Book Review: At Fear’s Altar, by Richard Gavin
September 16, 2013 | 4:00 pm
Canadian “numinous horror and esoterica author” Richard Gavin has released four collections since his debut “Charnel Wine” in 2004, and has garnered the kind of reputation that many writers would sell their souls for. This collection, his fourth, has received reviews varying from the enthusiastic to the ecstatic. There are thirteen stories, including a fictionalized prologue so dark that it definitely counts as one. There is the nightmare encounter with a dead god in “The Abject,” where a wilderness becomes a metaphysical landscape that fulfils a myth in the most horrible but perhaps redemptive way. There is the new and quite unexpected threat that tempts and then destroys treasure seekers in “The Plain.” There are loving and recreative tributes to Lovecraft, in stories like “Faint Baying from Afar.” And there are the most twisted of twisted romances, as in “Darksome Leaves.”
For once, the canned plaudits that describe Gavin as “a master of esoteric horror fiction in the tradition of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft” actually get it right. His work does recall Machen and Blackwood – not the most obvious inspirations for any modern weird fiction writer, even those, like me, who took their models from Lovecraft’s exemplars in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” There is the same often quiet and even sedate stroll up to the edge of the abyss, the same easy elision from the everyday to the eldritch (and yes I loved writing that). All the same, Gavin doesn’t strike literary attitudes or parade his intellectual gifts. His writing is simply, deeply disturbing.
If I had any criticism, it’s that there’s a slight uniformity of tone and setting across a lot of the stories, though perhaps that’s partly the reaction of a Brit who doesn’t find the North American milieu simply normal and transparent. Stories like “A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress” at least vary the milieu – in this case, to post-war Germany – but others like “King Him” are too close for my taste to plain and simple old-style Robert Bloch or Hitchcockesque American smalltown Gothic. That’s a small criticism, though, in a collection of otherwise great stylistic and imaginative excellence.
I don’t know if Gavin is telling these tales to project a single consistent worldview or body of ideas, as you sometimes see in the work of Thomas Ligotti or even Lovecraft. If there is one overriding theme, it’s that the outside, the inhuman, is there under the skin of the world, always waiting to break through. You may fear it or embrace it, you may be destroyed or mutated by it, but ignorance and mundanity will never keep you safe from it. “In the end, every last one of us must glimpse the Minotaur in the maze. None of us glides through the world uninitiated,” his protagonist declares in “The Eldritch Faith.” Now it’s your turn.
TeleRead rating: 4.0
Check it out here: At Fear’s Altar