For a while it seemed Charlie Grant had created a term for the kind of horror fiction he most relished – dark fantasy. It didn’t last, and at a recent fantasy convention a panel used the term purely to define fantasy at the dark end of the genre (though I had to suggest from the audience that one exemplar was Clark Ashton Smith, of whom they had apparently not heard). A more enduring term that quite a few folk applied to his work was quiet horror, and I believe he appreciated that. However, I’m going to propose a new one that I feel is yet more accurate – gentle terror.
Charlie loved horror films, above all the atmospheric ones. His affection for the traditional monsters as portrayed in films from the early fog-bound years of Universal to the brighter and more gruesome Hammer era was profound, and it was reflected in several of his novels (with wonderfully evocative titles such as The Long Dark Night of the Grave). I believe the core of his spirit responded most to the forties films of Val Lewton, however. In an interview with Stanley Wiater he said that if he ever made a horror film he would want to scare the audience with lights and shadows, very much as the original Cat People does in the swimming pool, or Leopard Man in the teenage girl’s fatal night walk, or I Walked with a Zombie (my candidate for the most delicate supernatural film ever to emerge from Hollywood) on the secret path guarded by an inhabitant of the borderland between life and death. That kind of uncanny poetry is crucial to his best work. Let me find some samples of Charlie’s remarkable talent and hope they’re not too delicate to survive being excised from their context:
“The darkness moved, and the light died…”
“He could not take his eyes off the shadows, off the harsh glints of red, of amber, that could only be their eyes…”
“Fog, nightbreath of the river, lurking without whispering around the thick crown of an elm, huddling without creaking around the base of a chimney…”
“So when my jacket caught in the brambles of the hedge, I had no time to learn what made the fog… alive…”
“The moon was a ghost in the house of night…”
One aspect of horror is beauty – they’re anything but mutually exclusive – and few writers offer more proof than Charlie Grant did. Those lines are taken from a single book, Charlie’s Arkham House collection Tales from the Nightside. In his introduction Stephen King describes “Home” as one of the three finest horror stories he has ever read. I’m not arguing, but I’ll suggest Charlie wrote other candidates. I was delighted to snaffle his story “Across the Water to Skye” for my anthology New Terrors (or as another contributor, Marc Laidlaw, renamed it, Newt Errors). It’s as dark as Charlie’s writing ever got, I think.
And that reminds me of Charlie’s fine anthologies, the Shadows series in particular. Those books epitomised the kind of subtle shadowy tale of terror he most admired, and they were a showcase for his ambitions for the field. On the other hand, he wasn’t averse to a dose of restrained grue, as witness other books he edited. I tried to snaffle Steve King’s “Survivor Type” for New Terrors, but Charlie beat me to it. I’d say that demonstrates that he was never averse to a fine tale even if it fell outside his personal remit for the field. He relished some of the modern British equivalents of pulp horror fiction – the novels of Guy N. Smith and R. Lionel Fanthorpe, that prodigiously prolific writer, who wrote under a multitude of pseudonyms – and I believe that one of Charlie’s pen names, Lionel Fenn, was designed as a tribute to him.
Forgive this meagre scattering of thoughts, and let me just say this. As a writer Charlie was a master of delicate terror, and in person he was a gentleman. In fact I’ll end with that – he was a gentleman of terror.
(C) Ramsey Campbell 2016
Ramsey Campbell is “Britain’s most respected living horror writer.” (Oxford Companion To English Literature). His most recent novel, THIRTEEN DAYS BY SUNSET BEACH is available from PS Publishing, while his novella THE BOOKING (illustrated by Santiago Caruso) is available from Dark Regions Press. I’m honoured to welcome him to my blog.
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