Book Review: Sylvan Dread by Richard Gavin

Containing twelve stories—though exhibits might be more appropriate, pieces of art—which are as distinctive from each other as they are facets of the same intent and ruminations; namely that of the implacable, inevitable, and overwhelming power of nature.

Sylvan Dread by Richard Gavin cverOften, a book comes along that forces a reader to confront and re-evaluate notions of what horror is, what its boundaries might be, and what, if any, its limitations are. It generally–if one is open to expanding their horizons and allowing that their previously narrow viewpoints might not be the rigid, sacrosanct and be-all-end-all opinions they thought they were—involves a significant and fundamental shifting of the reader’s appreciation for the genre. An understanding that, far from being the base, exploitative medium that many would like to dismiss it as, horror is, in fact, a wildly expansive, encompassing, sometimes poetic genre, and deeply rich in artistic endeavour and scope. One such book is the latest collection from Richard Gavin, entitled Sylvan Dread.

Containing twelve stories—though exhibits might be more appropriate, pieces of art—which are as distinctive from each other as they are facets of the same intent and ruminations; namely that of the implacable, inevitable, and overwhelming power of nature. Opening with its manifesto on clear display, the book begins with the tale, ‘Thistle Latch’, a title which immediately conjures images of the pastoral, the folksy. But Gavin’s depictions of nature are not rustic or benign (though they are not always malign, either); no, his nature is full of darkness, dread, illusion, and a quiet, cosmic horror. The narrator of the opening story relates his memories of a childhood friend who seemed to have a special and strange affinity for the natural world. The boy disappears shortly after their tenuous friendship ends, yet years later, the narrator has cause to recall these memories as he deals with the aftermath of his father’s passing. It leads him down ever stranger paths until reality is no longer distinguishable from dream and nightmare. The local woods take on significant and dread aspect, as the story drive towards its unpredictable yet inevitable conclusion. It offers no easy resolutions, and leaves much for the reader to decipher; and this is often the way with the rest of the collection.

Not that all of the tales follow the same pattern, or even embody the same themes and concerns. Ranging from the present to the past, from city environments to urban to countryside, with a wide variety of characters, Gavin’s stories each are distinctive works which are nevertheless unified by their sense of ambiguity, their melding of the mundane with the extraordinary, with the way that the seemingly solid world crumbles and shifts beneath the feet of its hapless protagonists. In ‘A Cavern of Redbrick’, a young boy has an unnerving encounter with what he believes is the ghost of a young girl, but her presence leads to dark secrets and shifting truths. In ‘Fume’, the custodian in a summer town becomes ‘infected’ by nature, is shown glorious and terrible visions of a world that eclipses ours in colour and extravagance, but his fearful rejection of this leads to a sense of regret, showing that Gavin’s nature isn’t necessarily harmful or malign, but can be glorious. In fact, his stories often give the impression that it is humanity itself which is unnatural, out of step with nature and the cosmos; only a hairsbreadth away from wonders and horrors and all things in between, but we have rejected them for grey, dull solidity. ‘Goatsbride’, perhaps, embodies this most of all, depicting an almost allegorical telling of how Christianity smothered and destroyed old pagan ways. There are other ghosts within this book; a monster-child which exists between and outside of life and death; psychopomps; and other such fantasies, yet they are not mere phantasms to set the nerves jangling. They are part of the weave of the story, existing to convey some mystery that we simply cannot quite grasp.

Gavin’s prose is at once poetic and powerful, confident and sublime, lyrical and muscular; his voice is that of an older era, assured, regal and stately. The words are wholly fitting for their subject matter and create a sense of dreamy languidness, which lulls the reader into a comforting embrace that often is anything but. ‘The Old Pageant’ slips from the warm embrace of a young couple spending a holiday in the woman’s family cabin, to the melancholy of remembered childhood games, to the strange fear embodied by her long-deceased Grandmother, to finally one of the most unexpected and frightening scenes I’ve read in a long time. And in the final, masterful contribution, the novelette ‘Mare’s Nest’, we are taken on a deeply affecting, painful journey wherein a woman who is diagnosed with a terminal illness asks her partner to carry out her wishes a regards a dream she had. It is a meditation on grief, loss, impending pain, and the ever hopeful human spirit for some kind of transcendence. It is an amazing piece of work, and is truly the high point in a collection of stellar works.

Finally, the reader is forced to conclude that this is, indeed, horror, but of a literary, artistic, and subtle kind, requiring as much from the reader as it gives. Yes, there is darkness here, but it is ever shifting and occludes as much as it reveals. It is Pagan, Cosmic, and Weird. And it is wonderful.


Publisher: Three Hands Press.
Paperback, Hardcover, and Special Edition: (192 pp)
Release Date: June 2016

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