I never met Charles L. Grant, but that never kept me from knowing him. Such is the way with writers.
I can’t remember just when it was that I heard about Grant’s work, but I distinctly recall the feeling of immense bonding that overcame me when I did. Having begun my journey out of the juvenile jungle populated by terrormeisters like R. L. Stine and Bruce Coville, I started breaching the territory of Grown-Up Horror in my young adulthood, first meeting the field’s most prominent generals like King and Koontz before finding out about other commanders of noble and dubious rank like Rice, Laymon, Straub, Saul, Brite, and Barker. Somewhere in that heady mix of invigorating discovery came Charles L. Grant.
Even with my interest in dark fiction, I wasn’t the kind of kid who eagerly plunged into books that promised to match brimming tubs of blood with titillating scenes of supple flesh. Basically, I was a bit of a prude. This same attitude was what kept me from watching slasher films for a relatively long period of time, and even when I did finally come to them I’d still shake my head if they ever got too “excessive.” Initially I even stayed off viewing Hammer flicks for a little while just because of the implied threat that a nipple might be exposed. I was all about the Horror, but the Grown-Up parts of my journey gave me some pause.
Psychologically, this probably explains a lot about me. But enough of that.
All of this is to say that the big, bad bawdiness of contemporary Grown-Up Horror didn’t initially jive well with my tastes in the genre. This is likely why I gravitated towards older authors like Bradbury, Bloch and Matheson; they kept the more grisly and gauche aspects of their stories off in the wings while bringing atmosphere center stage. So when I heard that there was an author from the Horror Boom camp of writers who practiced what was called “quiet horror,” subtle, ephemeral stories that traded in the delicious New England chills that I loved so dearly, my attention was grabbed.
Appropriately, the first story I ever read of Grant’s was “Eyes” from Alan M. Clark’s anthology, Halloween Horrors. The cover of that edition seemed to be based on Grant’s own contribution: a cartoonish jack o’ lantern, its carved face twisted into a darkly mischievous smirk, glares out at the reader while a single, thin trace of blood wells from the corner of one triangular eye. Reading this story right after Robert M. McCammon’s “He’ll Come Knocking At Your Door”–still a favorite–was like going from the lip-puckering sour blast of a Warhead to the rich, bitter taste of a dark chocolate morsel. McCammon supplied pulpy thrills with his tale of a wish-fulfilling Lucifer coming to collect on his favors every All Hallow’s Eve, but Grant did something quite different, something that I wasn’t prepared for.
The story opens up with a quintessential Grant image: a man striding through the ever-present fog of his New England hometown, coat bundled against the chill of the weather and his own nagging misery. The man is the father of a developmentally-challenged boy, protective enough of the child and unchecked enough in his anger to thrash a teenager for lobbing insults. Regardless, we can’t help but feel that the father ultimately views his son as a burden, one that he is suddenly and horribly relieved of when a fatal accident occurs one night while carving pumpkins. In many ways, “Eyes” rehashes similar themes and circumstances from “If Damon Comes,” Grant’s more famous short story from eight years prior, down to the nail-biting finales that have both fathers being reunited with their progeny.
“Eyes” represents a special turning point in not only my reading life but my life in general, the time when I discovered that “adult” and “seedy” needn’t always be synonymous. Here was a story that showed what it truly was to be a Grown-Up: to survey the life that had come before and, in typical Grown-Up fashion, find it desperately wanting. The father in “Eyes” isn’t a monster; there is frustration and exasperation in his relationship with his son, yes, but there’s also a very powerful love that makes his other feelings all the more complicated and, therefore, all the more real. We can’t say that the father “gets what’s coming to him.” Like the mundane accident that claims his son’s life, his eventual fate is simply something that just happens.
Ever since that story, I’ve always wished for the chance to know Grant in person. That happens sometimes when you read work that really grabs you; stories are lines of communication, and when one finds in them a kindred spirit they may desire to know the person on the other side of the page “in the flesh.” I was barely into high school when Grant moved on from this life in 2005. The idea that I might have possibly met him at a convention or book signing had never really occurred to me before then–at the time I knew little of such engagements–but I still felt as if a great opportunity had been lost, as if an old friend I never had had sailed off to unknown shores.
Life can be funny sometimes. Three years ago some wonderful individual uploaded “raw photojournalist footage” from a conference panel that took place in Knoxville in 1983. The name of the panel discussion was “The State of Modern Horror,” and on its board of commentators was a veritable Round Table of genre luminaries from blockbusters like Stephen King and Peter Straub to cherished scribes like Karl Edward Wagner, Dennis Etchison, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
And one fella by the name of Charles L. Grant.
I can’t tell you how much happiness this development brought to me then. Here, for the first time, was my chance to hear Grant’s voice, to see him discourse on the material that was so important to him with other esteemed practitioners of the field. What more could I have asked for? With no offense meant to any of the other panelists, I eagerly skipped forward in the fifty-minute video to Grant’s responses, smiling like an idiot at his cultivated sense of cool, the way he’d casually smoke his burned-down cigarette and offer wry comments with all the smoothness of a hardboiled PI. He was everything that I hoped he would be, and though thirty years separated us I felt in those fleeting moments as if I’d gotten the chance to talk with Charlie just like I’d always wanted to.
To Charles L. Grant. May his work bring him new old friends forever onward.