Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Round-Up#24 (Bumper Edition)

Book Review: The Orchard by Charles L. Grant: There are writers who write straight horror with populist leanings (Stephen King), and those that write horror that is playful and ebullient (Richard Laymon). There are writers who try to mishmash genres together, and, therefore, don't like to be labeled as "horror"authors (Dean Koontz). There are writers who try to elevate horror to something akin to "literary"fiction" (Peter Straub); and then there is Charles L. Grant.
Charles L. Grant (1942-2006) is, undoubtedly, one of the most underrated horror writers in history. He was prolific (writing dozens of novels and short story collections, as well as editing dozens of anthologies, the most famous of which is Shadows), he treated the genre with the reverence it deserves, and his style was unmistakably his own. He was one of the most flavorful horror writers to ever come out of the States, and his writing was never pretentious. He never attempted to write anything but fine, atmospheric, quiet horror, a genre which he helped invent (along with Ramsey Campbell).

It is a damn shame that all of his work is now out of print (why a major imprint like Leisure isn't re-releasing his work, despite re-issuing the works of other underrated writers like Richard Laymon and Gord Rollo, is beyond me), since if you are a fan of stylish, understated, imaginative horror with memorable characters and which drips with menacing atmosphere, then any book by Grant would hit the spot, and then some.

I could go on and on about the writings of Charles L. Grant (his tremendously entertaining and genre-mashing Black Oak series, his X-Files media tie-ins, his popular novel The Pet, his marvelous collection of stories and novellas that is The Black Carousel, any book in his Oxrun series), but for now, I am just going to tell you about The Orchard, one of his finest achievements, in my very humble opinion.

The Orchard is a collection of stories that are linked together by their location (the fictional town of Oxrun) and by the titular orchard; a mysterious place where the dead roam and dark memories linger. Grant's ability to frighten the living daylights out of the reader with silky-smooth prose that is as subtle as a cool breeze and a masterful grip of atmosphere, is on fine display here. From the opener "Mary's asleep", Grant grabs hold of your attention and deluges your senses with a slowly but surely growing dark ambiance. But it is "The last dreadful hour", a tale about a group of people trapped in a haunted movie theater, that shows Grant's genius. It is a story so frightening, so masterfully told, that it haunts the reader days (in my case, even years!) after finishing it. The imagery, style and sense of foreboding contained within this tale, make it one of the finest ghost stories ever written, and showcases Grant as one of the few American writers who succeeded in marrying the American Gothic sensibilities with the Victorian Ghost story tradition (Peter Straub also, to a lesser extent, managed to achieve this in stories like Mrs. God from his collection Houses without doors).

So, if you are willing to do some work and hunt down used copies of Grant's work, The Orchard is a great place to start. And I promise you, you won't regret it.

Film Review: The Trouble with Harry: Out of circulation for almost thirty years (this film is one of the "5 Lost Hitchcocks," along with Rope, Vertigo, The Man who knew too much, and Rear Window), this masterpiece is worth re-discovery.

With pitch-black humor, gorgeous visuals, a fast-pace, and a wonderfully sly screenplay full of subtle sexual innuendo, Hitchcock and co. manage to create a film that is way ahead of its time. Indeed, it feels fresh today, almost sixty years after it was first released.

Although the plot, focusing on the titular cadaver that gets bounced around like a bag of groceries when several residents of a small American town mistakenly think that they killed him, is grim and requires you to have a very dark sense of humor, Hitchcock pulls it off, in spades. How? It is just so damn funny! The cooky, borderline-unsympathetic characters, are wonderfully brought to life by a game cast (especially an understated but scene-stealing Edmund Gwenn as Captain Wiles), and Hitchcock's handling of the whole thing is as meticulous as any of his best work. And, above all, this shows Hitchcock at his most macabrely humorous; which makes this stylish exercise in dark comedy seem like the extended pilot for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock's TV series that made him a household name.

Extra! The Phantom Broadcast: This edition's Extra! selection is the 1933 film The Phantom Broadcast, directed by Phil Rosen and starring Ralph Forbes. This stylish, obscure oddity is, far and away, director Phil Rosen's and actor Ralph Forbes's best work. With its stylish cinematography, subdued performances, sombre atmosphere, and unusual plot (about a deformed singer who uses a handsome stand-in during live performances and who gets entangled in a murder), this is a forgotten semi-classic. And its pre-Hays Code "immoral" ending, where the villains don't get their just desserts, should also be of interest to film buffs.

That's it for me. Til next time, keep browsing those shelves.

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