In the midst of writing a new essay for Dancing with Shadows, The Charles L. Grant Blogathon, I realized that I had said many of the same things before, and much more succinctly, in my preface for Necon Books’ digital reissue of The Orchard, which is not only one of my favorite titles from Charlie’s extensive body of work, but also one of my favorite collections, period. So, rather than repeat myself, I thought it more prudent to share that essay with you here (with slight edits for clarity):
There’s no better time to write this introduction than today, October 24th, because this is Charlie’s season. As I sit here pecking away at the keyboard, the light is an eerie shade of tarnished gold through a persistent rain. Dead leaves scratch across the porch like dirty paper airplanes thrown by sullen children. The wind is not quite howling, but it’s considering it, as it whips through the woods around my house. The branches are gnarled and bare, casting long thin shadows that look like rotten ropes poised to pull in the encroaching dark. The earth is sodden, the air smells like smoke. The river is thick and full and muddy as it rushes under the small wooden bridge that leads away from here.
This is Charlie’s season.
And this is what I said to my girlfriend a few days ago as we bundled up and took a stroll along the lane that meanders through these woods. “I love fall,” I told her. “The quality of the light, the taste of the air…it’s Charlie Grant’s season.” She did not need to ask who I meant, as she has heard me go on (and on, and on, God bless her patience) at length about my favorite writer. I have read passages to her from his books; she has seen the towering stack of yellowed paperbacks bearing his name that materializes beside the bed at this same time every year. She knows I edited a book called Quietly Now, which was a celebration of the man and his work. And she has heard me speak of him as a writer whose style I emulate over all others. There are any number of reasons why this is the case, most of which I’ve covered in the various essays and tributes I’ve written since Charlie passed away, so I won’t rehash them here. Besides, if you’re reading this book now, then chances are you already know them.
Of everything Charlie wrote, my favorite books of his are those that combine quartets of stories linked by a central motif and packaged as novels, books like Nightmare Seasons, The Black Carousel, Dialing the Wind, and this one you’re reading now. It has long been argued that, for horror writers particularly, the novella is the ideal length for a story. It allows character development and plenty of darkness, while negating the need for rambling or filler. For the reader, it’s just long enough to be worth the investment, but not so long it seems daunting. Charlie seemed most at home with novellas, and indeed they represented him at the height of his power, and nowhere is that more evident than in The Orchard.
Here, our connective tissue is the titular venue, an old orchard on the outskirts of town that has somehow managed to be forgotten by most of the people in Oxrun Station. And perhaps it wants to be forgotten. There was a fire there, you see, and although apples still grow on the trees that escaped the flames, it is inadvisable to eat them. Doing so changes things, changes you, and unleashes an insidious evil, whether within or without.
But people will always find places not meant to be found, and amid the shifting mists and half-glimpsed shadows, the orchard spreads its tendrils into the minds of the weak, exploiting the unrequited love of poor, overweight Herb Alstar in “My Mary’s Asleep”, and the loneliness and paternal insecurities of policeman Brett, in the ironically titled, “I See Her Sweet and Fair”.
I read this book in my late teens, about seven years after it was released, and though I didn’t revisit it until Captain of the Good Ship Necon, Bob Booth, approached me to write this introduction, the one story that had never left me was “The Last and Dreadful Hour”, which I recalled with almost perfect clarity. It’s a terrifying piece, a veritable chiaroscuro of horror, and my favorite kind of story—one that traps people together in a single setting and pits them against some type of invasive, unknowable evil. After I first read this, visits to my dilapidated local movie theater were never quite the same, and as I sat in the gloom, usually alone, waiting for the movie to start, I would always find myself squinting into the shadows beneath the stained screen, wondering if there was something hiding there. It’s a testament to Charlie’s power that he can write something so moody, so dark and dirty, that it sticks in the mind decades after you first read it. And that’s one of the reasons I love his work so much. It is less a reading experience than an immersion into a meticulously crafted and lyrical carnival of shadows you find difficult to forget.
Similarly, the closing segment of The Orchard, “Screaming, In the Dark” documents a man trapped (this time by injury and not supernatural means) in a hospital bed as odd things begin to occur in the hallways and rooms around him. What I like most about this one is how Charlie subverts the use of darkness and somehow manages to make dazzling bursts of white light even more threatening.
The Orchard is bookended by the story of Abe Stockton, the current chief of police, who is not long for this world, and the man he brings to the orchard to educate about the ways of the place. To assist him, he has brought along some files, and it is those that make up the stories in the book. This introduction and epilogue could be considered incidental, but they’re anything but. In addition to making the book read more cohesively than most novels, they’re also just as skin-crawlingly unsettling as the stories themselves.
If you’re reading these stories for the first time, I envy you. And I can’t help wondering what Charlie would have made of seeing his work presented in digital form. Some authors still rail against the new medium, and I completely understand why. Like them, I too have a deep attachment to physical books. To me, it’s as much a part of the reading experience as the stories themselves, and it’s still how I prefer to read, if possible. The argument could, and has, been made that digital reading is too cold and impersonal, but to be fair, I think this misses the point. The medium is irrelevant, merely the means by which the stories are brought to you. Deliver them via papyrus scrolls, cave paintings, pulp, movies, audio, digital screen, retinal scan, or brain implant (for who knows what comes next!), it is the stories, and only the stories that matter. I don’t think Charlie would have cared how you read his work, only that you enjoyed it. And it is my hope that having his work available digitally exposes it to a new and expanded audience. It is nothing less than he deserved.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve prattled on long enough, and I am due another walk with my better half. It is the perfect day for such things, just as it is the perfect day to reminisce about my favorite writer and mentor.
Because now the light is fading and streetlights are coming on, sending shadows sprawling across the porch and toward the door. The wind has indeed risen to a howl, moaning once more about the things it seeks to change. The leaves are scratching at the door, tapping on the windows, asking to be let in, eager for me to come out. The river hurries on, and there’s a chill in the air that foretells of the coming storm.
It’s Charlie Grant’s season.
And it always will be.
At first glance, Phil Pendelton and his son Adam are just an ordinary father and son, no different from any other. They take walks in the park together, visit county fairs, museums, and zoos, and eat together overlooking the lake. Some might say the father is a little too accommodating given the lack of discipline when the child loses his temper in public. Some might say he spoils his son by allowing him to eat candy whenever he wants and set his own bedtimes. Some might say that such leniency is starting to take its toll on the father, given how his health has declined.
What no one knows is that Phil is a prisoner, and that up until a few weeks ago and a chance encounter at a grocery store, he had never seen the child before in his life.
A new novella from the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of THE TURTLE BOY and KIN.
(Subscribers to Digital 50 will receive this later today)
From tomorrow, Monday 18th August, my collection THE NOVELLAS will be available as a free digital download at Amazon.com. The book collects together four of my best novellas, “The Tent”, “Seldom Seen in August”, “You In?”, and “Midlisters”. It is also currently free for subscribers to Kindle Unlimited.
Here’s the description:
An omnibus collection of four novellas by Bram Stoker Award-winning author Kealan Patrick Burke (Kin, The Turtle Boy).
Featured in this book are:
The perfect getaway…
The perfect place to hide…
Hocking Hills, Ohio is an oasis for campers, hikers, nature enthusiasts, and for those who just want to get away and lose themselves in the wild.
And as long as you follow your guide’s advice and stay within the permitted areas, you can expect to survive the night.
Because deep within the dark woods, something insidious awaits, something few have ever seen, something ancient, unknowable, and insatiable.
If you go down to these woods today, you won’t live to see the sunrise…
For years the Wickerwood Inn has stood abandoned, home to nothing but dust and the trapped echo of past celebrations…and tragedy.
For a down on his luck ex-gambler, the inn’s reputation is a thing of myth, and certainly not reason enough to turn down the first paying job to come his way in months. The inn will soon be renovated in preparation for a new lease on life. So tonight, from midnight till six, Peter Haskins will watch over the machinery.
And he will soon discover that there is something else in the hotel with him, something that needs no new lease on life, for it has never died.
And never will.
SELDOM SEEN IN AUGUST
Wade Crawford is not a good guy. He’s a bank robber and a ruthless killer, and now three people are dead and Wade is on the run. With the cops hot on his heels, he breaks into a seemingly ordinary house in a seemingly ordinary neighborhood to hide and wait on word from his partner.
But this neighborhood is far from ordinary. Indeed it has a very specific purpose, and soon Wade will discover that life in prison would be preferable to the hellish torment Seldom Seen has in store for him.
Meet Jason Tennant, a writer of violent horror novels whose career is mired firmly in a maddening swamp of frustration somewhere north of nowhere and south of success. He is a midlister, those thankless souls who labor in the shadows of sometimes better, sometimes luckier writers, and it’s starting to take its toll.
Meet Kent Gray, wildly popular author of a string of so-called “sex-fi” novels. He’s wealthy, handsome, and the object of Jason Tennant’s professional jealousy.
Welcome to Baltimore, Maryland, and the Aurora Science Fiction & Horror Convention, where these two men, midlister and bestseller, will meet for the first time, and the midlister motto “Better Read Than Dead” will be put to the ultimate test.
Late this year will see the release of my new novella JACK & JILL, which I can only describe as a corrupt subversion of the classic nursery rhyme which tackles sensitive subjects I have avoided to this point but felt compelled to study now in light of real-world events suffered by people close to me. The signed limited hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications was printed to order (in other words, the publisher only accepted orders during a preorder window, and so no more copies will be produced). I will, however, be releasing a digital edition (cover above) which will be available for preorder in anticipation of the book’s December release date.
To whet your appetite, here is the first chapter…
* * *
My brother and I stand on the verge of one of two graveyards that swell up from hallowed ground to form lofty cross-studded hills overlooking the town in which we have spent most of our young lives. It has never been explained why the dead are buried at such a height, for surely it would make more sense to secret them away in some gated meadow in the valley rather than in plain view of the townsfolk, who could live quite happily without the reminder of what awaits them.
Mayberry has seen its fair share of tragedy. The people walk slightly stooped as if shouldering the weight of loss, their eyes cast downward to avoid registering the twin verdant rises that obscure the sun at dawn and dusk. There is a peculiar smell to this place, like a coat that has been hung up wet and discovered in a closet years later, a sense of age it is not old enough to have earned.
Gothic churches stand sentinel on street corners, facing taverns and pizza joints, and intimidating no one. The houses sag and creak in the shadow of gnarled branches that look like the arthritic hands of apathetic mothers. At the bandstand, stubbornly holding court between a Romanesque town hall and a bank, and looking out over a concrete lot long awaiting development by a planning committee who no longer cares, sits a violinist, who makes up songs as she goes. Her music fills the air, and she never repeats a tune.
This is our town.
I am twelve, John is nine, and we have not yet learned of death. Pain and horror however are kindred. They visit us nightly, and take away little pieces of our soul. We live in nightmare and escape during daylight. And we do it here, in a cemetery that reaches in supplication to the sky, its base ringed with dark mausoleums.
We stand atop the hill, looking down at the long steep slope devoid of graves which leads to the road, and beyond, to the low-slung form of a prison that awaits us in a scant few weeks—the elementary school. We come here every day, and we engage in a ritual so childish and uncomplicated, it allows us to remember who and what we are, or at least, what we’re supposed to be. What we wish we were.
“Ready?” John asks, a wide smile on his pallid young face. The breeze makes his sandy hair dance. He is wearing his navy-colored dress pants and a light blue shirt rolled up at the sleeves. A navy tie hangs loosely from his neck. I am wearing a pretty white dress with red polka dots and my white Mary Janes. Mother calls these outfits our “Sunday Best” and she will not be happy when we ruin them, but neither of us care. Mother has been too selective in the things that concern her, and the guilt of that will lessen the severity of any reprimand.
“Ready,” I reply, and in tandem, we take a few steps forward.
I am vaguely aware of a man, little more than a hunched shadow, sitting down there on the wall that separates the grass at the bottom of the hill from the road. His back is to us, his attention fixed on a newspaper, as unconcerned with us as we are with him.
We drop to the ground. The grass is still damp from the morning dew. As mother fretted after we exited the church earlier, our skin and clothes will be stained, but this is welcome, if only to obscure the invisible, more permanent stains of which we are always so intimately aware.
We lie on our backs, our feet almost but not quite touching, arms close to our sides.
“Go!” John yells, and we roll down the hill. Though my brother’s name is John, and mine Gillian, between us we are Jack and Jill. It is a fantasy, an escape, a secret identity no one can touch, further strengthened by this weekly ritual.
I can never understand why, when we start out together from the same place, John somehow always manages to get ahead of me.
Today is no different.
Faster and faster we go, the world spinning crazily in my vision, which is little more than snatches of green and sky and flashes of light and dark blue as John shrieks with delight. Here and there the ground is unpleasantly stonier as I tumble over rocks half-buried in the earth, bruising my elbows and knees and scraping my skin. I don’t care. I feel nothing but elation. My flesh tingles, the grass whispers against my face. Dew wets my lips. I close my eyes and it is as if the world is moving and I am lying still.
It goes on forever, dream-time stretching to delay the imminent horror.
And then it comes.
I reach the bottom and stop. Lie on my back, breathless. Moisture seeps through my dress as I look up at the whirling sky, which has grown darker since we began our descent. Ugly gray clouds seep over the hill, infecting the blue, and with it comes a chill.
An involuntary moan escapes me. It makes no sense in the dream, for I have not yet discovered the source of the latent dread. Perhaps it is my adult self protesting the direction in which my subconscious is bound.
My skin crawls, but for now I can do nothing but watch the darkening sky, which seesaws over and back as my vision tries to settle.
A sky-spittle speck of rain hits my cheek. My heartbeat thunders in my ears, competing with the hollow sound of my own breath bellowing in and out of my lungs.
I tell myself this is why I can’t hear John.
Gradually, I roll over on my side. I look at the school. The windows are black, neither reflecting the world nor showing what might exist within. I feel a vague tightening in my gut at the thought that soon it will consume us. To the right, I note that the man is gone. Further right, John is sprawled on his back, arms splayed out as he too stares up at the sky.
Unsteadily, I get to my feet, black sparks pulsing in my vision. I fear I might be sick, but close my eyes and allow the last of the disorientation to pass.
“You win,” I call to John, because even though I’m not sure which one of us reached the bottom first, it is safe to assume it wasn’t me. Besides, there is no competition here. There never is. I love John more than anything else in the world. Alone, the events we’ve been forced to endure would have destroyed us. Together, we can find solace in a world that seems to shun it.
There is blood on the grass.
I stop walking as more rain pats my face, not yet able to fully register the long thin shadow that edges its way into my periphery as the man I thought was gone reappears.
The blood, an odd color, more like bad movie blood than anything I have seen in real life, forms a thick wide ragged carpet leading from halfway down the hill to where John lays unmoving three feet away.
The man waits, in no hurry for me to discover his handiwork, and I am in no hurry to look upon him. I know who he is.
I step closer to my brother.
Ferocious agony locks my chest and I drop to my knees in grief. I’ve been here before, though the horror never gets old. I know all too well the pattern of this malignant dream and my throat closes, trapping a scream. My breath catches. I try to close my eyes, and find that I can’t.
The stump of John’s neck paints the grass crimson.
My heart crashes against my ribs. Bile fills my mouth.
Fear and terror turn to rage, as I finally look to my right, to the thing awaiting my attention. I do all of this because it has been rehearsed, practiced a thousand times over twenty-odd years of dreams.
The man is tall and thin, and though a clear plastic bag has been wrapped tightly around his badly decomposed head, I recognize his face.
It is my father, and his mouth is wide open, filled with maggots that tumble free only to be trapped again in the folds of the bag. They move languidly against the plastic.
He is wearing a funeral suit stained with dirt. His white shirt and bare feet are spotted with my brother’s blood.
I weep and bring my hands up to cover my eyes, but they too are made of plastic and hide nothing. Certainly not the gruesome gleeful bobbing of my father’s suffocated head, nor the senseless fact that he has rusted clothes hangers for hands. Like a fish, John’s head has been hooked through the roof of the mouth on one of them. His handsome little face now looks like a poor imitation, absent in death of everything that made it beautiful in life.
Finally the scream escapes, a train of utter anguish that plunges free into the cold air. It is mimicked by a peal of thunder as the sky splits and the rain falls in sheets that have more weight than is natural. I am soaked in an instant. Rising from my knees feels like I am struggling to stand underwater.
The plastic bag turns a foggy gray as hurried, excited breath obscures my father’s face. Behind and above him, darkness rushes across the gravestones, creeping down the hill like spilled oil.
He raises the unburdened clothes hanger to show it to me and I hear his voice inside my head. Such a good girl. Do you remember how it felt to have it inside you? Twisting? Turning? It takes guts to know, and I know your guts. Such a good girl.
* * *
I’m very pleased to finally be able to share with you the news about my latest editorial effort, a rather novel project entitled BRIMSTONE TURNPIKE. The following comes courtesy of the publisher, Cemetery Dance Publications, who announced the book earlier today:
“Each story features high-quality characterization and plotting. All are so well attuned to the theme that the book reads more seamlessly than many novels.”
edited by Kealan Patrick Burke
Each of us chooses a path through life without knowing where it will lead. There may come good fortune, or misery, joy, or death. It is not for us to know.
But sometimes we are handed an opportunity to alter our destiny, though we may not recognize it when it’s there before us. It might be a lottery ticket, or an ad in the newspaper. It might also be an old man named Johnny Divine, and the treasures he keeps in a battered red leather suitcase at the Brimstone Turnpike.
On a lonesome stretch of deserted highway, amid the ruins of a gas station with a tragic past, Johnny waits in the searing sun for those who have found their way off the beaten path, off the map, and into a place where dreams can come true and nightmares become real, depending on the choices made.
Welcome to the Brimstone Turnpike, where the choice is yours.
Join wayward travelers Thomas F. Monteleone, Scott Nicholson, Tim Waggoner, Harry Shannon and Mike Oliveri, as we take a trip into the heart of darkness, where a gift from a silver-toothed old man can mean the difference between life and death.
With an introduction by Peter Crowther.
Reviews & Praise:
“This eerie collection includes five chilling tales with a common motif—a deserted highway with a ruined gas station where an old black man gives a traveler a special gift that could change his or her destiny. From Thomas F. Monteleone’s story of a reporter’s collision with the truth (“The Prime Time of Spenser Golding”) to Harry Shannon’s depiction of a detective’s journey into darkness (“Behold the Child”), these tales delve into the realm of nightmare and wish fulfillment. Contributions by Scott Nicholson, Tim Waggoner, and Mike Oliveri, together with a narrative thread by editor Burke, round out this anthology; for larger horror collections.”
— Library Journal
“Life as a highway is an archetype: we may know from whence we come, but we know not whither we go. We frequently get lost, but sometimes we are given a chance, a guide, an opportunity to change direction. In these five stories, the guide is Johnny Divine, an old man with a tragic past, sitting in the ruins of a gas station on Brimstone Turnpike. His battered suitcase holds treasures for those who dare to accept them. Thomas Monteleone’s hard-nosed journalist receives a pair of spectacles (“Dey . . . hep ya see real good”); Harry Shannon’s alcoholic LAPD detective, a child’s toys; Scott Nicholson’s protagonist, pieces of very special pie; the unhappy wife going camping to repair her marriage in Michael Oliveri’s contribution, a necklace; and the dutiful young woman Tim Waggoner presents, bound to see the grandmother she fears, a rock and a hard-to-open jewelry box. Each story features high-quality characterization and plotting. All are so well attuned to the theme that the book reads more seamlessly than many novels.”
Available in two states:
Limited Edition of 600 signed copies ($40)
Traycased Lettered Edition of 26 signed and lettered copies bound in leather with a satin ribbon page marker and additional artwork ($175)