Read This: The Darkly Splendid Realm


November 12, 2013 by Laird

I caught up with Richard Gavin at Necronomicon in August and also had a chance to meet his wonderful family. That remains a highlight of a memorable trip to Providence. Richard is one of the best writers in the business, and a good man as well. He’s written several collections–you enjoy dark, gothic, eerie tales in the tradition of MR James, Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti, check this guy out. His latest is called At Fear’s Altar.

Here is my introduction to his 2009 collection The Darkly Splendid Realm:

Vistas of Evil Splendor

by Laird Barron

There exists within the community of horror authors a subset that cleaves to the modalities established by the old masters and seeks to contemporize classical styles and themes while expanding upon the venerable canon. This conclave of relative new bloods has sparked a resurgence of traditional supernatural fiction, spearheaded by the likes of Barbara Roden, Don Tumasonis, John Langan, and the author of this collection, Richard Gavin.  Gavin, with his third collection, The Darkly Splendid Realm, exemplifies this modernistic treatment of legends such as Aikman, Blackwood, and Machen. He pens tales of grimness and melancholy, of ghosts and things much darker than ghosts, and in a fashion that does honor to the genre’s founders while blazing his own, unique path.

There are fourteen tales within these pages, each a keyhole view of the inexplicable and the ineffable. These dark tales range from accounts of childhood abuse that breeds literal monsters, to pacts between mortal fools and unholy forces, and one stunning novella dealing with twisted black sorcery at its most insidious and terrible. Another memorable story features a paean to Dunsany and Lovecraft that captures the awesome and sublime majesty of cosmic horror. These two pieces anchor the collection, and I promise they will leave an indelible mark upon your psyche. In Richard Gavin’s universe unwary travelers all too quickly find themselves sailing into Terra Incognita, or wandering the mists of oblivion. Loss of identity, the disintegration of sanity and self, black magic and body horror, and worse, are subjects about which Mr. Gavin is happy to discourse if you’ll pull up a chair and stay a while.

The Darkly Splendid Realm possesses the affecting quality of all first class literature: an insidious tendency to bore into your subconscious and put down roots.  Gavin doesn’t flinch from examining the bizarre or the grotesque, nor human frailty or inhuman malevolence. These tales let upon vistas of madness and evil splendor. I found myself mulling them over at odd times and long after I’d set the manuscript aside. On a couple of occasions, I shook myself awake from most disturbing dreams owed to the lingering effects of his unsettling visions. He knows how to get under your skin and haunt you.

This collection unspools like a concept album. Beneath the veneer and polish is a layer of gritty substrata. His voice is seductive and raw, his beats skilled, yet idiosyncratic and startling. The bleakness of his prose, its dark musicality, is striking and authentic. The gentleman’s not here to afford you simple gratification. His familiar notes mesh in unexpected, genre defying ways, and often evoke a sensation of disquiet, if not outright dread, rather than pat satisfaction. Gavin is fascinated with the pastoral and the austere, the intersections of steel and earth, of flesh and spirit, and the world and the spinning black void that waits just a step beyond its threshold. As Gavin’s work acknowledges a debt to classical authors, it also reflects other, more contemporary trends. The theme of the ineffectual and disaffected everyman is a persistent drumbeat in modern horror. In lesser hands, such characters are merely ciphers, passive victims, mute witnesses to impending doom, and their fates mean little except to serve as cautionary asides. Not so with this author

Gavin’s influences are apparent, but never overpowering. He demonstrates an artisan’s eye for mood and tempo. He understands how crucial atmosphere is to the horrific and weird, and indeed that the miserabilist themes of malaise, urban decay, and cultural and social isolation,  are integral elements. However, he also possesses a keen understanding that the very best tales are those anchored by flesh and blood human beings who are in turn confronted by cold, hard problems. Existential horror is all very nice, but material substance is vital. Storytelling, and most especially storytelling that involves fear and dread, relies upon physicality to reinforce atmosphere, solidity and compactness to counterbalance ambiguity and nebulousness, as important as these latter characteristics might be. Physicality is the five senses engaged, the who, what, how and why, the kinetic complement to primal emotion and calculating reason. Physicality drives reader identification and, at its most extreme, triggers an atavistic response when the reader is forcefully immersed in the narrative — he or she is now trapped in the pitch black cellar as the awful tread of some unknown thing approaches; he or she experiences the mind-numbing revelation as heretofore scattered clues coalesce into dreadful alignment.  Gavin’s protagonists are not always sympathetic, nor ought they be, but they are real and their plights compel us to empathize, to stop and put ourselves in their shoes, and to gaze with them for a few moments into the abyss.

“May you live in interesting times,” goes an ancient curse. Indeed, the times are interesting. Amidst the usual wars, famines, plagues, and general societal ill will, many parts of the world are suffering from a precipitous economic downturn, the likes of which has not been seen since The Great Depression . There is no telling how this global financial implosion will affect the publishing industry over the long haul. However, the appetite for horror fiction remains strong by all accounts, and perhaps that has something to do with our human need to contextualize and categorize, to peel back the layers of the scab and see how deep the wound really goes. Tales of the occult and the weird have always flourished during eras of real world strife. Humanity’s innate creativity and morbid curiosity persists in the face of doom and gloom.

At this juncture, small and independent press support for the horror and dark fantasy genres is prevalent enough to suggest another golden age of the short form. Economic futures may be cloudy, but I am convinced that here, as the first decade of the Twenty-first Century draws down, the rich tradition established by Poe, Le Fanu, Shelley, and the rest, has never been in better form, nor its future more assured, as represented by Richard Gavin and his The Darkly Splendid Realm.

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