Charles L. Grant’s “The Soft Whisper of the Dead” (1982)

As I have mentioned before, one of my favorite places to go to when I lived in Boston in the 90’s, was the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop. It was the first place I used to visit on payday and I loved browsing their selection of collectable books, which they would feature near the cash register at the front of the store. Initially, I would be on the lookout for my usual Arkham House editions, but every once in a while I would see an unfamiliar title which caught my eye and I would take a chance on it. I made two great discoveries this way; Les Daniels’ “Don Sebastian de Villanueva” vampire series was one, and the other was Charles L. Grant’s “Oxrun Station” prequel trilogy.

Cover art by R.J. Krupowicz for the 1st edition of "The Soft Whisper of the Dead" by Charles L. Grant (1982, Donald M. Grant Publisher, Inc).

Cover art by R.J. Krupowicz for the 1st edition of “The Soft Whisper of the Dead” by Charles L. Grant (1982, Donald M. Grant Publisher, Inc).

What really grabbed my attention with these, especially the Grant books, was the cover art and, in the case of the Oxrun books, the interior illustrations by R.J. Krupowicz. His pen and ink illustrations are highly stylized and ornately baroque. His use of red ink in key illustrations to accent gore or red limned vampire eyes was inspired and made the drawings pop from the page. I had to have this book! Fortunately, the story justified the ornamentation. I devoured this trilogy and kept the books in my collection for decades but afterward found myself only returning to them to admire their artwork. Recently, I decided to re-read the trilogy when I couldn’t remember any specific detail from the series. After burning through the first book in a couple of days, I am glad for my decision. It was like getting reacquainted with an old friend, only this time I read the book as a writer, and could appreciate the craftsmanship behind the story.

“The Soft Whisper of the Dead” is the first in a trilogy which takes place within the fictional town of Oxrun Station. Much of Grant’s fiction takes place in this town, which is akin to Lovecraft’s Arkham or Stephen King’s Castle Rock. The conceit of the trilogy, however, is that it takes place in historical Oxrun Station, sometime in the 19th century I gather, since everyone is still using horses and carriages. Grant’s horror is subtle and atmospheric. Most of the scares are implied; a footstep behind you on a lonely street, a low growl from an unseen beast, etc. In unschooled hands this sort of horror can be dull at best or, at worst, risible. Grant is at home here though and he uses subtlety to great effect, and when the few splashes of gore hit the page, they have a more defined impact. I was impressed with the minutiae in certain scenes. A telling smirk from a villain, or a hinted horror which would send a chill up one’s spine, the swell of a woman’s breast in the cut of her dress, which hinted at sexuality but didn’t become bogged down with gratuitous sex scenes. Here is a true wordsmith who knows how to tell a good yarn without overplaying his hand.

The novel deals with a vampiric count who tries to take over the town of Oxrun Station by infiltrating the founding family’s homestead. It is up to the young daughter of the family and her brash young detective sweetheart to stop them before it’s too late. It reads like a Universal Horror film, or an early Hammer, before the “Flesh and Blood” became their mainstay.  The language is unadorned and straightforward, although there are some descriptive passages which border on the poetic. The story moves at a fast pace and is engaging despite the restraint on the action. I recommend this for anyone who likes a good old school supernatural tale without all of the explicit content of most contemporary horror.

I scoured the Internet for images of Krupowicz’s artwork, but came up with almost nothing. I found a snapshot of a page on Ebay which shows an illustration of a minor character reading a book, where one may at least see the detail and the beauty of the drawings, but I would have loved to share one of the monster pics with the red blood, which really are impressive.

Ebay image of an illustration by R.J. Krupowicz, from "The Soft Whisper of the Dead" by Charles M Grant.

Ebay image of an illustration by R.J. Krupowicz, from “The Soft Whisper of the Dead” by Charles M Grant.

Update 03/31/16: I was informed by my good friend Chester that there is a version of the book which contains an introduction from Grant explaining the impetus behind the trilogy of historical Oxrun novels. After some research I can only find it in the mass market paperback version by Berkley Books, released in 1987. It is titled: “A Foreword for Those Who Remember Ralph Bates”.

Berkley Books 1987 paperback edition of "the Soft Whisper of the Dead".

Berkley Books 1987 paperback edition of “The Soft Whisper of the Dead”.


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