Elder Signs is a website dedicated to old-style Horror fiction, like that written by H. p. lovecraft and the authors of Weird Tales . My own contribution to this style of tale is The Book Collector, a dark detective who seeks out the arcane books of the Mythos for his employer, the mysterious Telford.

Listen to the Book Collector on Pseudopod:

"Goon Job"

"Merlin's Bane"

Buy the book now!


Read G. W. Thomas' Book Column

"Writing the Mythos"

at Innsmouth Free Press



Weird Tales Author

C. Hall Thompson: Lost Opportunities

The Ghostbreaker Mythos

Why Write Horror?

The First Deep Ones

The Avon Fantasy Reader Covers

Dark Bards: Mythos Poetry

Ithaqua: Walker on the Winds

Frank Belknap Long's The Castle of Otranto

Le Fanu and the Critics: Seeing Through Other Eyes

H. Warner Munn's "City of the Spiders"

Boris Dolgov: Artist of Darkness & Light

Michael May's Adventureblog

"The Door to Infinity"

"The Graveyard Rats"

"The Yellow Nineties"

"Spider Mansion"

"Why I Watch Under the Dome"

"The Eyes of the Panther"

"Adventures Into the Unknown"

"The Fangs of Tsan-Lo: Man's Best Monster"

"Ghosts at Christmas: Dickens to Davies"

"Anne of Green Horrors"

"The Greater Gatsby"

"Weird Tales Radio"

"Literary Slumming: August Derleth and Marc R. Schorer"

"The Call From Beyond"



First Edition

I always applaud the brave ones. S. T. Joshi, in his The Modern Weird Tale (2001), is brave. He has the critical kahunas to state that the mega-bestsellers of the 1970s are not the pinnacle of weird fiction. He even goes so far as to include the biggest bestseller of them all, Stephen King. If Joshi was living in 2050 perhaps, a time when King had written his four hundredth book and had passed onto Writers' Valhalla, then Joshi might not be so brave. But King was still very much alive in 2001, as he is today. Like I said "critical kahunas".

Joshi doesn't single out King over the millions of imitators. He is actually looking at an interesting phenomenon that the 1970s gave us. Most horror of that period was written in the novel form. Since the time of the Victorians, horror was predominately a short story or novella-length medium. (Joshi looks at these in The Weird Tale (1990) Writers like King were able to find a marketing vehicle for longer, more commercial products, like we had not seen since the days of the three-part novel. While a few older writers such as William Hope Hodgson were able to sustain the pitch of horror for 80,000 words or more, Joshi (and Thomas Ligotti) complains modern writers did this by muddying the waters:

It is a fact that the overwhelming majority of weird novels written in the last two decades are subject to Ligotti's complaint that they are merely mystery or suspense tales with or without supernatural interludes. Some of these are nevertheless very successful, even though--especially with purely nonsupernatural work--it sometimes becomes problematical to classify them within weird fiction at all... It is, however, in those novels that are theoretically based upon a supernatural premise, but in which that premise that does not always function in a systematic way, that the "banalization" of horror is particularly evident. In many of King's or Straub's novels there is not even a mystery or suspense foundation for the weird but merely long stretches of irrelevant character portrayal and melodramatic human conflict. This tendency reaches its nadir in the soap-opera supernaturalism of Charles L. Grant.

Now, at last, we arrive at Charles L. Grant, the real topic of this piece. I have been reading one of his Ox Run Station books, The Grave (1981) and thinking about Joshi's brave calling-out. The cover of this book published by Tor, is so typical of the 1970s-1980s novels, with its black background with a predominantly weird image "embossed" (that's very important) in the cover stock. The image is of a gravestone and shovel with a skeletal hand reaching from behind. The name on the tombstone is GRANT. There is an orange moon behind with a skeletal face in it. Everything to scream from the book rack (remember those?) that here was another V. C. Andrews/Stephen King/Dean Koontz style novel. Those embossed covers are actually the collector's bane, as the raised surface wears away after a few decades.

The Edition I Read

So, was Joshi right? Is the book a mere soap-opera with supernatural adornments? The plot of the story follows Josh Miller, an odd detective of sorts. His business is to locate things that nobody else can, like an 18th century plow, or an old manuscript, or sheet music to a 1914 musical. In this line of work he has the help of Felicity Lancaster, a twenty-something secretary and later partner who suffers like all detective's secretaries, being in love with the boss while he chases other women. The other woman is Andrea Murdoch, who lives with her novelist father, and has some kind of Arkham style secret haunting her family. In their search, Josh and Felicity stumble onto a weird secret lying over Ox Run, people have been mysteriously disappearing on their birthdays. Grant keeps the chain of weird events coming, some earthly like the trashing of his office and home, others hallucinatory, a series of horrific dreams based on an incident from his youth when he was attacked by a nest of wasps, until the final showdown and explanation. The book keeps you guessing what is real and what is not, riding the line between psychological and supernatural until the end when you find out, as Josh does, that real horror exists in Ox Run. Typical of the 1970-80s novels, Grant is not afraid to deliver a bummer ending, one that resonates with true weirdness. (If the book had been written by formula-king, Dean Koontz, Josh and Felicity would have rode off into the sunset, all ghosts vanquished.)

S. T. Joshi emphatically declaring something. You should listen.

While The Grave may not be the great weird experience Joshi demands, it does work on another level. As a work of "Gothic" (as opposed to "Weird"), it functions quite well. We have all three of the genres that came out of the Gothic movement started by Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765): Horror, Mystery and Romance. At one point Grant even makes the comparison with Lovecraft and Ann Radcliffe and in another mentions an Ellery Queen novel. Was Grant trying to write another Haunting of Hill House (a masterpiece Joshi points to as the great weird novel of the 20th Century) or was he trying to write something closer to Mary E. Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862) or J. Sheridan Le Fanu's The House by the Graveyard (1863), novels that were Gothic if not specifically masterworks of the Weird. Grant may have wanted us to enjoy the detective elements of the puzzle of Andrea Murdoch's secret, the romantic elements of the love triangle between Josh-Felicity and Andrea as much as the terror that haunts Josh Miller until the novel's conclusion.

It may ultimately be a matter of expectation. Joshi is entrenched in Lovecraft's criteria of the weird experience. I don't fault him for this. In fact, I would agree with him. If I want something really creepy I will read a short story like Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks" or something by M. R. James or even the novellas of Stephen King, which are always scarier than his longer works. But if I have a lazy summer afternoon or a long airplane ride ahead of me, I might choose this blend of Gothic themes instead. To write Grant off as a soap-opera writer is too unkind. I think I may agree more with Stephen King, who wrote in the introduction to Grant's Tales from the Nightside (1981): "...others [Grant stories] may leave you with a sense of thoughtful sadness...a sense that seems to pervade the best of Grant's work. He is an autumnal writer, and in the best of his fiction, the reader goes away with something rather more complex than a simple scare; there is a lonliness in these tales that is also civilized, and in the best sense, sensual..." The Grave may not reach Joshi's high standard of Lovecraftian weirdness, but it is still a specimen of that 1970-80s species, perhaps better renamed "the Gothic novel". As the cover blurb declares: "Grant is deserving of best-sellerdom!" -- Bestsellers. This may be all the condemnation Joshi thinks Grant deserves.

I've read Grant's first novel, The Curse (1977) since and it came with this notice: "This is Charles L. Grant's first horror novel.  It is rife with the clichés of the day, and we are told that mention of this novel made the author grumble..." -- David Niall Wilson -- as it might have. It's not a very good horror novel. Almost nothing supernatural happens in the first half of the book. Then not much more happens in the second half until the very end -- and then, BOOM! it's over. If Joshi was referring to this book as a "supernatural soap opera" I would agree. But this was Grant's first novel and the later ones are better. The idea of this book may have been redone -- better-- in The Grave. Both books revolve around weird things happening in secret graveyards. Both have a big reveal at the end. The difference is that in The Grave you feel the author has built up to it logically. In The Curse, you don't. I kept waiting for something to happen -- like "Alright, a voodoo doll in a bush.......(crickets)...Alright, an old Indian burial ground..... (crickets)....and so on.

© G. W. Thomas unless Fair Use is intended.