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Having grown up on a steady diet of Hitchcock (films and TV show), the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and Night Gallery, I’ve always had a penchant for horror and suspense, both in film and in literature. And it is perhaps because of growing up with these influences that horror seldom actually scares me. It is rare for me to read a book or see a movie and get chills down the back of my neck or worry what might be lurking on the other side of the door in my dark apartment as I read. I just know it all too well. I’m jaded that way. And I have to say that Lee Thomas’ extraordinary collection of short stories is no exception. None of the stories actually scared me. They did something better: they disturbed me.
One of the things that I love about the horror genre is that it — like sci-fi — when done well is one of the most interesting and entertaining ways of examining the human condition. Thomas, who has quickly and deservedly become the writer to watch in the dark fiction genre, shows himself to be a master of this with In the Closet, Under the Bed. Each one of these stories is incredibly crafted, with tight, clean prose that evokes mood — sometime brooding, other times ominous and even comedic — and creates wonderfully well-rounded characters. These are characters that each of us have met at one time or another in our lives…and perhaps more intriguing is that at times these are characters we ourselves may have been.
And that is what disturbed me so much about Lee Thomas’ stories…I’m in them. Not in every story, but in a fair number, I find myself there. Little aspects of who I am creep in that feel familiar, whether it is the man who hides behind his computer…or his career…or his wife and kids. Finding pieces of myself in these stories made me squirm inside as I read, and at times made me angry or uncomfortable to the point of saying, “I don’t want to read anymore!” But, of course, I read anyway. Because I had to know how it turned out for them and, in a small way, for me.
Now part of this connection to the characters may be that Thomas is certainly writing characters with a gay perspective. But as I read on, I found a universality to the stories. A point where I sat back and realized that many of my straight friends would also love this book. Because I recognized little pieces of them in there as well. And that was creepy, too.
Now, not every story worked perfectly for me. The more experimental pieces left me feeling a bit empty, but that really is more a comment about my particular preference than Thomas’ authorial skill. But even in the very few pieces I didn’t love, I still walked away thinking, wrapping my head around the subtle themes that run through each story.
That is another thing Thomas does very well with this collection. He entertains the hell out of you, but underneath it, he lays in a subtle commentary on the human condition, and, in particular, the gay human condition. There are stories about being in the closet, about the 21st century’s love for disposability in products and relationships, about growing older. But the beautiful thing is that it is done so subtly, not only do you not notice it until the story is over, that what Thomas is weaving into the stories is wonderfully malleable, open for interpretation. After I read all the pieces, I ran through the Foreword and the Afterword and the nuances of theme that David Thomas Lord and Michael Rowe discuss therein — as often as not — were very different than my own interpretations. And that…that is what makes wonderful fiction and impressive dark fiction. Each of us gets to see what we want to see.
In the end, this comes together as one of the most impressive collections of dark fiction I’ve read in recent years. I understand the reputation that Thomas has earned. Boy has he earned it. It’s all right here in these 15 stories. Because what Thomas does so well is to remind us that late at night when we’re alone, the most disturbing thing that we can find lurking in the closet or under the bed might just be ourselves.
IN THE CLOSET, UNDER THE BED
by Lee Thomas
Bram Stoker Award Nominee, Lambda Literary Award Finalist
Dark Scribe Press
Paperback, $16.00, 270p