It was his Oxrun Station quartets which first drew me in.
It was March, 2011. We were spending Spring Break with family in Michigan. We’d visited the year before, and I’d wanted to visit a used bookstore there but hadn’t gotten the chance to because of our schedule. Fresh off my experience with Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone and Stuart David Schiff, hitting Jellybean’s Used Books was a high priority on our next trip, to be sure. When I had some free time in our schedule, I scooted over to Jelly Bean’s, clutching cash in my grubby little fingers. To my delight, I found a sprawling bookcase full of horror. Wasn’t long before I was sitting on the floor next to a teetering stack of books.
Among them were Charles Grant’s Oxrun Station novella quartets, The Orchard, Nightmare Seasons, Dialing the Wind and Black Carousel. I’d encountered Charles Grant’s work previously in The Grave and For Fear the Night. After reading Norman Prentiss’ wonderfully quiet Invisible Fences, I decided to search out Grant’s work after a Douglas Clegg blurb compared Norman’s work to his. I thought to myself: If Charles Grant writes anything like Norman Prentiss, then I need to read him.
I wasn’t disappointed. Both novels invoked a creeping, subtle dread I’d not yet encountered in horror fiction, and the prose sang like Bradbury’s, but its lyricism was subtle, balanced, and perfectly tuned. I do have to make somewhat of a guilty admission, however, to initially being cool on Grant because of The Grave. Not because it wasn’t well-written or because I hadn’t like the characters; on the contrary, I loved The Grave’s main character Joshua Miller and loved the idea of someone working as a “finder of unique things.” I loved the novel and the character so much that when, in classic Charlie Grant fashion, Joshua Miller is consumed by the strangeness of Oxrun Station, I took it a little personally. Not quite understanding how the Oxrun Station mythos worked, I was a little annoyed at the demise of what I thought could’ve been a great recurring character.
In any case, I didn’t fully understand Oxrun Station until Spring Break 2011, when I read all the Oxrun Station novella quartets back-to-back. Oxrun Station was a place where things weren’t quite “right.” Its corners didn’t square. The entire town—though populated with genuinely nice folks in many respects—was like a living rendition of The Twilight Zone in which people got lost, or misplaced, or simply “wandered off the map.”
Strange things happened in this town, things most folks chose to ignore as a matter of course, with the exception of the novella quartet’s unnamed narrator and the town’s police chief, Abe Stockton. Only he and our narrator understood that while Oxrun Station was a nice place to live for some…for the lost and the lonely, the too curious or brash, for those who insisted on poking into places they didn’t belong…or for the randomly chosen unfortunate ones…
Oxrun Station would be the end of them.
In addition to the novella quartets, Grant wrote several Oxrun Station novels: The Hour of the Oxrun Dead, Sound of Midnight, The Last Call of Mourning, The Grave, The Bloodwind, and his Universal Horror send-ups, The Dark Cry of the Moon, The Soft Whisper of the Dead, and The Long Night of the Grave, all of which take place in Oxrun Station’s past. To me, the brilliance of Grant’s Oxrun Station mythos is the subtle connective tissue between each work. There is an order they could be read in—as I’ve listed above—but it’s not completely necessary. None of the stories end in cliffhangers, so they aren’t sequels by any means.
And characters from previous books are merely referenced in passing. A reader only understands their significance when they go back and read the previous books. So as you can see, my early disappointment of the demise of Joshua Miller from The Grave came from my not understanding what gave Oxrun Station its power: the town is a mystical black hole, by which the lonely, unfortunate, purposeless, or just plain unlucky are swallowed whole.
Something else I love about Grant’s Oxrun Station novels and his work as a whole is his utilization of myth and folklore in developing many of his horror stories. A “myth consciousness” beats at the heart of his tales, and quite frankly, I could spend a whole book analyzing each one. There’s no way I could do them justice by trying to analyze them here, but I’ll go so far as to say this: I love the way Grant approached myth and folklore in his horror. Like everything else he wrote, his treatment of myth was very subtle.
For example, if Grant was going to write a horror novel about a Wendigo, he might never even use the term. He would distill the wendigo myth to its most basic essence, the core elements of the Wendigo myth which gives it power, and write from there. His story would be about what birthed the Wendigo myth, and there’s a universality to Grant’s treatment of myth and folklore which makes his stories very accessible.
I often wonder if Grant was ever planning on revealing the darkness which beat at the strange heart of Oxrun Station. I like to think maybe he would’ve done so, if he’d not left us too early. His Oxrun Station novella quartets are connected by a framing device in which that aforementioned unnamed narrator—an author, perhaps Charles Grant himself—is constantly coming across stories about folks who met strange, untimely ends.
In Nightmare Seasons, our narrator is researching for a project when he’s handed a strange journal full of stories by the librarian, a journal delivered to them “by accident.” As he reads, he realizes it contains stories about Oxrun Station, lightly connected by themes involving the seasons. In The Orchard, our narrator learns Abe Stockton is ill, close to dying. Because he knows the narrator is the only other person in town aware of Oxrun’s weirdness, Abe passes along a manila folder full of case files, telling more stories about Oxrun’s strange history, this time revolving around an old, possibly cursed apple orchard which burnt down years before.
In Dialing the Wind, the narrator, going through Abe Stockon’s things, discovers more stories hidden away about Oxrun’s past, and these stories are lightly connected by music. In the final quartet, The Black Carousel, the narrator is holding a welcome party for Deric Stockton, the new police chief of Oxrun Station. Apparently, Stocktons are the only folks fit to watch over this strange town, and because of this, the narrator and his friends fill in the new chief about the nature of his new beat, with tales revolving around a visiting carnival—so very reminiscent of Bradbury’s Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show from Something Wicked This Way Comes—called Pilgrim’s Travelers.
The thing about these novella quartets is that their thematic links—the seasons, a cursed orchard, music, and a possibly evil carnival—only connect the novellas lightly. These stories are firmly character-based (as all of Grant’s work is), and this made a big impact on me as a writer. I’ve always loved mythos fiction cycles: Stephen King’s Castle Rock stories, Gary A. Braunbeck’s Cedar Hill cycle, Ray Bradbury’s Greentown series. However, though Grant’s Oxrun novellas are connected in each book, his touch is light. The stories themselves and the characters’ inner conflicts take front stage. It made me realize that while connective tissue between stories can heighten their impact, it’s the stories themselves, and their characters’ struggles, which really gives them substance.
Charles Grant was also a master stylist; but I want to be careful in using that word. In my years of reviewing, I’ve encountered many authors described as “stylists.” What that usually amounted to was either unreadable prose or uninteresting stories where style trumped actual storytelling. That was never the case with Grant’s work. His chapter-less novel Raven still stands, for me, as one of the fastest, most entertaining reads I’ve ever enjoyed. The Nestling and In A Dark Dream stand toe-to-toe with any Stephen King small-town horror novel, but both end with pure Charles Grant twists. The Tea Party is a haunted gothic mansion novel, Charles Grant-style. The Pet is coming-of-age horror, written as only Charles Grant could. Jackals is Charles Grant at his mythic best, writing about primal forces hidden in human form.
Also not to be missed are Grant’s other series, The Black Oak series and his Millennium Quartet. The Black Oak books tell the story of Ethan Proctor, who runs the X-Files/Fringe-esque private investigation business Black Oak, which specializes in the odd and the strange. The Millennium Quartet is Grant’s “end of the world” series, as the Four Horseman are released upon the earth to usher in the end. Publishers Weekly took a slightly dim view on the conclusion of the Millennium Quartet, saying Grant’s quiet style was ill-suited for an end-of-the-world series. I, however, disagree. Grant takes an epic struggle and brings it down to a human level, making former preacher Casey a reluctant Moses, leading the forces of good—flawed, human, but brave and stalwart—against the Horseman themselves.
Grant’s Greystone Bay series can’t go without note, either. Imagine Oxrun Station, but far more sinister, relocated to the New England coast. Featuring all star contributors, Greystone Bay, Doom City, The SeaHarp Hotel and In the Fog paint an enthralling tapestry of a town doomed by an ancient evil, a town forever stained. Not all of the stories were necessarily horror, however. “The Red House,” by Robert McCammon, is one of my favorite coming-of-age short stories which would also make a wonderful Twilight Zone episode.
Charles Grant was also an editor without peer when it came to collections of quiet horror. His Shadows collections—along with Stuart David Schiff’s Whispers, Tom Monteleone’s Borderlands and Karl Edward Wagner’s editions of The Year’s Best Horror—had a profound impact on me when I was really “studying” short stories five years ago.
I struggled in my early short stories to discover what “horror” meant for me. After three years, I still think the stories in my first short story collection Things Slip Through are decent, but they largely deal in clearly recognizable “horror” tropes. The stories I encountered in Grant’s Shadows series—as well as Fears, Nightmares, Gallery of Horror, and others—pushed the boundaries of what I thought of as “horror.” I encountered personal fears, conflicts, desires, themes rooted in humanity, themes common to us all. I learned to look inside myself, examining my own fears and weaknesses, and then learned to try and distill those personal fears to something more universal. I don’t know where I’m going with that as a writer, yet…but Charles Grant’s anthologies set me on that path, as did his short stories…which will be the subject of my next column.
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured inLamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.