sad descent into despair. Not a lot of books have held me as tightly as Shockwaves did. But you know the funny thing? Tessier has stated that he doesn’t like the novel, and that he considers it to be his worst. Well, I’ve read everything the man has published (except his poetry collections; I am still looking for reasonably-priced copies of them), and it is easily my favorite of his books.

Thomas Tessier has been called horror fiction’s biggest secret, and I don’t think he is being read by enough newer fans. Shockwaves would be a terrific place to start. As would The Nightwalker. Finishing Touches, published in 1986, is a harrowing modern Grand Guignol novel that would have been right at home in the next decade’s Dell/Abyss line of subversive horror books, but it is much better than the majority of those books. Fogheart is a more traditional ghost story, if that’s your sort of thing. Rapture is a nail-biting novel of suspense.

None affected me as profoundly as did Shockwaves. I recommend it, with a small caveat: Tessier can be kind of obtuse, and if you are the sort of reader who requires everything to be spelled out and logical, it might not be for you. There is often a dreamy, surreal nature to this author’s work, especially when he works in the short form, and Shockwaves has an enigmatic ending.

If that does not thwart you, I urge you to enter into the bizarre love triangle of Jackie, Brooks, and…The Blade. But you might have to make a bit of an effort for this one and actually purchase dead trees. I do not believe that Shockwaves is currently available in electronic form. Which could be a blessing. You wouldn’t want to get an unpleasant jolt while reading it.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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