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)!

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)

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Buick8From a Buick 8 (2002) is a Lovecraftian dark fantasy as interpreted by Stephen King; the big, cosmic ideas are there, but it’s all wrapped up in neat, homely Americana.

It’s also a novel about storytelling. The policemen of Troop D, not at all dissimilar to the prison guards of E Block in The Green Mile, gather around the son of one of their own in present day to share the story of a decades-old secret kept in storage shed B.

Troop D’s very own miracle-making John Coffey is a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, a car that even in real life has that repellent “Innsmouth look”. Indeed, there is something fishy about the vehicle. Left at a gas station in the seventies, Troop D soon discovers that the car is merely a prop. A prop that hums and puts on spectacular lightshows they dub “lightquakes”.

But there’s more; occasionally the Buick “gives birth” to strange, unearthly creatures, appearing from the trunk and probably originating in another dimension. And people as well as gerbils that go too near the car go missing, presumably travelling in the opposite direction. It’s a far-fetched proposition, a Buick as a portal to other worlds, but it’s also quintessentially King. The policemen, like some guardians of an arcane secret, keep the Buick locked up and under observation for decades.

From a Buick 8 is not an action-packed story; for the most part the Buick just sits there in its shed, with the cops peering in through the shed windows. It’s the mystery that drives the story, the weird, inexplicable nature of things “from beyond” that the smalltown cops could never even begin to comprehend.

But they give it a brave try, and their camaraderie bestows the story with warmth in a way that only Stephen King can create. The policemen live, they retire, they die – as all men must. And the structure of the novel allows them to tell their tale with their own voice. It’s this kind of narrative choices that drive home the point that King is a seriously prodigious writer in full control of his craft.

***** (5/5)

Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

10900272Gods and men clash to the soundtrack of blues in John Hornor Jacobs‘ first novel. Set in 1950s Arkansas, the story follows a hardboiled WW2 veteran as he is hired to locate two men, one of whom makes such music as will drive men to kill.

The gumshoe is Bull Ingram; his first target is a record company man who’s disappeared during payola visits to local radio stations. The other man, Ramblin’ John Hastur, is a bluesman, whose crazy tunes about yellow signs and other Lovecraftian thingumajigs are transmitted on pirate radio throughout the South.

The setting is brilliant, the atmosphere well developed. The world of murky blues recordings and 50s radio offer a rich and colourful background for Bull to roam in. Jacobs has a natural rhythm to his storytelling and the characters are, for the first half of the novel, compelling creations. Bull’s story reaches its zenith at a blues gig, where the main attraction literally brings the house down.

Unfortunately, the second half of the novel gets bogged down in static scenery (it’s mostly set in one house) and too much Lovecraftian exposition. The fine theme of blues, so evident in the first half, fades away. The already pulpy characters get increasingly pulpier; there’s a love interest, Sarah, and a Montenegran priest, Father Andrez, who seems a strangely sane individual for someone who has so much Cthulhu Mythos. All the tantalising mysteries of the first half are explained away in embarrassing detail, and as the story is set in the South, family histories also come into play in a heavy way.

However, even in the midst of Derlethian tripe of good versus evil, Jacobs displays an original voice: the take on the eternal struggle is a bit different, the good old Necronomicon gets a new treatment, and instead of a Christian god, it’s an ancient Roman deity that proves to be of most help to our heroes and heroines.

Altogether, the first half of the novel is unreservedly great; the second half is a trudge with some small pockets of guilty pleasure. Luckily, Jacobs’ leisurely storytelling and a natural knack for creating atmosphere provide just enough glue to keep the package enjoyably together. But the seams are clearly visible.

**** (4/5)