Friday, December 28, 2012

TC Book Review & Interview: Richard Gavin Digs Deep into the Nightside in New Collection 'At Fear's Altar' from Hippocampus Press

Cover art by Harry O. Morris
Everyone wants to stake a claim in both the Big “H” and small “h” Horror game these days.  I’m not just talking about writers, but producers, development executives, toy manufacturers, cartoonists, bands, and any other enterprising individuals that utilize (and often exploit) creativity to sell a product.

Horror is hip.  Horror is hot.  Horror of a sort, that is...  Yet REAL Horror - that which usually graces a sheaf of parchment rather than a played out digital screen - still toils in mainstream obscurity.  Quality never sells.  Cheeseburgers do.  Readers become writers, and writers lower standards to accommodate a wider net cast wide to snare an ever-shrinking pool of actual readers.  The wonderful and varied realms of genre fiction – those quasi pigeonholes where Horror is Weird and Weird is Horror - remain cloistered from the outside, yet are increasingly crowded by an influx of burgeoning insiders setting up tents to hock wares and carnival bark.  This creates one hell of a party, but it also ultimately sucks the oxygen out of the room.  A dry keg, with a line out into the yard of thirsty people gripping tightly their red plastic cups.

Basically, what I’m saying in this clumsy metaphor is that while Horror Fiction once again seems to be growing in popularity (granted, in very small increments), it also is becoming increasingly diluted and marginalized in an attempt to stretch the liquor in the punch as far as it will go.  Sooner or later, you can’t taste the bite anymore, and what remains is 15 cans of room temp Hawaiian Punch left to gather fruit flies in the bowl.

Okay, I'll spare you any more fermented metaphors and proclaim this instead:  In the realms of Horror, Richard Gavin is the absolute Real Deal, an Occulted acolyte of the numinous and practitioner of the Dark Arts, who is writing some of the best supernatural short stories of our time - hell, of any time.  This is the quality stuff that rises above the din, authentic and expansive and true to the fundamental roots of Horror that keeps the genre from teetering into pastiche and fan fic infamy.  This is the ethanol in the punch bowl (sorry, last one).

Indeed, I foresee a time in the not to distant future when Gavin joins the Bigs in the annals of supernatural fiction.  Not just the living Bigs and those who dreamed and bled to expand the scene throughout the 20th century (Lovecraft, Bradbury, Aickman, Campbell, Klein, Ligotti, etc.), but the venerable Dark Fraternity that traces its history to Poe and Stoker, Mary Shelley, Matthew Lewis, and M.R. James.  In the past decade, Gavin has written much, and has much to write, but with this his fourth collection, he deserves a place at the scarred and slowly expanding Table of the Greats, where I can visualize Gavin sitting with the old and moldering Weirdists, sharing a glass of port by candlelight and not seeming out of place in the slightest.  He lives for this pursuit, this searching The Dark, and it shows in every finely craft line and new vista he documents.

As a colleague of mine (his name rhymes with “Simon Strantzas”) recently stated in a conversation, At Fear’s Altar is “an important collection,” and I heartily agree.  This book has a solidness to it, a largeness and import that is undeniable.  Upon first reading - and I imagine upon second and third - his stories quickened my pulse, shook the cobwebs from my psyche and made me sit up a little straighter as my eyes shot across the page.  When forced to set the book aside by the vagaries of daily schedule, scenes stayed with me like a slow burn, which I find to be rare phenomenon these days, as it is not often that the written word produces such a lasting, internal reaction.  His stories are alchemical, creating something new inside you born out of unrelated parts, leaving fresh elements in their wake that hadn't previously existed in this reality.

Stylistically, he is clean and confident, imbuing the thirteen tales that make up At Fear’s Altar with a music that is comfortingly classic in language and theme, yet totally fresh in execution.  And his work is often legitimately scary, which is another rarity.  I think this stems from the fact that Gavin seems like an authentic article when it comes to Horror.  I don’t pretend to know him well, but of what I do know of the man, his writing (both fiction and non), his scholarship, and general intellectual pursuits, paint the portrait of an individual who doesn’t wear the trappings of horror as a pose.  Instead, the True Dark seems to emanate from his DNA.  He is Occulted in a consummate way that isn’t some religious (or lack thereof) commentary or rebellion against the Light, but that of an enthusiastic Seeker truly inspired by and deferential to matters of esoterica, from earthy black magic to the unknowable secrets of cold cosmicism. 

And you can taste it in At Fear’s Altar. It all sounds close by, and in some cases improbably true, which makes it all the more frightening. Gavin is not just trying to set trite stories in "spooky" places.  He explores the full palette of dimensional reality and possibility, weaving in nods to the Outer Abyss, Hell, and unnamed places in between, including those just down the street, or perhaps just over the hill. Everywhere is his playground, everything his swing set, which makes his stories so widely appealing.  Lovecraftians, Supernaturalists, Hellhounds, and fans of the Uncanny will all find something to enjoy in At Fear's Altar, if not celebrate.

The collection begins with a Prologue titled "A Gate of Nerves," which sets the table for what is to come, evoking an atmosphere of the supernatural and the unfolding encomium to fear in all of its forms and guises, and ultimately effects.  The tales that follow range from very good to extraordinary, but I'd like to focus on several that I found to be particularly splendid.

“The Abject” recalls a Laird Barron tale, or maybe Simon Strantzas.  Or perhaps Laird Strantzas.  A healthy dose of cosmic horror and wilderness terror, interwoven with relationship decay, that leads to a tragic end without easy explanation.  There are topographical similarities between "The Abject" and "Annexation" (strange outcroppings of land just off shore), although the latter deals with a mother searching our her son lost to dark teachings, leading her to a conclusion of which she was better served to remain ignorant.

"A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress" seems as early 20's century and European as its setting.  Just a fantastic tale emerging from a bombed-out city suffering under a constant Nazi Blitzkrieg that shows Gavin's deftness with matters more demonic than straight up cosmic. "Darksome Leaves" is a fully modern, Ligottian tale, and plays with item horror and masks as keys to something far deeper and infinitely powerful.  "The Plain" is a Weird Western combined with a morality tale as old as the desert, that recalls Robert E. Howard, with a more elegant touch.

“Faint Baying from Afar,” which is “An Epistolary Trail after H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Hound’” is a nod to one of Gavin's influences, and the noted epistolary style brings out Gavin' classic chops.  This is an elegant tale, told through letters from a son to his mother, which only makes the growing horror all that more unsettling.  Another bow to Lovecraft is "The Unbound," which to me, honors writers even further back, including Bierce, Blackwood, and Machen.

Personally, I found "Chapel in the Reeds” and “The Eldritch Faith” - the stories that bookend the collection - to be not only the strongest pieces in At Fear's Altar, but truly some of the best Weird fiction stories I've ever read.  The way Gavin handles the fears and uncertainty of old age in "Chapel in the Reeds" is so impressive that I would have sworn it was written by an octogenarian.  From the POV of a man struggling to hold on to his sanity, memory, and what is left of his family eroded by natural causes, Gavin folds in the additional threat of a strange, tiny church secreted away in the woods, which is the perfect device to terrify and mystify both reader and protagonist.  Unsettling and though provoking, to be sure, and an excellent rumination on the ravages of old age.

"The Eldtritch Faith" is quite simply an achievement, a symphony that includes all of the instruments that make up the settings and textures of the best modern supernatural/Weird fiction.  I love this story the way I love "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Great God Pan," "The Events at Poroth Farm," or "The House on the Borderland."  It's intimate, yet huge; fantastical, yet somehow seems rooted in a reality that very few of us know to be true, but of which all of us have an inkling, as the story begins with a boy looking for the presence that he knows lives in his basement, and ends up in places he - nor I - ever dared dream existed.  This is revelatory cosmic horror underpinned by the occult of our earthly traditions and limitations.  If someone told me they were curious about modern Weird fiction, and asked for suggestions, "The Eldritch Faith" would be on a very short and distinguished list.  As such, this novella ends the collection with a limitless bang, and sets up Gavin's next work as an absolute must-have.

At Fear's Altar - and Richard Gavin, as a fictionist, essayist, and general figure - is what Horror needs, if the forces of true creativity and innovation are going to battle back those armies amassed to exploit cheap parlor tricks, reconstituted dreck barely resembling the original article, and sparkly spook pap churned out to appeal to the widest and least interested portion of our population.  This collection has the power and vision to recapture the numinous and keep the steam train on the iron track, to bring respectability back to the genre, to keep the "H" big and proud.  If you're as goddamn hungry as I am, punt the cheeseburgers and pick up some Gavin.  Straight, no chaser.  Nothing watered down, boasting a full array of flavors resting on the tongue, waiting to be unlocked by the discriminating and tasteful.  The burning fluid in the glass that warms the gullet and fires the synapses, turning the mind to thoughts of the infinite and beautifully dark.

Instead of cursing me for subjecting you to yet another liquor metaphor (and two respective mentions of cheeseburgers), please instead scroll down a bit and dig into the discussion conducted with Richard Gavin in this fourth installment of The Cosmicomicon Book Review & Interview (the preceding three being Strantzas, Barron, and Cardin), which explores his views on supernatural fiction, his dream realized of working with S. T. Joshi, and his overall take on Horror and the unquiet Beyond that goes far beyond just story writing.

TC:  Allow me to softball the beginning, and to establish some background after grasping about in the dark above… You dedicate At Fear’s Altar to Clive Barker and Algernon Blackwood.  Aside from these two gents – or possibly including these two gents, depending on where you want to go - who are your biggest literary influences? 

RG:  Barker and Blackwood are definitely among my deepest and most enduring influences. In Blackwood I found an honest writer. His work encouraged me to speak of ineffable Nature as beautiful and terrifying at once, and to express my own reflections on the universe regardless of how these visions may clash with those of the culture and age in which I live.

Clive Barker was the writer I most wanted to be as a young man. The Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart absolutely shattered my notions of what modern supernatural fiction could do. The eloquence of the prose, the almost religious heft of the images, the courage to push the envelope past the cozy campfire story model that other bestseller authors were producing, not to mention the genuine Artist’s conviction that Clive always demonstrates in interviews…these are just a few of the reasons behind At Fear’s Altar’s dedication.

Along with these writers I would say that my work is supported by three distinct but equally important pillars of influence:

The first will be obvious; the visionary Horror authors such as the two gents listed above, along with Lovecraft, Maupassant, Machen, Poe, M.R. James, T.E.D. Klein, Laird Barron, etc.

The second school is that of the realists. I’m a great admirer of Raymond Carver, Dorothy Parker, Eugene O’Neill, Flannery O’Connor; the authors who present small lives, very human stories, with photographic clarity. I openly admit that the supernatural authors have a much more potent influence simply because the realists, while offering great characters and tremendous prose, often lack what Arthur Machen called “the ecstasy of literature.” I need my work to resound from the depths of the human condition, to echo the outer dark.

The third influence stems from esoterica. The bulk of my library is occult books and many of these authors and practitioners --- Kenneth Grant, Austin Osman Spare, David Beth, etc. --- have enhanced my life experiences, which has resulted in, I think, supernatural fiction that is textured rather differently than the work of many of my peers.

TC:  In the same literary legends vein, I know you were personally saddened by the passing of Ray Bradbury this past year.  What did his work mean to you?

RG:  Bradbury was, like Blackwood, a very pure writer. What always resonated with me about his work was that he never presented the Gothic as ugly or repulsive. He wrote paeans to the dark. There are a number of Horror writers who erroneously equate Horror with the belief that life is ugly and endlessly agonizing. Their work is a pushing of the reader’s face into a steaming pile of offal. Bradbury was the opposite. His work says “Graveyards are beautiful. Skeletons are magical. Being scared is a good thing...”

Interestingly enough, at first glance one might assume that my novella “The Eldrtich Faith” is a Lovecraft pastiche because of its title, but many elements of that piece are steeped in Bradbury. I consider it a kind of parting letter to one of my lifelong favourite authors.

TC:  Your stories have a comforting classicism to them, yet still breach previously uncharted boundaries.  Is your writing in some small way a conscious nod to those writers who came before you, or is it just the purely unconscious outpouring of your organic creative Muse?

RG:  At this point I think the process is organic. The influence of the classic Horror writers is by now so distilled in my psyche that I don’t even notice it anymore.

But you are correct: I always want to push into uncharted boundaries. That’s crucial for me. One of the reasons I prefer being identified as simply a Horror writer instead of a writer of strange stories or what have you is that I don’t want the reader to assume I’ll be handling their psyche with kid gloves. I will never stoop to exploitation, but at the same time I make no promises about what kind of Horror my work will deliver. I’m forever pushing into new territory, conjuring what I hope are even more outré images and disquieting situations.

In some ways my creative drive can be summarized by a lyric from my favourite band, Tool: “I’m reaching for the random or whatever will bewilder me. And following our will and wind, we may just go where no one’s been.”

I want to push my work to the horizon, and then keep going. This has done me a fair bit of harm, professionally speaking. I’ll wager I have more rejection slips that read “We have no real criticisms, we just don’t know what to do with this story” than any other writer I know. My work was too weird, too deadpan, and too “cosmic,” I suppose, for most of the modern Horror magazines. But it was also far, FAR too hardcore for the more traditional ghost story journals. So for many years I was adrift with hardly any venues that were willing to publish me. 

TC:  In this world of uneasy Amazon compartmentalization, how do you define yourself as a writer?  You obviously revel in cosmic horror, and honor H.P. Lovecraft specifically in your tale “Faint Baying From Afar” (a sequel to HPL’s “The Hound”).  Do you consider yourself a Lovecraftian writer?  Has this ever-expanding label lost some of its luster with the glut of Mythos tales being written; and further, has that possibly become a stigma lately with more emphasis on his personally held views on race and other political and social issues that have been bandied about lately by other horror writers?

RG:  I usually identify myself as simply an author of supernatural Horror. That being said, I have seen the adjective “Lovecraftian” attached to my name more often than not, and it is a title I am very proud to bear. My only reservation with it is that it can be misleading to readers who come to my work expecting Cthulhu, etc. I have written stories that are overtly placed in Lovecraft’s universe (two examples can be found in At Fear’s Altar), but more often than not I’m attempting to reach that level of awe that Lovecraft himself strove for, but in my own way.

Gavin at HPL's grave in Swan Point (2002)
In my ‘teens I was utterly obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft. He remains a perennial favourite and a source of inspiration. This is part of the reason why working with S.T. Joshi continues to be such a surreal and rewarding experience. (More on this later.) So if we are talking about Lovecraft’s love for the ancient and ineffable, his passion for the weird and sinister affects of literature, his devotion to atmosphere and place, and his belief that supernatural Horror should have philosophical heft, then yes, I absolutely consider myself a Lovecraftian writer.

As far as Lovecraft’s racism goes, this is old news to anyone who has even a casual knowledge of HPL’s biography. I don’t share Lovecraft’s views on race, though I do resonate with his suspicion of and/or disdain toward humanity’s reflexive belief in “progress.”  Like Lovecraft, I can never be tied to raw new things.

Bashing Lovecraft as a xenophobic hack has become the hip thing to do on social networks and at conventions. While I’m not going to stop anyone from voicing their opinion, I will say that I’ve yet to see any of these detractors produce a cosmic tale that equals “The Colour Out of Space” or At the Mountains of Madness. Like it or not, HPL is a monument in the genre and that won’t ever change.

TC:  As noted in my review above, I consider you an authentically Occulted Writer, as your understanding and gleeful embrace of the True Dark is unmistakable.  What elements of your background and/or research have equipped you to write the stories that you create, which – for my money – are more rooted in the wider supernatural tradition?

RG:  Thank you for this question, Ted. I’ll do my best to answer it as succinctly as I can. Let the reader embrace or dismiss this as they will...

My stories may exhibit a deeper knowledge of that “True Dark” you mention, but of course that doesn’t make them better than anyone else’s stories. Nor does it make me a smarter writer. If there is uniqueness or an uncanny “heft” to my work, it is likely because my interest in this area is not academic. I live much of my life within that True Dark. What’s more, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I believe that the darkness, or the “Nightside” to use Kenneth Grant’s term, takes us to the horizon of our own knowledge, to the limits of our own experiences, and then introduces something Other, something from the shadows beyond our preconceived reality model. For some people just being brought to this personal horizon is strong enough meat. Others like me want to go beyond.

A careful reading of my work will reveal a variety of stories where the characters wish to know the monster, to experience the monster, and in some cases to become the monster. There is a primordial urge there. I’m not wagging my finger against the oozing primitivism the way M.R. James was. I’m pushing my characters, and by extension my readers, off the cliff’s edge and into the abyss. I want immersion, a sense of limitlessness.

One of my greatest inspirations is the British artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare. Many of his incredible drawings were created while he was in an altered state of consciousness. They were automatic drawings wherein he would rarely lift his pencil from the page, allowing the Spirits to guide his hand.

He believed, as do I, that works of art created under auspicious conditions act as “vessels.” They do more than present images; they convey the energies that informed those images. It is these energies (not the metaphor or image) that an audience responds to. The image is important because it is the vehicle that carries the essence, but there is always something behind true Image. This makes that magical bond of spirit to spirit, Muse to artist, artist to audience. It is a transference.

The energies that inform dark art can inspire an atavistic awakening. The best Horror plunges its claws right through the thin ice of logic and stirs up the cold dark waters of our subconscious. This is partly why one feels so alive when one is frightened by a supernatural piece. Whether ghosts or Yog-Sothoth or werewolves are physically “real” or not is completely redundant. One does not need to come away from any of my tales “believing in” the events they just read about. But hopefully they come away knowing something about the energies that churn beyond my images. Hopefully they experienced the cold touch of the ghost inside the machine, so to speak.

Spare used images and I use words. But in the end our art serves as a catalyst that allows its audience to enter an altered state just by experiencing the work. I relish the idea of stirring ancient feelings in modern readers, of rousing a sense that they are not a mere cog in some tidy civilization wherein all things are quantified and pat, but are instead part of a vast and haunted wilderness. My aim is to deliver primordial experiences.

My stories do not serve any particular spiritual tradition or religion per se. They are designed as shamanic tools that I hope will awaken the reader to his or her self. I’m not preaching any specific worldview. I want people to wake up to themselves, to realize the dark in their own way.

For me as the author, the tales are expressions of a larger, lifelong quest to explore the Nightside. They are footnotes to those moments when I have found my own horizons, found what Horrified me. My life is a continuous meditation within this True Dark.

This should explain why I’ve no interest in “branching out” into other genres. My tales are more than a literary construct to me. They are ligatures that connect me with the dark continuum that has been churning since primitive man first painted grotesques on the walls of Trois-Frères cave in France, if not earlier.

All this being said, I must stress that if someone reads my work simply to be creeped out for a few minutes, that is perfectly valid and is also flattering to me. If a shudder is experienced, I have done my job. One doesn’t need a working knowledge of occult practices in order to enjoy my work. I design the stories to be inclusive, not exclusive. My work is for all. The key is to FEEL something!

TC:  Following on that, is what you write best classified “Horror,” or do you place it someplace else?  Is there a need for subsets apart from just simply Horror?

RG:  “Supernatural” would be the only qualifier I would add, simply because all my stories possess one otherworldly element or another, but Horror suits the work just fine. I love this genre.

TC:  What is your take on the contemporary Speculative Fiction industry, and where do you want it to go, as a reader and a writer?

RG:  I confess to having a love/hate relationship with the Speculative Fiction industry. The love angle comes from having a lot of friends in the field who are smart, talented, and fascinating. It’s a very supportive realm. And of course I love the process of writing and working with skilled editors. All of these elements inspire me.

The hate element stems from my innate disdain for those who wish to live in a bubble. SpecFic and “fandom” fosters a phony alternate universe wherein people can drift from convention to convention, crawling up ever-further into their own heads.

This is anathema to me. The writers I value most are ones who write of this world, not of a pale metaphoric Middle Earth or a land beyond the Wardrobe, but a world in which we can/should be fully present. From Lovecraft’s vast cosmos to Machen’s haunted hills to Blackwood’s sentient woodlands to the submerged primitivism of M.R. James; these stories are about awareness, not escapism.

TC:  How long did it take you to write and assemble At Fear’s Altar?  How many stories did you complete before settling on the thirteen that made it into the collection, and how much rewriting did you do once you had chosen the stories?

RG:  The book took me about eighteen months to write. I omitted three stories and then S.T. and I agreed to replace one tale in the book with another. Most of the rewriting occurred before I submitted the manuscript to S.T., simply because I was terrified of disappointing him! S.T. then did some revisions with me and, unsurprisingly, all his suggestions vastly improved the tales.

TC:  The inimitable S. T. Joshi wrote the forward to At Fear’s Altar.  How did you hook up with Hippocampus, and arrive on Mr. Joshi’s creative radar (if, in fact, the two occurrences are unrelated)?

RG:  I’d been a fan of S.T.’s since I began collecting the Arkham House collections of Lovecraft that he edited. I followed his column in Weird Tales and therefore knew he was a stern critic of supernatural literature. For years I actively avoided sending any of my work his way for fear of what he might say about it. Finally in 2009, after Dark Regions Press published my third collection, The Darkly Splendid Realm, I mustered up my courage and emailed S.T. to introduce myself and politely inquire if he might be interested in a copy of my book.

Imagine my shock and delight when S.T. informed me that he was already familiar with my work. I sent him the new collection and a few weeks later S.T. invited me to submit to his anthology Black Wings II. His acceptance of my story “The Abject” was marvelously enthusiastic. In early 2011 I decided to roll the proverbial dice by asking S.T. if he’d be interested in considering my next collection as a Hippocampus Press title. He (provisionally) accepted the book sight-unseen.

Working with S.T. on this and other future anthology projects is an immense honour. All I’d wanted to do with my career is create stories that might be considered contemporary additions to the linage of the great weird tale writers of the past. Being taken in as a kind of protégée of S.T. Joshi’s has certainly felt like a fulfillment of this goal.

TC:  This is your fourth collection.  Do you find writing becoming easier?

RG:  No. If anything it’s more difficult now. I’m much harsher on the stories, setting increasingly higher demands on myself. I keep going because I want to convey visions of even greater intensity and awe, to deliver prose that is ever-smoother and more potent.

TC:  Based on the book’s title, and after discovering and reading the collection prologue “A Gate of Nerves,” I was expecting each tale that followed to be a tribute to fear.  I think I was chasing black rabbits, looking for something that wasn’t intentional.  Am I off here?  And if so, what was the purpose of the seemingly open-ended prologue?

RG:  “A Gate of Nerves” was employed to place the reader in a particular headspace. The prologue is rooted in the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, which was a Japanese Buddhist practice that later became a kind of parlour game wherein participants would tell ghost stories and blow out candles one by one. The intention was to “invoke” a spirit or entity that would reveal itself after the final candle was extinguished. The reason I referenced this particular ritual was to alert readers to the fact that supernatural tales have been, and can be, used for something more meaningful than whiling away a few moments. They create thickened atmospheres where our surroundings suddenly feel sentient.

Once that gate of nerves parted, the rest of the stories exhibited different ways that fear can rebirth us. We might not always like what we are being awoken to, but our awareness is sharpened all the same.

The reason why fear was not “celebrated” in an overt way is because fear (or more accurately, Horror) is best evoked rather than dissected. It is not an academic principle. We can analyze it, discuss it, theorize why it is we are or are not drawn to it, but in the end it is a force that erupts in spontaneous ways. The ancients called this startlingly immediate and untrammeled awareness of the Now “glimpsing the great god Pan.” In this sense, all of my stories are invocations of the great god Pan. 

TC:  Amongst the many extraordinary stories in At Fear’s Altar, “The Eldritch Faith” somehow stands out as a true achievement.  This is a harrowing, intimate, yet gargantuan tale, incorporating both cosmic horror and more material supernatural elements.  Where did this story come from, and how much of the protagonist in “The Eldritch Faith” is based on you as a young boy?

RG:  Thank you for your compliments. I confess that “The Eldritch Faith” is my favourite piece I’ve written.

The story stemmed from my wish to create something as panoramic as Comte de Lautremont’s Le Chants de Maldoror, and yet something that was also intensely intimate. The novella reads like a house of cards; each chapter building a very delicate piece of a pattern rather than a linear narrative.

In terms of the autobiographical content, I’m sure there’s more there than even I realize. I was blessed with a happy childhood, but I was certainly a weird kid. I really reached back to try and capture the feeling of playing imaginative games in my own basement as a boy. I also wanted to convey the sense that childhood is a very magical time where we have not compartmentalized reality. We exist in a strange, almost non-dualist state of being. We lose that as we mature. 

TC:  You deal with some explicit themes on occasion, but you rarely, if ever, use coarse/explicit language, and sexual imagery is described in an almost archaic, modest way.  This was striking to me in a genre that often “works blue,” at best, and at times seems to relish in the perverse and graphic.  Is your delicate dealing with such situations intentional, or a natural outgrowth of something more natural?

RG:  It’s definitely intentional. When I’m writing a story where the aim is to instill in the reader a sense of awe or feelings of disquiet or what have you, I need to be careful that nothing steals the thunder of that intended purpose. Sex and violence are the screeching, clattering tools in a writer’s toolbox. Go ahead and employ them, but be aware that those may be the only elements a reader takes from your tale if you’re not careful.

Sex has been included in a lot of my stories actually and it will continue to be. It’s one of the great primal-level mysteries or drives that I like broaching. I’d rather have a sex-heavy story than a violent story.

I try to use violence as sparingly as possible. It’s too easy and too often tasteless. Everyone’s scared of being physically brutalized. They don’t need constant reminders of this fact.  I’d rather attempt to stir a sense of the numinous or the ghostly instead of churning the reader’s stomach.

TC:  By all accounts, you’ve made your bones exclusively as a short fiction writer, yet the refrain of “the novel is king” pervades the entire literary industry, regardless of genre, and I’m guessing it echoes in the mind of every short fiction author.  What is your take on the widely held notion that a modern writer of fiction must produce a novel to truly achieve success, creatively or commercially?

RG:  Karl Edward Wagner once wrote about a survey that was conducted in the 1970s in which publishers looked at who in the United States were the biggest book consumers. They determined that commuters in New York City was their biggest demographic. These commuters were polled about what types of books they like to read. The majority of them preferred novels. Thus, New York mass market publishing houses turned their focus to novels, at the expense of almost every other kind of book. This should give people an idea of how solid a foundation the “novel is king” worldview stands upon: a forty-year-old demographic survey designed to maximize a quick buck for publishers of potboilers.

To be honest, I don’t know what level of “success” writers can even achieve anymore. The days of “The Lottery” causing a cultural tempest are long gone. I don’t know if our contemporary culture values authors the way it once did. So when I see authors jumping through hoops in the hopes of “getting discovered” I feel nauseous. It’s truly pathetic. The only success a writer can have is to write fully of themselves and for themselves. Everything else is fleeting.

TC:  We are both contributors to Matt Cardin’s The Teeming Brain, the megasite devoted to the discussion of consciousness, horror, philosophy, religion, and other esoteric elements that bridge and imbue the Dark.  What do you enjoy about non-fiction writing, and what can readers look for in upcoming installments of your column “Echoes from Hades”?

RG:  Writing non-fiction allows me to explore themes more directly than I can in fiction. You can look forward to my essay explaining how I believe that all my fiction is, in a sense, heartfelt invocations of the great god Pan.

TC:  Richard Gavin.  Simon Strantzas.  Ian RogersGemma FilesGord RolloJohn R. LittleMichael KellyMonica KueblerBrett SavorySandra Kasturi.  Helen Marshall. Nancy KilpatrickKelley ArmstrongDouglas E. Wright…  A Canuck murder’s row.  Canada has stormed into the Weird and Horror Fiction game lo the last decade, from writing to publishing.  What did they dump in the mountain spring water of the Great White North that has produced such an uptick in outstanding Dark Fiction writers since the dawning of the 21st century?  Is the home of comedy becoming the new home for Speculative Fiction? 

RG:  I wish I knew. I love living in Canada. No country is perfect of course, but Canadians have little to complain about. We have free healthcare, a high standard of living, little violent crime, and (for the most part) a very relaxed atmosphere. Canada is also a vast country with a small population spread across vastly differing terrains. We are geographic neighbours with the U.S. but have more ties with the Brits. We’re kind of culturally adrift in this respect.

So perhaps all these elements all combine to make Canadian dark fiction unique, the same way that Finnish or South African or Russian speculative fiction would be.

TC:  What’s next for you on the writing front, and what are you looking forward to in 2013?

RG:  I am working on another book. But I’m a painstaking writer, so I have no idea when it will be ready.

Next year I’m looking forward to the new collections by Nathan Ballingrud, Matt Cardin, and John Langan. I’m also excited about NecronomiCon, the Lovecraftian convention happening in Providence in August.

TC:  Thank you very much, Richard, for spending your valuable time sharing with the readers of The Cosmicomicon.  Allow me to wish you a healthy, happy, and hugely productive New Year.

RG:  Thank you, Ted. It’s been a pleasure. All the best to you and yours.

Do yourself a favor - get more Gavin, starting with At Fear's Altar and working backwards, with The Darkly Splendid Realm, Omens, and Charnel Wine.  Any serious reader of contemporary WeirdFic and Supernatural Horror must have these tomes on their shelves.

Richard Gavin is The Cosmicomicon approved.  Far more importantly, he's S. T. Joshi approved.  And that, my friends, is saying something.


  1. Great review and interview! I have all of Gavin's collections and have just started with At Fear's Altar, reading the prologue yesterday. The stories of his that I've read so far have been amazing, so I'm looking forward to enjoying this collection.

    1. Thanks for the complimentary words, Justin.

      You're in for a fantastic treat. Savor it.

      I wish I could read "At Fear's Altar" again for the very first time. I'll just have to settle re-immersion via a second read, and a third, and...

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read this and comment on it, Justin. I appreciate your kind words and continued support.


  3. I'm nearly done, with only four stories left, and I have to say, so far it's been an amazing ride. Usually with short story collections and anthologies I read a story here and there instead of reading straight through, but after this I'll have to read straight through the other three collections.

    Expect a review up at The Arkham Digest on Monday!

  4. Love it, Justin.

    Can't wait to read your review at The Arkham Digest.

  5. Wonderful, Justin! I'm thrilled that you are enjoying AT FEAR'S ALTAR and I look forward to reading your thoughts in The Arkham Digest.

    All best,