At Home in the House Charles Grant Built

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This year marks a sad anniversary, a decade since the passing of writer, editor, and critic Charles L. Grant.  For those who don’t know his work, Grant was part of the group of horror writers who came to prominence in the 1970’s, a group that numbered Stephen King and Peter Straub among its members.  Contemporary writer and critic Neil Snowdon has set about commemorating Grant’s death by asking interested writers to contribute essays on and appreciations of the man and his work, which you can find here.  Although I didn’t know Grant personally, I’ve come to appreciate his fiction more and more as the years have gone by.  Here’s something about one of his more famous stories.

 

 

At Home in the House Charles Grant Built

 

For me, the principle pleasure of participating in Neil Snowdon’s worthy blogathon has been the opportunity it’s provided for me to revisit Charles L. Grant’s fiction.  In the effort, if not obsession, to remain au courant in my reading, there’s a tendency to give short shrift to re-reading.  As a consequence, I can neglect fiction which benefits from a second or a third look—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, fiction which can sustain a second or third look.  And if there’s one piece of advice that I would give to anyone approaching Grant’s work, either for the first time or after many times, it would be to re-read it.

Take “Home,” the story that Stephen King, in his introduction to Grant’s 1981 collection, Tales from the Nightside, ranked with Ramsey Campbell’s “The Companion” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall paper” as one of the three best horror stories ever written.  It begins at night, with the sound of violence, a “fight, if that’s what it was,” which is “vicious, swift, and punctuated with such high shrieking yelps and truncated dying howls” that it awakens Art, the story’s protagonist (Grant 32).  His wife, Felicity, murmurs that the noise must be dogs and urges him to go back to sleep, assuring him that he’ll learn the cause of the commotion soon enough, in the morning.  Significantly, Art has been yanked from a dream of the early days of his marriage, when he and Felicity enjoyed a romantic dinner on a boat on the Seine.  After the sounds outside, he cannot return to sleep, or to his pleasant memory.  Instead, he emerges from his house the next morning to the sight of police cars and a van from the local ASPCA parked up the road, and blood visible on the street.  A neighbor’s dog, an Irish setter well-known for tussling with other dogs, has met a gory end, presumably at the teeth of a bigger, meaner dog.  The death has occurred in front of the house of another neighbor, an older man, Calvin Schiller, who has moved there within the last year.  Felicity suggests Art consult with Cal, ask if he knows anything about what happened.  Art demurs, reluctant to approach the man due to a weird feature of his property.  Although the man himself has neither children nor grandchildren, his yard is full of toys and play sets.  Reflecting on his hesitation to speak with his neighbor, Art thinks sourly that it is typical of what his middle-aged existence has become, a retreat into lethargy mental and physical.

It’s already apparent that Art will find his way to Cal Schiller’s house, and that the old man will possess information about the death of the dog.  However, before their first conversation, Grant fleshes out the details of Art’s life.  His and Felicity’s marriage is still passionate, yet it’s equally prone to squabbles and disagreements.  His job is an exercise in frustration, his salary stagnant, his boss hostile and unappreciative.  His only child, a son, is aimless, an incipient college drop out.  In the meantime, another neighborhood animal, a Siamese cat, is brutally murdered, and a couple of local children are bitten by…something.  There are darker reports, too, of a pair of older kids, runaways, found murdered.  And throughout the story, the summer heat renders each day oppressive.

When Art finally finds his way to Cal Schiller’s front door, he receives a friendly welcome and a can of cold Australian beer.  More importantly, he finds in Cal an agreeable conversationalist, who answers Art’s questions about the toys in his yard with the revelation that he plays occasional babysitter to his neighbors’ grandchildren.  Embarrassed at his previous suspicions, Art departs, his opinion of the old man improved to the point that he calls on him again in another couple of days.  In his bourgeoning friendship with Cal, it seems Art might find his way out of the dark rut into which his life has fallen.

Of course, this is not the case.  Art discovers that the children’s amusements around Cal Schiller’s house are for nothing human, and the revelation comes at the expense of his life.  Reduced to a single-sentence summary—a man discovers his elderly neighbor is caretaker to a pack of monsters—“Home” might sound familiar, an example of the trap story, in which the protagonist rushes headlong to the thing that’s going to kill him.  It also touches on the equally familiar theme of the dangers of knowledge.  The point to be made, however, is that this is not a single sentence, but a story’s worth of them, which Grant has assembled into a microcosm of middle-aged frustration and fear.  The parameters of Art’s existence, his assorted disappointments, are laid out as deftly as those of any character in a story by John Cheever or John Updike.  He struggles to uphold his marriage.  His job is subject to the whims of his boss, and to the larger vicissitudes of the economy.  He fights disappointment with his child.  The creatures that have him at the story’s end, whose features Grant only hints at, are a kind of fulfillment of his existence, a next step, symbolically speaking.  It’s possible to read the story’s title ironically.  Art is killed in the place he considers his home, i.e. his place of refuge and safety, by things that have claimed it as their home.  Undoubtedly, such a reading pertains, but it’s equally possible to read another kind of irony into the title.  Even before Cal Schiller and his inhuman brood moved into the town, Art’s home was not what he thought it was, had not been for years, if ever[i].

In this and in so many other stories, Grant constructs a fictional universe in which whatever monstrous or supernatural elements occur are not so much invading an unspoiled Eden as they are echoing and perhaps amplifying what is already wrong with a place.  It’s a narrative strategy employed by Grant’s contemporaries, Stephen King and Peter Straub, and that descends, at least in part, from one of his great ancestors, the Ray Bradbury of the Dark Carnival stories and of Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It’s also present in some of Grant’s literary descendants, particularly a story such as David J. Schow’s “Not from Around Here.”  What Grant and these others do in story after story strikes me as a challenge to the assertion that American horror fiction, writ large, tends to concern a threat to an idealized locale by an outside force which is subsequently defeated and the ideal defended.  Rather, a story such as “Home” demonstrates that the ideal was always already spoiled, that the monsters that menace us find their reflections in our daily lives.

In his 1985 collection of interviews with horror writers, Faces of Fear, Douglas Winter begins his interview with Charles Grant by quoting David Morrell’s description of Grant’s work.  “Stephen King and Peter Straub are like the luxury liners of the horror field,” Morrell says.  “They’re always visible on the horizon when you look out over these deep, dark waters.  But Charlie Grant—he’s the unseen power, like the great white shark, just below the surface” (Winter 109).  It’s an apt simile for the way in which Grant’s fiction achieves its considerable effects.  The surface of the water rises and falls from its myriad causes, with only the slightest of ripples revealing what is barreling towards us, mouth open to rows of sharp, sharp teeth.

 

Works Cited

Grant, Charles L..  “Home.”  Tales from the Nightside.  Sauk

City, Arkham House:  1981.  32-47.

Winter, Douglas E..  Faces of Fear.  New York, Berkley:  1985.

 

[i] I have to admit to wondering about the significance of the character’s names, which seem to me to verge on the allegorical, like something out of Hawthorne (not a surprise, perhaps, given the story’s New England setting).  Art’s wife is Felicity, whose meanings include good fortune.  Cal’s first name recalls Calvin and his awful, uncompromising God.  Art’s own name, in its shortened form, suggests the made world.  So, in this allegorical chain of reasoning, the happy world of human artifice is overtaken by a vengeful Deity.

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After Readercon

This past weekend I spent in Burlington, MA, at the 26th annual Readercon.  It’s probably the convention I most look forward to each year, because it’s the one the largest percentage of my writing friends attend.  This year was no exception:  I roomed with Paul Tremblay, and spent time with a raft of people including S.J. Bagley, Michael Cisco, Brett Cox, Joann Cox, Ellen Datlow, Gemma Files, John Foster, Mike Griffin, Liz Hand, Jack Haringa, Stephen Graham Jones, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, Nick Kaufmann and Alexa Antopol, Mike and Caroline Kelly, Sarah Langan, Rob Shearman, Justin Steele, Simon Strantzas, Peter Straub, Jeffrey Thomas, and plenty more whose names I apologize for forgetting.  Highlights of the convention included fiction readings by Mike Cisco, Gemma Files, Rob Shearman, and Paul, as well as this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards, which I mc’d for the first time without embarrassing myself or the awards too badly.  I read from my own work twice, first as part of a group reading for The Monstrous, Ellen Datlow’s newest anthology, in which my new story, “Corpsemouth,” appears, and then on my own on Sunday afternoon, after the Jackson Awards, to a surprisingly large audience, to whom I managed to read all of my story, “The Savage Angela in:  The Beast in the Tunnels” (forthcoming in Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer’s Swords v. Cthulhu).  In the midst of the convention came the awful news that Tom Piccirilli had lost his brave fight with brain cancer, and we raised a glass in his honor and memory that night.  There was flatbread pizza, and there was Korean barbecue.  Then the weekend was over, so fast I still can’t believe it, and it was time for the annual drive back west accompanied by Michael Cisco.  As ever, thanks to the Readercon crew for putting on such a great convention.  The Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you next year.

Ten Books

Over in the world of Facebook, the “Ten Books” meme is making the rounds.  As you know, Bob, this is the prompt where you’re asked to name ten books that have had a lasting impact on you.  And as pretty much everyone who’s responded to the meme has noted, it’s the kind of list-making that is subject to change almost the moment it’s done.  I’ve been tagged to do it by both Paul Tremblay and Jack Haringa.  So here you go:

1. Stephen King Christine:  This was the book that made me want to be a writer.  I read it in paperback during the fall of my freshman year in high school, and experienced something like a conversion experience.  It wasn’t just that I wanted to write fiction–previously, I’d wanted to work in comics, preferably as a writer-artist–I wanted to write horror fiction.  It had something to do, I think, with his ability to bring together something that looked like the world of my daily experience with the material of the fantastic.  All of King’s work has been tremendously important to me, from his stories and novellas to novels such as The Shining, Pet Sematary, and Misery, but this was the one that started it all.

2 & 3. Peter Straub Ghost Story & Shadowland:  I first read Straub at King’s suggestion (in Danse Macabre).  Then I reread him.  Then I read him a third time.  And so on.  I loved his work from the get-go, but for as much as I got from it, I was aware that there was a great deal I wasn’t getting.  I found that incredibly cool.  If, as Nabokov says, the literary is that which we are always re-reading, then Straub’s work is literature of the highest order.  These may be my desert-island books:  they work as narratives in their own right; they engage the history of the genre in which they participate; they do all kinds of other remarkable things.  These are the books I would most like to have written, myself.

4. T.E.D. Klein Dark Gods:  I knew T.E.D. Klein as the editor of Twilight Zone magazine, and it may have been in the pages of that publication that I read a review of Dark Gods, his collection of novellas, which made it sound like the kind of book I had to read.  To my delight, the local library had it, in hardcover.  It’s a virtuoso performance, one in which Klein, with seeming effortlessness, inhabits four distinct modes of supernatural horror.  At a sentence level, he’s one of the finest writers to have attempted the horror story, which helps to give his stories the richness and depth of much longer works.

5. Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre:  I read Jane Eyre during my junior year in high school, for my Honors English class.  I don’t know what I was expecting–something dry and tedious, I suppose–but I was completely swept up by Jane’s voice, by the passionate intensity of her response to her life’s changing (and challenging) circumstances.  It didn’t hurt that there was a humdinger of a Gothic plot at the heart of the book, either.  I think there was something, too, about the way that Bronte explored her character’s moral processes that really struck a chord with me.  Jane is highly conscious of not only what she wants to do, but why she wants to do it–and why she should or shouldn’t do it–and this resonated with my adolescent self.

6. Charles Dickens Great Expectations:  The first time around, I hated this book.  My response may been influenced by the fact that I was reading it two days before I was due to take a test on it for the same Honors English class in which I read Jane Eyre, and I was having a hard time with it.  In comparison to Bronte’s prose, Dickens’ struck me as tedious, meandering.  Needless to say, I didn’t do particularly well on the test.  I gave the novel another try during my undergraduate years, in a course on the Nineteenth Century English novel, but I didn’t like it much better, then.  It wasn’t until the summer of my twenty-fifth birthday, when I was house sitting for a week, that I though it might be time to take yet another crack at the book.  This time around, I was entranced.  Dickens’ writing now seemed to me a kind of proto-stream-of-consciousness, his often baroque figures indexes of Pip–his narrator’s consciousness.  Pip’s mind is a fairly Gothic place to begin with, and, like Jane Eyre, to which this novel increasingly strikes me as a kind of twin, there’s a heck of a Gothic subplot within his story.  What struck me most about the book the last time I read it, a few years ago, is the utter ruthlessness Pip displays towards himself and the great expectations that shape his life.  It’s a fierce, sad story, one of the greats.

7. Flannery O’Connor The Collected Stories:  Another writer I hated the first time I read her.  This was in my senior year of high school, in my College English class.  We had to read the stories in Everything that Rises Must Converge, along with O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away.  I had no problem navigating O’Connor’s prose, which was lucid, compelling, but the characters she portrayed, the situations in which she placed them, were unlike anything I had encountered before, the very definition, I suppose, of that trite term, Southern Grotesque.  My initial impression was of unpleasant people in unpleasant circumstances that seemed humorous in a sinister kind of way.  What helped me out of my adolescent priggishness was a remark about O’Connor I encountered in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which King called her possibly the finest writer of short stories in postwar America (or words to that effect).  Well, if Stephen King thought O’Connor was good…I went back to her stories, and now, I saw their deep similarities to the horror narratives with which I was more familiar (and comfortable).  These were narratives about women and men whose lives were upended by catastrophes whose metaphysical dimensions were full of terror and awe.  As for the eccentricities of their characters:  what does it say about me that, the older I’ve gotten, the less extreme they seem to me?

8. William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury:  I read The Sound and the Fury during the my first semester of college, in my Honors English 1 class.  We had to read the first two of its three stream-of-consciousness sections with no forewarning, and the result was disorienting, confusing.  (For those who haven’t read the book, the first section inhabits the mind of a severely-mentally-handicapped man; while the second places the reader inside the consciousness of a college student on the day he’s going to drown himself.)  During the next class, however, in one of the great teaching performances I’ve been present for, the professor took us back into those mazes of prose and pointed out the threads that would guide us through them.  What had seemed formless, chaotic, slowly resolved into a kind of glorious Gothic coherence.  I went back re-read the first half of the book, and raced to the end.  At a certain point, I seemed to fall through Faulkner’s winding syntax, into the narrative, whose small cast of characters seemed like players in some kind of strange, mythic drama.  This started me off on a Faulkner kick that extended over the next several years, from As I Lay Dying through Absalom, Absalom, Light in August, and Go Down, Moses.  I agree with those who call Faulkner the American Shakespeare, and while I think Absalom, Absalom may be his single greatest accomplishment, The Sound and the Fury remains closest to my heart.

9. Henry James The Collected Stories:  The last writer on this list I hated the first time through.  (Funny how that works, though, isn’t it?)  I read The Turn of the Screw during my senior year College English class.  I was primed to do so by my old friend, Stephen King, who had had very complimentary things to say about the novella in Danse Macabre.  This time, though, King’s praise was not enough.  I experienced the same problem reading James I’d had the previous year with Dickens, namely, the language was so dense, so labyrinthine, that I became lost in it, rereading the same sentences over and over again and still not fully comprehending them.  Interestingly–well, to me, anyway–what turned me onto James was reading one of his very last stories, “The Jolly Corner,” a few years later, in college.  It’s a story whose prose if even denser than that of The Turn of the Screw, which you would think would have put me off it, immediately.  Yet at some point not very far into it, I realized what the story was about:  a man who was being haunted by the ghost of the man he might have been.  That conceit electrified me, and while I wouldn’t say I raced through the end of the story, I finished it in a state of intense attentiveness.  With that one story, my attitude towards James underwent a sea change, and since then, I’ve been slowly making my way through his work, sometimes at the rate of one or two new things a year, sometimes revisiting texts I’ve read before.  I think his stories are my favorite of his work–and I’m stretching the definition of story to include things like The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, and In the Cage, which are at least substantial novellas.  What I love most about James is the way he traces the responses of his characters to their situations, which quite often, when you boil it down, are fairly melodramatic.  He is the great cartographer of perception, and I learn something from him every time I (re)read him.

10. Samuel Delany The Einstein Intersection:  I must have known Delany’s name during my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction of the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein/Niven stamp, but I didn’t actually read him until I was in college, at the recommendation of a friend who had discovered his shorter early novels.  Of those, the one that thrilled me was The Einstein Intersection, in which Delany mixed together the stuff of classical myth with legends of the American west and contemporary pop culture, bracketing his chapters with excerpts from his notebooks.  It was a bravura performance that had as much in common with things I’d been reading for my classes (i.e. Faulkner, The Waste Land) as it did science fiction tradition.  I’m not sure I realized this at the time, but years later, I would see the book as similar to what Straub had been up to in Ghost Story and Shadowland, a breaking down and re-combination of the elements of its genre.  When I returned to the horror field in my late twenties, Delany’s work, along with Straub’s, was a kind of guiding star to me, an example of how much you could accomplish in fantastic fiction if you possessed sufficient ambition. It was a kind of license to try weird things, to approach narrative from new and different angles.

There you have it.  In the process of working on this entry, though, I’ve come up with a list of what I guess you might call honorable mentions, so I thought I’d end with them:

Clive Barker  The Books of Blood

Edward Albee  The Zoo Story and The American Dream

Samuel Beckett  Endgame

John Barth  “Lost in the Funhouse” (story)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Time of Cholera

Rainer Maria Rilke The Duino Elegies

Willa Cather My Antonia

William Kennedy Ironweed

Virginia Woolf  To the Lighthouse

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber