The Orchard by Charles L. Grant

orchThe first story I read by Charles L. Grant was “The Gentle Passing of a Hand” from Tales from the Nightside (1981), an exquisite story of a child who accidentally learns a magic trick that can both kill and resurrect. Admittedly a fable of the “be careful what you wish for” variety, it was Grant’s style that made the biggest impression, communicating by hints and suggestion a story that felt both exhilaratingly fantastic and deeply tragic.

The same sublime style is used in The Orchard (1986), a collection of four novellas set in Grant’s fictional town of Oxrun Station. The orchard of the title is an abandoned tract of land just outside the town, a place for teenage gatherings and surreptitious meetings. There’s bad juju about the place, and it’s suggested that it somehow causes the events that follow.

The first story, “My Mary’s Asleep” tells the story of Herb and his crush on a girl called Mary, who’s already in a relationship with one of Herb’s friends. The crush is slightly disturbing, as Herb has chosen to carve a tomb effigy in the likeness of Mary for a school project. One night, as all the friends hang out at the orchard, Mary’s boyfriend is run over by a car. And then Herb’s other friends start dying as well, in different ways. It’s a haunting story that builds beautifully to a strange, unexplained ending that can only disappoint.

The second story, “I See Her Sweet and Fair”, is a story of a single-parent cop whose son is suspected of being a serial killer. Vacillating between two women, the policeman is finally forced to choose in a finale that apparently features a unicorn. No, it makes no sense.

The third story, “The Last and Dreadful Hour”, ups the ante again. A group of spectators take shelter in a movie theater during a storm and a blackout. The doors are locked, but one by one people start disappearing, until only the main character is left. Again the set-up is brilliant, and again the story just trickles away at the end.

The fourth story, “Screaming, in the Dark” features an investigative journalist convalescing at a hospital after breaking his leg. A scared young kid is brought to the same room, and being an investigative type, the reporter starts to investigate the source of the scare. Blacker than black shadows are glimpsed, nurses change shape, and a girl who committed suicide comes for a visit. There’s an almost cosmic crescendo to the events, but again… it all seems to amount to very little indeed. The collection is then topped off with an epilogue that references the cast of the novellas, a sort of where are they now section that attempts to give the characters some existence beyond their own stories.

Grant’s writing is excellent throughout. There’s a poetic quality to his prose, as exemplified by this passage from “Screaming, in the Dark”:

Evening comes rapidly when the year begins to die - when the leaves have all turned and the grass bows against the wind and there's no memory of spring despite the gold left behind by the sun in its setting. 

Evening comes, not with shadows but a slow killing of the light... and when the light has gone, the trees grow larger and streets become tunnels and porches on old houses no longer hold the swings and the rockers and the warm summer calls to come away, come and sit, and watch for a while.

And when the sidewalks are empty and the cars have all been parked and the only sign of movement is a leaf scratching at the curb, there are the sounds, the nightsounds, the last sounds before the end – of wings dark over rooftops, of footsteps soft around the corner, of something clearing its throat behind the hedge near the streetlamp where white becomes a cage and the shadows seldom move.

There are stars.
There is a moon.

There are late August wishes and early June dreams that slip out of time and float into the cold that turns dew to frost and hardens the pavement, gives echoes blade edges and makes children's laughter seem too close to screams.

In the evening; never morning.
When the year begins to die.

The repetition of certain phrases, the changes in rhythm, the imagery. That’s some serious writing right there. Grant is brilliant at evoking an ominous atmosphere in ordinary places and situations. But what does all that atmosphere amount to? Not much. The mood is set, the plot is put in gear, situations unfold – and then? Grant doesn’t elaborate, he merely hints. The trouble is that the reader is left grasping at straws, trying to draw conclusions out of half-glimpsed shadows.

Now I dont’t need a great payoff, there doesn’t need to be a monster or anything like that at the end of the book. But I do wish for something that would help with an interpretation. “The Gentle Passing of a Hand”, I think, worked because it was, at its heart, a very basic story, something that the reader could deduce from the hints and suggestions. The stories of The Orchard are more complicated, there are no reference points, not much familiarity with the scenarios. In addition, the overarching theme of the orchard forces the reader to think that there should be something tangible to figure out in all this. And there isn’t, not easily anyway. It’s mostly just mood and mood alone.

Reading Grant can be frustrating. I simply adore his writing, in small doses anyway. No problem with the settings or the situations either. Plotting also works, up to a point. But after finishing a story I’m at a loss about what I just read. Nothing is explained, nothing revealed. Everything remains as opaque as in the beginning. And all I’ve witnessed is some really, really impressive shadowplay.

*** (3/5)