Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review: The Darkly Splendid Realm by Richard Gavin

At Fear's Altar was one of my favorite reads of the past few months (also ranking high in my list of favorite single-author short story collections). I own Gavin's other three collections, but have only read a few stories from them (I am a reader that is quite guilty of picking up short story collections and anthologies only to read a story or two here or there, and before blogging it was rare that I would read a collection/anthology from start to finish). Fellow reviewers seem of the opinion that At Fear's Altar is Gavin's best work, and since I loved that book so much I was a little nervous that Gavin's previous collection, The Darkly Splendid Realm, would fall a bit short. Luckily, this was not the case, and I enjoyed this collection almost as much as I did At Fear's Altar.

The Darkly Splendid Realm is Gavin's third collection, and in the author's afterword he refers to it as his "earthiest". Many of the tales within have recurrent themes; dreams play an important role in several stories and most all of them deal with other worlds encroaching on our own.

The collection opens with Prowling Through Throated Chambers, and follows a man who's attraction to dark places brings him to an abandoned amusement park and a true house of horrors. The setting alone should resonate with horror fans of all sorts, but the horrors Gavin explores are bleak and reminiscent of classic weird tales. Where the Scarab Dwells takes a guilty, corporate worker into a dark tenement, where his ancestry and guilt merge leading to a redemption of sorts.

Phantom Passages is a morality tale of sorts, and takes a look at a character who's greed spells his doom. So much is hinted at throughout the story, building up to a terrifying conclusion. Primeval Wood marks the longest piece in the book, and is a great example of the "earthiness" I mentioned earlier. A city man who was recently abandoned by his girlfriend, goes on retreat to a small, rural cottage. Finding more than he bargained for, the man loses time and undergoes a dark transformation. Final Night in Nevertown is an eerie, dreamlike story where a town is disappearing in mist. The imagery is surreal and makes for quite a moody piece.

Gavin takes readers far back into history with Children of the Mound. A group of Roman soldier-missionaries visit the far reaches of their kingdom in order to learn the fate of an earlier group sent to build a church and convert the "savages". One of the best blends of historical fantasy and weird horror I have ever read, the story starts off reminiscent of a typical horror plot (group arrives to find no sign of anyone) and quickly descends into weird nightmare territory. The Language of the Nameless Region is a story where dreams take center stage. The story features an accomplished dreamer (a la Lovecraft's Randolph Carter) who comes across a woman straight out of his dreams. He turns into the obsessed, creepy suitor, giving her strange gifts of dreamstuff. The story is well written, and more melancholic than horrific, but creepy enough.

The Astral Mask is one of my favorite stories of the collection. What began as Gavin's attempt to explore UFO/extraterrestrial horrors, has become much, much more. The main character finds himself questioning reality. Stories that blur the lines between sanity and insanity and feature a character struggling to tell what is real and what is not always hold an interest for me, and the horrific nature of this character's episode made for quite a chilling story. Dreaming While Adrift on the River of Despair is another story that drips melancholy and puts aside horror. It's a beautifully told story of loneliness, and is proof that Gavin can pen more than just horror stories.

Getting the Strap explores a disturbing relationship between a boy and his grandmother, and Waterburns blends sorrow and horror for a story about a woman who's fate was sealed when she was only five years old.

The Bitter Taste of Dread-Moths is another favorite from the collection, and is another story that explores only the tip of the iceberg. A woman's essays about fear capture the attention of an eccentric man, and the ensuing correspondence strikes a deep chord within the woman and brings back a horrifying memory from her childhood. A great story where mad science meets the essence of horror. Gavin closes out his collection with Following the Silent Hedges, an experimental story told in the unconventional second-person narrative. Gavin makes this unorthodox style work in an exploration of the veil between worlds, and the thin places where we can cross over.

While not quite as brilliant as At Fear's Altar, The Darkly Splendid Realm still stands strong as a collection where it is hard to find faults. The stories within explore thin places, the power of dreams and fear, and how dealings with all of the aforementioned can lead to transformation.

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