Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Charles L. Grant

There are still moments—less frequent as time and age do their work of erosion—when I find myself reading or watching something and thinking, “I gotta call Charlie. He’ll love this.” And then I realize he’s not there anymore.

It’s hard to lose a friend. It’s harder still when he was also someone whose work you admired from a young age. I first found Charlie in the Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural, a popular collection republished by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the early 1980s. No doubt it—along with King’s Danse Macbre—introduced many young horror fans to the big names that would make that era a golden age of horror fiction, with Charlie near the top of the list.

I was still in high-school when I learned he lived in my home state and decided, one day, to just show up on his doorstep to ask him to sign some books. He was gracious and invited me in, talked to me a for a time, and gave me copies of books I’d had trouble finding. We became friends and stayed friends until the end. Watching him decline with COPD over the course of years, and then losing him just when he seemed to be doing a bit better, was a hard thing for all of us close to him.

Charlie wrote in an amazing variety of styles, but the books that capture his personality the best are his humorous works: B-movie sensibility, groan-inducing wordplay, and outright silliness. His pseudonyms Lionel Fenn and Geoffrey Marsh are more Charlie than “Charles L. Grant.”

But then the question immediately arises: Are they really? Obviously, a man who devoted such craft (and he was a tireless craftsman, working and reworking things endlessly) to dark fiction was tapping something from within which he rarely let show: a deeply personal sense of emotional fear.

What strikes me in re-reading “Old Friends” for the first time in many years is how perfectly it encapsulates his approach and style. The first story I read of his in that Arbor House collection was the oft-reprinted classic “If Damon Comes,” which has stylistic and thematic elements that are similar to “Old Friends.” I remember pressing it on friends (we’re talking 8th graders here) who just didn’t get it, and couldn’t dial in to the emotional unease and elliptical style of the story. It was a style that came at its horrors from an angle just out of view: you could glimpse it, but when you look directly at, it flitted away. It creates a remarkable sense of tension that, in the best examples, builds to an emotional crescendo.

Charlie was most vocal in his criticism of “cosmic horror”: horror that comes from outside. “Old Friends” shows what he preferred in its place. There is an element of psychological horror to the story, but it is unquestionably a supernatural horror story. This subtle ability to capture psychological states and moods and then supercharge them with the uncanny is one of his defining characteristics. The horror in these stories emerges from the psyche of individual. It grows in our being, nourished by our shattered hopes and dark dreams, and then bursts into the world, with horrifying consequences.

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Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas McDonaldThomas L. McDonald is Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine.