If writer stories play with the boundaries of reality/fantasy and truth/invention, stories with autobiographical narrators destroy those boundaries entirely. When a writer makes herself a character in her own stories it forces readers to question whether what they are reading is fiction at all. This is further complicated when the author is writing horror or dark fantasy, because the subject implies what we’re reading could never happen, even if the explicit presence of the author suggests otherwise. Of course, horror/dark fantasy writers know that truth is about more than what is real. Fantasy bleeds into our waking lives, shapes us, defines us. Our autobiographies, then, need the language of fantasy in order to tell the truth.
Steve and Melanie Tem know this. On an extension to the dedication page of their novel The Man on the Ceiling, they tell us, “Everything we’re about to tell you here is true.” Considering one of the main characters in The Man on the Ceiling is the titular boogeyman who lives in the Tems’ house, their opening statement is a bold one, and speaks to the importance of story in a storyteller’s life, the value of fantasy in dealing with painful realities.
The tragic reality that drives the Tems’ novel is the suicide death of their nine year old son, Anthony. However, Ceiling is much more than a vehicle for the release of their collective grief. As Steve Tem discusses in a 2009 interview:
I think it was my strong opposition to that notion that fiction was inadequate to “real” life as well as my own belief that there are layers to real life which can only be accessed via the powers of the imagination that made me want to tackle this project…our attempt, at least as far as we were able to take it, was to raise the content of our imaginations to the level of everyday experience and to make it all one continuous narrative.
And that is exactly what the Tems do: mix imagination and memoir until one can’t be separated from the other. Together the two genres tell the truth about both their daily lives and their creative ones.
Steve and Melanie take turns narrating sections of Ceiling, their first-person voices meshing seamlessly. The plot of the novel is amorphous, a collection of stories about the Tems’ childhoods, marriage, and children. Interspersed with these are scenes where Steve Tem imagines his son as a bird and has a conversation with him on the roof of the house, Melanie Tem sends her father on a deathbed vision quest with his granddaughter, and an odd child lives in an alternate version of the Tems’ house, beckoning to Steve to find him. Over it all hangs the spectre of the man on the ceiling, mentioned over sixty times, the personification of death, or the inevitability of death, haunting the Tem family:
The man on the ceiling laughs at me as he remains always just out of the reach of my understanding, floating above me on his layered wings, telling me about how, someday, Melanie and my children and everyone I love is going to die and how, after I die, no one is going to remember me no matter how much I write, how much I shamelessly reveal, brushing his sharp fingers against the wallpaper and leaving deep gouges in the walls.
By the end of the book, Ceiling feels like both a confession and a eulogy, a way to discuss the loss of their son and expose the fears that loss ignited. Because the Tems have spent most of their adult lives writing fantasy stories, it makes sense they would use the language of fantasy to manage their grief. Steve Tem admits he has written about his son’s death in other stories , but there is no attempt here to hide behind the guise of another character in another setting; this is Steve Tem talking about the dark at the bottom of the steps in his own home, the dark where “it stinks of cruel impulse and foul inattention and everything you eat bears that faint aroma of despair”. You can call it extended metaphor, if you want. You can call it magic realism. But that’s not what Steve and Melanie Tem call it. They call it the truth.