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. 

Advertisements

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.

The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler & Other Strange Stories by Reggie Oliver

9781905784516Yes, the title is awesome. Happily, so are the contents in Reggie Oliver‘s second collection of strange stories. Rooted firmly in the classic English ghost story tradition of M.R. James, E.F. Benson and others, Oliver’s stories are storytelling at its best.

The tone is conversational, the writing witty and eloquent; appropriately, the narrators are often unreliable, usually completely unhinged. Consider the title story, where a man purchases a boxed set of the symphonies of Adolf Hitler at a record store, only to be fingered as a suspect in his wife’s death. The events are almost certainly related, the most likely scenario being that the narrator has gone nuts from guilt.

No explanation is necessary, and the story offers only tantalising hints. Many of the stories leave the mystery slightly mysterious, offering barely a glimpse of something just beyond the veil. Now this can be somewhat frustrating at times, and a couple of the stories (Parma Violets, Bloody Bill) don’t quite hold up to the others, feeling both heavy-handed and still completely baffling.

But mostly the delicate balance between what is told and what is left to imagination is perfect. Particular standouts are The Time of Blood, about a nun who can prophesy the future, and The Skins, about a horse costume in a variety act, a story that manages to be both funny and intensely creepy. A special mention must go to Oliver’s illustrations, small miniature masterpieces that fit the style and mood of the collection perfectly.

**** (4/5)