2020. As I write this, the new year and new decade are seven hours away. I think back to the years and years I have spent as a horror reader, and I am reflecting on the one moment when it all crystallized and became embedded into my soul.
I’d have to say the year was 1984. Thirty-six long years ago. Years that brought joy beyond belief, heartbreak, laughs, fun, agony, laughs, tears. All of this and lots more.
I had always been a horror fan. I loved the movies since I was a young child. Most kids do, but few hold on to that love the way I did. The way I am sure people reading this have done.
I liked to read horror too, but it wasn’t that easy to find. As a lover of imagination, I gravitated to science fiction, and some of the writers associated with the genre also wrote horror stories. Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Henry Kuttner, and Ray Bradbury were probably the most prominent. H.P. Lovecraft, of course. I also read some of the horror bestsellers, like Jaws, The Others, Harvest Home, and The Exorcist.
By the early eighties I was growing increasingly weary of SF. I had exhausted the work of the Golden Age science fiction writers whose work I loved. The New Wave of SF that flourished in the sixties yielded some interesting results, but the phase was dying down. Cyberpunk was largely ahead. A lot of the stuff on the science fiction shelves of the bookstores was heavily influenced by the media, and seemed to be trying to emulate Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas. Some of it even seemed closer to J.R.R. Tolkien than Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein.
I was in the worst reading slump of my life, and I fear that I was beginning to lose the love of books. I clearly needed something new.
I was still reading science fiction magazines, and I happened upon a very interesting interview in an issue of Analog. It was with an author named Charles L. Grant. Grant is now known as one of the fundamental influences of modern horror fiction, but he got his start as a writer of science fiction. A two-time winner of the genre’s highest honor, the Nebula Award, Charles L. Grant could have probably had a long and important career writing SF.
But, thankfully, horror was in Grant’s heart and in 1978 he published his first dark fiction novel, The Curse.
I liked what Grant had to say in that interview, and on the next visit to my favorite used bookstore, The Bookworm, I looked for something by the man. I saw several juicy-looking titles, and I settled on one called Nightmare Seasons.
Did I enjoy Nightmare Seasons? Oh. Oh, yes. It’s safe to say that my life was literally changed when I started reading it.
Nightmare Seasons is a collection that contains four novellas, each thematically linked to the four seasons of the year.
I know what you’re thinking. Stephen King did the same thing. Different Seasons contains four novellas, each thematically linked to the four seasons of the year. What a ripoff. Yeah, but which came first?
Both Nightmare Seasons and Different Seasons were published in hardcover in 1982. I suppose that one may have inspired the other. I really don’t know, but I choose to believe that it was a coincidence. Both are fantastic books, and both, I think, are among the best the respective authors have written. Other than the seasonal concept, the books are completely different beasts.
Nightmare Seasons has a framework device of a scholar who is given a manuscript of disturbing stories that take place in his New England home of Oxrun Station. The stories deal with real citizens and real mysteries of the town.
The first part, taking place in Spring, 1940, is called “Thou Not Need Fear My Kisses, Love.” Grant excelled at evocative titles for his short fiction. This tale concerns an independent working woman who deals with romantic overtures from several co-workers. When men begin to die in grisly ways she is filled with mounting dread that one of her aspiring lovers may be something more than he seems to be. Something demonic and…hungry.
Tale the second, “Now There Comes a Darker Day,” is set in the summer of 1950. This time the owner of a tavern sees a woman and her ominous daughter making the rounds of the men who frequent the bar. A lovely, smiling little girl, who is followed by uncanny rain and lightning.
The third story is called “Night’s Swift Dragons,” and it is fall in 1960. A postal crew is finishing up for the evening when a gang of motorcycle riders converge at the station. These riders are more terrible than the stories of Hell’s Angels that people have whispered about. Their origins are ancient, and they have an infernal kinship with the friendly old postmaster.
Finally comes 1970, a frigid winter, a haunted Christmas, and the final tale entitled “The Color of Joy.” A teacher is plagued by visions of a “darkman,” but sometimes the one we fear the most is closest to home. As close as the blood in our own veins.
I was swept away by Charles Grant and Nightmare Seasons. This was exactly, precisely, what I had been seeking. I can’t remember the exact month of the year 1984 I read Nightmare Seasons, but I know that it was cold. I read much of it on a boat I was living on. A freezing, dark, delicious way to embark on a lifelong obsession with horror fiction. I haven’t exclusively read horror since then, which would be silly, but the vast majority of my reading diet has been in the genre. I’ve never regretted it.
And Charles L. Grant! The name will always equate the very best horror has to offer to the discriminating reader. No one does atmosphere, mood, and tension as he did.
Grant is known as the main practitioner of what has been described as “Quiet Horror.” He generally favored subtlety over explicit violence, but honestly? Nightmare Seasons isn’t that quiet. In fact, some research for this piece led me to a Kirkus reviewer complaining that the book was too gory.
Times have changed. I cannot imagine anyone thinking that of Nightmare Seasons today. I think it probably isn’t the right book for the extreme horror set. But for readers who crave smart, literary, good old fashioned spooky horror fiction, I recommend Nightmare Seasons unreservedly. It will be perfect for any season of the year, but it will probably be most effective on a cold and windy night.
Thank you, Charles L. Grant. Without you, without Nightmare Seasons, without the care and craft you put into your fiction, I would never have become the horror fan I am today.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.