Chet Williamson,
Figures in Rain
(Ash-Tree, 2002)

Consider the genre of horror fiction and the names of certain authors will invariably pop in your mind. In many cases, they are writers who can creatively, repeatedly and quite often messily kill off the characters who appear in their books; readers of contemporary horror are not frightened so much as repulsed by scenes of violent, often supernatural death and gore.

Author Chet Williamson seems to be forever linked to the realm of horror fiction -- a label that is somewhat unjustified and is owed largely to a few short-sighted decisions by agents, editors and publishers over the years. An excellent example of the diversity of Williamson's work can be seen in one shot in his new short-story collection, Figures in Rain.

If he must be pigeonholed, I'd place Williamson among the very best contemporary and urban fantasy writers on the market; his stories are typically in a dark, not horrific, vein and he plumbs the realms of the unknown with a bit more on his mind than effective methods of slaughtering nubile co-eds. As Joe Lansdale remarks in his introduction to this anthology, Williamson defies categorization, and his stories tend to reflect a widely varied view of the world. And, while a lot of his stories are disquieting -- and even in some cases frightening -- it's only occasionally because someone has died, had a limb lopped off or otherwise met with the sort of bloody, disgusting fate favored by most horror readers and highway rubberneckers.

Figures in Rain begins with "Offices," a tale that questions just how thoroughly a white-collar office worker might unwittingly sell his soul to the company store. The anthology continues with the hellish fury of a woman scorned, a sometimes-benevolent household god, a writer too closely connected to his readers, a man seeking answers to life after death and a children's story that comes to life in an unexpected way.

Then Williamson knocked me on my ass with "The Music of the Dark Time," a deeply moving story that touches on the Holocaust, the pervasive effect of survivor's guilt and beautiful music. "Dark Time" wrapped me up in the coils of Beethoven, Gieseking and Wagner even as it paints crystal clear images of a horror that's all too real -- the slight supernatural overtones in the story are overshadowed in this case by the actual horror.

I recognized a place from my own childhood in "Return of the Neon Fireball," which recaptures the recent past in different ways for different people. Williamson slides between the notes in a story of cool jazz and hot revenge, touches on a parent's fears and a child's beliefs -- perhaps not in what you'd expect -- at Christmas, finds an unexpected volume in a public reading room and discovers a connection between major-league baseball, a Canadian wilderness and a long-dead spirit.

"The House of Fear" is a perfect showcase for a horror story that needs no death, no blood and nothing supernatural. The setting of the four apartments in a boarding house is eerie; the residents who live there are creepy, but realistic. It is in their eccentricities, however, that the story really shines, and many readers will spot someone they know -- perhaps even themselves -- in Williamson's quirky characters. (Williamson himself, he admits in his author's note on the story, provided the template for an odd mannerism or two.)

And then there is the exception that proves the rule. "Jabbie Welsh" is one of the downright scariest stories I've ever read -- complete with a malignant spirit, gruesome murders and a high body count -- which I made the mistake of reading right before trying to sleep. A poorly timed thump by a thoughtless cat on my stairway ensured a restless night after this tense ghostly drama.

And the variety continues with a peek at a secret in the bowels of a Scottish castle, a homage to Poe and another to Lovecraft (warning to horror writers: don't diss Howard!), and an obsessive literary collector. "A Father's Dream" is a father's nightmare. "Coventry Carol" reveals the ghost of an unborn child. And, in "A Place Where a Head Would Rest," Williamson shares a (true?) ghostly encounter from his younger days.

Williamson is known for his work in The Crow series, and "The Blood-Red Sea" is a fascinating new look at the theme of post-mortem revenge. Set in ancient times and featuring a protagonist lifted from history, this colorfully detailed story will make you look at those Crow powers a little differently than you ever have before.

The book draws regrettably towards the final pages with a secret society of high-powered businessmen and the menu that sustains their lust for flambuoyant gestures and sacrifices. There is a personality profile of a man with an unusually magical collection and a gift of true seeing.

The final two stories in the collection, both previously unpublished, show that Williamson is still at the top of his game as a writer, waiting only for the right break to catch the eyes of a wider audience of readers. The title story, "Figures in Rain," is an expansive and eye-opening piece set in Colonial Williamsburg that touches on an unusual trigger for rejuventated romance. And "Sundowners," set in a retirement community, is a slightly sinister glimpse at the lengths to which some people might go to reconnect with lost loves.

Long before I read a Chet Williamson novel, I had heard his praises sung by a co-worker of mine who said Williamson was among the finest short-story writers in the field. Figures in Rain is a long-overdue collection of some of Williamson's best material, arranged chronologically so readers can experience his growth as a writer and his expanding diversity of styles.

Because Figures in Rain is a limited edition from Canada's Ash-Tree Press, I urge fans of horror and dark-fantasy short fiction to scramble like mad to find a copy ... and clamor for a wider release of this talented author's work.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 23 November 2002

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