Never a fan of Grand Guignol horror whose conclusions offer no hope, there is a strange kind of alternative offered in several of Sylvan Dread's conclusions; of renewal and re-birth as part of a lost primeval nature. Amoral, non-human perhaps, but not entropic. Outside each tale's protaganist are the secret motives of nature and its amoral drives for continued procreation. Gavin's philosophical trigger is from the theory of Rudolf Otto; the German scholar of comparative religion, whose Idea Of The Holy is quoted from at the top of the first tale. ('Thistle Latch'). Described by Otto as a "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self,” this might be an aposite definition for the uncanny as a whole.
'Primeval Wood,' the second tale here, concerns Neil Keller and the hawthorn idol he discovers that appears to infect him with potent dreaming, just as his relationship ends, leaving him vulnerable to fight this unknown and unknowable foe alone. In 'A Cavern Of Redbrick' a boy's regular bike ride around a gravel pit is suddenly disturbed by the ghostly presence of a girl upon the roof of its shed. This 'presence' leads him, unwittingly, to the revelation of a terrible family secret and portentous conclusion.
In 'Fume' the warden at the holiday hamlet of Beech Point observes the exodus of renters at the end of the summer season. En route home for dinner, Clark spies a small, illicit encampment and stops off to investigate. Within the sole tent he sees what appears to be a swaddled corpse. Bursting its wrapping elicits the 'fume' of the title that also burns his skin and causes a personal change – inside and out - that may be more than mere hallucination. In 'Weaned On Blood' an abbot, newly-arrived at a rural monastry, is initiated into a sacrificial ritual as a means to sustain a much darker tradition. The abbot decides, for the good of the brotherhood, to act unilaterally to reveal the recipient.
In 'Mare's Nest', the husband of a couple still very much in love must face the imminent death of his wife. He, a sculptor, she, a poet, they agree upon a pact to both physically manifest and entrap forever the spirit of her favourite self-composed poem of the title. If that sounds trite, the tale's real strength is in the authentic depiction of the husband's uxorious emotions, which are genuinely heartrending.
This is the fifth collection by a writer who, being usually distant from 'horror,' I've previously overlooked. I see in the case of Richard Gavin at least, this has been my loss. The territory and subject matter may otherwise both be familiar to its seasoned readers. For myself, glimpses of frightening beauty in Gavin's exotic prose style transcends that in much of the genre.
According to one of the three afterwords that inhabit this collection of long short tales, Ron Weighell implies that his contribution to this Blackwood tribute represents the fifth to feature his continuing character, Dr. Andrew Northwoode, "respected Fellow of Belden College, Oxford, and eminent scholar of antiquities various." The Edwardian influence of the prose style and its derring-do usage makes 'The Letter Killeth' easily the most traditional of these three. A strange bequest delivered to the College library, its mystical contents, and the malevolent force it threatens to unleash is well done and informed and affectionate rather than merely derivative.
It reads more like Machen-informed Wheatley, than Blackwood inspired, but, as other recent author-dedicated anthologies have shown, such inspiration doesn't necessarily mean bland homage. I don't know of Weighell's previous work, but he's clearly a man of some deprecating wit. He ends his short, intermediary afterword (the first of three by each author) disappointed that he had to rely less upon imagination than usual, since he's reached his ongoing character's age-group.
'In The Clearing' takes its cue from Pan's Garden's 'The Man Whom The Trees Loved.' A city man who, from the opening line, "had never made much time for anyone," suddenly finds a haven for some peace and quiet, where time is all he has. Suspended from his post, (for a reason left intriguingly unexplained), he suddenly faces what has long been harboured, perhaps even repressed, within himself, as previously unexplored feelings uncannily mingle with perceptions he can no longer recognise or trust. Is what he sees merely from his own point of view? Or is he being externally, objectively affected? The tale has a brave ambiguity, that stays with you long after its end. Yet, whether it is entirely successful – in its own terms - is hard to guage in that I wasn't entirely certain what Howard wanted to achieve. Rather than lead you, however, its snail pace demands your attention and gradual recall.
In its assured feel for the Edwardian uncanny, 'The Fig Garden' is classic Valentine. A childhood ritual among friends, involving a procession and the near-holy imbibing from a figtree, resonates across time and the life of one man, semi-conscious of vague connections he can sense but not clearly define. He comes to suspect he might have a role in something far greater than himself. It vaguely reminded me of David Lindsay's rare mid-Twenties novel, The Violet Apple, in its philosophical theme.
The dustjacket evokes that of Blackwood's one-hundred year-old novel, Julius LeVallon, by its cool colour pallette and of a sole figure standing awestruck and exultant amongst a mountainous landscape.