Friday, September 15, 2017

The Soft Whisper of the Dead

Late horror author and editor Charles L. Grant set many of his stories and novels in the Connecticut village of Oxrun Station, his counterpart to Arkham or Castle Rock. THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD (1982), set in the nineteenth century sometime after the Civil War, is a vampire novel in the Victorian Gothic style. Grant establishes the setting with atmospheric descriptions of a cold, windy night in November. Out of nowhere, a strange woman arrives at the railroad station, accompanied by a man—or a wolf-like dog—or no one? We learn that the visitor, Saundra Chambers, is a girlhood friend of the heroine, Pamela Squires, daughter of the richest man in town. Pamela and Ned Stockton, an upstanding young police detective, secretly hope to marry, although her father has chosen a man of higher birth and wealth for her. Saundra has returned from her travels abroad oddly changed. Though Pamela has no idea of the reason for her guest's peculiarities, the reader understands why the cool, reticent woman isolates herself in her room by day. To Pamela's shock, her father abruptly announces his engagement to Saundra. Meanwhile, people begin to die or simply disappear. Ned catches glimpses of the wolf and hears rumors of a mysterious man named Count Braslov, never seen except as a fleeting shadow until near the climax of the novel. And some of the murder victims begin to return from the dead.

As a story of a Dracula-like vampire trying to take over an isolated New England town, THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD inevitably brings to mind Stephen King's 'SALEM'S LOT, but without the onstage gore. Grant's work has been described as "quiet horror," a description that fits this novel well. Creeping tension and supernatural dread rather than overt violence set the dominant tone. The genre-savvy audience knows exactly what's going on in Oxrun Station, but the pleasure of waiting for the characters to realize the truth (with the help of a wise old servant in Pamela's household) and wondering whether they'll prevail over the vampire lord rivets the reader's attention.

Grant tells the story in an expertly crafted omniscient narrative style. One recurrent error disappointed me, "lay" for "laid" (transitive past tense); an editor at a distinguished small press such as the publisher of this book should know better. The volume is illustrated with black-and-white drawings reminiscent of Edward Gorey. Lovers of vintage horror will savor this tale.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.