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Reassuring Tales by T. E. D. Klein

Reassuring Tales

by T. E. D. Klein

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Ted Klein's 2006 collection Reassuring Tales is a slim and expensive book; the retail price for the cheaper of the two editions is $40, and the book is a mere 167 pages long. Even more alarming, Klein himself describes the book as a curate's egg ("good in parts") in his introduction, where he dismisses four of the stories as boring and describes two more as badly dated. But all this creates a misleading impression: the book is so pricey because it's a signed limited edition of only 600 copies (I own copy 302, if for some reason you care), and Klein's judgment of his own work, while perhaps refreshing, is far harsher than that of most readers, including myself. While the pieces collected here do tend toward the slight and the traditional, they're charming in spite of (or because of, or whatever) those flaws.

The first story, "Camera Shy," gets a particular beating from Klein, who describes it as "overlong and obvious." Obvious I'll grant him- any remotely aware genre reader will see will the story is going by the foot of the first page. Overlong, though, is a stretch, especially as the story is all of 10 pages and perhaps 3,000 words. A work of that duration could perhaps be overlong, but "Camera Shy" ain't it. The tale plays out in a familiar manner, but the light touch of Klein's prose makes it much more impressive than a synopsis would suggest. It's a pity the story was never published in its intended manner, which Klein describes in the introduction and would have been neat to see.

Next is "Growing Things," the only story here I'd previously read. It was included in the landmark horror anthology 999, which I read about half of a couple years ago. At the time I didn't much enjoy it, because I lacked the appreciation for the sort of subtle horror of which this story is the epitome. One of the briefer pieces in a brief collection, it suggests an incipient nightmare in the most innocuous of surroundings. One of the finer pieces in the book.

"Curtains for Nat Crumley" shows a more humorous side of Klein's work, and has a few neat plot turns as well. It's difficult to say more, save that what looks like a dutiful exercise in traditional horror turns out to be rather more inventive in its creepiness. Not a personal favorite of mine, but fine work. "Magic Carpet" is brief enough that its simplicity is forgivable, as is the thoroughly predictable "One Size Eats All." The latter, at any rate, was originally published in a children's magazine as a campfire story, so bold originality was scarcely called for.

"Ladder" is probably the best of the nine short stories. Klein considers it too long, which again suggests that his standards are superhuman, and at any rate the story could scarcely be shorter than it is, for reasons that will become clear once you've read it. The story of a man searching for the meaning of his life, "Ladder" is simply a clever concept with an underlying horror that is so effective simply because it's unusual. "Well-Connected," on the other hand, is a rather by-the-numbers ghost story that is rendered worthwhile only by Klein's eminently readable prose.

"S.F." gets perhaps the most abuse of any of the stories in Klein's introduction, where he describes it as "excruciating." That's a bit much. It's not a terribly clever story, certainly, but despite being the longest of the nine stories it's a brief and enjoyable enough read. As is "They Don't Write 'Em Like This Anymore," which is strictly speaking a pair of outlines for a TV episode rather than a story. A paean to pulp magazines, this story-concept is by far the gentlest of these Reassuring Tales, and wouldn't have been out of place on The Twilight Zone. It has no real substance, but it made me smile, and that's all I can really ask.

Nearly a third of the collection is given over to the novella "The Events at Poroth Farm." This work eventually evolved into a component of Klein's only novel, The Ceremonies, which I will likely be reading later this month. Influenced by Machen and Lovecraft, it describes the gradual degeneration of a young academic's life during a summer spent reading Gothic fiction in rural New Jersey. In a sense I've just given away the plot, but this isn't a story driven by its narrative; it's an exercise in atmosphere, as the narrator's reading list, the humid and insect-infested world around him, and his uncertain relationship with his hosts gradually build up the reader's sense of fear and awe. "Like Lovecraft, with characterization" would be the high-concept description of this novella, but this reaches beyond mere pastiche to become one of the great works of modern horror.

The works reprinted here are by and large not major ones; Klein's reputation will, I imagine, continue to rest on the novel mentioned above and the novella collection Dark Gods. But there's something in his style that makes it difficult for me to dismiss even the most minor stories in this volume. The introduction suggests that excessive length is a particular frustration of Klein's, and I think that may explain his particular appeal: these tales are as pared-down as his gradual style allows. The book's low page count, which might seem a disincentive, is actually the opposite, a sign of first-rate prose talent even when the imagination lags behind. Reassuring Tales may be a collection of marginalia, but it's some of the most essential marginalia the horror genre has to offer. ( )
2 vote brendanmoody | Feb 24, 2008 |
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Collection of horror stories by T. E. D. Klein:


"Camera Shy" ss (short story)
"Growing Things" ss
"Curtains for Nat Crumley" ss
"Magic Carpet" ss
"One Size Eat All" ss
"Ladder" ss
"Well-Connected" ss
"S.F." ss
"They Don't Write 'Em Like This Anymore" (two treatments for unmade TV episodes)
"The Events at Poroth Farm" na (novella)
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