The Hour of the Oxrun Dead (1977) by Charles L. Grant

The Hour of the Oxrun Dead
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Lately, I’ve been consulting some of the major guides to horror fiction; and I’ve noticed that, from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre to Marshall Tymm’s Horror Literature, virtually every study lists Charles L. Grant’s The Hour of the Oxrun Dead (1977). A tale of small town occultism sounds good to me, so I picked up a copy and prepared to be impressed. After all, these reference works define the canon, and I’ve always regarded a book’s inclusion among the ranks as a stamp of approval and a form of recommendation. Grant’s novel reminds me that just because a text is canonical doesn’t mean it’s good. The novel’s treatment of power hungry provincials is absurd; the characters’ dialogue is embarrassing; and certain, repeated phrasal constructions are just flatout bizarre. I hate to be out of step with the critical consensus, but if you’re looking for good 70s horror, you’ll want to avoid Grant’s classic. 

Young widow Natalie Windsor is a librarian in Oxrun Station, a small town in rural Connecticut. Her husband, Ben, a police officer, was brutally murdered eighteen months before, and all she has left of him is a shoebox of personal items, including a ring of unique design. When Natalie notices that the same ring is worn by many of the town’s most prominent citizens, she begins to wonder about its significance. Does it indicate membership in an ordinary men’s lodge or is it the signet of a more sinister organization? Meanwhile, at the library, she discovers that books on religion and philosophy are disappearing and being replaced by the powerful Town Council with fatuous best sellers. Now, Natalie’s keen observations and her continued possession of Ben’s ring have made her the target of a supernatural predator. But who is directing this occult force and why do they want her dead? Joining forces with local journalist and love interest, Marc Clayton, she is determined to find answers before it is too late. 

The big themes that this book tackles–fascism, authoritarianism, and censorship–are disproportionate to the small town setting. And this incongruity between subject and context creates a sense of absurdity and even comedy that I don’t think Grant intended. Marc and Natalie believe that the Council is stripping the library stacks of intellectual content and limiting the independence of the local newspaper. If their suspicions are correct, then what they’re really “talking about,” Marc concludes, is “an attempt to control a whole population, for God’s sake!” (139) As someone from a conservative New England “village,” I can tell you that the library catalog is always full of Danielle Steel, and the local rag never breaks the big stories. While it’s true that before the internet rural towns were more isolated, they still had access to national radio and television; and, in the late 70s, that’s where most people would have gotten their information. For Marc to suggest that Oxrun Station has become a totalitarian state seems a bit of an exaggeration. And all sense of scale and proportion is lost when it comes to Ambrose Toal, the head of the Council. Addressing Natalie’s concerns about the library, Toal likens himself to a dictator in a little speech funny enough to be quoted at length:

Mrs Windsor, every dictator since the dawn of man knows that it will not do to have his subjects think too much along the wrong lines. Those books that would have aided them were replaced. They had to be, or somebody might have tumbled too soon. (139)

For Toal to compare himself to historical despots shows a healthy self-regard to say the least; but in his self-aggrandizement, the councilman is more ridiculous than menacing. The freedom of libraries and newspapers is crucial to a healthy democracy, and threats to these institutions are undoubtedly scary. Still, the language here and in similar passages throughout the novel is too hyperbolic to inspire terror. 

Even if Toal’s conspiracy were credible and interesting, I couldn’t have focused on it because of the distracting dialogue. It’s as if Marc and Natalie are communicating across vast distances of time and space through an unstable radio transmission. The signal cuts out, information is missing, and their messages to each other are nonsense. This disconnect is illustrated when Marc has tea at Natalie’s house; and she tells him that, if she’s acting anxious, it’s because she hasn’t had male company in a while. He makes a benign comment–”This isn’t exactly the most compromising position in the world, you know”–and her response is unhinged: “‘Cut it right there!’ She snapped. ‘We’ll have none of that! None.’” Marc is “surprised at her vehemence” and so are we (48). Not only is her rage unwarranted but her phrasing is idiomatic of an 80 year old. When they aren’t responding to each other with intense and inexplicable emotion, they are speaking in non-sequiturs. A naked Natalie asks, “What’s the matter? You never saw a woman undressed before,” and Marc, with a strange disregard for the question, answers “Depends on the woman you want to see undressed” (117). Huh? Flouting the conventions of conversation and the rules of logic, interactions between Marc and Natalie are like random assemblages of film from a cutting room floor. Something’s always missing.

And yet all of the novel’s dialogue could be deleted, and you wouldn’t be missing much. Though in their 30s, Marc and Natalie are remarkably juvenile. As she lies naked (again) in bed, recovering from a case of carbon monoxide poisoning, Natalie jokes that Marc is probably thinking about sex. He corrects her. What he’s really thinking is that she “could stand to lose a pound or two” (164). But, seriously, he’s able to “control” himself in her presence because he doesn’t “like taking advantage of dumbbells” (165). This sounds less like a  conversation between adult professionals, a journalist and a librarian, and more like a fight on the playground. 

Characterizing large textual elements like dialogue, Grant’s infelicities of expression are also evident at the granular level. Some of his basic linguistic constructions are so awkward that I found myself struggling to understand what should have been straightforward sentences. He has a habit of using “a” and “the” in phrases where the pronoun “her” is clearly in order. For example, in an almost unintelligible sequence, we read that, while Natalie slept, “A hand shoved the quilt impatiently to her waist, then pressed itself against her ear.” She “thrust the hand away from her head” but “the hand returned to her ear” (14-15). To whom does this mysterious hand belong? Is she being assaulted by a stranger in the house? Not at all–the hand is her own. An author might intentionally choose the indefinite article, “a,” to convey a sense of disorientation and confusion: Whose hand is touching our protagonist? We don’t know; it could belong to anyone and, thus, its ownership is indefinite. On the other hand (no pun intended), the definite article, “the,” suggests that there is only one hand in this situation, and it is alienated from any human subject. Kind of like “Thing” from The Addams family. I don’t interpret the use of these articles as an artistic choice, a tactic meant to heighten the reader’s anxiety, because we have no reason to be nervous. As observers of Natalie’s sleeping form, we aren’t in the dream with her, and the limited access we have to its content is distanced through special formatting. But more to the point, I don’t read Grant’s abandonment of pronouns as a deliberate decision because it continues long after Natalie is fully conscious. As she lay awake in bed, “one hand rubbed the side of her neck,” and “[a] moment later, the other hand passed across her eyes; then, lightly, she touched it to her cheek” (17). In other words, and I’m using my own here, “she touched her cheek.” There’s nothing scary going on in this scene (or, indeed, in this novel) but bad writing. 

While stumbling through The Hour of the Oxrun Dead, I sometimes wondered if Grant was dabbling in postmodernism. Postmodernist writers use obtrusive constructions to draw the reader’s attention to language itself. They write badly on purpose to foreground the artificiality–the constructedness–of all stories, thereby calling into question the truth of overarching narratives. Maybe Oxrun is postmodern horror because it made me question the prevailing narrative, a “truth” promulgated by reference guides, that it’s a classic worth reading.   


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