Sunday, May 18, 2014

Three Stories by Charles L. Grant: "Crowd of Shadows," "Quietly Now," and "The Magic Child"

Charles L. Grant, my fellow Jersey boy, is a big deal in horror publishing.  People who care about horror, like Tarbandu and Will Errickson, have read his stories and his anthologies, and have educated opinions about him.  Three books currently in my possession contain stories by Grant, so this weekend I read them and made progress constructing my own opinion about his work.

ISFDB image of cover and spine
"A Crowd of Shadows" (1976)

I recently took custody of a hardcover copy of Nebula Winners Twelve, edited by Gordon R. Dickson.  The cover illustration of this volume is almost incomprehensible, at least on my withdrawn library copy.  The first story in the book is Grant's "A Crowd of Shadows," which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and won Grant the Nebula for Short Story.

This is a well-written story about racism/bigotry/intolerance with an effective trick ending, so I'm not surprised it won the Nebula, which is awarded by professional SF writers.  In the future, androids who are almost indistinguishable from humans are common, but are afforded no legal rights and are widely looked down upon.  The narrator of the story goes to a what I guess you would call a small seaside tourist town, where he encounters a teen age boy with a number printed on his arm (yes, like a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.)  These numbers indicate he is an android, and he is apparently owned by human couple who like to pretend he is their real son.  An old man calls the boy a "robie," an anti-android slur, and soon the old man turns up dead.  There is another murder, and the town is in an uproar.  A mob kills the boy, and it is revealed that, in fact, the boy is human and the parents are androids: the boy was a rich orphan who wanted the experience of having real parents, and pretended to be an android to show his solidarity with the oppressed artificial people.

It is not clear (to me at least) who really committed the murders; maybe the kid ordered one of his parents to commit them?  I think Grant often leaves these kinds of mysteries hanging in his stories.  The real point of the story is that people, even people who think themselves liberal, like the narrator, can be prejudiced and tribal, and feel a need to look down on somebody.  "A Crowd of Shadows" pushes the idea of what constitutes bigotry to the limit, because it is pretty clear the androids are no more alive and have no more feelings than a microwave or an automobile.  The androids are just machines, and the fact that people respond to them with friendship, sympathy, love or hatred says something about human nature.

A pretty good story; I liked the style and the surprise ending, which actually did surprise me.   

"Quietly Now" (1981)

"Quietly Now" appears in Tales of the Dead by Bill Pronzini, a copy of which I still have not returned to the library.  (The Iowa Library Association's SWAT team is probably studying my house on Google Maps as we speak.)  As Pronzini tells us in his intro to the tale, this is a story of "quiet horror," the type of story Grant has written and advocated his entire career.  "Quietly Now" is in the thick anthology's third section, which is entitled "Ghoul!"

This story takes place in suburban northwestern New Jersey, where a writer who has been divorced three times lives in an apartment complex near a school.  This part of New Jersey is almost rural, with lots of hills and woods, the setting of newspaper stories and rumors about tourists and hikers getting lost in the wilderness and dying of exposure, their bodies then partially eaten by animals.

This story feels long and slow; there are some passages consisting of description that made my eyes glaze over: "He stood in front, just below the once-belled steeple, and directly ahead the ground sloped gently toward the highway; beyond, a steeper incline, and behind a row of thick-boled elms the apartments began, rising and falling on the gentle swells of the old farm until the woodland reasserted itself, dark with noon shadows."  Oy!

Teaching at the school is a tall creepy woman whom the kids consider a vampire and who has arguments with the school janitor, who is a friend of the writer.  When a student and then the janitor turn up dead and mutilated, the writer investigates the creepy teacher.  But it turns out that a different character altogether, a mother of two who is attracted to the writer, is the murderous ghoul.  This woman had only appeared briefly in the story, and I had forgotten about her and never suspected she was the killer.    

Grant's idea of having the ghoul be a jealous woman who murders the writer's on-again-off-again girlfriend and then turns the writer into a ghoul so he can be a father to her kids is a good one, as it ties into the everyday anxieties men have about their relationships with women and children.  But the execution of the story was weak, with too many red herrings and not enough attention paid to the woman who turned out to be the monster.  There is also a scene which I didn't even understand, with the writer coming home to find evidence of a break in: his door is ajar, there are deep scratches around the lock, and inside he finds his drapes closed.  Then all of a sudden the drapes are open and there are no scratches on the door.  Was this an hallucination?  Or evidence of the ghoul's magic powers?

"Quietly Now" didn't hold my attention, and was confusing--thumbs down.

 "The Magic Child" (1973)

This is one of Grant's earlier stories, and appears under the name "C. L. Grant" in the anthology Frontiers 2: The New Mind.  Roger Elwood edited this collection of all-new stories.  I believe this is "The Magic Child"'s only appearance in English.

ISFDB image of cover of edition I own
This is a slightly experimental story--maybe we should categorize it as "New Wave."  It consists entirely of dialogue, and has no quotation marks.  The speakers are a government agent, whose speech is in italics, and a teenaged boy of below average intelligence, William Peter 777M1, "Billy" to his friends.  The government worker is interrogating Billy, and drugs him to ensure he is telling all. Thus we hear his sad story.

"The Magic Child" takes place in a future totalitarian world, in which the "scientific" government, ostensibly due to overpopulation, controls everyone's life.  People are only allowed to have a certain number of children, determined by their assigned social class; retarded or antisocial children are euthanized; and most people are given drugs to suppress their imaginations!     

Billy, apparently, was born normal, but an illness damaged his brain, lowering his intelligence.  Billy's parents somehow convince the government (which is represented at the local level by robot police called "Monitors") that Billy is dead, and hide Billy in their tiny apartment.  (Billy's father is one of the creative class allowed to retain their imaginations, and has access to the government records; he plans to forge necessary documents for Billy when his son reaches adulthood.)  When Billy accidentally kills his parents he is discovered by the authorities.  After his interrogation Billy is put to death.

This is an effective story: the experimental structure actually improves the story by making it more economical and more direct.  I quite like it.


Perhaps unexpectedly, of the three stories I read by Charles L. Grant this weekend I liked the two science-fiction stories and didn't like the horror story.  This may be partly because a future of androids or a merciless totalitarian government is more interesting to me than a guy with women trouble in 1970s New Jersey.  The important differences, however, lie in the structure, clarity, and leanness of the stories; the SF stories are well-paced and economical, while the horror story is slow, confusing, and bloated.

I enjoyed "Crowd of Shadows" and "The Magic Child" enough that I hope to come across more of Grant's SF in the future.  As for the horror...well, the jury is still out.

No comments:

Post a Comment