by DANNY JACOBS
NEW BRUNSWICK REVIEWS ONTARIO
[Pickering: Undertow Publications, 2020, $20.
Cover Art: Mike Davis.]
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.)
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.
Danny Jacobs’ poems, reviews, and essays have been published in a variety of journals across Canada. Danny won PRISM International’s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Contest and The Malahat Review’s 2016 P. K. Page Founders’ Award for poetry. His essay “Rooms” was shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2018 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. His first book of poetry, Songs That Remind Us of Factories (Nightwood, 2013), was shortlisted for the 2014 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. His latest book, Sourcebooks for Our Drawings: Essays and Remnants, is a collection of lyrical essays and creative nonfiction (Gordon Hill Press, September 2019). Danny lives in Riverview, NB, with his wife and daughter. He works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.