Last week, I opened my “Modest History of Horror” with author T. M. Wright. And again, in continued clarification: this is really an exploration of MY encounter with horror writers other than Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub, rather than an exhaustive, actual history of horror. For a nice quick sketch of horror fiction history, Brian Keene’s keynote address at AnthoCon 2011, “Roots”, serves nicely.
In any case, we move on to the very next author I “discovered” late in the game, Charles L. Grant. Below, a biography:
Charles Lewis Grant (September 12, 1942 – September 15, 2006) was a novelist and short story writer specializing in what he called “dark fantasy” and “quiet horror.” He also wrote under the pseudonyms of Geoffrey Marsh, Lionel Fenn, Simon Lake, Felicia Andrews, and Deborah Lewis.
Grant won a World Fantasy Award for his novella collection Nightmare Seasons, a Nebula Award in 1976 for his short story “A Crowd of Shadows”, and another Nebula Award in 1978 for his novella “A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn’s Eye,” the latter telling of an actor’s dilemma in a post-literate future. Grant also edited the award-winning Shadows anthology, running eleven volumes from 1978-1991. Contributors include Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Al Sarrantonio, R.A. Lafferty, Avram Davidson, and Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem. Grant was a former Executive Secretary and Eastern Regional Director of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and president of the Horror Writers Association. His story “Temperature Days on Hawthorne Street” was adapted into an episode of Tales from the Darkside entitled “The Milkman Cometh” in 1987.
Grant wrote 12 books (9 novels and three collections of four related novellas with interstitial material) set in the fictional Connecticut town of Oxrun Station. (See the starred titles below.) Three of these were intentionally pastiches of classic Universal and Hammer horror films, and feature a vampire, a werewolf, and an animated mummy. There is a loose continuity running through the Oxrun Station books, with characters from one novel making minor appearances in others. (Wikipedia)
First of all – what can I say? Hard to condense everything into a simple blog entry. I know this: I wish I’d met the man. From what everyone has told me, he was kind, generous, thoughtful, helpful, a consummate professional. All I can do is share what his writing has come to mean to me.
The first novel of his I read was The Black Carousel. Ironically, his last Oxrun Station work. Instantly, I fell in love with his prose. It had Bradbury’s sensibilities…but leaner. More subtle. Much tighter. But still capable of a faint lyricism near to poetry. And hey, it was about a dark, possibly malevolent carnival coming to a small, country town. As a Bradbury lover and annual devotee to Something Wicked This Way Comes, I was hooked.
And there’s this mood in Charles’ work. Melancholic. Wistful. Sad, but never really cynical. And, believe it or not, I can be a pretty melancholic guy. Also, between reading T. M. Wright and Charles Grant, I felt like – as a writer hopeful – that I’d come home. That this was something concretely in the horror genre that I felt the desire to write.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I encountered these writers as I was writing/finishing Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, and that certainly wasn’t “quiet horror”. And, writing Hiram was fun. Definitely dark adventure fantasy, something I’d want to return to. However, I recognized something in Charles’ work that I wanted to see in my own work someday.
But even then, I don’t think I got the brilliance of Oxrun Station. That was coming, however.
I moved on from The Black Carousel to For Fear of the Night and Stunts. Now, I loved both of these works as well… though Stunts is one of my least favorite of his – if you can even call it that – only because it felt like a strange novel. Two completely different stories jammed together. But what was really starting to make me fall in love with Grant’s work was this: the stories centered on the human experience.
There were “monsters”, sure. But not necessarily monsters you could beat. And this is probably where the categorization of “dark fantasy” comes in, because Charles’ work deals primarily in the frailty and fragility of humanity in the face of forces it cannot comprehend, much less fight. But he wasn’t Lovecraftian, by any means. These characters were so well portrayed, so deeply drawn. And so wonderfully flawed. In many of Charles’ stories, the existence of these supernatural, paranormal forces are simply a given. But they aren’t monsters to be bested and destroyed by the end of the novel.
They were testing agents. These novels were proving grounds for humanity.
And lots of times, the humans just weren’t strong enough to win the day. But Charles’ work has never felt hopeless or nihilistic to me. And trust me, I’ve read lots of that stuff. They were melancholic. Sad. Maybe even gloomy. But there was hope in there. Maybe the “laughing in the dark” kind of hope…but isn’t that the kind of hope we have to rely on, so often?
After that, I discovered another series that landed me solidly in Grant’s corner, even before I become enthralled with Oxrun Station, and that was his Millennium Quartet series – basically, his story of the world’s end. The first book in that series was Symphony, which introduced me to one of my favorite characters, Reverend Casey. A humble man, a reformed hoodlum-turned preacher. Who finds himself tasked with facing down what are essentially the four horseman of the Apocalypse.
Now, THIS is an “end times” book I can get down with. Because it was about the people. About their strengths and weaknesses, and Casey’s own disbelief that God could use someone like him. And, of all his novels at that point, it featured the “happiest” ending of them all, with perhaps the exception of In A Dark Dream – which definitely is one my favorite Grant portrayals of family. I’ve also read the second book in the series, In The Mood, and am looking forward to finish the series.
And now – Oxrun Station. 12 works in total, all set in the same town. Three novels, wonderful pastiches of the classic horror tropes of vampires, werewolves and mummies. Five novels and four 4-novella collections…all connected. All about a mysterious town where strange things happen. People go missing. Disappear. “Leave town”. Some people survive their dark adventures, but then are so scarred, they never share their stories.
It’s nearly impossible to put into words how wonderful the Oxrun series is. The strongest of them, by far, are the collections of novellas, if only because they’re framed by a first person narrator – a writer living in Oxrun who very easily could be Charles himself, from my reading. And, as true to the rest of the stories: we never exactly find out what is wrong with Oxrun Station. These mysteries are never really solved. But it’s sorta – in my guess – not about that, really.
It’s about the people. About their nightmares and fears, about their frailties. And about those who survive, who – in a quote from The Black Carousel – are “holding on”. A year ago last Spring, on vacation, I purchased all the novella collections, and read them in one week. And was left breathless, thinking I’d discovered the greatest thing ever.
I think his best two novels, however, are works very different from the ones I’ve outlined above. They are The Nestling and Raven. The Nestling is simply a great, more traditional quiet horror/thriller about an Indian curse that’s killing people in a small Midwestern town, in a conflict between the Americans and the modern Native Americans living over land rights. It’s still got Grant’s signature style – things rustle behind you quietly…
…but it’s an excellent commercial thriller. And his treatment of the Indians in this is top notch. You’d think he wrote about them all the time.
Then comes The Raven, one of the most brilliantly-paced thrillers I’ve ever read. Again: excellent, razor-sharp character studies, and the story deals with the most inevitable force in the universe: Death.
And there are no chapters. In the whole novel. Because the story takes place all in one night. His pacing here is masterful. I think I may’ve read this all in one day.
What else can I say? Not much that would even come close, and this blog is already too long. One thing I can do is this: NECON EBOOKS and Crossroads Press is working to bring all of Charles’ Grant’s work back into print. You can already purchase several of the titles in ebook form here for NECON and here for Crossroads Press. If you’re a serious horror writer or reader that’s look for a little more substance in your reading diet, please – explore Charles Grant’s work. Soon.
*Photo by Peter Coleborn.
Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.