Centipede Press is known for putting out quality volumes, and The Night Doctor and Other Stories by Steve Rasnic Tem is no exception. A long-running, highly celebrated author, Rasnic here offers a collection of his more recent short stories, including two new tales previously unpublished. These run the gamut of dark subject matter, ranging from dark fantasy to horror and back again.
He also provides an interesting example of a writer’s work changing subtly due to major life events. Steve’s wife, Melanie, passed during the time covered by this collection, and it is hard to avoid noticing the more sorrowful tone of later stories like “Blattidae Wine” in comparison to earlier pieces like “Domestic Magic.”
In “Blattidae Wine” the reader finds that a tired older man is isolating himself from his co-workers after his wife disappears. This is partnered with internal monologues about how much he misses her and about a giant cockroach sitting in his house. The fact is that his wife is steadily becoming emaciated and disappearing. Every moment is either mournful for loss or an ode to self destruction, and the supernatural elements are centered in the view of one man who may himself be going mad.
This is contrasted by the madness in “Domestic Magic”, which was co-written with Melanie Tem. A boy, an adolescent, is embarrassed by the somewhat transient nature of his family, and in particular by the way that his mother seems crazy to a degree that is noticeable to those around her. He constantly thinks little of his mother and worries about his sister, this made even more obvious by the fact that he considers it possibly a good thing if someone were to call social services. Yet his affection for his sister, as strong as it is, stops him. Much of the story follows his mother, before they begin a desperate search when his sister disappears. The tone of this story is dark, cynical, but surprisingly playful and hopeful for a tale in a collection that’s hard not to see as horror.
The two stories are noticeably different in tone, and there is an element of age in the former man feeling old and falling apart. There is a similar divide in many of the stories, with the later ones being almost universally centered on death, decay, and the loss of a loved one.
There are a surprising spots of diversity within the book, although most of the stories feature an elderly man as the protagonist. “Stick Men” centers on a Japanese girl whose elderly mother gives her strange advice that she tries desperately to follow. “The Enemy Within” focuses on a gay man, and the many men he has had relationships with. “The Man in the Rose Bushes” is about a mother and her child, a boy with psychological or neurological complications. Each of those stories features a sensitive look at its subject and characters, and while there are certain aspects that could be seen as stereotypical, such as the infidelity among gay men or the quiet fearfulness of a Japanese girl, both are dealt with well, and portray universal experiences and emotions.
Centipede Press always produces gorgeous editions, and the cover artwork by Gary Laib is an excellent illustration of the title story. There’s something quietly oily about the image, which is appropriate to many of the stories in the collection and helps set the mood.
The Night Doctor and Other Stories is a collection of dark disturbing and often brilliant fiction. Steve Rasnic Tem is a writer who definitely was affected by a life-changing event, and that change can be seen throughout this collection. Perhaps its greatest flaw is the ordering of the stories, as a chronological approach might better illustrate the change that occurred. This book can easily be recommended to fans of weird and dark fiction, and for fans of Tem’s work overall is a must have.
(Centipede Press, 2019)