Ginger Nuts of Horror
If it weren’t for the 2017 copyright date stamped at the beginning of John Linwood Grant’s A Persistence of Geraniums, one could be forgiven for assuming Grant was a contemporary of Edwardian authors M.R. James and Arthur Conan Doyle. Each of the stories in this collection are utterly steeped in that bygone era, both in terms of setting and style.
It’s one thing to believably transport readers through space and time to immerse them in a vividly realized historical environment. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to be able to meaningfully evoke the tone and language of the writers from that period, all while still retaining a viably modern sensibility and enough of a unique voice to rise above mere facsimile. Through seven tales of mystery, murder, madness, and mysticism (plus a couple conversational interludes), Grant does exactly that.
Several of the stories here focus on “The Deptford Assassin,” Edwin Dry. A recurring character of Grant’s (one of several appearing in this collection), Dry is the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. He’s not some mustache-twirling villain, slavering psycho, or misunderstood antihero, though. He’s more like a perfectionist, bowler derby-clad version of “The Ice Man,” Richard Kuklinski (a real-life sociopath killer-for-hire notorious for his apparent wholesale lack of emotion and decidedly businesslike, matter-of-fact approach to life and death).
Plopping a character like that into the Edwardian era, what with its residual Victorian propriety and undercurrents of bubbling social unrest, works wonders. Whether giving a rare interview to a doomed writer, devising an elaborate scheme to arrange some private time with an otherwise inaccessible target, or even pitting his own inner darkness against that of an exorcised demon (!), Dry proves consistently compelling despite never once exhibiting so much as a dash of genuine likeability. In Dry, Grant has created a character fascinatingly disturbing in both how alien he is and how human he is.
Aforementioned encounter with a literal devil aside, the stories starring Dry tend to hew closer to detective fiction than outright horror. To wit, one standout tale feels a lot like a Sherlock Holmes story, only inverted. Instead of a meticulous detective solving a crime, piece by piece, after it’s already happened, a just-as-meticulous murderer commits his crime, piece by piece, with the reader witnessing the process as it happens. And instead of the reader going into the story knowing that this is the point, here the realization only dawns as one falls deeper down the rabbit hole.
Elsewhere, however, the collection’s non-Dry tales embrace the supernatural without reservation, specifically that most classic form of English terror: the ghost story. Grant makes good use of the subgenre’s inherent versatility. First, he opens the collection with an old woman recounting to a pair of uppity, unwanted guests her youthful brush with the spirit world. It’s an exercise in tongue-in-cheek gallows humor that nevertheless hits home with pangs of genuine pathos despite its jokey cartoon ending.
Grant follows that with a tragic yarn about a lovelorn young man who finds a wood-carving of a heart on the beach and yearns to return it to the drowned maiden who visits him in his dreams. This one is just as poetic and heartbreaking as the traditional folktales from which it takes its inspiration.
The collection eventually closes with one last ghost story that, while similarly mournful, is its own beast entirely. For starters, it’s a Carnacki story, starring the famed occult detective originally created by early 20th century fantasist William Hope Hodgson. What’s more, it may very well be the best Carnacki story Hodgson himself never wrote. Contemplative, sobering, and downright deconstructionist, Grant’s take on the character defies convention with a narrative that is unassuming and (to be honest) uneventful, but ultimately profound. It’s a stark reminder that behind every swashbuckling pulp hero there is (or at least could be) a real person, complete with secrets, regrets, and an overwhelming awareness of their own mortality.
Accompanying Grant’s prose throughout are numerous illustrations by Paul Boswell which mirror the writing’s tone by channeling shades of James McBryde, Edward Gorey, and, at times, Stephen Gammell. Altogether, A Persistence of Geraniums may be a slim volume, but it is one that fully realizes a very specific, and very engaging, vision. Readers may be able to finish the whole thing in one sitting, but that just makes it all the more tempting to dive back in a second go. Or a third. Or a fourth. Or…