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.