Sunday, 18 September 2016

Dancing With Shadows: The Charles L. Grant Blogathon



I'm delighted today to be writing about one of my favourite writers, Charles L. Grant, and the impact reading his work for the first time had on me. This post is part of the Dancing With Shadows blogathon organised by Neil Snowdon, in order to celebrate Grant's work. There's many, many writers and fans of Grant posting this week; do check out Neil's site which has links to them all.


Grant's work has much that is exceptional about it, but something that has always stood out for me is his scene-setting. Before bringing onto stage his characters or the terrors they might face, Grant nearly always takes the time to describe the place, the season, and the weather, rooting his stories somewhere specific in time & space.

So, in telling my story of reading Grant for the first time, let's set the scene:

Not Oxrun, but Oxford. Headington, to be exact, where the city's other university sits on a hill and scowls with reverse-snobbery at its more renowned neighbour.

An evening during that dead time at the end of November, when it's already dark and wintery but no one feels festive yet. A room in student Halls, with posters from Select magazine - Pulp Fiction & Modern Life Is Rubbish - on the wall. One shelf crammed with C90s and CDs, another with books. There's a mixture of university set texts and horror paperbacks: Stephen King, Hamlet, Kafka, The Hauting Of Hill House, Virgina Woolf, Ramsey Campbell, The Trial. Nearly all second-hand, creased and faded.

Next to them, as yet uncreased, two new books.

These books had been a present from, uh, someone. When this person had given me a gift, before they left for Christmas, it had been an awkward moment. Because I’d not bought a present for them,  thinking we were well past the present buying stage. I didn’t even want to take the books, but this person insisted. They left, but the awkward, guilty feeling remained. Both books had dreadful covers that made me immediately assume the worst. One had a pretty generic mid-90s horror title: The Something by someone forgotten. The other was Nightmare Seasons by Charles L. Grant.

I was eighteen; a few years earlier my dad had introduced me to Stephen King, and I’d read and loved much of his work, as well as books by Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson and Clive Barker. But I’d also read plenty of shit horror too. There was a lot of that around, at the fag-end of the horror boom. Lots of books all called The Something.

I could have had an ephiphany that evening, but still feeling awkward and guilty at the encounter, I placed the books with the ugly covers on my shelves, underneath others which I intended to read first.

It was almost like I wanted to dislike them; when I did decide to read one of them it was The Something I read first. It was as shit as I thought it was going to be.

It was the next winter, in a different room with even more books crammed into it, Pulp Fiction replaced with Trainspotting on the wall, before I finally, reluctantly, started to read Nightmare Seasons.


And instantly realised what a fool I’d been to wait so long.


If you’ve read Grant you’ll understand; it only takes a few sentences and you realise just how damned well he can write. This is the start of the opening prologue of Nightmare Seasons, the first words by Grant I ever read:

"Winter... and rain.
 
During the blade-sharp days of a January cold snap, during the hours when snow immobilizes and breath turns to short-lived fog, there are the dreams of summer, of green, of walking with no particular purpose except to savor across the playing fields of the park beneath hickory and ash and white birch of such luxuriantly thick foliage that even the stilled air seems hazed with mint.  In part it is a steeled defiance of a numbing temperature that reduces animals to hibernation and man to bitter complaint; and in part it is a hypnotic gesture to the pleading of one's senses for an earnest reassurance that this sort of weather will not last, that there will indeed be a time when warmth beyond the hearth is a reality in spite of the past that it seems now like nothing more, and nothing less, than an attic memory.
 
But there are worse times than the cold."


Of course this isn’t just pretty language; I believe horror fiction is defined by its atmosphere over any other element, and Grant exemplifies this more than any writer I can think of. His plots, if sumamrised, might seem trite and cliched. But by god, the way he writes them! His tales build and build, the pressure increasing, until the lightning strike of his endings. This, surely, is why he was so good when writing novellas. They give him enough of a run up to really make you uneasy, but allow him to get out quickly once the storm has broken.

I had more free time, back then, and I read Nightmare Seasons in a single day. And it felt like an affirmation.


An affirmation of the genre and that there was space for serious artists working within it. I've read much more of the man's work, both as writer and editor, since that delayed revelation two decades ago, in a city I've long moved away from. But that first time always stays with me. I think, for every writer who's had even a modicum of success, there are certain books you remember because they quite literally changed your life: they helped you chart your course to become you kind of writer you are. Without wanting to suggest I've even a fraction of Grant's huge talent, Nightmare Seasons  was one of those books for me. The next beacon of light after King, Campbell, Jackson and Kafka.

His work is endlessly rereadable, too, and that's what I'll be doing tonight. I hope, after reading this post and all the others in the Blogathon, that you'll be tempted to join me.

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