Charles L. Grant: The Shadow Man
I’ve never met Charles L. Grant, but let me tell you about the first time I met Charles L. Grant…
Currently, as background for this piece, I’m re-reading Grant’s classic short story collection Tales from the Nightside. If you haven’t read any of his work, I’d suggest this book is the perfect place to start.
The first time I read this collection, I was probably in my late teens – certainly no older than twenty-one. For me, it was one of those watershed moments, a book that made me sit up and appreciate the craft at a deeper level than I ever had done before, and it remains one of my favourite collections of short fiction.
This was one of those books that started a little fire in my soul.
I think I probably picked it up – as I did with so many books back then – because Stephen King had mentioned it in his book Danse Macabre. As I’m sure a lot of people did, I used the index pages of that book as a reading list. There was a scruffy little second-hand book shop on Hylton Road in Sunderland where I used to go; it was run by a big bearded guy who always seemed to stock copies of genre fiction that I was unable to find anywhere else. That’s where I bought my first Ramsey Campbell book, my first Dennis Etchison collection, and countless others.
No longer there in reality, it’s a place I return to often in my dreams.
I think I’d been looking for Tales from the Nightside for quite some time, and I certainly remember the excitement I experienced when I picked up that copy from the shelf. The thrill that went through my body: the electricity coursing through my veins. I’ve never felt again the way I did back then about books. It’s something that’s left me, that exquisite thrill of discovery. It was intense, almost sexual. I miss it so much.
I remember reading Stephen King’s introduction to the book and thinking I was in for something special. The first story, Coin of the Realm, confirmed this – a Twilight Zone style story that’s imbued with a deep sense of melancholy and pathos and realism. As I worked my way through the book I realised that this was one of Grant’s trademarks, along with his prose style: lyricism mixed with a pared-down style. It was wonderful. The prose, as well as the stories themselves, spoke to me somewhere deep down, where my own creativity lived.
I won’t review all the stories here (I’ll let you discover their magic on your own), but it was when I reached the story Home that I experienced the full impact of Grant’s gift. This was the one Stephen King himself had cited as one of the most terrifying stories he’d ever read (the other one being Ramsey Campbell’s The Companion, which was already a favourite of mine).
I loved the way Home started out almost like a piece of social realism, set on a modern middle-class residential street and featuring normal, everyday people. Then it takes a swerve.
That’s what they do, Grant’s tales: they take a swerve into the dark. And when it happens, it’s often breath-taking.
The swerve in Home comes about half way through the story, when the protagonist – Art – makes a drunken investigation into a neighbour’s garden and sees an empty children’s swing moving without any wind… It’s a brilliant story, juxtaposing one man’s weary suburban malaise with something else, something that comes chittering from the darkness.
The 1981 Futura edition I have features ink drawings by Andrew Smith that really compliment and capture the mood of the stories. There’s a sense of melancholy in Grant’s prose that is reflected in these drawings, and I’ve always thought they were a perfect fit with the stories.
But it’s the mood and the prose that lingers, perhaps even more than the stories themselves. Take this killer opening, for example, from the story A Night of Dark Intent:
“The moon was a ghost in the house of night. It rose from the ashes of a sunset in crimson – silent, stained, setting free the shadows that drifted slowly round its passing. Its breath was the darkwind, drawn from catacombs of chilled and chilling dust; its voice the parchment husking of solitary leaves on solitary boughs that clawed at the nightair for purchase of a soul. Few saw it without turning aside to a friend, few heard it without wishing they hadn’t known the tune.”
There’s a cadence to Grant’s prose that becomes even more apparent when you read it aloud; you can hear the music beneath the words, and that, to me, is always the sign of fine writing. Take that first line: “The moon was a ghost in the house of night.” Say it aloud. It has a singsong quality. In fact, you could almost put it to music.
To me, this is what Grant’s writing, his art, was all about. The music beneath the words, and how he made you hear it without having to stand and point and draw your attention to it. His song was quieter than most.
Charles L. Grant might be gone but the music is there.
It was always there.
And it always will be.
To finish, here’s the full table of contents from Tales from the Nightside:
Foreword, by Stephen King
Tales from Oxrun Station
- Coin of the Realm
- Old Friends
- If Damon Comes
- A Night of Dark Intent
Tales from Hawthorne Street
- The Gentle Passing of a Hand
- When All the Children Call My Name
- Needle Song
- Something There Is
Tales from the Nightside
- Come Dance With Me on My Pony’s Grave
- The Three of Tens
- From All the Fields of Hail and Fire
- The Key to English
- White Wolf Calling
(C) Copyright Gary McMahon 2016.
Gary McMahon is the award-winning author of several novels and numerous short stories. Born in the Sunderland, he lives in Yorkshire with his wife and son. You can find him online HERE. As one of the finest genre authors in the UK, you need to read him.