Reviews of two titles from Hippocampus Press that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-
AT FEAR’S ALTAR (Hippocampus Press paperback, 256pp, $20) is the fourth collection by Canadian writer Richard Gavin, and according to the back cover, there are a dozen stories in this book, eight of them previously unpublished. However I fear somebody is being economical with the truth, as ‘Prologue: A Gate of Nerves’ constitutes another story, a wonderful set up device in which the telling of true ghost stories is given a twist, the tale deftly playing on our love of the supernatural and clichés of the genre, with a deliciously inventive final twist.
‘Chapel in the Reeds’, the first story proper, is a fine opener, blurring the line between the occult and senile dementia, as an elderly man strays from the well-trod path and discovers a defiled chapel, one that hints at something terrible but also offers him a chance at redemption of a kind, Gavin playing his cards close to his chest and leaving the reader to decide what is truth and what is illusion. ‘The Abject’ is the story of a young woman falling prey to some elder entity, but with the suggestion that what she actually finds is some form of completion, and showing how the one left behind is bereft, the nuances of the tale well drawn and with a genuine sense of the numinous in the text.
Inspired by Lovecraft’s story ‘The Hound’, ‘Faint Baying from Afar’ is told in an epistolary mode, with a son writing to his mother about the strange fate of her son/his brother, who went off to Europe in search of supernatural truth, and with madness creeping into the text and the suggestion of something terrible lurking at back of it all, then with a tongue in cheek denouement in which a correspondent tells Charles Fort of the case. One of the weaker stories, ‘The Unbound’ picks up on ideas in Lovecraft’s ‘The Unnamable’, with a man seeking transcendence through abandonment of identity, but instead becoming something terrible, and I’m afraid I found the concepts more interesting than the story.
‘The Plain’ offers a nightmarish variation on the theme of sacrifice for the common good, with a man intent on recovering gold from the minatory wastelands to save the people of his village from starvation finding that something else entirely is planned for him, an atmosphere of doom developing as the tale plays out like a macabre version of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. No good deed goes unpunished in ‘Only Enuma Elish’ as a man disposed to selfishness makes the mistake of helping his elderly neighbour only for her to introduce into his life a religious text that transforms reality for him, with the suggestion that he has fallen under the spell of something truly outré contending with a simpler concept of madness. ‘The Word Made Flesh’ tells the story of Austin, whose attempts to bring his loved ones back to life result in madness and murder, the story recounted by a friend and with chilling moments of description and again, as in so many of these stories, the hint of something truly inexplicable and awesome lurking behind the veil.
In ‘Annexation’ a woman searches for her son, who ran off to join a cult, to bring him back to bear witness at the deathbed of his father, but the search leads her far off the beaten path and to an encounter with something that is truly inhuman, the story grabbing the attention and leading the reader by the hand, so that we too accept what has happened to the missing Damon, how his whole being has been transformed, or annexed by the ineffable. ‘Darksome Leaves’ is a Halloween story, whose protagonist has his life and burgeoning romance upset by the intrusion of a strange mask, but in a way it comes to underline his own, essential difference from the common crowd, that there is something not quite kosher about his humanity, an impression strongly conveyed by the almost detached prose style of the piece.
Finally we have novella ‘The Eldritch Faith’, which begins with a child’s game and the raising of a spirit, then carries through into adult years and madness, visits to other realms and horrific killings. The story catches the interest ab initio, with its picture of a narrator who believes that he has terrible secrets to impart, knowledge beyond human ken, and the matter of fact way in which he lays everything out for us. There is something of the ghost story about it, the unclean spirit, but also a growing sense of the numinous, that we are privileged to glimpse something truly outré, and I loved it. It was the perfect end to a very strong collection of tales from a writer whose talent and mastery of the form of the weird tale is growing.
UNCOMMON PLACES: A COLLECTION OF EXQUISITES (Hippocampus Press paperback, 270pp, $20) contains twenty two stories by W. H. Pugmire, considered by many to be the leading writer in the Lovecraftian tradition. Many of the pieces are only a page or two in length, prose poems rather than stories, and even the lengthy title story on closer inspection breaks down into ‘A sequence of prose poems & vignettes Inspir’d by H. P. Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book’, some twenty eight of them in total. When I reviewed an earlier collection of his work, The Gathered Dust, I wrote of Pugmire “it is a love of words and imagery that seems to guide him, with a painterly style that uses the palette of language to transfer strange and wonderful visions from the writer’s mind to the page”. And this collection only confirms me in that opinion.
In opening story ‘An Identity in Dream’ we have a vivid two page description of fantastical places, which in turn awaken memories and an awareness of who or what he really is in the protagonist, the poetic prose bringing the imagery to life. There’s a similar feel of poetry and imagery coming first in the two one page prose poems that follow, ‘Artifice’ and ‘Cesare’, each managing to convey a sense of impending doom and momentous events that are taking place off stage. ‘The Host of Haunted Air’ is an elegantly phrased story of a brother and sister doomed by an arcane wind chime that wishes to feed on human breath, the story told from the perspective of a friend of the couple, and their characterisation as wealthy and spoiled coming over strongly. ‘Hempen Rope’ presents a decadent and luxuriant account of suicide, one which gives the act an aesthetic dimension.
A man is fascinated by the age-old ‘House of Legend’, but in crossing its doorstep he invites both his own doom and possibly that of the house itself, with the feeling that this was nothing more than the working of fate underlying the text. Absconded parolee Hank finds a strange house in a wood, but the ‘Inhabitants of Wraithwood’ are an enigmatic bunch, with some esoteric relationship between them and the photographs of famous paintings that are also found in the house, Hank learning that his own destiny is to be transformed into a parody of a work of art, a painting by the infamous artist Pickman. A writer falls in with a beautiful woman in ‘The Zanies of Sorrow’, one who introduces him to her impossibly old uncle, but not everything is as it seems, with the family’s heritage of witchcraft and their terrible secret revealed. ‘Some Distant Baying Sound’ is a sequel of sorts to HPL’s ‘The Hound’, with the companion and lover of the murdered St. John seeking help to fend off the thing that is following her, and travelling to the Sesqua Valley to consult with another magician, the story rich in detail and haunting suggestions of something ineffable and outré.
And so on so forth.
In reviewing this book and trying to capture the appeal of Pugmire’s work, plot synopsis and comment will only take you so far. A more effective way to give the reader an idea of what he is all about is to open the book at random and reproduce one or more of the ornate and baroque sentences that appear on every page. From p9, “Squeezing through the narrow aperture, I entered into the chamber that was pregnant with an iconography of nightmare, in which I felt at home.” From p33, “How curious, that at distant windows I seem to see faces that watch me and hands that move as if to form strange signs.” From p148, “And when I had touched my hand to the creature’s adamantine surface, to its queer colouring of greenish-white and reddish-brown, I felt a sense of delectable terror as I had never known before.”
Of course I’m not quoting at random at all. Pugmire’s characters all too often feel at home with their nightmares and regard terror as delectable, and there are always people making strange signs in distant windows. The people in Pugmire’s stories are true decadents, embracing whatever doom awaits them with a gleeful smile on their faces, and he is the balladeer of their undoing, finding beauty in desuetude, using language as a philosopher’s stone to transmute the foul and grotesque into things of wonder. Plot, perhaps even the Lovecraftian mythos itself, are side issues to the evocative, musical prose and the mood of awe that the stories create. Pugmire may well be an acquired taste, but if so then he is also a writer with a uniquely original voice and perspective who will reward those who seek something slightly different from what’s on offer in the mainstream of horror.