Monday, June 24, 2019

Favorite Short Stories: The Gentle Passing of a Hand by Charles L. Grant

A friend asked for some recommendations on horror tales the other day, and as I mentioned a few that had had an impact on me, I realized they were almost equally balanced between visceral and quiet horror.

For me, used correctly, a visceral punch can be powerful and affecting. Quiet horror, read in the correct frame of mind, can be perhaps even more potent, evoking, sometimes for just a split second a sense of awe, a push into Stephen King's third level of horror, The Terror.

Charles L. Grant was an advocate for and a practitioner of quiet horror and championed the power of shadow.

When I first attended conventions as a kid before I'd published anything, I went to numerous panels where quiet horror and splatterpunk were debated in "tastes great-less filling" fashion, and Grant always made a good argument for the quieter side.

Oxrun and Other Streets

He's, of course, known for numerous series and novels with his Oxrun Station cycle maybe the most famous. Stephen King calls the Station Grant's "half-magical little town." I ran across the September 1978 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction the other day, which featured an excellent Oxrun story I'd never encountered, "Caesar, Now Be Still."

That's not why we're here, though. That story sent me looking back through anthologies I'd picked up in my earlier years.  I re-discovered Tales From the Nightside, a World Fantasy Award-winning collection, which I bought in the TOR edition from one dealer's table or another. It offers three sections of tales: Tales from Oxrun Station, Tales from Hawthorne Street, and Tales from the Nightside.

Hawthorne Street is another slightly askew area of Grant's universe, perhaps most famous for "Temperature Days on Hawthorne Street," which became the Tales from the Darkside episode "The Milkman Cometh."

It's on Hawthorne that I re-discovered "The Gentle Passing of a Hand."

I also discovered I have, having spent a few years mulling theory for the sake of students, a better understanding now for the points Grant was making on those panels and in the pages of essay where he advocated for "shadow."

Shadow is basically an ill-defined something sideways in the world, and "Hand" builds to just such a revelation, a revelation that's profound and unsettling as the culmination of the story, the "Oh my, God!" moment.

It's a story told by a young narrator, Jay, orphaned and living with his Aunt Helen and Uncle Steve who are struggling with the burden and responsibility of his care.

Jay's as honest and as reliable as his world view and understanding of the world let him be, but he is a child, and it's through a child's perspective that we experience his world.

It's at a birthday party he discovers backyard magician, the Great And Astounding Albert. And it's from Albert he seeks knowledge for his own slight-of-hand magic act, though it's really too much to expect a magician to be mundane in a horror story.

Albert provides a few pointers, the most important seemingly that there's really nothing up his sleeve, but Jay's destined to learn a bit more as he works his way through his world. He's not unaware of the possibility that he might be passed on to someone else by his aunt and uncle as possible career opportunities develop.

Knowledge and naiveté

Secret knowledge and naiveté can be a dangerous combination, and to say more would spoil the effect as Jay plays with slight-of-hand tricks and toys with the nothing up the sleeve notion as well as the matter of his hand, that's mentioned in the title.

There's definitely a feel of Ray Bradbury in the tone of the chill and in the world of Hawthorne Street. There's a sense of idyllic tinged with dark edges. Albert's a kinsman to Bradbury's sideshow influence Mr. Electrico who fueled his imagination and fiction.

The end effect is actually the same core effect that fuels a major literary horror novel of a few years back, though to name it might spoil both.

It's hard to say if Grant was an influence or if the author arrived at the idea independently, but Grant definitely got there first, and, when the story reaches that point it's a cold hand clutching your gut.
Again, read in the right frame of mind and with the right degree of immersion, "The Gentle Passing of a Hand" is significant and affecting shadow play.

I'm dubbing it a new favorite.

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