RAPTURE

Atheneum. 310 pp. $20.95

By Thomas Tessier

Forget "Fatal Attraction." There is a new novel on the bookshelves that makes last summer's film fatale seem like child's play.

The book is called "Rapture," and its author, Thomas Tessier, is horror fiction's best kept secret, a writer's writer whose carefully crafted nightmares may just be too disturbing to gain him the kind of popularity enjoyed by peers like Stephen King and Peter Straub.

A former editor at a British publisher, Tessier published his first novel, "The Fates," in 1978, then returned to his native America to write full time. He has spent the past 10 years writing in the shadow of horror's "brand names" with quiet yet definite ambition, producing an instant legacy of novels that will rank among the classics of his generation. One of them, "The Nightwalker" (1979), is quite simply the best werewolf novel ever written in the English language. Another is a delicately sentimental ghost story, "Phantom" (1983), while "Finishing Touches" (1986) reads like a John Fowles version of a zombie novel.

Now there is "Rapture," which finds Tessier moving away from supernatural terror into the realm of erotic obsession and insanity.

When first we meet Jeff Lisker, a well-heeled executive in a Southern California computer firm, he is 38, divorced, a workaholic and a partner in an enigmatic affair with, it would seem, a teen-age girl. Then comes a telephone call -- one that is not unexpected: "A scenario he had run through his mind many times over the years was now, finally, about to be played out. He was ready for it."

Jeff's father has died, and he must return to Connecticut for the funeral -- and, at last, to confront his memories of a girl named Georgianne Slaton. His best friend in high school, but never a date, never a sweetheart, never a lover, Georgianne has become "the girl in the very long dream": Unseen and out of touch for 20 long years, she is the focus of Jeff's frustrated fantasy of what might have been, a fantasy so singular that, when they meet again, he falls literally into a rapture -- what Webster calls "a state or experience of being carried away by overwhelming emotion."

As even her name suggests, Georgianne is no dream queen from the pages of a glossy magazine. She is attractive, yes, but also something of an ordinary hausfrau: mornings at the health club, afternoons with pen-and-ink drawings, evenings at home with her husband, safe in the sweet dream of suburban contentment -- another dream unfulfilled by Jeff. After years of adolescent yearning, he has little choice; a few moments with the adult Georgianne lead to an inescapable conclusion:

" 'Take her,' he said aloud. 'I'll just take her!' And as he said this over and over again, he fell in love with the words, what they meant and the sheer beautiful sound of them. He seemed to be completing a sentence he'd begun to form during some previous incarnation."

His decision, of course, is unilateral. Georgianne is happily married and the mother of a bright and beautiful 17-year-old, a doppelga nger of the girl in Jeff's dream. Jeff may be a friend -- a good friend, a pleasant memory of younger days -- but for Georgianne, he could never be anything else. Nothing would cause her to leave her quiet life.

Nothing but murder.

The typical novel of psychological horror embraces madness as a form of monstrosity. Insanity is frightening, these books tells us, because of its utter irrationality, or because of the potential ferocity of its acts. They depict serial killers who, like the masked hitmen of the "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" films, are so alien to our daily lives that they may as well be vampires or werewolves. "Rapture" is unnerving in its normality and inexorable sense of logic. Jeff Lisker is no monster -- his thoughts are frighteningly mundane -- and his story unfolds through a terse narrative that, while both erotic and hypnotic, is craftily calm, mannered, almost matter-of-fact.

Modern horror fiction is fraught with hyperbole. Pick up any of the formulaic potboilers that fill today's paperback racks and you will be besieged with adverbs and italics and peculiar punctuation. The competition (if not the influence) of horror film has cultivated a writing mentality that emphasizes show instead of tell, special effects instead of character and plot. In this context, Tessier reads like a virtual minimalist; his prose is short-sentenced and unerringly direct, a perfect foil for his depiction of an insanely spiraling whirlpool of death and desire.

The results are not simply good. "Rapture" is great, destined to take its rightful place among the most memorable novels of psychological horror, on the same shelf with Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me," Robert Bloch's "Psycho," Ira Levin's "A Kiss Before Dying," Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" and Stephen King's "Misery."

The reviewer, a Washington attorney, is the editor of the forthcoming "Prime Evil," a collection of contemporary horror fiction.