Coming late to Charles L. Grant


(Neil Snowdon is curating a series of blog posts celebrating the work of the late Charles L. Grant, one of the premier writers and editors of horror fiction. The parent post, with links to other posts, can be found here.)

I didn’t learn to appreciate Charles L. Grant until later in life. I think I first heard of him when my mom bought me a copy of Dark Forces, that foundational anthology of horror fiction edited by Kirby McCauley. Like most folks who read that book, I was excited by a big new story from Stephen King, and I confess to an almost criminal lack of curiosity about the other writers included. Once I was finished with King, though, I  alighted on more stories, here and there. I remember being delighted by Edward Gorey (cartoon images in a fiction anthology: I thought that was revolutionary!), I remember enjoying the Ray Bradbury and the Karl Edward Wagner … but Grant’s story, “A Garden of Blackred Roses,” confused and frustrated me.

It started out like a King story. A young father at home with his family, a pleasant winter scene outside, and strange, winter-blooming roses stolen from a creepy house down the road. The death of the family cat quickly followed, and the protagonist experienced a frightening, red-eyed visitation later that night. Eleven-year-old me was all the way on board.

But then the story shifts to another character, a man pushing sixty with an oddly contentious relationship with his wife. Kids frequent the diner he owns, and he chases them away when he thinks they’ve been eavesdropping on adults around the neighborhood, and recording their pre-coital conversations. The story shifts perspectives twice more, and ends on a note that went straight over my head.

As I grew older, I gravitated more toward the four-color, blood-splashed spectacles of horror fiction: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End and The Scream … I didn’t have patience for what people were starting to call “quiet horror.” I had no ideological aversion to it; it’s just that I was a teenage boy in the 80s – my mind was moving at a different speed.

screamIt wasn’t until many years later, after leaving horror behind altogether, and eventually coming back to it with a new way of understanding the world, that I rediscovered Charles L. Grant. This time, I was better prepared to appreciate him. I picked up Scream Quietly, the huge retrospective collection of Grant’s short stories, edited by Stephen Jones, and meandered slowly through the table of contents, skipping around at whim.

My experience, of course, was entirely different. Here I found a writer with a talent for elegant prose, an instinct to recognize the beauty in horror (something dear to my own heart), and a nuanced sensitivity to the million minor catastrophes of the human experience.

I’d forgotten the title of the story I’d read all those years ago, but I recognized it soon enough, once I started reading it. It won’t come as a surprise to you to learn that “A Garden of Blackred Roses” is now one of my favorite Grant stories. It boldly eschews conventional narrative as it leaps from one perspective to another, each providing a different window onto the strange horror which resides in the middle of this small Northern town in a nest of curated beauty. The story turns its focus on love, in both the young and the old, and on the varieties and consequences of longing. Grant references Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter explicitly, and W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” more subtly. It’s a lovely, understated, powerful story — and, lest you be fooled by all this talk of “quiet horror” whenever Grant’s name comes up, it’s important to note that it leaves one of the characters at the point of shocking violence, before coyly leading the reader to another scene. One shouldn’t mistake quiet for gentle.

I’m happy I’ve come back to Grant, mature enough now to understand what he’s telling me. And after all, there are still the ghouls, the ghosts, the little people under the earth, and the gods from adjacent worlds to populate all these stories, and give the kid in me the comic book thrills he still craves. Charles L. Grant was indisputably one of the great writers of the horror genre, a celebration of its potential and a repudiation of its detractors, and I await the day some enterprising publisher brings him back into print, beyond the occasional expensive, collectible edition. Until that time, seek him out, like some lost and rumored country, and come back home with strange secrets to tell.


The fate of the Cannibal Priests


I’m still working on the last story for The Atlas of Hell, called “The Feast”. It’s a reworking and a completion of “The Cannibal Priests of New England”, an experiment with writing a serialized story on this blog a few years ago. (Those of you who remember that will finally have your patience rewarded.) Right now it’s shaping up to be the longest story in the book. It functions as a companion piece to “The Atlas of Hell”, and features the Black Iron Monks, The Candlelight Society, carrion angels, and a pirate ship sailing to a port city in Hell. It should be a good time.

TOC for the book, as it stands at the moment (not the order they’ll be appearing): The Atlas of Hell, The Diabolist, The Giant in Repose, The Visible Filth, Skullpocket, Spider Kings of the Moon, and The Feast.

(Art above by Alexander Jannson)

My dad, 1946-2015



My dad passed away on December 16. He had been seriously ill for a few months, but his death was unexpected nonetheless. He lived far away from my brother and me for most of our lives, and I know he harbored a great deal of guilt about that. But I’ve long since grown to understand love’s austere and lonely offices, and I left behind my childhood resentments a long time ago. We talked about this openly a few times, and I’m grateful for it.

Dad was a husband, a father of five, a long-time reporter for The St. Petersburg Times. He wrote about the space program, the environment, and was in Panama to cover the fall of Manuel Noriega. He loved literature and classical music. He loved the blues. He introduced me to Graham Greene and John LeCarre. He made up bedtimes stories for me when I was little, about a boy who had my name and his magical flying horse called Prince. And despite the distance, he was a constant presence in my life: galvanizing, reassuring, a source of reason when I became lost in self-doubt or self-delusion. I needed him, and I don’t know how to understand his absence. I feel lonely without him. I still want to grow up to be just like him.



When I went to New York City last week, one of my goals was to lock down the question of representation. I’m happy to say that, as of three days ago, I signed with Renee Zuckerbrot, of the Renee Zuckerbrot Agency. After talking with her at length, and knowing the writers she already represents, I feel strongly that we’re going to be a good fit. I’m grateful to Kelly Link and Gavin Grant for steering me in her direction. I also got a chance to meet Sean Daily, of Hotchkiss & Associates, who is representing my work for film. I feel very fortunate. So the onus is on me. It’s time to get to work.

Contract signed, next book on the way

This morning I signed a contract with Small Beer Press, who will be publishing my second collection of short stories in either 2016 or 2017. The title is yet to be determined, but the table of contents is mostly set. It will include “The Diabolist”, “The Giant in Repose”, “The Atlas of Hell”, a revised and definitive version of “The Visible Filth”, “Skullpocket”, and two long originals: “The Spider Kings of the Moon” and “Blackberry Winter”.

I believe in not treading over the same ground too often, and in testing my own boundaries as a writer, so the stories in this book have a different flavor than those in North American Lake Monsters. While I privileged realism over the supernatural in NALM, I’m shifting my weight to the other foot for the next one. You’ll find man-eating giants, mad scientists, thieves and devil-summoners, ghouls and gardeners of ghosts, and giant lunar spiders. And although there are only seven stories in the book, most of them are 10,000 words or longer, so the book as a whole will be bigger than the first.

I’m thrilled to be working with Small Beer Press again, and grateful they’re letting me back to the table.

“I’m well beyond you now, and traveling very fast.” On Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation



I just finished reading Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, for the second time. Partly an ecological mystery, partly an invasion story, partly a psychological horror story, and partly a meditation on the silent, unknowable gulfs that grow in a marriage, Annihilation is an extraordinary novel, and a new plateau for VanderMeer. It opens as the members of the Twelfth Expedition — four scientists, all women — enter an ecological twilight zone known as Area X, under the aegis of an enigmatic government body called the Southern Reach. While the novel begins with the unusual, the opening chapters are as secure as the reader will ever be. Annihilation continuously unfolds, like some weird bloom from Area X itself, becoming stranger and more beautiful as it goes along, and raising three new questions for every one it answers. By the end of the book, the novel has cracked wide open; it’s geysering wonders. It is the most transcendent of epiphany stories.

Sometimes you read a book that reminds you, as a writer, of what’s possible. It recalls to you a sense of ambition and excitement. It’s the sound of a trumpet calling. That’s what this one is for me. I think you should read it.

Some time later


The blush wears off the excitement of publishing a book fairly quickly, it turns out; which is probably a good thing. I now find myself pressing on, writing new stories, very few of which feel like the ones that came before. As a consequence I feel both liberated and doomed. This new batch seems more playful to me, less weighty. Whereas North American Lake Monsters drew a lot of genetic material from realism and horror, the next one will draw more from my rekindled love affair with weird pulp fiction. We’ll see how that goes.

Mia is a teenager now, and subject to all the high weather that comes with it. While I will be posting here again, I’ll have to be careful in how I choose to write about her. As she gets older, her life becomes more and more her own, and my right to discuss her inner life grows more limited each day. Which is only right and proper.

Meanwhile, the impulse to retreat persists. I’ve let the blog grow dormant while using Facebook more aggressively since the book’s release, which I think was an error in judgement. Facebook is an echo chamber, in which you link the same news over and over to an increasingly wearied audience. The blog will garner fewer eyes, but at least there’s space to be a bit more nuanced.

And maybe there will be room for some humanity to bleed through.

Lake Monsters and diabolists

They say whatever you put on the internet will stay there forever. While this is true to some extent — at least until the advent of the looming Second Dark Age, when the grid goes down and my 20-volume real-world copy of the Oxford English Dictionary will give me enough power and prestige to become a regional warlord — it’s easy for me to forget that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are mostly ephemeral. They’re like a bad party where everyone you know is there, but they’re all shouting at once.

The point of which is, I have a book coming out soon and I haven’t talked much about it in the only place where it has a chance of sticking for more than half a day.

So: in July of this year, North American Lake Monsters: stories, will see the light of day. Here’s the cover art, which I think is gorgeous:

lakemonsterscoverAdvanced reader copies are circulating through the world, where with luck they’ll garner a few good blurbs for the cover and maybe a few good reviews as well.

Small Beer Press has a preorder page up here, where you can order it in hardcover (which was a pleasant surprise to me), softcover, or as an ebook. If you’re more into supporting evil empires, which I get, then you can go to Amazon and preorder it there.

Preorders make publishers happy, which in turn makes writers happy. Although they’ve said nothing of the sort to me, I feel as though they’ve taken a risk in publishing a collection with such deep roots in horror. Please go forth, if you’re inclined, and reward their faith in me.

In other news, I’ve recently sold a short story called “The Diabolist” to a market I can’t name yet. Here are the opening paragraphs:

For many years, we knew our monster. He was a middle-aged man, prickly of temperament and reclusive of habit, but of such colorful history and exotic disposition that we forgave him these faults, and regarded him with a fond indulgence. He was our upstart boy, our black sheep. He lived in a faded old mansion by the lake and left us to gossip at his scandalous life story. It was a matter of record that he had been drummed out of a prestigious university which had employed him in the southern part of the state, his increasingly eccentric theories and practices costing him his job, his reputation, and — it was whispered, and we believed it because it was too wonderful not to — the life of his own beloved wife. 

Dr. Timothy Benn, metaphysical pathologist. 


Sometimes the sky around his house would light up after dark with whatever wicked industry kept him awake, bright reds and greens and yellows igniting the bellies of the clouds like a celestial carnival show, or like an iridescent bruise. Once he seemed to have tipped the axis of gravity, so that loose objects — pebbles in the road, dropped key rings, toddlers tossed into the air by fathers — fell toward his house instead of the ground. This only lasted a few minutes, and we responded with bemused patience. It was one of the quirks of sharing a small town with a known diabolist.

And so it was that we enjoyed the company of our resident monster and the particular glamor he afforded us, until the day he died, and you found him there.

Dearest Allison. 

We didn’t know you like we knew him. Like him you were sullen and withdrawn, but you lacked any of the outlandish characteristics that made him so charming to us. You did not puncture holes in time and space. You did not draw angels from the ether and bind them with whores’ hair. You only lived, like any awkward girl, attending ninth grade in a cloud of resentment and distrust, hiding your eyes behind your bangs and your ungainly body beneath baggy clothes and a shield of textbooks clutched to your chest. We saw you in class, sitting in the back row with your head down; we saw you weaving like an eel through hallways choked with strangers; we saw you when you came down from the mansion on pilgrimages to the grocery store, where you were as disappointingly mundane in your selections as you were in every other aspect of your life. 

After school, after shopping, we’d watch you climb into your father’s car with the tinted windows, engine growling at the curb, and disappear up the hill into the mansion.

For all the attention you paid to us, you might have been moving through a world erased of people.

We loved your father but we did not love you.

And so on.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to write my novel set on Mars, I have a few more short stories in the works, an opportunity for personal essays (which have long been a secret and neglected love), and I have some plans for “The Cannibal Priests of New England” which I’ll address in a separate post.

And I grow older, and stranger, and more indifferent to the pull of the world. All is as it should be.

A letter to read at night

Mia’s with her seventh grade class on a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s a big deal, and she’s been looking forward to it all school year. We spent a good portion of Sunday getting ready for it; she pulled out a checklist and studiously checked each box with a big pink marker as we assembled all the necessary items. Sheets, pillow, several changes of clothes (some of which, we’re warned, we must be ready to consign to their demise in the mud pits), two pairs of shoes. More and more.

I watched her carefully pack her big duffel bag, and it was one of those moments when it was clear how much older she’s getting. She’s twelve now, nearly halfway down the road to thirteen. Her body is developing, and so is her mind. I see wisdom taking root: she makes difficult decisions, and she accepts responsibility for things it would be easier not to. I’m fiercely proud of her, as are all of us whose children are crossing the border into adulthood. And watching her that night, preparing to leave me for a few days as she engages in her own adventures, I was reminded that it’ll only be a few more years before she’s packing a similar bag to go to college, or to her own new home, or where ever it is she decides to go when it’s time.

It’s bittersweet, of course. You feel pride for her, but if you’re honest you indulge in a little pride in yourself, too: despite every catastrophic mistake and every wrong turn you’ve made as a parent, she’s doing it. She’s getting smarter and wiser and funnier, and now she’s making these little trial runs into the world without you.  Look at her go.

It’s sad, but it’s right. It’s your job to teach her to leave you.

And then she puts her stuffed animal in the suitcase. Not her favorite — her favorite is also her cat’s favorite, and she leaves that here so the cat won’t get lonely. She takes another instead. She fits it snugly in there. She tells me other girls bring them too. And I see at that moment all these girls, shortly to be riding the bus together and bunking in the cabins together, each standing at the cusp of the world. Every fundamental thing changing around them and inside them at once in huge earthquakes of identity. And they pack their stuffed animals because, after all, they are little girls yet.

Later, when I’m tucking her in and she’s worried about whether or not she’ll be able to sleep through the anticipation, she asks me for a favor.

“Will you write me a letter?”

“A letter? By the time it gets there, you’ll be home again,” I say. Not getting it.

“No Dad, a letter I can take with me. So I can read it at night when I get homesick.”

“Of course I will,” I say.

And I do. I go out into the living room, where Mia will shortly make another appearance for a glass of water because the anticipation does make it hard to sleep, and I get a pen and paper and write her a letter, telling her the things I think she might like to hear when it’s dark and she’s the only one awake, lonely for home.

The next morning as she checks her list again I hand it to her. She doesn’t look at it, folds it in half and slips it safely into the bag.

“Thanks, Dad,” she says.

Then we’re out the door, on the way to the car. It’s early enough to still be dark. She moves ahead of me, eager to be on the move, dragging her huge wheeled duffel along.

I’m right behind her.

The Cannibal Priests of New England, part six: Tea and Blood

Martin had only just achieved a precarious sleep when he was awakened by the harsh voice of a bent, pinch-faced man in his nightclothes. He stood in the narrow door and held a lantern at his side, casting his own face into garish shadow. “The captain wants you,” he said. “Sharp-like.”

He pulled himself unhappily out of bed and fetched his trousers from the floor, noting the slow, easy roll of the ship over the waves. He must have fallen asleep during the storm. Perhaps he would make a seaman of himself yet. Still, an unbroken sleep would have done him good.

“Who are you?” he asked brusquely, reaching for his jacket.

“I cook your meals for you, mister, so mind your tone. I also see to the captain’s whims. Which is you now, so be smart about it. Look at you fussing over your clothes like a proper lady. Leave off and do as you’re bid, before his mood turns.”

Captain Beverly’s mood was generous. His quarters were at the aft of the ship, and the windows were open, affording him a salty breeze and a king’s view. The clouds had dispersed, and although there was no moon to light the waves, the stars burned in great, glittering folds. Beverly sat with his back to it, a shadow against the sky. With his thick hair and his unkempt beard he looked like a figure from the Old Testament. The table had been set up between them, with a kettle of hot water and two mugs.

“Did I interrupt your sleep, Pretty?” said the captain.

Martin took the seat opposite. He heard the steward shut the door behind him. “I know this is your ship, and you’re lord of the high seas and all that, but I will thank you to call me by my proper name.”

“Ah. I see your sensibilities are as delicate as your tender little hands.” He leaned forward and pushed the mug closer to him. “Well perhaps some tea will soothe your English heart.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Martin poured the tea into the mug and held it under his nose, breathing it in. He sipped, and found it surprisingly good.

Captain Beverly smiled. “Privileges of the wicked life,” he said.

“I suspect the privileges are many. Including summoning gentlemen from sleep to sit at your table upon a whim. What need do you have of me, Captain?”

“I have need of your context, Mr. Dunwood. I would like to know your business with the Cannibal Priests.”

All the warmth generated by the hot tea was dissipated by the utterance of that phrase. He put the mug back on the table and concentrated carefully on maintaining composure. The captain, damn him, watched him as carefully as he would an opponent in a duel; if that’s what this was, the revelation of his knowledge of Martin’s business had already defeated him. The captain smiled; light glinted from his teeth.

“Mr. Gully has been indiscrete, I see,” Martin managed to say.

“Mr. Gully has the eager tongue of a dockside whore, but I don’t need him to tell me what’s already plain. I told you at port that your business could stay your own, but I’ve had something of an eventful night since that time, and I’m afraid I must now become a trifle more insistent.”

“How do you know of them?” said Martin.

“I do a bit of work for them, Mr. Dunwood. On the side, as it were. I am about their business even now.”

“But … I thought you said you weren’t going to New England.”

“I’m not. Now Mr. Dunwood, I’ll ask you again. And if you avoid my question one more time I shall summon Mr. Thierry into the room, and he will do the asking on my behalf. Do you understand me?”

Martin’s sense of control had evaporated. He was afraid; it was a new and unwelcome emotion. “Yes, Captain, I think I do,” he said quietly.

“What is your business with the Cannibal Priests?”

Martin took a breath to steady himself. “I’m going to barter for a seat at the table.”

Captain Beverly gave a slight shake of the head, scrutinizing him carefully. “This isn’t how it’s done, though. Sneaking north on a renegade ship, for God’s sake, like some plague-addled wharf rat. No. One is invited. One arrives in a gilded carriage. One is provided with servants to open doors and proffer chairs, and to wipe one’s powdered arse. Not like this. Not like you’re doing it.”

“Obviously, I have not been invited.”

“Obviously.” The captain smiled at him. They crested a wave and through the window Martin saw the sea fall away behind the captain’s head to be replaced by the long, open dark of the sky. The cups on the table slid a few inches before settling to a stop. “You’re crashing the party, aren’t you, you scamp. They don’t know you’re coming.”

Martin said nothing. Despite the cool air blowing in through the open window, the room felt close and hot. The pitching of the ship made a tumult in his gut; that, along with the new and very real possibility that this brute might interfere with his plan to see Alice again, made it a struggle not to spew his last meal all over the table between them.

“I can pay you,” he said. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket.

“‘Pay me.’ You’re paying me already. Will you do it twice? What is this new service you wish to compensate me for?”

“You say you work for them. I can pay you not to warn them of my approach.”

The captain sipped from his tea and seemed to consider for a moment. “You’re making certain assumptions. Let me ask you. What are your intentions, once you arrive? I do business with these men. Do you mean to disrupt it?”

“No. I do not threaten that relationship in any way. I’m only looking for someone. I want to bring her back to England with me.”

“I see. It’s a love story, then.”

“If you like.”

“All proper men of the sea enjoy a good love story, Mr. Dunwood. Despite the fact that ours always end in tears.” He leaned back in his chair again, the wood of the chair creaking beneath him. The stars heaved in the sky. Finally, he said, “All right then, Mr. Dunwood. Your story does not entirely set me at ease, but it does rouse my interest. We’ll go on as planned. You may return to your bunk.”

Martin made no move to rise. “And your work for them, Captain? What is its nature?”

Captain Beverly looked at him flatly. “I’ve shown you all the forbearance I intend to for the evening. Remember where you are.”

Martin nodded, and rose to his feet. His hand was on the door when Captain Beverly stopped him.

“A word of caution: it’s not my tongue you need worry about. That little villain you’ve hired to do your dirty work will sell you for a tuppence. You know that, surely?”

Martin stopped. “Fat Gully.”

“That’s the one. Off to bed now, my lovestruck friend. Lets see what tomorrow brings us, shall we?”

Martin retreated to his cramped quarters. He slept fitfully, and he was plagued by dreams of the Farm. He watched a cleaver rise and fall, over and over again, lifting bright red arcs into the air. He saw a stunned human face pressed against the bars of a metal cage. He heard a shriek so piercing that it launched him from sleep, upright in his swinging cot at some unknowable black hour of the night, panting and listening. He listened, but there was only the sound of the waves against the hull, the groan of wood straining against the deep. He closed his eyes again, and if he dreamed further, it was only of the abyss.

(A note on the absence of art: Jeremy Duncan recently took on new employment and as a result his schedule has changed considerably. In the future he’ll provide art when he can. I love what he’s done and I’ll be happy to include more as his time permits. In the meantime, rather than wait, the story will forge ahead.)