Thomas Tessier,
Father Panic's Opera Macabre
(Subterranean Press, 2001)

When Neil O'Netty's car breaks down on an informal tour of rural Italy, he takes refuge in a rambling old mansion peopled by several old eccentrics and one ravishingly beautiful young woman. Things couldn't seem better for Neil, particularly when Marisa Panic proves starved for companionship, both intellectual and sexual.

But the house is strange and its inhabitants stranger. Without any overt action, author Thomas Tessier builds a setting that is tense and unsettling -- even as he seems to be focusing on romance and eroticism.

But then a clandestine encounter in the basement -- a tryst enhanced by ancient, filmy masks that adhere closely to the face -- propels Neil back in time to a terrible period in history, when beastly Croatian soldiers put Nazi brutality to shame.

While the first half of this slim volume is both disquieting and sensual, the climax is horrific. Acts of wanton violence spray the reader with gore -- without benefit of enough historical context to make sense of the scenes. Death in its ugliest form is hammered home, again and again, with pacing so rapid the pages seem to turn of their own will as countless atrocities unfold.

It is here the book begins to unravel and the reader is left unsure of Tessier's direction. Are the events Neil sees and experiences real, or are they the products of some hallucinogenic property of the mask? Are Marisa and her family who they seem to be on the surface, or are they echoes out of time? Tessier poses a lot of questions and provides very few answers by the book's gruesome end.

A good horror novel provides some explanation of the source of its horror, be it the twisted mind of a man or some supernatural entity out for blood. The readers should, to some extent, know what it is they're fearing. But Tessier leaves so many blanks unfilled that the vile images he conjures have no foundation on which to rest.

Father Panic's Opera Macabre is my first exposure to Tessier's writing and, based on the strength of his build-up and the dramatic execution of his prose, I'm sure I'd like to see more. But Opera Macabre, unfortunately, rushes to the final page and skips whole chapters in the process.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 8 March 2003

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