Steve Rasnic Tem’s Ugly Behavior is a short story collection, not all about crime, but also about how circumstances can lead people to do sometimes terrible things. It’s a book you can sniff, see and feel, and in parts it will have you shifting and shuffling from its grime. The behaviour is often worse than ugly, it’s brutal and hideous. But it’s all so good.
The stories are about many things, and includes a lot of body horror, but loneliness scars every one of them, where characters’ isolation leads them into strange psychological territory where they can only communicate with others through pain, highlighted in stories such as Blood Knot. The protagonist states he never understood women, but he seems never to have tried. Now he has a wife and three daughters, but has idolised women to the point of de-sexualising them. As his daughters get older and they start wanting to go out on dates, so the father gets increasingly jealous, and just plain weird. “Mothers and daughters,” he tells the reader, “they always have these secrets that no man alive can understand.” Here’s a man isolated even within his own family, a man so lonely he theorises about his lack of understanding, rather than finding out its roots. It all ends badly.
Another, Sharp Edges, tells the story of a woman who fears every sharp edge around her so much that penetration scares her, wondering why life is so cruel when she is so nice. Spotting her “niceness” is a man so socially inept that he thinks the only way to feel is at the point of his knife, and so he chases this woman – his love – vowing to either win her, or kill her if she won’t have him. It’s a nutty exploration of how people fantasise about others when they have nobody around them to keep them anchored.
Add to all this psychologically complex horror Rasnic Tem’s arresting language about the smells, touch and sights of dead flesh. In The Stench, Riley has “no time for uncleanliness,” but then becomes obsessed with the stench of homeless people, having sex with them, and slowly taking on their fumes. In Jesse, a boy prods his dead parents, both of whom he has laid out on their bedroom floor, obsessed by their smell and the way their skin decays with the hours. It’s as unsettling as anything in an already unsettling book.
As good as it all is, thank God it ended with a prime bit of comedy, Ugly Behavior, about a rock singer whose extreme performances have kept him in beer and drugs, but have to become more and more dangerous with each gig to keep the crowds from boredom. Every stage-piss and public masturbation brings him notoriety, but though she doesn’t understand rock’n’roll, all the upset it causes his grandmother still hurts – the only person who means anything to him. Funny, then, but still heartbreaking, in a book full of it.
It’s a book I wouldn’t read again, but I don’t think I have to. It’s all stuck in my head – permanently.