I used to be a huge horror buff. It was pretty much all I would read, and it wasn't until I discovered Neil Gaiman that I started to branch out into other genres of fiction. Now, I read very little horror, since truly effective horror novels are so hard to find; the premise of a given horror novel (Stephen King notwithstanding) has to impress the hell out of me in order for me to pick it up and read it.
Charles L. Grant, though, is one of those writers that nearly every accomplished horror author points to when they talk about horror done well. His stories (as I understand it) are quieter, and rely more on atmosphere and events to be scary, instead of just going for the graphic, violent descriptions that seem to make up much of current horror. I prefer those kinds of stories -- the ones that get under your skin, not all over your clothes -- so I decided to go back to Grant to see what all the fuss was about.
"Go back"? Yes, that's right. According to my stats, I've read seven books written by Grant (not counting his two X-Files books). I even met the author at a horror convention way back in 1995, and had him sign some Donald Grant limited releases of his works. The thing is, what I was looking for in horror at the time wasn't the quiet, subtle, atmospheric horror fiction that Grant was writing (splatterpunk was alive and well back then, and I was foolishly drawn into it), and to this day, I couldn't tell you much of anything about any of those seven books. I wasn't in the right frame of mind to appreciate that kind of writing.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when I was reminded of Grant's reputation in the field, and you'd find me trying to find that one, definitive Charles L. Grant book that would show me what I had been missing those twenty years ago. I read a lot of reviews praising the Oxrun Station books, but based on what I was reading, the better ones were further along in the series. I also read some good praise for his other, standalone books, but it seemed to me that to get the full Grant experience, one really needed to read his entire catalog and get a sense of how his talents progressed from one book to the next. So, with some mild trepidation, I decided to start with The Curse, his first novel, which even Grant's most ardent fans say isn't his best work.
The premise is very unassuming. Sydney and Theresa Guiness are moving from the city to the country as they buy their first home. It's not quite their dream home, and there's nothing about the house to raise any alarms with them, but once they move in, strange things begin to happen. It's nothing that hasn't been done hundreds of times, before and after this book, but as Stephen King once told us, "It is the tale, not he who tells it" that matters.
The book is very hit-and-miss. It hits high with what I expected it to do well -- a slow burn of tension as he builds up his horror; the inclusion of atmosphere that makes the setting as much of a character as any of the people; the feeling of a genuine sense of dread as the plot thickens -- but it had a lot of foibles, too. The characters felt a little flat and under-developed. The main characters are Theresa and Syd, a couple buying their first house, and the story is told mainly from Theresa's perspective. The narrative is a limited third-person perspective, so while we're not exactly inside her head, hers is the only perspective we get of the events. It's an important characteristic of horror fiction, but I was expecting for her character to be more defined than it was.
Terry is anything but a stereotypical female horror character -- Grant makes her a professional, progressive woman, and even grants her the right to cry, not as a woman, but as "a perfectly normal human being on the verge of a nervous breakdown" -- but she still serves the role of being the frightened damsel in need of rescue. Syd, in fact, is the most tenuous of all the characters; it's like Grant decided that Terry needed a husband, so he gave her one, but then forgot to flesh him out. Terry is the housekeeper of the story, and Syd remains oblivious to anything, in that respect and in respect to their relationship. The main voices of the characters, though, were insecurity and condescension, which made it hard to relate to the story through the characters alone.
Early in the novel, Grant establishes that Syd and Terry have only each other. Family has drifted apart, and friends are really just casual acquaintances with similar interests. This is another characteristic of good horror fiction: isolation. Grant then moves them into a new neighborhood where they have even fewer acquaintances, forcing them to depend on each other. Given that this novel is also set in the late 1970s, we lack modern conveniences like cell phones or the Internet to keep people connected and create easy solutions to some of the problems presented in the story.
Some of the language is stilted, but then again, the book was first published nearly 40 years ago. Maybe it's just a product of its time in that respect, but having a Native American character referred to as "Indian" and "Chief" and joking about him scalping people seemed a little off to me. Oh, and using ancient Native American legends as a source of horror is also a terribly dated convention.
I read this as an e-book, and I should warn anyone looking to download it that there are a lot of typos and editing errors in the book. I'm guessing it's due to the OCR program; in one case, there was a "1" where there should have been an "l", and I found numerous comma splices. Those weren't terrible, but there were some sentences I couldn't interpret because a word had been imported incorrectly, and those stopped me cold. I was able to skip over them without losing any context, but be prepared to come across sentences that are damn near impossible to parse. Oh, and the cover chosen for this edition is a little ridiculous and misleading; it has a Gothic manse with a gravestone in the front yard, but the the house the Guinesses move into is a standard suburban home in a standard suburban neighborhood, complete with hedges and a finished basement with a sliding glass door.
Overall, I enjoyed the story, but it left me feeling like a chapter or two was missing from the end of the book. Grant brings the story to a conclusion, but the big questions seemed to be left only vaguely answered. I like ambiguity in my endings, but for as long as it took the story to build up the tension, I would have liked a little more certainty into what happened with the main characters. As it is, the book ends just as I feel like the third act should be getting started.
So, yes, I went into the book knowing it wouldn't be the best Grant had to offer, but I still enjoyed the style enough to read more of his works. I won't lie to you, though; I'm hoping the conclusions in his later books will be more satisfying.