Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Long Night of the Grave, by Charles L. Grant

I can recall a time when I could browse through a rack of books in a drugstore and find a healthy selection of horror paperbacks. Of course, this was the case during the "horror boom" of the 1980s, and I recall those days very fondly, especially when I could find shiny, uncreased copies of Charles Grant's novels. Grant, of course, passed away recently, and realizing that I hadn't read anything by him in a while, I decided to pick this well-worn, used paperback off the TBR pile. That, plus my son's recent interest in mummies.

The cover image does not lie; the book's narrative revolves around a mummy--the kind I love, wrapped in bandages, awakened by ancient rituals to stalk its victims in the fog. Grant succeeds beautifully in evoking the kind of atmosphere that one finds in the Universal and Hammer films from long ago through highly evocative prose, as well as stepped-up levels of characterization. As he does with several of his novels, Grant sets the story in Oxrun Station, a town that, like Lovecraft's Arkham, has seen more than its share of the weird and supernatural. This time, however, Grant sets the events during the turn of the century, when Oxrun Station is on the cusp of modernization through electricity and automobiles.

This decision allows Grant to play with some decidedly old fashioned horror tropes and pay homage to Universal and Hammer films, as he did with two other novels that share this setting: THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD (about the town's encounter with a European vampire), and THE DARK CRY OF THE MOON (a werewolf in this case). Significantly, Grant titles the foreword to the paperback edition of SOFT WHISPER "A Foreword for Those Who Remember Ralph Bates," alluding to the star of many later day Hammer movies, and he mourns over the passing of that particular style of horror film. Anyone who shares this sentiment will love these novels, especially those who already know Oxrun Station from other Grant works.

THE LONG NIGHT OF THE GRAVE does not necessarily hold great surprises. The pleasure in reading this novel comes from the re-acquaintance with a bygone era of horror storytelling, when atmosphere and dread created a thrilling experience. The story involves a number of Egyptian artifacts sold to the town's elite class, including the novel's hero, John Vicar. In the meantime, a series of strange and violent murders take place, leaving few clues aside from odd strips of ancient cloth. Grant occupies the novel with characters that will seem familiar to anyone who has seen a Universal Mummy movie, including Khirhal Bey, who gives Vicar a history lesson about Sakhtu, a powerful priest of Ra who held beliefs so scandalous that they resulted in his death. Somehow, the Egyptian artifacts connect to this ancient figure, and they figure into a plot to achieve immortality--if only their buyers will come to their senses and allow them to be re-united.

Once again, the events that transpire will likely not surprise an astute and experienced reader, but that's not the point. The joy of reading this text comes from seeing how a master of his craft can take these traditional tropes and have a bit of fun with them. Very much recommended.

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