Category Archives: Horror

Grotesquerie by Richard Gavin

Note: The following review originally appeared in the September 25th, 2020 issue of HA&L RAVE and is reprinted here with their kind permission.

CHTHONIC TRANSCENDENCE

Book Review by Danny Jacobs


Descents


In a recent interview, Richard Gavin discussed the importance of “katabasis” to his work – an ancient Greek concept that suggests a journey downward, often to the underworld. Grotesquerie, Gavin’s latest collection of dark fiction, draws deeply on katabasis. While the term is never referred to as such, it remains a useful lens through which to read his stories. Whatever strange things happen in between, by the end of these existentially harrowing and formally ambitious horrors, Gavin’s characters often find themselves in literal and figurative descents. For example, in “After the Final”, the narrator, a self-proclaimed “Macabrist,” seeks out a teacher-priest they call “Professor Nobody”—a faceless being, perhaps imaginary, who lectured on “the grubby subnatural; the Underworld.” In “The Patter of Tiny Feet,” we find a more literal underground—Sam, a Location Manager for a low-budget horror film, finds himself down a well with a “great scuttling thing,” a larval monster-god. One may compile a partial list of the stories and their corresponding descents: “Banishments” (through a floor grate to a river), “Deep Eden” (to a decommissioned mine), “The Rasping Absence” (to a pit dug in beachside bluffs), “Crawlspace Oracle” (to… well … a crawlspace).  I could go on. Gavin’s is a fiction of lower-levels, of basements and burials.

            Many journeys to the underworld involve some knowledge gained, whether desired or not. After a stay at a very strange B&B on Halloween—which includes an encounter with the walking corpse of his girlfriend’s dead father—the protagonist in “Fragile Masks” undergoes a terrifying existential transformation, and with it comes an understanding that nothing is as it seems: “Everything was coming undone. His precious mask was slipping… He knew it was only a matter of time before he’d have to look upon the long-hidden face of his true self.” In “Deep Eden,” Gavin hints at the dark transcendence promised by an emerald light glowing from a dying town’s abandoned mine. When the collapsed mine coughs up a “luminous object,” the narrator succumbs to the light with obvious Judeo-Christian overtones: “She watches in mute but visible agony as I bite into the apple.” Gavin’s conclusions are always horrifying, but they often contain the kernel of revelation— “a cold, unwanted revelation,” but a revelation nonetheless.

            Gavin’s bio states that he “explores the realm where fear and the numinous converge.” No surprise that Gavin has cited religious thinker Rudolf Otto as an influence. For both Otto and Gavin, the religious experience is often terrifying, a ripe place for transcendent horror. Otto relied on the term mysterium tremendum in his work, and his explication of the concept could be cribbed straight from a Grotesquerie story: “the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.” Despite their fear, Gavin’s characters want “deeply, though inexplicably, to see” (“The Sullied Pane”); there may be horrors, but there resides the consolation of truth, the draw of the lifted veil, in what Gavin beautifully calls “the plea of things unseen” (“Chain of Empathy). In a grim reversal of spiritual ascension, Gavin’s characters descend to find their epiphanies. Indeed, in the bleak mystical worlds of Grotesquerie, descent may be the only way to gain insight into Otto’s “Mystery inexpressible.”


The Hem of a Deeper World: Dark Conviction

Gavin also writes nonfiction, the subjects of which don’t stray far from the fiction; they have titles like The Benighted Path: Primeval Gnosis and the Monstrous Soul and The Moribund Portal: Spectral Resonance and the Numen of the Gallows. I have not read the nonfiction, but I suspect the philosophical and esoteric leanings of the aforementioned titles undoubtedly inform the stories I have read. See, there’s a unique conviction with which Gavin creates an atmosphere of religious dread. These stories clearly take themselves seriously with passages like this: “You taught us that the Horror toward existence is not only real but is in fact more real than we are, that it is the boundless gory foam up which all things, known and unknown, merely bob like so much flotsam.”

            Though the above passage lays it on a little thick (gory foam?), what makes Gavin’s best stories so affecting is: he believes them. Hear me out. Maybe not literal belief, and definitely not naïve belief, but we are in the presence of an author who has spent much time thinking of underworld things, of considering a reality just beyond reach but accessible in extremis. For example, as one character descends deeper (into the ground & into himself), he senses a fundamental shift: “despite being surrounded by mundanity, Kolkamitza nonetheless felt himself at the hem of a deeper world.” As reader, I believe this. One gets the same frisson of belief when reading the stories of Thomas Ligotti—his philosophical pessimism and antinatalism make his stories deeply disturbing. Also like Ligotti (a clear—perhaps the strongest—influence on the book), there’s an atemporality to these stories, a floating timelessness like dreams. Gavin can, and does, ground his fiction in the now—there’s Dark Matter and Location Managers—but not many horror writers so successfully channel the baroque an oneiric Weird of Ligotti and earlier masters.

            Gavin’s earnestness and ornamental style has downsides, though, where lapses in overwrought writing stretch credulity. Fatally, I begin as reader to disbelieve at these weaker moments when it feels like he’s trying too hard to convince the reader of atmospherics. In these rare cases, Gavin reverts to horror clichés (hair raises on the back of a neck, a lump forms in a throat, organs feel as if they are replaced with ice, and someone doesn’t “even have time to scream”) and awkward modifiers (“celestial exhaustion”, “the elegiac creek”, “sanguine rosary”, all from the first story “Banishments”). But these moments, few and far between, are balanced with deftly rendered surrealism: “the innards that spilled from his jagged and gaping wounds were fossilized; white and smooth and solid, like hand-carved entrails on a marble statue” (“Deep Eden”).


Flipping Lovecraft and the Weirding of Form

I had mentioned earlier masters. True: but as in all good horror, they’re recast here. It has become de rigueur, and perhaps tiresome at this point, to compare contemporary writers of weird fiction to H. P. Lovecraft. And yet it’s illuminating to see how Gavin flips Lovecraftian tropes to his own ends. If the stories on offer differ from Lovecraftian cosmic horror, this is because of Gavin’s exploration of gnosis and personal transcendence. In Lovecraft, characters often come out the other end with a sense of an unfeeling and vast cosmos; the horror is their sheer insignificance against a stark and hateful materialism. The stories in Grotesquerie nuance the shaking and overwhelmed Lovecraftian subject. “The Rasping Absence” (a Lovecraftian title if I’ve ever heard one) begins in full Lovecraft territory: Trent, a TV journalist who does a story on Dark Matter and Dark Energy, is rattled by the vastness and unknowability of the cosmos: “For all our talk of colonizing Mars or beating cancer, we’re like one tiny candle guttering inside a massive cave. And the cave wasn’t designed by us. Or even for us.” Continually haunted, and unable to shake the horror that Dark Matter and Dark Energy elicits, he represents the scientific (and scientistic) dread of a Lovecraftian narrator. But the end of the story poses an ironic reversal of Lovecraft, where Gavin engineers a cosmic horror of the subjective: “The indifference of the universe, which had somehow come to house itself in his heart, has to remain his alone.” The story ends with Trent crawling into a beachside pit as a kind of sacrifice, participating in a communion with the object of horror: “The sand seemed to be grinding in his ears, chirping in the mad language of birds, or in the secret tongue of the Conqueror Worm.” As the story progresses, the reader experiences a slow shift from sky/void/objective/outside (Lovecraft) to ground/spirit/subjective/inside (Gavin). Cosmos becomes katabasis. (I should stress that Gavin’s mysticism makes the stories no less horrifying. In fact, Gavin’s ecstatic horror is all the more scary because of its humanity, its adjacency to inner states of consciousness. The horror, rather than outside, comes from within.)

Grotesquerie shows Gavin’s range and unique approach to the genre. He can do the gut-punch as easily as the dark transcendental.



          Comparisons, of course, are always reductive. Grotesquerie shows Gavin’s range and unique approach to the genre. He can do the gut-punch (“Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty”) as easily as the dark transcendental. Take the final story, “Ten of Swords: Ruin,” a masterful novella that uses tarot imagery to investigate sibling bonds and the dissipation of a cursed family (shades of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle). As in all the best stories of the High Weird, I don’t know if I could tell you what the story is truly about. In that case, “Ten of Swords” formally enacts the tarot itself—the tarot’s ambiguity, its slippery signification and excess of meaning.

           One more thing about irreducibility. My refusal to summarize is not a literary-critical cop out; the story’s irreducibility (like many in the collection) is a fundamental aspect of its form, and pays fealty to the history of the strange tale (in this sense Gavin is part of a lineage that goes back to Robert Aickman, and before that, Shirley Jackson, and before that, Arthur Machen). In the best work of the Weird, the appellation applies not just to content (there may be no obvious monsters at all), but to structure, too. It is often the gaps and lacunae, the formal curvature, that lend a story its deep weirdness. In the skewed worlds of Grotesquerie, things are “flickering, blurry.” When a gallery owner in “Neithernor” contemplates a mysterious artist’s work, he has this to say: “I sit here five days a week and I study them, trying to memorize every curl and bend, but once I leave this room, my memories change. The pieces become something different than what they were.” I couldn’t think of a better description for the best work in Grotesquerie.

The Buried Mansion

In “Three Knocks on a Buried Door,” one of Gavin’s finest narratives of katabasis, the protagonist descends to a large estate hidden directly under his own house. As he goes deeper into this palatial underworld, its dimensions become increasingly surreal: “He must be beneath one of the neighbour’s houses at this point, perhaps beneath another street all together.” The story reverses the biblical idea of heaven as mansion (John 14:2: “In My Father’s house are many rooms…”); instead of a mansion in the sky, we have a mirror image, a Lynchian hell where the narrator is forced to sit blindfolded and eat a freezing “delicacy” that “tasted like some bitter root.” The buried mansion becomes a useful metaphor for any Richard Gavin story—opulent, baroque, well-built, but always subterranean. The windows are high and stunning, the moldings carefully-wrought, but the vista is of a “chthonic constellation; a firmament not of stars but of wriggling worms.” Still, one might find something while they’re lost down there.


  • Paperback : 292 pages
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1988964225
  • ISBN-10 : 1988964229
  • Publisher: Undertow Publications (Sept. 1 2020)

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book (or Kindle version) through Amazon using the link below we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/34tnvZG Thanks! 

This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Terror in High Water by Joe Powers

Joe Powers is a Canadian horror writer who lives in New Brunswick, and Terror in High Water is his first full-length novel. It is a twist on the typical western novel where a bad bunch of hombres ride into a town, terrorizing it until the Marshall arrives with his deputies and cleans up the town. Sound familiar? It’s been the fare of western books and movies throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Well, what if the hombres were immortal beings from another dimension, say Hell (or the traditional depiction of Hell, anyway)? This is what Mr. Powers offers up to the small remote Texas town of High Water, which lies close to the Mexican border. It consists of the typical businesses of the time, Hotel/Saloon, Blacksmith, Grocers, Hardware store, etc. The main business is cattle farming, and this is what likely draws “The Man” and his five gang members, a huge man named Agamemnon, and four others he calls his “Hell Hounds”. After brutally killing the Sherrif and a few other early opposers, The Man and his posse take over High Water’s hotel and demand that two head of cattle be brought in each day to feed his Hell Hounds (don’t ask, you have to find out for yourself).

High Water’s priest knows of a monster hunter that is capable of killing creatures like The Man and his associates.

One man who does stand up to The Man is the priest who knows of a monster hunter that is capable of killing creatures like The Man and his associates. This irritates The Man for he knows the existence of such a being is true but thinks he is secure in this Texas backwater town. However, this monster hunter, Samuel Heilig lives just over the Mexican border, in retirement. He is the town’s sole hope for relief. However, he is unwilling to come out of retirement, thinking he is too old to be battling monsters.

Heilig rose the following morning, got dressed, and put the kettle on to boil. He ate breakfast and sipped his coffee, and when he was done, he went outside to sit in the shade and escape the growing heat of the day. He found a comfortable spot and withdrew the bullet casing that Henry had given him from his breast pocket. He turned the shiny artifact over between his fingers, and as he examined the fine details, his mind drifted back through time to the day he’d dropped it.
He thought about the old world and the foul creatures that walked the earth. He recalled some of his encounters, times he’d stared into the face of evil and come out on top. So many people had no idea what may lurk in the shadows at any time, mere steps away. If they only knew, he mused, nobody would ever leave their homes.

You might be able to guess what Heilig’s decision is, but the ending may not be as easy to guess. Terror in High Water gets top marks for a low F-bomb count, no sex and a good plot. However, there are many ways to die, as the reader will soon discover.

“As the reader is taken on the suspenseful journey you can picture the town, its citizens and the anxiety their new stranger has created. Joe Powers has made you see and feel the emotions that is featured on each page. The effect of this is a sure page turner as doubt is in your mind on how this may end.”  Fred E-Scene Review

Terror in High Water by Joe Powers
World Castle Publishing

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Finding Woods by Matt Mott

It has been quite some time since I have read any ‘modern’ horror novels. Back in my younger years I was quite a fan of Stephen King, but as I got older my reading tastes changed to literature and history with the occasional novel or book of short stories thrown in for variety. Recently I was alerted to the fact that a Miramichi resident (who has since moved to Saint John) has written a book that I should take a look at. I was able to get a review copy of Finding Woods by Matt Mott (2014, Montag Press) from the author himself.

“Finding Woods is a tough, unflinching collection of smart horror”- Eden Robinson

Smart Horror

Smart horror as opposed to dumb horror, like all those Saturday matinée b-movies I watched and cheap horror magazines such as Weird, Eerie and Creepy that I read as a teen. Oh, there were some good tales in them, but they definitely lacked in intelligence. Then I started reading Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft whose stories, although written in a past age, had (and still have) the innate ability to worm their way into the mind and make you ponder the possibilities of the imagination. Matt Mott pays tribute to those master storytellers in Finding Woods.

Three Smart Stories

At first read, what appears as three separate stories are really one, although each one can exist independent of the other.

And a Full Glass of Milk, the first story concerns the Terriault family in Miramichi, who are still dealing with the drowning death of the mother, Nancy. The oldest son Riley can ‘see’ his mother, still soaking wet with seaweed in her hair, but his father Leon is in permanent denial and prays the Our Father over and over at a shrine he has built in the living room. He thinks she is still upstairs, asleep.

The trees first catch Riley’s attention as he hitchhikes home to Miramichi on a Halloween night (wearing a priest costume of all things) from Fredericton after quitting university:

“…the sheer vitality of the trees along the road stood out the most…..He [Riley] must have grown up looking at those trees. And still they seemed so new. The branches creaked and rustled and looked hungry.”

Thereafter, the trees are a major theme (a minor theme is water), and you will soon be ‘finding woods’ throughout the book.

The second story, Playing with Rebecca, had me confused (not a difficult thing at the best of times) within the first few paragraphs. There are actually four different voices telling the story of a young boy, Kevin, and his imaginary playmate Rebecca. Once you sort out who (or what) is speaking, the tale gets somewhat easier to follow. The story is actually based on the folkloric legend of Rebecca Lutes, who, (as the story goes) was hanged in Moncton back in 1876 for being a witch. Incidentally, Rebecca’s house in this story reminds me of the “Shunned House” in the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name: malformed, sickly foliage growing around the house, the healthy trees keeping a safe distance away, and strange moulds growing on and within the decaying building. Then there’s Winifred the rat….

The last story, 17 Reasons Why I Rinse, brings us back to Miramichi where the aforementioned trees are now gradually taking over the city; whole streets and buildings are disappearing without anyone noticing, except Jaimie the shower-loving female protagonist of the story. Oh, and there is a serial killer called the Orange Man who is on the loose…

A Startling Good Read

Telling any more about the stories or their interconnectedness would be to spoil the fun of reading this startling good read from this New Brunswick author. I already mentioned one Lovecraft reference, but there is another one I found as well. There is also an apparent tip of the hat to Hitchcock for the Orange Man’s real name is Anthony Perkins. You may find more references to other authors unfamiliar to me. Once I discovered that there were connections between each of the three stories, I went back and read the book a second time, even marking down in the margins some cross-references. It was actually fun to re-read it and find all the Easter-eggs, so to speak.

If this is ‘smart horror’ then you would be smart to get a copy of Finding Woods. You may never look at trees the same again.


Matt Mott is from the Miramichi, but now he lives in Saint John, where he writes down the monsters he meets down by the harbour. He has taught for the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and College of North Atlantic, Labrador City and is the Communications Officer for the James M. Hill Alumni Association. His poetry appears in The Antigonish Review #168, he was shortlisted for The Malahat Review 2012 Novella Prize, and his fiction has earned a number of Honorable Mentions in Glimmer Train Press fiction contests. Finding Woods is his debut collection and is available through any Chapters branch or online through Small Press Distributions or Amazon.ca

This article has been Digiproved © 2015 James FisherSome Rights Reserved