C. L. GRANT's
IN THE SHADOW
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".
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:
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.
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.
Edition I Read
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.)
Joshi emphatically declaring something. You should listen.
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.
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.
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.