Dead Trees: The Fates by Thomas Tessier

banner reading Dead Trees by Mark Sieber

I read all kinds of fiction. Horror new and old, classic science fiction, modern domestic suspense, mainstream, whatever suits my fancy. There’s a  special place in my heart of hearts for small town horror. The good stuff from the late seventies and early eighties. Charles L. Grant and his Oxrun Station stories come most immediately to mind. There’s Rick Hautala’s Maine. Matthew J. Costello and his early paperbacks. Peter Straub and the Chowder Society. Alan Ryan, Lisa Tuttle, Chet Williamson, A.R. Morlan, Al Sarrantonio, and T.M. Wright all set stories in cozy small towns. Let’s not forget Mr. King and his Castle Rock fiction.

You can go back further to things like The Stepford Wives, Harvest Home, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the roots of the subgenre.

Fall is here, and I’ve craved stories that take place on cloudy, windy nights. Dead leaves blown down humble streets. No Walmarts, no Sally’s, no Big Lots. Not a vape shop to be found, thank God. Quiet shopping districts with used bookstores, craft supplies, and junk shops that just might contain magic items. Or cursed objects.

Bake sales, festivals, cookouts.

Towns full of secrets, both mundane and mystical. Long-held grudges, past sins, buried evil. Strange occurrences, mysterious deaths, the unbelievable come to life. Good citizens banded together to combat foul forces that threaten the idyllic communities.

There’s usually one individual who dares to believe the unfathomable. A sheriff, perhaps. Maybe a doctor. Reporters were common. Maybe even a writer.

Predictable, generic, quaint, boring? Maybe for some, but like a favorite food or pair of slippers, I love easing into these comfortable little worlds. And I love seeing the towns shattered by something wicked coming to destroy them.

cover of The Fates by Thomas TessierI have read most of the classics in this appealing little genre niche. It’s been years, decades, since I did so. I’m always up for a good re-read. Looking over my shelves, my eyes settled on Thomas Tessier’s debut novel, The Fates.

I’ll say it right out front. The Fates isn’t Tessier’s best work. He even told me once that he isn’t particularly fond of the novel.  He developed his craft with his subsequent books. My personal favorites are Finishing Touches and Rapture. That’s all right. We don’t always need the best.

The Fates takes place in small town peopled with characters we might know. There are problems there, but minor ones — until mysterious blue clouds begin to appear before the citizens’ eyes. Faces can be seen within the swirling miasmas. The horrors begin with a cow, a car, and then a man imploding with no rational explanation to be found. The death count rises as the town residents try to comprehend what has descended upon them.

Various characters ponder the horror invading their town. A rather simpleminded and obstinate sheriff, an earnest young reporter, a befuddled Catholic priest, and a cynical high school teacher develop theories, and ultimately question their own existences.

Some think the phenomena is a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. Others seek rational explanations, such as weather aberrations or mass hysteria. Or perhaps, as the title suggests, the clouds are out of folklore. Daughters of the night come to punish humankind for the unhealthy way we live. Primal elements washing away the poison of society.

The Fates is far more grim than the average small town nightmare seen in old paperback originals. The evil isn’t so easily defeated and there is no happy ending for anyone.

While The Fates isn’t Tessier’s finest moment, it’s still miles above the majority of hellish paperbacks people celebrate these days. The concept is more original than most novels of this ilk, and the writing well above average. The characters are believable, the descriptions vivid, and the conclusion is deeply disquieting.

cover of The Fates by Thomas TessierAs for the very minor negative factors, there are a lot of people in The Fates, and a lot of perspectives. This sort of thing is tough to pull off, and the pacing of the novel lags a little here and there. Character depth could be richer, and perhaps double the novel’s two-hundred pages would have been a more emotionally satisfying experience. It reads like a first novel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Fates shows one of horror’s rarest talents in development.

The original splatterpunks drove a stake into the heart of the small towns that germinated the horror fiction genre. Transgressive horror of the nineties, bizarro, apocalyptic fiction, and the modern extreme movement have all tried to bulldoze over the parochial little hamlets that dominated the field.

You can’t kill small town horror. It comes back again and again, just as surely as Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Two of my favorite novels in recent years are prime examples of the form. Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires and Richard Chizmar’s Chasing the Boogeyman both take place in small communities. They are also set in the past. I don’t think it is a coincidence.

Horror people tend to look back to earlier days with longing nostalgia. Days before corporate overlords ruled over everything. When every move we made wasn’t traced, everything we said or did was not recorded. Before everything became so damned complicated, and fewer people were taking up sides and hating each other.

I’ll continue to read original, experimental, and groundbreaking horror fiction, but I don’t think I’ll ever stray too far from my home in the small towns.

Photo of Mark Sieber with a cat on his shoulder
Mark Sieber and friend

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. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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