This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
T.E.D. Klein is known best for his short stories, and even then there aren’t many of them. Even though his career dates back to 1972 and the publication of The Events at Poroth Farm, which would form the basis of his sole novel, The Ceremonies, he has only published fifteen stories, blaming crippling writer’s block and a tendency to procrastinate. The male protagonist of The Ceremonies, New York academic Jeremy Friers, appears to have the same problem: finding himself seriously behind on his planning for his next lecture series, and keen to find some opportunity to finally get on with his dissertation on the development of gothic motifs in literature from Shakespeare to Faulkner, he decides to rent a guest room (actually a converted chicken coop) from the Poroth family, a pair of poor, struggling farmers from the town of Gilead who, like the rest of the townsfolk, are part of a schismatic Mennonite sect. Before travelling to Gilead Jeremy meets up with Carol, a shy woman whose insular Catholic upbringing has left her socially isolated and somewhat naive; nonetheless, the cynical academic and the wide-eyed girl all lost in the big city soon hit it off, and Carol arranges to visit Jeremy on the Poroth farm. What Jeremy, Carol, and Sarr and Deborah Poroth don’t know is that they are being manipulated by the Old One, the quasi-human agent of an ancient evil lurking in the woods and underground near Gilead, so that the Old One can use them to conduct the Ceremonies which will give this primeval force the power to act.
Now, were this a book by the likes of, say, Peter Straub or Stephen King (who, with King’s various books and Straub’s Ghost Story, qualify as the founding fathers of the brick-sized horror novel format), the above summary of the book’s premise would be spoileriffic; even if we were aware of the Old One’s machinations, we’d almost certainly not be let in on the reasons behind them until towards the end of the book. However, The Ceremonies is a horror novel written for horror writers and horror geeks, not for a general audience; its effect relies quite strongly on the reader being broadly familiar with horror fiction in general, and by and large Klein keeps us fully in the loop with regards to what’s going on, although sometimes with the air of a stage magician showing us that there’s nothing up his sleeves. Klein slips in frequent references to other horror authors, especially those whom Friers is studying in the book, concentrating specifically on Arthur Machen and his classic story The White People, which the novel expands upon in much the same way as contemporary and later authors expanded on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, latching onto unexplained details and brief allusions and coming up with the hideous realities behind the references.
Even if, like Friers, you haven’t done your reading before tackling The Ceremonies, you presumably are at least vaguely aware of the conventions of the horror genre, and can probably guess how matters are going to pan out at an early stage. Of course Carol is going to turn out to be the virgin sacrifice required to complete the final ritual, and of course Friers is going to save her, and of course they are going to fall in wuv and get married. This is only to be expected; this is how these things tend to pan out, and this is, broadly speaking, what we are delivered. That said, while we all know what the destination’s going to be, Klein does manage to make the journey interesting, and delivers up a number of surprises along the way. While the Old One has access to powerful magic, he can’t be everywhere at once, and so while he is the master manipulator of the story he doesn’t have a godlike ability to predict every little thing that might happen; he has to sweat, work, and at points madly improvise in order to ensure events proceed in the manner in which he wants them to proceed. The Dhol, the Old One’s familiar, is a terrifying presence throughout the second half of the novel, and its true nature and origin is gratifyingly spooky. And the form that the final ritual itself takes is especially shocking, a violent slap to the face at the end of a story which for the most part has been fairly low-key and sedate.
Along with vastly better characterisation and flow than I’d usually expect from a 500-page horror bestseller, Klein does explore some genuinely interesting themes along the way. In the guise of Mr Rosebottom, mild-mannered anthropologist, the Old One points out to Carol that childhood games and fairy-stories and quaint old traditions frequently have interesting ritualistic origins; The Ceremonies could well have been called The Traditions or The Games. Furthermore, the Old One’s activities highlight the ritualistic nature of everyday activities – he manages to incorporate sinister elements into hiring a car, or taking out a library book, or taking a trip on a rollercoaster. And in the way in which Klein keeps most (but not all) of his cards on the table, and sticks to a fairly archetypal supernatural horror plot structure, he reminds us that horror stories in themselves have a somewhat ritualistic structure: the hero is brought into the story ignorant, is shown things to make him understand what must be done, and is ushered towards a final confrontation where he must bring the story to a climax. And, of course, as we leave him there is a hint that the story isn’t quite over yet. All these elements are present and correct in The Ceremonies, but whether Friers was always meant to save Carol, and whether Carol has really been saved, is another question.
The Ceremonies is a sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising, but always engaging horror story which pretty much everyone should find rewarding, provided that you’re happy with the action being fairly low-key until the very end. The sequel, Nighttown, has been promised for 24 years, but Klein’s writer’s block seems to have prevented it from appearing. I don’t think it would be especially necessary even if it did appear.