At one time, T. M. Wright was like Alan Peter Ryan, Charles L. Grant and so many others—just another name I’d heard here and there, most often in a quote from Ramsey Campbell (also, at that point, just another name), which said: “T. M. Wright is a one-man definition of quiet horror.”
That alone was enough to pique my interest. At the time, I was reviewing horror for Shroud Magazine, receiving monthly stacks of Leisure Fiction ARCs. While I enjoyed most of Leisure’s output, very few Leisure authors spoke to me. So many of those stories revolved around genre trappings, not the human experience, and because of that, I wasn’t sure that “horror author” was a title fit for me. Not if what I was reading counted as the sum total of “horror.”
Enter NECON 30. In between panels I was browsing the dealer room, picking through a table of used books, at the very beginning of what would eventually become my ongoing quest to unearth horror novel gems in used bookstores everywhere. I came across a novel with a very understated cover of a girl standing before a glowing door. It was T. M. Wright’s novel The Place. I again saw Ramsey Campbell’s quote on the back cover, and thought to myself: “What is this ‘quiet horror?’” I bought it, went back to my dorm and started to read.
I was sucked right in. The Place stood in stark contrast to most of what I’d been reading from Leisure at the time. The main character Greta was a special needs child—probably with Asperger’s Syndrome, though it’s never named in the story—trying to understand a world she doesn’t quite fit in to. She has a “place” she goes to, a place made real through her thoughts. There’s a weak and ineffectual father who knows he’s weak and hates it, and a mother desperate to save her son. And yes, there’s a psychopathic killer, but the story didn’t exist to glorify his exploits. He wasn’t the center of the novel’s horror.
The Place was subtly written. It built suspense very slowly, and was written with a sense of restraint which spoke to me. The prose was fine-tuned, possessing a sense of rhythm and balance that I, at the time, had found lacking in most contemporary horror fiction (again, it should be noted, I discovered The Place before I discovered Charles L. Grant).
For the very first time, I thought to myself: Hey. I think this is the type of stuff I’d like to write.
The next T. M. Wright novel I read was The Island. It’s about a winter resort lodge in the Adirondacks, and I read it, appropriately enough, on a winter day when everything was covered with snow. In any case, like The Place, The Island was mostly about a group of humans and their insecurities, petty jealousies, hopes, dreams, and nightmares. Yes, there’s things under the ice waiting for the right moment to consume everyone. But it was the people that mattered. Because we’d gotten to know them—their fears and hopes, their strengths and flaws—their potential fate generated the fear and tension, not the monsters.
In many ways, this novel worked on me even more than The Place. Wright ratcheted up the tension and managed to carry it through the whole novel. Mundane, small, almost trivial things became fodder for shivers. And I felt so much for many of the characters. His characterization was painstakingly crafted. And, like The Island, the prose flowed in a smooth, unobtrusive way which made me envious beyond all reason.
On to A Manhattan Ghost Story, probably one of the most surreal, psychologically disturbing ghost stories I’ve ever read. The ghosts in this novel exist as disembodied beings inhabiting a shadowy parallel dimension existing next to ours. A dimension which often bleeds over into ours, seamlessly. They carry out a listless, stumbling existence which could very well be described as hell on earth. There’s no peace for these ghosts—at least, not that anyone knows—but they also have no agenda. No vengeance to carry out.
They simply are.
With no purpose or direction. That’s what makes them so frightening, existentially speaking. Most unsettling is that they don’t haunt empty houses, crypts or graves. They exist, in their own way, alongside us. They’re folks we see every day but don’t quite remember. A cab driver who seems a bit odd, but we can’t put our finger on why, and we forget what he looks like soon as we get out of his cab. Passerby on the street who drift past us like mist. Folks who don’t seem to quite fit in.
They suffer from a deep spiritual pain, from their sense of loss and dislocation. They don’t know what they are, or what they used to be. They only possess vague intimations; like a stray thought caught on the tip of their tongue. And, when they do realize what they are…they become dreadfully angry.
My next T. M. Wright novel was Little Boy Lost, sent to me for review in its reprint edition from Uninvited Books. Little Boy Lost was another story in which horror lay in loss and grieving, not bloodshed and capering demons and monsters. And I’m not just talking about the disappearance of Miles Gales’ son, but his loss of self. His inability to save not only one son, but his failure to protect the other. The loss of his first wife, and the “loss” of his second wife to the horror that she becomes…a horror too big to ever possibly comprehend.
Also, Little Boy Lost was structurally complex in a way I’d only seen in Peter Straub and Gary Braunbeck’s novels. Non-linear, with several different threads moving through the past, present, and future, which connected in an impossibly neat, circular fashion.
That was it. I was hooked. At a key time in my development as a writer, I discovered T. M. Wright and “quiet horror,” and everything changed.
One thing which has struck me throughout my exploration of T. M. Wright’s work is how much he returns again and again to the themes of loneliness and isolation as the source of his horror. The throughline of Wright’s work seems to be how impossible it is for any of us in this mortal existence to actually know each other completely. No matter close and intimate we think we are, there are always sides hidden and depths unplumbed, if only because we can never really know ourselves, and therefore, can never truly know one another.
Also, whether intentionally or not, born from personal experience or his perspective, many of Wright’s novels deconstruct traditional images of masculinity. As much as I love Dean Koontz’s work, his male protagonists are always upright, trustworthy, humble, selfless, and brimming with honesty, integrity, and full of good will and good intentions (and I’m not saying anything bad about those characters—I’m of the opinion we need characters like these). Even Koontz’s jaded, flawed characters embark on redemptive quests which they more often than not complete successfully (again, this is no slam against redemptive-quest narratives: we need those, too).
However, Wright’s male characters are often shockingly weak, timid, petulant and selfish. The husbands especially seem incapable of communicating with their wives in any meaningful way, and they often fail to understand what their wives truly want. Of course, implicit in this is that the husbands themselves don’t understand what they want, contributing again to one of Wright’s main themes: we can’t truly ever know anyone else, because we can’t ever truly know ourselves. Not in this life, anyway. A marvelous example of this is Wright’s novel Cold House.
Oddly enough, however, though some of Wright’s male characters admittedly come out weak and moderately unlikeable, they’re still sympathetic, in their own way. I truly felt bad for Jack Harris in People of the Dark when he loses his wife to an inexorable horror he’s incapable of understanding, a horror Erica has always known about, and has hinted to Jack all along. In his limited, flawed way, he tries everything he can to “save” Erica from this horror, and fails, as he was always going to.
We all want happy endings. We want to see the monster beaten. The good guys win, to see someone “saved.” And, in my own way, I do think that’s very important for readers to see. If we’re going to show the dark aspects of the human experience, we should show the light, also.
But very often, Wright’s novel’s lack these “happy endings,” and they often lack resolution, because that’s an essential part of his horror: life doesn’t always gives us that neat resolution. Just as we are incapable of fully understanding each other in life, we’re also incapable of fully understanding our existence, as well.
Another defining characteristic of Wright’s work is the slippery, surreal feel of his stories. It amazes me how quickly and subtly Wright slips from the mundane and slightly odd, into the supernatural and surreal. His Strange Seed series—comprised of Strange Seed, Nursery Tale, The Children of the Island, People of the Dark, and The Laughing Man—builds the mythology of strange, human-like beings (who are NOT human, at all) born of the Earth itself.
Again, like in Ghosts of Manhattan, Wright casts these people from the Earth as existing all around us—and they don’t quite fit in. They’re not quite like us. They are not quite human, because they came from the Earth itself, and will someday return to the earth, also. Through these novels, Wright seems to be questioning the notion of identity, and once again returning to a consistent theme: what we think we know about ourselves may very well be an illusion, and confronting the truth of our nature is the worst horror of all, one we often can’t survive.
The School is a prime example of Wright at his surreal best. Frank and Allison Hitchcock’s marriage is suffering after the tragic, accidental death of their son. As a last-ditch effort to start over, they buy an abandoned school in the countryside, hoping of turning it into a bed and breakfast. However, they soon discover the school is haunted. By what, we never quite understand or learn. At best, we think that somehow, someway, this abandoned school has been sitting over a “crack” in reality, and the Hitchcock’s arrival and their moving into the building widens that crack and lets all sorts of strangeness come through.
In many ways…it’s novel without a plot. It shouldn’t work, at all. We’re given very little resolution or clue as to what’s happened. And yet…Wright’s surreal atmosphere clings to the reader, pulling us deeper into a very strange web which we can’t ever quite escape.
I could go on for pages. The Playground is about a small community of psychics who foolishly think they can tamper with and understand the existential machinations of Death. Carlisle Street is about how an entire place can haunt a house, instead of just a person. The Woman Next Door is a psychological study of a truly amoral personality who gets comeuppance when one of her victims comes back to punish her. In all of these novels, Wright crafts a subtle, strangely off-kilter reality, in which characters who are all too-human and weak struggle and flail against a universe which is unceasingly strange and unknowable.
In my own fiction, I tend to over-explain, unfortunately. A habit I’m trying more and more to curtail. Do I want to write exactly like T. M. Wright? Of course not, because quite frankly, some of his novels don’t explain enough. However, Wright offers us a horror much deeper and more chilling than monsters, demons, or ghosts: our reality is more than it seems, and even if we got a chance to peek behind the curtain, we’d never understand what we saw there, because if we can’t even know ourselves and those around us…how can we ever know the unexplainable?
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.