At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin

fearsaltarRichard Gavin channels several classic weird authors in At Fear’s Altar, a collection of 12 stories and a prologue.

The stories come in roughly three types: the homages, the monsters and the psychological. Of the stories in the first category, two are based on early Lovecraft, with Faint Baying from Afar serving as a sequel to Lovecraft’s The Hound and The Unbound taking a go at the legend of The Unnamable. The best of the lot is A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress, a homage to Hanns Heinz Ewers that feels like a lost classic of the weird and not a modern story at all.

Next up are the monster stories; in The Abject, a woman disappears during a hiking trip (into the clutches of a monster). The Plain is a weird western, where a group of men hungry for gold fall prey to the titular plain. The Word-Made Flesh concerns strange, godlike powers gained at an abandoned farm. Annexation follows a woman in search for her grown-up son. And Darksome Leaves is a Halloween story of sorts, about a mask that opens up a whole new world.

With the exception of The Plain, the stories feature modern-day people who stumble into cosmic horrors. The emphasis is on atmosphere and suggestion, as it should, but strangely, the stories tend to end with the big bad being very big and bad. There’s very little room for second opinions of the “what did I really see? if anything?” variety. Yes, it was real, and the monster ate you. End of story. On the other hand, such lack of subtlety is kind of refreshing, so there you go.

The third category goes for the psychological effect instead. Here characters are in denial of their own reality, perhaps because it’s too sad, too horrific or too mundane. There’s (again) a hint of Lovecraft here, with the Celephaïs-style quiet, desperate yearning for something more. Chapel in the Reeds depicts an old man imagining a remote chapel filled with pornography. King Him is the story of two siblings who hear a voice in their heads, spurring them to unspoken deeds. Only Enuma Elish reads like something out of Tim Powers, a fantasy concoction that connects a Babylonian creation mythos to hurricane Katrina. And last but not least, The Eldritch Faith tells the tale of a lonely boy, whose new spirit friend drives him to murder, insanity and a strange alternative reality.

It’s a strong collection, with no bad or even mediocre offerings; the writing is sharp throughout and some characters even manage to transcend their role as monster fodder. One drawback is that it never really lets the reader forget the old masters; they’re always there, lurking in the background. Still, it all somehow works like a shoggoth. But as always with story collections, At Fear’s Altar may be too much to digest in one go; as one-offs the stories would probably shine a lot brighter. Serving suggestion: enjoy in small portions.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2012 by Hippocampus Press. Visit the author’s site! Check out Gavin’s latest project Penumbrae – an Occult Fiction Anthology, released in April. 

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Revival by Stephen King

Revival
US edition (Scribner)

Frankenstein meets The Great God Pan in a story that spans a lifetime of two men; the fates of young Jamie Morton and reverend Charlie Jacobs become intertwined when the latter becomes the town’s new reverend. Affable and easygoing, he’s liked by everyone – until he loses his family in an accident and angrily renounces God.

But there’s a new god waiting in the wings for the good old reverend: electricity. While we follow Jamie’s exploits (first love, first band, drug addiction, calm middle age), Jacobs uses his growing knowledge to go from a reverend to a carnival attraction to a spiritual healer, and later cures Jamie from his addiction. But some of Jacobs’ patients and test subjects begin to experience strange side effects, giving clues about Jacobs’ ultimate goal: to look beyond the veil of reality.

It’s straight out of Arthur Machen, the man credited in CAPITALS on the first page of the book; the final patient is even called Mary, just like in Machen’s story. But it’s mostly seasoning; structurally the novel is familiar King territory, reminiscent of From a Buick 8 or Joyland (there are many references to that novel’s carnival vocabulary). And on his home turf, King is undeniably the best there is. Revival is a great yarn, full of nostalgia and experiences that ring true. King’s characterisations are always above and beyond most in horror fiction.

But the seasoning can sometimes overwhelm the more astute reader. There’s the (silly) namechecking of certain mythos tomes, such as Robert Bloch‘s De Vermis Mysteriis or even the (bloody) Necronomicon. Perhaps King is having fun at the fanboys’ expense (others probably won’t even notice), but such references went out of style already back when August Derleth was churning out Lovecraftian pastiches.

revival-stephenking-cover-UK-hodder-stoughton--static
UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton)

The ending, or the great revelation of what waits us beyond death, is straight-up cosmic horror: death is no escape, only a doorway to something worse. The reader gets a small glimpse of the thing clawing out of Mary’s mouth, and it’s just enough – the reader’s imagination will take care of the rest. And the wave of suicides and murders in the wake of the final event echo Call of Cthulhu with its communal madness. There’s a lot of excellent ideas beneath the surface, even if the surface occasionally feels a bit too pleasant – King’s homespun horror stylings are perhaps too cosy and sane for all-out Lovecraftian horror. Even with the grumbles, Revival is a great novel, with a wonderful, solid emotional core.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014 by Scribner. Visit the author’s site and get the new novel Finders Keepers (out in June)!

The Sign of Glaaki by Steven Savile and Steve Lockley

sign_of_glaakiYoung Dennis Wheatley, later known for his occult novels such as The Devil Rides Out, arrives in the United States to consult on a film shoot together with renowned escape artist Harry Houdini. It’s all very pleasant, with carnival freaks (cf. Tod Browning’s 1932 film) and all, but then actresses get murdered and various hijinks ensue, culminating at a lake that serves as a center of worship for local loonies. Or something.

It’s all very confusing. The plot lacks purpose; after the somewhat clever beginning the novel seems to implode into a series of incoherent scenes, with the characters rambling around Dunwich (now a major city, apparently) until a strange whimper of an ending. The choice of characters is clever, and combining silent film with a Great Old One created by Ramsey Campbell just screams perfection; but there’s no progression, no sense of menace, no plot to follow. It’s all padding, with a few neat names thrown in the mix.

Oddly, the association with the Arkham Horror board game is the least of the novel’s problems; the only glaring sign of the game seems to be the appearance of PI Joe Diamond, who naturally comes across as that much cardboard. Diamond seems almost glued-on to the novel, perhaps a late editorial addition to beef up the already far-stretched contents?

Some of the novels in the Arkham Horror line have been quite good fun; unfortunately, The Sign of Glaaki, despite having possibly the best premise, falls flat.

* (1/5)

Published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2013. Available in paperback.

DarkFuse #1, edited by Shane Staley

darkfuse1A novella-length anthology, DarkFuse volume 1 offers six stories; some are traditional, others experimental. All are quite good.

She Sleeps in the Depths by William Meikle: A man named Fallon gets an earworm, a sea-shanty of sorts. Close Encounter style, he takes a ship up north, and meets with a woman who hears the same tune in her head. And off they go, in search of the source somewhere out at sea.

A Lovecraftian tale, She Sleeps in the Depths has a great atmosphere; the pared-down, detached greyness of it all reminds me of Nordic noir crime novels. The writing’s strong throughout, and a mention of the ship’s karaoke hell certainly strikes a chord in anyone who’s ever travelled on the ferries in Northern Europe. **** (4/5)

Better Heard and Not Seen by Michael Penkas: A boy believes there’s a monster in his closet. Soon as he’s gone to bed, something comes out of the closet and climbs in the bed with him. But it’s not the monster.

Surely it cannot get any more traditional than this. It’s an old-fashioned story that feels almost like a lost classic from an earlier age. The story gets a lot out of its overtly familiar premise, and the writing’s good, but all in all it’s still a very simple story. *** (3/5)

Carrion Fowl by William R. Eakin: People suddenly mutate into some sort of cannibalistic flying creatures with beaks and everything, and then they fly around eating people and each other and going “wrocckkkk!”

It’s a nice juxtaposition, putting this after the most traditional story here! What a weird story this is. There’s not really much plot, mostly we follow a couple as they start their new posthuman lives as some sort of pterodactyls. They also seem to go insane in the process, relishing their new reality with epic phrases (the writing’s excellent, but some sections go on for a bit too long) and really going about it all like it’s actually quite natural to turn into a monster. Would’ve fit nicely in the Cthulhu’s Reign anthology. ***½ (3.5/5)

Jaws of Life by E.G. Smith: A salesman rolls his car over on a remote stretch of road and gets stuck upside down, unable to move. Scruffy children find him, but they don’t call for help.

It’s a limited setup; the whole story is set inside the turned-over vehicle, with the reader seeing only what the main character sees through his window. At first the story feels like a Lord of the Flies kind of thing, but ultimately it may be more related to Richard Laymon. A well-executed tale that reveals its secrets slowly, with a nice, nasty, pitch-black final twist. **** (4/5)

Netherview by Gary McMahon: As a lark, a couple visit a home showing at a new residential area built on the site of an old asylum. Leaving, they find their car wrecked, and the gate of the compound locked.

The situation is weird, as in almost Ligottian. The residential area is empty, the phones don’t work and it almost feels like a trap designed to lure people… for what purpose? For food? There’re glimpses of something, possibly some creature, but it never gets near enough to allow for any details. Luckily, since the story works better with just the characters and their growing confusion and fear. The final desperate escape attempt with its possibly fatal consequences is far scarier than any imaginary monster could be. ****½ (4.5/5)

Children of the Horned God by Christopher Fulbright: A horned creature grabs a man’s wife. Some time later, the man begins to hunt the creature, and in the process uncovers some secrets about his fellow citizens.

It’s all very eighties in style, with a Satanic style coven, hints of paganism (Herne is referred to, there are trees with faces etc) and even some Lovecraftian overtones. There’s a lot going on, a lot of cheese, with scenes upon scenes of convenient pulpy revelations. It’s all kind of good, but there simply might be a little too much good stuff here, at least for a short story (you could make several lurid eighties horror novels out of these ingredients). A more straightforward storyline, with a little more normalcy and less cheese would’ve probably made more of an impact. **½ (2.5/5)

Anthology rating, rounded up: **** (4/5)

Published in March 2014 by DarkFuse.

Lurker by Gary Fry

lurkerAn ebook novella from DarkFuse, Lurker (2013) is a Lovecraftian story in the tradition of Ramsey Campbell; elegantly understated, intensely atmospheric and superbly horrific. Set in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, the story follows Meg, a woman who has just moved into the area after suffering a tragic miscarriage. While her husband works long hours in the city, Meg is free to roam her new environs.

And roam she does. Discovering the entrance to an abandoned mine, she unknowingly attracts the attention of the titular lurker. The next day, the wall of her house outside her bedroom window is decorated with muddy handprints. A girl is reported to have gone missing near the mine, and Meg thinks she glimpses something in the background of the newspaper photo. A dodgy pamphlet found in the library purports to explain it all, but its talk of some immortal creature from beyond the stars that cut off miners’ hands and heads so it could use them as tools is just crazytalk, right? And all the while Meg is also tormented by suspicions of her husband’s possible infidelity.

Is it all in her mind? There’s a strong psychological aspect to the story, giving room for interpretations. And it’s only Meg who seems to be aware of the creature, not at all unlike the poor narrator of Guy de Maupassant‘s classic story Le Horla. All the events in Lurker are seen and experienced through Meg’s perspective, and who knows how twisted that might be, after all the stress and insecurity the character’s been through.

That, however, doesn’t stop the story from going the tentacular full monty in the glorious finale; imagined or not, it’s all about pure, unadulterated horror of the cosmic variety, blasting away what little sanity poor Meg may have left at that point. As a horror story, Lurker delivers the goods, regardless of the interpretation. Highly recommended.

***** (5/5)

Available 12 Nov 2013 as an ebook from DarkFuse. Visit the author’s site.

Reanimators by Pete Rawlik

reanimatorsThey really don’t come back the same once they’ve been dead a while. Pete Rawlik‘s first novel Reanimators (2013) takes its cue from Lovecraft‘s classic story Herbert West — Reanimator (1922), spurts the old story full of the green reagent, and goes crazy.

The setup is ingenious; as in Lovecraft’s original story, Herbert West’s experiment goes horribly/exhilaratingly wrong, and people die. Only in Rawlik’s interpretation those people have a son, Doctor Stuart Hartwell, who then swears revenge on poor West. Somehow Hartwell also figures out a formula for reanimation, thus giving the title its plural suffix.

So far so good, but then other folks from Lovecraft’s stories start appearing. Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee (of The Shadow Out of Time), the Whateleys (of The Dunwich Horror), Doctor Muñoz (of Cool Air) and Erich Zann (of The Music of Erich Zann… and others. Every name connects to some other piece of fiction somewhere.

And the novel gets sidetracked, time and again. Some references slip in smoothly, others have to be shoehorned in. And sure, it’s fun to read about Hartwell observing a certain hill in Dunwich at a certain time, when a certain Great Old One shows up in all his glory, glowing balls and all. But does it amount to anything?

Not really. The main plotline, when it occasionally surfaces from the seething tangle of recycled references, is great; the chapter where Hartwell inadvertently creates zombies in the trenches of World War I is brilliant, as is the storyline concerning the Spanish flu epidemic. Maybe the original Reanimator story, as a born and bred pulp tale, is well suited to such tinkering (as seen in the movie adaptation and its sequels); messing with the other stories is far more difficult, and the line between good fun and preposterously ridiculous is a very thin one.

The writing, in first person and ostensibly by Hartwell, is solid and insanely serious; Rawlik has the Lovecraftian protagonist spot on. Certain chapters and episodes are excellent, but as a whole the plot barely holds together. No doubt the numerous sidetracks to other stories will tickle any hardcore Lovecraft fan; it’s fun just to spot which story is currently being cannibalized. But for the rest of humanity, it all probably comes across as slightly meh.

*** (3/5)

The Narrows by Ronald Malfi

thenarrowsA town already on the ropes just can’t catch a break in The Narrows, a 2012 novel by Ronald Malfi. Instead, the few remaining townsfolk in the Rust Belt town are faced with floods, an infestation of bats, and as a nice, juicy cherry on top  vampiric creatures with a taste for brain-bacon.

The events take off with a corpse that arrives with the floodwaters. Soon there’s a spate of cattle mutilations, as local cows get their brains scooped out. Kids start disappearing as well, only to return as nightmarish nosferatus that vomit acid to subdue their victims (and to soften their skulls, so they can get to the juicy part inside).

There’s a wonderful sense of inevitability to these mindless, bottom-feeding carrions; they are like the Langoliers, a force of nature if you will, swooping down on a dying town to finish it off. A crucial element in the order of things, same as bacteria.

But they’re also a bit of a one trick pony; they vomit acid, but that’s basically it for most of the novel, despite the decidedly Lovecraftian finale. Most townsfolk are helpless in the face of such creatures, but some struggle on as the story unravels in a cinematic fashion, with multiple viewpoint characters. Most important of them is Ben, the local police officer.

But the main character is the town. The novel becomes almost a social treatise in urban decay, as the narrative maps the resigned mood of the town and its few remaining residents. It all amounts to a mighty gritty reality, giving a nice leg up to the imagined horrors that follow.

As usual, Malfi’s writing is exceptionally good throughout; the man is a truly gifted storyteller, who can spin sentences and pace action like none other. But it’s at the end, as pieces get picked up and the survivors look to the future, that the novel goes into emotional high gear; the endings of the storylines are left open, with possible destinies the reader can only begin to imagine. The town might be dead, but the characters go on.

**** (4/5)