Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
This sentiment haunts me. It has since I first heard it quoted by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. The quote in its entirety, by Henry David Thoreau, is even more chilling:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.
The implications make me shiver. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Most of us are gripped by worry, anxiety, fear, and a crippling helplessness. But it’s repressed deeply inside; quiet, restrained, shackled, bringing us to the brink of madness without ever quite plunging us over the edge. And in the end, we go to the grave with the song still in us, never able to express what we wanted to—needed to—while shuffling through this numbing thing called “life.”
That quote explains me. It explains you. It explains ALL of us, at one time or another. I’ll definitely own up to feeling that quiet desperation. Grappling with it. Shackling it, deep inside. Over the years I’ve come to accept the fact that in many ways I’m a bit melancholic, sad, even a little lonely. What does this have to do with the short fiction of Charles L. Grant? Hang in there, and follow me on this.
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
For whatever reason, I’m one of those folks who grew up looking Apple Pie American normal but inside felt as if I didn’t quite fit in. I did well in school, got along with most folks, experienced moderate athletic success, and looked pretty Joe Average. Mind you, I wasn’t hiding any traumatic secrets. Nothing “bad” happened to me which I repressed. I just always felt…alone. And a little sad, all the time, without really knowing why.
Those who knew me—and those who know me now—probably can’t square my self-description of melancholia and loneliness with the relaxed, smiling, and at times goofy guy they know. And it’s not like I’m faking it. I generally am relaxed, I laugh at the silliest things, and usually have an optimistic outlook. For whatever reason, I just get…sad.
In high school I felt most of this as an undercurrent running beneath my conscious thoughts. It didn’t really explode into my life and take over until the period after my ex-fiancé and I broke off our wedding. In the year that followed, I faced my own darkness and loneliness for the very first time (ironically, this was when I felt my first pull toward writing horror), until I finally met my wife Abby.
I feel blessed with a wonderful and supportive wife, family, teaching career and whatever it is you can call my writing—career, hobby, whatever. Even so, however…I’m still a little bit lonely. Still feel a little bit sad, all the time, even if I don’t show it.
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
I never had the honor of meeting Charles Grant. I don’t what he was like, in private or in person. I was struck, however, with this statement from his introduction to his short story collection, A Glow of Candles and Others:
…asked me if I could characterize my protagonists. I hesitated only a moment before saying, ‘They’re lonely.’ A Glow of Candles and Others, by Charles Grant – Introduction
It makes me wonder what Charles Grant thought of Thoreau’s line. It certainly implies there’s a good reason I was so powerfully impacted by his short fiction when I first encountered it. The characters in Grant’s short fiction, especially, seem to lead lives of quiet desperation. It’s that desperation which often proves their undoing in the end, either because of what they’ve done to themselves or what they’ve opened themselves up to, or the forces they find themselves at the mercy of, because of their desperation.
The first Charles Grant short story I encountered was “The Fourth Musketeer” in Whispers II, edited by Stuart David Schiff (we’ll look at Whispers, Shadows, Borderlands and Year’s Best Horror, edited by Karl Edward Wagner, at a later date). In it, Everett Templar is a man gripped by a mild case of mid-life crisis. He wears his hair too long to be a banker, dresses too young, isn’t getting along with his wife, and more than anything else he wants to escape. Get out of town. Go back home, and disappear.
He does exactly that. Packs his bags, gets on a bus, heads out for nowhere. He finally returns to Hawthorne Street after a dizzying six months on the road, (he thinks) traveling on a whim. When he gets there, however—in one of the most wonderfully subtle scenes I’ve ever read—Everett realizes he’s done exactly what he wanted. He’s gotten away. ALL the way. Off our map of existence, even.
When I first read this story, I was still trying to write short stories about monsters, demons, vampires, even taking a few stabs (ha, ha) at serial killer stories. Some of them were good, solid stories, and ended up in my first short story collection, Things Slip Through. However, reading “The Fourth Musketeer” sent me reeling. In essence, here was a very simple yet evocative tale about human frailty and weakness. If anyone was leading a life of “quiet desperation” it was Everett Templar, and this desperation ultimately leaves him stranded somewhere in between this world and the next, just as insubstantial and irrelevant as he feared he was becoming.
This turned my focus inward, made me think hard about what stories I wanted my horror fiction to tell. There are many reasons why folks write horror fiction; and there isn’t any one right reason. As I’ve said many times, it’s your dime. At the end of the day, you choose how to spend it, then face yourself in the mirror and be okay with it. Even though I felt satisfied with the end product of Things Slip Through, I felt like I was still searching for my voice. As I edited the short stories for Things (some of them rewritten from the ground up, especially with this new realization), I felt like they were good stories.
But where they me?
Did they come from that quiet desperation I’ve got shackled inside of me? Another writer and a mentor who has meant so much to me over the years, (also a future column-in-waiting), Mort Castle, once told me: “The best stuff, the stuff that lasts, comes from those late night questions we ask ourselves.” At the time I wasn’t sure I quite understood what he meant by that (though I understood the sentiment). I did understand, however, when I finally encountered Grant’s short fiction.
So I started asking deep questions of myself. What am I afraid of? As a person? A man? A husband and father? A teacher? Also—what quiet desperation had I chained deep inside me? What were some of those things which made me deeply flawed, which I didn’t—couldn’t—share with anyone, but also didn’t want still stuck inside me when I went to the grave?
In many ways the characters in Grant’s short fiction are much like Stephen King’s (though stylistically the two writers are miles apart) in that they could be real people we know, who live down the street, who look back at as from the mirror every morning. As Grant himself says in the introduction to Glow of Candles and Others:
They’re (his characters) deliberate attempts to use ordinary people, rather than the so-called Heinlein man, (science fiction author Robert Heinlein) who isn’t ordinary at all, no matter what job he holds when the story opens. Ordinary people—that’s most of us, in spite of our dreams—speak more eloquently, I think, than do superheroes about what frightens us daily: bills, employers, employees, the Bomb, the anti-Bomb, the younger generation, relationships which somehow work for Rock Hudson and Doris Day but don’t work for us, the reflections in our mirrors.
Grant’s short stories are populated by heartrendingly ordinary people. Frustrated teachers. Tired widows. Retired cops looking for somewhere to fit in—like in “When All the Children Call My Name.” When Kit finds a beat which still needs him, he fears it might be the end of him. Out of work writers and playwrights in far flung dystiopian futures. A toll booth operator at the outskirts of Oxrun Station, a man desperate to leave for something better, who is consumed by forces beyond his control in my personal favorite, “Coin of the Realm.”
The majority of Grant’s characters in his short fiction (as well as in his novels and novellas, but especially in his short fiction) are lost, searching for an elusive something which lies just beyond their reach, desperate, frustrated….
Like the tired bank teller who seem a little preoccupied when handling your deposit. Or the widower who lives across the street and hasn’t come outside since his wife passed, and maybe misses his old dog more than her, and would rather have his old dog back than intrusive family members now trying to run his life, like in “This Old Man.” The man or woman who doesn’t quite fit in—who isn’t strange but also isn’t normal—and is so easily brushed aside and marginalized by the masses teeming around them. The tired and worn out English teacher not brave enough to buck his overbearing Department Head, who because of his “cowardice” draws the vengeful ire of a younger and more passionate colleague in “The Rest is Silence.”
And when the supernatural, out of the “ordinary-this-is-NOT-normal” plot twist does come into play, if you’re blinking you might miss it, or it was there all along, and you didn’t even know it. Like at the end of “Every Time You Say I Love You,” a rather disturbing take on William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Trying to outwit death in “Confess the Seasons.” A father who can’t let go, who is eventually caught and tormented by the daughter he couldn’t let go in “Hear Me Now, My Sweet Abby Rose.”
I could go on and list every single short story Grant’s ever written. It would be a pleasure, believe me. However, I think I’ve made my point. Grant’s short fiction grabbed the steering wheel charting my course as a writer and twisted it, hard, swinging the focus inside. Made me face what was in there, challenging me to write about those things I couldn’t speak of, which made me feel sad and so lonely, so I wouldn’t go to my grave with my song still inside.
Short Stories of Charles L. Grant:
A Glow of Candles and Others – used paperback
Tales from the Nightside – used paperback
Black Wine – used hardcover
Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant – ebook – PS Publishing, $5.99
Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant – paperback – PS Publishing, $19.00
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight 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.