Tag Archives: Dancing with Shadows

GUEST POST: STEPHEN BACON ON CHARLES L. GRANT

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

FIND ALL OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO DANCING WITH DHADOWS: THE CHARLES L. GRANT BLOG-A-THON, HERE!

Tagged ,

GUEST POST: GARY MCMAHON ON CHARLES L. GRANT

Dancing With Shadowsbanner

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…

grant2Currently, 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
  • Home
  • 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
  • Digging
  • 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.

Read all the other contributions to DANCING WITH SHADOWS: THE CHARLES L. GRANT BLOG-A-THON HERE!

Tagged , , , ,

RIDING THE BLACK

A little while back, Mark West put together a fantastic BRIT HORROR MIXTAPE on his blog, inviting contributors to recommend and write about their favourite British Short Horror stories. It was an excellent list, full of excellent recommendations from excellent writers. So I was immensely flattered when he invited me to contribute to the follow up an AMERICAN HORROR MIXTAPE, which went live yesterday.

It’s a cracking lineup of contributors and a cracking selection of stories – each and every one essential reading. Go check it out.

For my part, I wrote about Charles L. Grant.

“Riding The Black” by Charles L. Grant

Some day I’ll tell you how Harlan Ellison changed my life, but not today. Today, I want to talk about Charles L. Grant.

Elmore Leonard (who knew a thing or two about writing) once said you should never start a story with weather. I’d add the caveat: “unless you’re Charlie Grant”.

No one wrote weather like Charlie. No one else could make it speak and breathe the way he did. It wasn’t just mood, it was a character, and he wrote place as well as Machen or Blackwood.

It pains me that he’s not talked about more, that there aren’t websites full of interviews and columns that he wrote; that his name doesn’t come up more often when people speak of Greats within our genre, because he was.

The cadence and the rhythm of his prose, the attention to the ebb and flow of it, is almost musical; certainly poetic. It demands attention, full and undivided. Not because it’s ‘difficult’, but because it’s delicate. Fragile. And to break it is to lose its finely wrought sensibilities, perfectly balanced craft. It demands to be savoured. No use chomping down on this one, you have to let it melt in the mouth, let the flavours overwhelm you.

I feel like I should have a porch to sit and read him on at the end of the day – perhaps the best time to read Charlie – as the sunset bleeds from shades of blood to shades of dying (that’s one of Charlie’s right there), as shadows lengthen and the night sets in, and the clock in the hall talks death to itself (that’s one of his too). I’ve spent the last couple of weeks re-reading Charlie’s short stories (those I have to hand), and trying to pick just one. I almost settled on “Coin Of The Realm”, because there’s something sort of perfect about it. Something very classic, very TWILIGHT ZONE, very American about it.

But I’m choosing “Riding The Black” instead, and here’s why:

Because it just won’t fucking go away.

I don’t know that it’s the ‘best’ Charles L. Grant story ever written; as with all Great writing, and all Great writers the work grows, and changes, and means something more, or less, or different every time that you return to look again. But, of this I’m sure: I’ve read a tonne of Charlie’s stories in the last few weeks. Swum in their deep, dark waters; breathed their shadows and tasted their particular chill. I’ve wallowed in the worlds that Charlie created. A week ago I closed the covers on those books and came back home. This story that came back with me.

It haunts me.

Not because it was the scariest. Not because it shocked me so. Because it moved me. Because it oozes sadness. And because I’m not quite sure what it means. Is the guy just an ageing gunfighter who outlived his times? Is he a God or a Legend? Is he one of the Four Horsemen? Is he the Devil, or Death itself?

I don’t know. Sometimes I think one, sometimes the other. But I’m sitting here, with the kids playing in the room behind me, and it’s still with me. He’s still with me. Haunting. Lingering. Like the smell of the summer as the clouds close in and thunder rolls in the distance. There’s gooseflesh prickling my arms.

And I’m smiling, and thinking of Charlie…

 

Which lead directly to the idea of DANCING WITH SHADOWS, the Charles L. Grant Blogathon.

12th-18th September I’ll be hosting a celebration of Charlie and his work, with contributions from myself, Ramsey Campbell, Nathan Ballingrud, Mark Morris, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Christopher Golden, James A. Moore, Lynda E. Rucker, Stephen Bacon, Mark west, James Everington, Thomas F. Monteleone, Nancy Collins, Stephen Bissette, Stephen Gallagher, Jean-Daniel Breque, Tim Lebbon, Jonathan Oliver, Marc Laidlaw, Steven Savile, Kealan Patrick Burke, P.D. Cacek and John Langan and more to come…

If you’d like to be involved, get in touch!
Dancing With Shadowsbanner

 

#dancingwithshadows #charleslgrant

Tagged , , , ,

DANCING WITH SHADOWS… the Charlie Grant Blogathon

Dancing With Shadowsbanner

Photo (right): Mary Jasch

Ten years ago this September, we lost one of the finest writers that the genre has ever seen.

Charles L. Grant is too little talked about these days, and I want to see that change. He was one of the Greats of our genre. More people need to know that. No one wrote like Charlie. No one wrote such exquisite, quietly chilling prose as he did. His pen dripped with black diamonds; phrases like glittering jewels that could cut glass.

He was one of the best.

I’m pushing hard for this, and it’s coming together beautifully, but just to be clear: The Charlie Grant Blogathon is open to EVERYONE…

I’ve been inviting people who I know were friends with Charlie or have spoken previously about his work, but PLEASE, if you loved Charles L. Grant and/or his writing, and you want to be involved, get in touch! 10 years since he passed away, we want to make sure his name is still a part of the current Genre conversation. He was a truly Great writer, and he deserves it. Let’s mark this anniversary in a way to make him proud.

The Blogathon will run from 12th-18th September. Right now the blogroll includes:

Myself, Ramsey Campbell, Mark Morris, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Christopher Golden, Mark West, Nancy Collins, Lynda E. Rucker, Stephen Laws, Stephen Bacon, Nathan Ballingrud, David Sutton, Kealan Patrick Burke, James Everington, James A. Moore, Peter Coleborn, Steven Savile, Marc Laidlaw, John Langan, Tim Lebbon, Jean-Daniel Brèque, Tom Monteleone, P.D Cacek, Jonathan Oliver, and Stephen Bissette.

If you want to join us in celebrating the life and work of one of the finest prose stylists that the genre has ever known, just get in touch – message me or leave a comment. JOIN US!

All you’ll need to do is post about Charlie and/or his work during the week of 12th-18th September. Include the image up top (including photo credit) and link back to this blog (there’ll be a specific BLOGATHON post the day before we launch, link to that and I’ll update it daily with links to every contribution made so that everybody can be found and read easily).

Please share your posts and mine. Use the hashtag #dancingwithshadows or #charleslgrant see if we can get Charlie trending that week. The genre is preserved by the people who love it. By those of us who do not forget. Remember Charlie this September. Share some love.

 

Let’s make this huge.

Neil.

Tagged , , ,