Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: At Fear's Altar by Richard Gavin

Canadian author Richard Gavin’s first story collection Charnel Wine came off the press in 2004, and since then Gavin has had a steady stream of collections published. Omens was put out by Mythos Books in 2007, and two years later came The Darkly Splendid Realm. Halloween of 2012 saw the release of his most recent collection, At Fear’s Altar, and boy is it a good one.

Gavin writes some of the best weird fiction I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The influence of all the masters is readily apparent: Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood, and Ligotti. A keen reader can easily discern that this author lives for the weird, and he writes it oh so beautifully.

In his fourth collection Gavin offers a wonderful variety of tales, showcasing his different influences and making a strong case as to why Gavin’s name should be on any shortlist of modern masters of the weird. At Fear’s Altar contains thirteen (such an appropriate number) of stories, seven of which are original to this collection. And it must be said, that every single story is great. Gavin's style is sharp, and cuts neat.

Gavin kicks the collection off with a Prologue titled A Gate of Nerves. This short piece is the perfect way to open his collection, and serves to set the mood for what follows. The story follows a college student and her experience with a horrifying Asian parlor game. The imagery is excellent, the suspense builds, and after reading this prologue I knew I was in for something special.

Following the prologue is one of the best stories in the collection. Chapel in The Reeds is a greatly disturbing tale of an old man, his experience with an abandoned church, and his diminishing grip on reality. Gavin writes an extremely convincing example of an old man slipping into dementia, and the story leaves just enough questions open to really keep the reader guessing.

The Abject originally appeared in S.T. Joshi’s Lovecraft-inspired collection, Black Wings II. This dark story focuses on a woman in a troubled relationship, as she and her boyfriend join friends on a trip to a cursed place. Adding the deep-seated relationship problems to the primal desolation of the setting makes for quite a chilling experience.

In Faint Baying From Afar, Gavin works in the epistolary format. The story, which is a direct sequel to Lovecraft’s The Hound, follows a series of letters from a son to his mother. It’s beautifully written, and really captures the feel of classic Lovecraft.

The next story, The Unbound, is also a direct response to a Lovecraft story, this time being The Unnameable. The Unbound acts as a sort of re-telling of the original tale, from the point of view of the Unnameable itself. It’s a very interesting tale, and really captures the image of a man shutting himself out from the world, and becoming a Gollum-like grotesque.

A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress deals with faith, albeit a dark one. The main character is an outsider, who takes up a strange and dangerous habit of taking jaunts during nighttime air raids on his city. He has a fascination with all things dark which turns into more of an obsession over the Devil in particular. This eerie craving seems to have been inspired by the character’s mother, and the story follows the man as he lives out a life of chasing something that most people would run away from.

In King Him, Gavin writes a truly disturbing tale about siblings and “imaginary” beings. The story has some truly disquieting elements (which I won't detail for spoiler purposes) and really toys with the idea of whether or not the characters are truly dealing with a supernatural element or are just very deeply disturbed mentally. In my opinion I think it's a bit of both.

I have always been a fan of weird Westerns, especially ones that tend towards the horror side of the spectrum. The Plains is a tale about a creepy, blasted piece of land (reminiscent of the Blasted Heath from Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space). When some men travel to this place searching for salvation for their drought-plagued town, they are in for a bit of a surprise.

Only Enuma Elish is another story dealing with a shut-in, outsider type character, who makes a connection with his elderly neighbor. What seems like a good thing quickly deteriorates into something surreal when he finds out about her strange beliefs.

In The Word-Made Flesh, a man attempts to help his troubled friend, who believes he has heard the “Word of God”. What is truly going on is something much darker.

Annexation is a heartbreaking story that follows a woman on a quest to find her estranged son at the behest of her dying husband. As she tracks him to a remote island in South America, she ruminates on how her son has always been different, and finds out about the dark path he has chosen.

Darksome Leaves echoes Thomas Ligotti, and is about another outsider character who finally meets someone that he feels a connection with. The only problem comes in the form of a transformative mask that mysteriously appears. The man’s attitude and ideas reflect Ligotti’s typical outsider protagonist, and the masks themselves bring to mind Ligotti’s well-known story, The Greater Festival of Masks.

Finally, the collection finishes with one of its strongest tales, The Eldritch Faith. The longest story in the collection manages to hit on so many ideas, and was quite a chilling read. The story follows a young boy who doesn’t seem to fit in, and his attempts at contacting a spirit. When he finally manages to make contact with an entity which calls itself Capricorn, his life is forever changed. The buildup is grand, and touches on several aspects of horror that many youths experience, such as sexual angst and facing local urban legends. There is some spectacular imagery in the story, and the ending is brilliant.

With this collection Gavin has managed to bring together thirteen stories without a single  bad one amongst them. The stories range from dark to downright terrifying, and every single one will linger in the reader’s head for days. I couldn’t recommend this collection more, so finish up what you’re reading, buy this collection, pour yourself a rye-and-ginger, and settle down to read one of the best books published in 2012 and one of the best weird horror collections published ever. Absolutely essential.


  1. Great review, Justin, and much agreed. This collection IS absolutely essential to any serious reader of Weird and supernatural fiction.

    I forget to mention "Darksome Leaves" in my piece on "At Fear's Altar." I really dug that one.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the review Ted!!!

    Darksome Leaves has been added to my annual Halloween short story reading list for sure.