On Reading Charlie…
Fledgling authors are admonished, “write what you know.” Your life experience provides the basis for the authentic depiction of subject, characters and plot. After reading the words of hundreds of authors, I discovered that advice is completely superfluous. An author has no choice.
Charlie Grant illustrates the point perfectly. The life experience is evident in every line. His fictional characters possess the expected primary traits that clearly establish their roles in the story. What makes his stories interesting and the characters captivating is the variety and depth of their personalities. This depth not only creates believable characters, but sometimes actually drives the direction of the plot. Characters with different value systems react very differently to the same stimuli. The ability to create characters of this quality requires not only a fair amount of life experience, but an acute interest in and attention to the human condition.
Fiction writing is essentially storytelling. It began in the aural tradition, spread by wandering storytellers with stories and folk tales passed verbally from generation to generation. With the advent of the printing press, a new medium emerged – the book. And now, applying even newer technologies, we have come full circle to the verbal telling of tales in the guise of audiobooks.
Enter the narrator.
In one respect, the narrator simply represents a change of medium – from print to sound. But there is a bit more to it than that. The narrator must also be a storyteller. The content is still the product of the author, but the narrator brings it to life as sound.
One of the most challenging aspects of narrating audiobooks is the matter of doing justice to the intent of the author. Ideally, as narrators, we should deliver the story in such a way as to convey the meaning the author had in mind when writing it. How can this be done? A conversation with the author goes a long way in understanding the desired tone and flow of a story. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, and in many cases, the interpretation is ultimately left to the narrator.
In the books of Charlie Grant, fortunately, the richness of each character’s personality shines out clearly from his or her thoughts and actions. You don’t have to be told and you don’t have to guess. But now I have to tell you another little secret. The delivery of a story – any story – by a narrator will be flavored by the reader’s life experiences just as the manuscript is flavored by the author. The end product is of necessity a collaboration. When things go right, this effort allows listeners to suspend disbelief and to plunge head-first into the author’s world to participate in a thrilling adventure. Charlie makes it easy and fun for us all.
This was written at Kathy Ptacek’s request. She mentioned that Charlie’s (and her) birth date was approaching and that several folks were contributing articles to celebrate the event. She felt that some of his friends and fans might be interested in hearing about the production of his books into audio format. I never had the privilege of meeting Charlie, but through this process feel as though we are now acquaintances. The production of the Black Oak series has been pure pleasure.
(C) Art Flavell 2016
I’m sure lots of people will be talking about Charlie Grant’s fiction, but I’m going to talk about the first time I met him. Turned out it was the last time, too. But that meeting had a profound effect on me, and I often think back to those twenty minutes outside a convention hotel.
It was the World Horror Convention in Chicago, 2002. (For those who remember it was the year of that bus trip to a bookstore signing in the city, which meant I missed that trip to the blues club).
Charlie was there as a guest and to collect his Grandmaster Award (more about that soon). It was my third World Horror, and I still walked around a little starry-eyed. Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman were guests, Gahan Wilson was toastmaster, and I was slowly working my way into a writing career, with a few books and a couple of awards under my belt. I already had a good group of friends who attended these conventions––and damn, I really don’t see them anymore as much as I’d like to––and it was a fun time of chats, meals, drinking, and epic room parties.
I was still smoking at the time, and the front of the hotel was the haunt of the smokers, taking regular breaks to feed their habit. Jason Williams from Night Shade Books––my publisher at the time––had supplied me with cigarettes for the weekend, and it was on one of these smoking visits, hanging around outside with no one to talk to, that Charlie exited the hotel, looked around, and came over to chat to me.
I knew who he was, of course. And though I was a little nervous, we hit it off instantly. There I was, a newbie in the writing world with just a few books out there, talking with Charles L Grant. And there he was, a legend attending that convention to collect the Grandmaster Award, asking me for advice! It was an odd moment. Charlie was looking for a home for some of his backlist, and we started talking about the indie publishers I was working with at the time. He had one in mind in particular, and I told him about my experiences with them. He held onto his stick, taking it all in, nodding, listening. Then he said, “Do you trust ’em?”
I’d known him ten minutes and he was asking me something like that.
We chatted a couple more times over that weekend. I’m pretty sure he was at the absinthe party on the Saturday night, but he didn’t partake. (Yes, that absinthe party, where the host was wearing nothing but a rubber chicken over his gentleman’s bits … or maybe that’s just the absinthe addling my brain).
Then at the banquet, the time came for Charlie to collect his Grandmaster award. Most people in the room had had a few drinks and supped some wine with their meal, and the atmopshere was loud and convivial. Noisy, let’s say. Charlie shut them up with just a few words.
I can’t remember the whole of his speech, but I do remember he began, “I’m a writer. That’s all.” He went on to talk about what his writing meant to him, what he hoped it meant to others, and in his humble attempt to lessen his work he made it even more important. He had many people in that audience in tears, me included.
That twenty minutes outside the hotel was the only time I met Charlie with an opportunity to chat, and I still remember it as one of those very special moments from the many conventions I’ve been to.
No one who can have that effect, on me and a whole room full of contemporaries, is just a writer.
(C) Tim Lebbon 2016
TIM LEBBON is a New York Times-bestselling writer from South Wales. He’s had over thirty novels published to date, as well as hundreds of novellas and short stories. His latest novel is the thriller The Family Man, and other recent releases include The Silence The Hunt, and The Rage War trilogy. He has won four British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, and a Scribe Award, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, International Horror Guild and Shirley Jackson Awards.
The movie of his story Pay the Ghost, starring Nicolas Cage, was released Hallowe’en 2015, and several other novels and screenplays are in development.
Find out more about Tim at his website http://www.timlebbon.net
A Glow of Candles on the Bremerton Ferry
I remember the first time I read the work of Charles L. Grant. It was November 1981, and I was visiting a pen pal in Seattle–waaay before Microsoft and grunge hit. Forget post-punk. The real shit was still going down. My friend took me to the Pike Place Farmer’s Market, a virtual honeycomb of wonders that offered everything from buckets of roasted bunny to hand-made stationary. One of the many shops was an independent bookstore, the name of which escapes me, that had an impressive selection of new and used science fiction and fantasy. I was a dyed-in-the-wool geek girl, with a strong background in science fiction and fantasy fandom—but with the growing popularity of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Anne Rice, I was finding myself drifting more and more towards horror. A couple years earlier, I had stumbled across the US paperback editions of Ramsey Campbell’s The Doll Who Ate His Mother and Demons by Daylight, and I was on the lookout for other authors who combined scares with genuine literary flair. Therefore, when I saw A Glow of Candles and Other Stories, with its creepy, melting clown, sitting on the shelf, I wondered if this might be more of what I craved. Later that same day, as we headed back across Puget Sound on the Bremerton Ferry during a furious storm that sent waves over the second-tier balcony, I decided to start reading the first story. In retrospect, it was the perfect introduction to Charlie’s work.
A couple years later, I made my first semi-pro sale to Dave Silva’s The Horror Show—a little piece of weirdness titled “The Dreamclown”, which was directly inspired by the cover of A Glow of Candles and its collection of quietly disturbing creep-tales. Then, in 1990, I found myself at the Horror Writers of America Conference in Providence, Rhode Island. I was there to accept a Bram Stoker Award for Joe Lansdale and, possibly, win one for myself. Upon entering the con suite, I instantly walked into the middle of a conversation between Charles Grant, Stephen Bissette, Rick Hautala, and Chet Williamson, who accepted me as their equal, even though I only had a handful of credits to my name. Charlie lost no time in telling me to call him “Charlie”, and that is how I will always think of him. (Moreover, I never realized, until now, that we were born two days (and 17 years) apart.) Charlie was, in turns, gracious, acerbic, insightful, darkly humorous, and unafraid to give of his acquired wisdom and experience—not surprising, given his profession as a teacher. I owe him a great debt as a writer, and although we became somewhat estranged toward the end of his life, I shall always remember him fondly and with great respect.
(C) Nancy A. Collins 2016
Epiphanies From Oxrun Station.
Growing up, as I did, in a mining village in northern England, bookshops were a little hard to come by. Our nearest WH Smith’s was in Worksop, a half-hour bus-journey away which we took every week. I was always drawn to the HORROR section (for such a thing existed back then, believe it or not) and the books that comprised it were largely written by Stephen King or James Herbert or Guy N Smith or Shaun Hutson or Graham Masterton. Occasionally there would be titles by John Saul. Over the years I collected them all, and read them diligently.
If this was typical of most branches of WH Smith’s – certainly the only book retailer in any of our surrounding towns – then one might have been forgiven for thinking that horror was perhaps not as expansive as it once was earlier in the decade. Our local library stocked several of the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies that were published in the 1960s and 70s, bearing titles such as The Best of Fiends, Ghostly Gallery, Happiness is a Warm Corpse and Tales to Take Your Breath Away. These anthologies all featured stories by writers like Robert Arthur, Daphne du Maurier, Richard Matheson, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury. I wanted to find other books by these writers, but most of them seemed out of print. Remember, this was a time before the internet so the only place where second-hand books were sold locally was our church jumble-sale (but those I had seen for sale consisted mostly of Mills & Boon titles, Catherine Cookson, and the occasional Agatha Christie). So I continued searching.
And then in the autumn of 1987 I started working in Sheffield – at that time one of the largest cities in the UK. A work colleague, Gary Vernon, introduced me to a small shop on The Wicker called The Sheffield Space Centre that stocked so much desirable merchandise as to reduce me to a permanent state of poverty. However one payday saw me stumbling out of there clutching a bag containing two collections of short stories – Dennis Etchison’s The Dark Country and Charles L Grant’s Tales From the Nightside.
I had heard of both of these writers of course because their names were mentioned in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and also because my horizons had been opened in the late 80s when I started reading Fear, edited by the wonderfully enthusiastic John Gilbert. This magazine brought to my attention so many writers whose work still enthrals me to this day, but even so I don’t think I was quite prepared for the impact of reading Charles L Grant for the first time.
I worked my way through the stories from front to back (as I always do with collections or anthologies, as I believe there is usually a method to the order), marvelling at the lyrical titles – A Night of Dark Intent, The Gentle Passing of a Hand, When All the Children Call My Name, Something There Is, Come Dance With Me On My Pony’s Grave, From All the Fields of Hail and Fire – but more so than that, actually reading the stories themselves for the first time was a marvellous experience because they seemed to be at odds with what else horror had to offer at that time. The tired clichés, the gore-streaked action, the explicit sex…they were not present. Instead, what I found was a collection of intelligently written, subtle vignettes of life with a disturbing undercurrent of darkness, many of them set in a fictional town called Oxrun Station.
The adjective most commonly associated with the work of Charles L Grant is quiet, and it’s an accurate term because that’s exactly how the horror creeps up on you from within the framework of the everyday suburban setting. Grant’s writing is similar to Ray Bradbury’s, by which it is beautifully poetic and distinct in style, but it lacks the overt romanticism of Bradbury, the heavy emphasis on nostalgia. Instead Grant’s characters are blue-collar workers or struggling single parents, lost in their own brilliantly-realised troubles, often haunted by internal fears which are sometimes realised as external events.
When I read a Charles Grant story I’m usually thinking of Haddonfield, the fictional Illinois town featured in John Carpenter’s Halloween because it seems to share the quality of existing mainly at night. The rustle of a dead leaf at autumn, the cry of a nightbird, the sudden descent of ethereal mist…Grant weaves the atmosphere in such a way as to make everyday elements like the weather and the geographical location just as important as the characters themselves.
His first lines grab you. He breaks the rule about not starting a story with the weather. Not only does he break the rule, he shows us that there are no rules, that excellent writing can be achieved with a powerful style that can hypnotise the reader into fearing what might be in the shadows, rather than just shining a spotlight on the monster and telling us to be frightened.
There’s a cadence to the writing that just demands it to be read aloud. It’s almost prose-poetry. He blends words together to create new ones, ones that are absolutely perfect for the way they’re utilised. His use of repetition is brilliantly deployed. Not a single word is wasted. It’s dense and nicely structured but there’s no need to skip anything because In Charles L Grant’s writing, the journey is as much fun as the destination.
Grant’s ethos for excellence in writing was also reflected in his work as an editor. His Shadows anthologies are viewed as one of the most important series in the genre, and they stand as a good example of the style of writing which he espoused.
Since then I’ve explored the genre in more detail. The internet has made collecting rare and out of print books much easier than it once was, so I’ve been able, over the years, to pick up those books that have fallen by the wayside. Writers like Robert Aickman, T E D Klein, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Arthur Machen, Dennis Etchison, Algernon Blackwood and Karl Edward Wagner all share common ground with Grant but each of them has their own distinct voice.
Charles Grant died ten years ago. I remember it well. I was devastated to hear the news. It felt like a huge part of my literary foundation had crumbled. I was just starting out on the path to writing myself, finally taking the plunge and sending out submissions to places that offered nothing but exposure. I was searching for a voice, a style – I still am – but so impressed was I with my writing idols that I instinctively felt it was how I wanted to write. Hearing that Charles Grant was no longer with us was a kick in the gut. I was even a subscriber to his wife Kathryn Ptacek’s email service, The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets, which to a newbie writer was helpful in identifying places to which I could submit stories. We had corresponded several times. After a short period of time had elapsed, and I had gathered the courage to contact her to pass on my condolences, we got chatting about Charles as a person – as a reader, a fan of the genre, not just as a writer. She told me something that has stayed with me to this day, something that highlights what a decent man he appears to have been. I happened to comment that her late husband’s writing meant a great deal to me, that it reminded us that there was far more to the horror genre than giant crabs and the like. She told me that Charlie actually loved those old Guy N Smith novels. He even owned a few of them.
I felt pretty foolish. I felt like a snob that has had their snobbery disarmed by a simple act of humility. An important lesson learned that day.
I’m still a nobody writer. Nothing much has changed in that sense. But Charles L Grant’s fiction still inspires me, still captivates and enthrals me when I read it. The language he uses and the specific way he builds those sentences are breathtaking. For nearly thirty years I’ve been in awe of his talent. I’m still in awe of it. I know I’ll end my days being in awe of it.
(C) Stephen Bacon 2016
Stephen Bacon’s fiction has been published in Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Shadows & Tall Trees, Postscripts, Something Remains, and Crimewave, and has been selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year. His debut collection, Peel Back the Sky, was published in 2012 and was nominated for a British Fantasy award. A novella, Laudanum Nights, is due to be published by Hersham Horror Books in September 2016. His website is http://www.stephenbacon.co.uk