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.
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.