First, a little potted tour of my town. I was lucky growing up in Newcastle, we had a number of great bookshops including Sherratt and Hughes downstairs in Eldon Square, opposite WH Smiths, Waterstones in the old Mawson, Swann and Morgan building and Dillons in Emerson Chambers – what you need to picture in your head is there were probably no more than about one hundred metres between the lot of them. We had great book signing tours with Stephen Lawhead, David Gemmell, Michael Moorcock, Terry Brooks, Clive Barker, Terry Pratchett and Tad Williams all within a short while of each other. Then we had the second hand stores, there was Robinson’s in the Grainger Market which was an Aladdin’s cave of oddities (I sold my own collection of about 5,000 books to them when I emigrated, then once about a decade later was in town looking for something to read and bought my own copy of TM Wright’s Goodlow’s Ghost back from them – I know it was mine, it still had my handwritten note inside it listing some wonderfully mundane chores I had to do that day a decade and more earlier) and there was upstairs in the Green Market where you could buy books then give them back when you’d read them and get half the money towards another book in stock. Then there was Timeslip, a little portacabin across the other side of the city which specialised in SF, fantasy and horror imports (and became Forbidden Planet) and then one day, I guess around 1993 something different entirely came to town, a remainder bookstore.
They were unlike anything else in town because they bought their remainders blind, by the carton, from the US and you never knew what you were going to get, only that each carton would be stuffed full of genre novels they’d sell on for a pound. I got to know the guys running the place well enough that they’d tip me off as to when new deliveries were expected, and I’d get to go through them before they put them on the shelves. That was where I first discovered Chet Williamson through Lowland Rider and Ash Wednesday, and Thomas Tessier through Secret Stranger and Rapture. Thomas Monteleone, David J Schow, John Shirley, Skipp and Spector. These were all writers I’d been reading about in FEAR, which was the premier horror magazine at the time, so I was eager to check them out, and at bargain prices, well you couldn’t argue could you, even if I was unemployed and living on twenty seven pounds fifty a week. There was always money for books. Even when there wasn’t. One of the last shipments they took delivery of was filled—painfully, depressingly—mainly with shocking romance novels, you know the sort, though there were two promising looking books by Charles L Grant, The Pet and The Orchard, one novel, one collection. You pays your money, you takes your chance.
Actually I’ll be honest, I bought them mainly because they looked at bit like TM Wright’s stuff, and I absolutely adored those, and my girlfriend at the time was a big fan of quiet horror whereas I was a bit more in your face, so I let her read The Pet first. I can still remember the bus ride where, looking at the awful cover I asked her what she thought and she turned around and gave a shrug and said ‘It’s not bad.’ That’s my first real recollection of Charlie’s stuff, filtered secondhand through my girlfriend’s eyes. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading it if it wasn’t for the fact that I finished the Ramsey Campbell novel I’d been working on for a couple of days and was stuck inside on a miserable Sunday afternoon, so I picked it up.
The premise was simple enough: Teenagers are being slaughtered by a serial killer who moves from small town to small town, lingering just long enough to destroy the community before moving on. It was a very 80s kind of story, I guess you’d say, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, but what struck me and stuck with me was the sentence level prose, this was a guy who could really write. It sounds stupid to say that, but it’s the best way I can put it. Charlie could write, and write rings around a lot of the genre’s practitioners I’d been reading up until then. This small town was steeped in atmosphere. It wasn’t all about shock value. It was about the same kind of creeping dread I felt when I read Ramsey Campbell, that same sense of helplessness beautifully rendered. I read it in an afternoon, and then read the short stories the next day. When I returned to the bookstore to try and track down anything, anything at all, that they might have from this guy Grant, they told me there wouldn’t be any more boxes because they were closing down.
That was it. My brief flirtation with Charles Grant, or so I thought. It was pre internet, he didn’t have a UK deal, though through Richard Laymon I’d heard about an American bookstore that did mail order across the world, and sent off for a catalogue that never came… so I tried, but not as hard as I should have.
Then time did that thing it does, and got away with me. I started writing myself, then quite writing, actually, because I was so fed up with things. It was a perfect confluence of things, I’d just been sent a couple of reviews of my first collection, one from Cemetery Dance and the other from Realms of Fantasy, by a friend with the message that some people out there liked what I was doing even if I was done doing it. Maybe a fortnight later Telos released Houdini’s Last Illusion, my novella, and I was pretty certain the last thing I’d ever write. Like I said, it was a perfect confluence of events. Another friend, Bill, happened to traffic in rare books under the name Alienmotives, and was visiting Charlie in hospital. I have no idea why, but Bill decided to give Charlie a copy of Houdini, and I got a message maybe a week before Charlie died that said he had very much enjoyed the story and that I should most definitely keep on doing what I was doing because I had a gift. I guess Bill had told him I was done. I sat down and started to write a letter to Charlie to tell him how much I appreciated the kind words, but more, how much I admired his work, but before I could post it word came from Bill that Charlie had died. I don’t know what it was, whether some part of me felt like I couldn’t argue with the parting words of a dead man, or what, but I started writing that day for the first time in a couple of years, and wrote The Fragrance of You in a single sitting. It’s still one of my absolute favourite pieces. It opens at the funeral of a beloved storyteller and is all about the magic and keeping the stories alive now that they’ve gone. Now, with this added back story, you can tell exactly what was on my mind. It was the thank you I never got to say to Charlie himself, the unexpected side-effect of which was that it brought me back to writing. Sometimes it’s the little things, the small kindnesses, that make the most profound differences. I’ll never forget that small kindness. It’s fair to say it shaped every day of my life that followed.
(C) 2016 Steven Savile