I kept reflecting, as I read Richard Gavin’s fourth collection At Fear’s Altar, about what horror fiction ought to be. Horror stories should be dark, disquieting. Too often what passes for “horror” is mundane or predictable. Whereas familiarity can be a virtue in some genres, where readers seek the recurring comfort of touchstones, horror by its very nature should unsettle.
Richard Gavin’s work stands out as chillingly dark, wickedly strange and otherworldly. These stories have the heart-pounding feel of nightmare, and carry a strong suggestion of the numinous. Where other writers offer familiar monsters in comfortable territory, always stopping short of threatening the reader, Gavin explores the weird and surreal just as much as the horrific. His strength is conveying an otherness, something looming out there, threatening. There’s a commonality with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, but I find a greater kinship to the spooky occultism of Machen and Blackwood, whose best stories have at their heart a sense of something unknowable happening just out of view, completely out of proportion with human experience, and vibrating on an entirely different wavelength.
Highlights include “Chapel in the Reeds,” in which an elderly man moves back home with his daughter, who doesn’t want him there. The man wanders the countryside, seeming to shift into different realms, seeking a strange, mystic chapel, and speaking with his late wife. His young granddaughters are frightened when they witness his strange behavior, standing in the middle of a field, talking to no one. His daughter thinks he’s disintegrating, while he remains focused on finding the chapel again. Whether his reality or his daughter’s is most true, either possibility is disturbing.
In “The Abject,” Petra watches an eclipse, along with her husband tad and two male friends. Out across the water is a jagged island know as The Abject, about which Petra’s friend recounts a legend. Petra has a vision of proto-humans on the spire, and feels dangerously drawn to go there herself.
The main character in “A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress” walks the streets among falling bombs in a time of war in Europe. He’s trying to see the devil, feeling sensitively attuned to the city’s shadow side, and thinks he sees something. He finds a broken Cypress flower, red and star shaped, the spots a devilish, horned creature. Excited and inspired, thinking he’s found the devil he seeks, he then hears the cries of a girl trapped under rubble, and leaves her, trying to chase the devil. After he loses track, he to Helma and helps her out from under the rock. They connect, end up marrying, though not too happily. He’s still preoccupied with seeking darkness. They move out to the country, and nights he roams near their new house, looking for the devil’s traces. At times he finds these scattered Cypress flowers, but never quite what he seeks. Finally he learns Helma too is seeking something.
“King Him” is a shocking story of domestic unease, an adult brother and sister living together. She thinks he’s the crazy one, insisting on talking about an entity called “King Him.” Maybe he’s insane, maybe they both are, or maybe King Him is the real cause of the dysfunction creeping into their relationship.
“Only Enuma Elish” is a good example of Gavin’s treatment of characters with supernatural or occult beliefs. This story’s narrator meets an older woman across the street, and she introduces him to the book “Enuma Elish,” a tale of the universe’s creation, from ancient Babylon.
In “Darksome Leaves,” an isolated, socially awkward man becomes attracted to a young woman in his apartment building. His hopes of getting closer to her shift when they discover an ominous mask.
By far the book’s longest and most ambitious story, “The Eldritch Faith,” is both philosophical and metaphysical in its focus. It follows a boy who grows up seeking to understand reality’s true nature, to find a way out of the depressingly mundane ordinary existence. He comes up with a game called Curtains which he believes allows a ghost or spirit to communicate with him, and possibly enter our world. This exploration unfolds gradually, and feels chillingly real. His interactions with the entity he comes to know as Capricorn are among the more creepy and unnerving things I’ve ever read. “The Eldritch Faith,” which concludes the collection, exemplifies what Gavin is capable of.
At Fear’s Altar achieves heights — or perhaps depths — of darkness and disquiet almost unrivaled in recent horror fiction. It’s among the few most notable and impressive story collections I’ve read in the past five years. With this book, Gavin rises in my estimation to rank among the strongest practitioners of horror and weird fiction currently active. At Fear’s Altar is my first exposure to Gavin’s fiction, but now I gladly anticipate the pleasure of going back to investigate Charnel Wine (2004), Omens (2007), and The Darkly Splendid Realm (2009).Even more, I eagerly anticipate Gavin’s future works.