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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Sylvan Dread

19th Oct, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Released in 2016, Sylvan Dread (Three Hands Press tpb) is Richard Gavin's fifth collection of short stories, and the third that I've read by him. It contains twelve stories, all but three of which have been previously published. The collection is subtitled 'Tales of Pastoral Darkness'.

Opening story "Thistle Latch" is a moody, evocative piece in which a boy now grown to adulthood remembers a strange friendship in his past. Underlying it all is a sense of fatality, of death in the midst of life, but with a modicum of hope courtesy of nature spirits and those who can control them. In "Primeval Wood" Neil goes on a country retreat after having been dumped by his girlfriend, only for an encounter with hagthorn to transform his existence. There are some interesting ideas here and the writing is vivid, particularly in evoking the pagan wilderness, but on balance I felt the story overlong and with not enough in the way of payoff for the length of the journey. It promises much, but ultimately felt like little more than an exercise in revenge horror.

On summer holiday with his grandparents Michael encounters a young girl of strange demeanour in the forbidden gravel pits. Titled "A Cavern of Redbrick" this was for my money one of the best stories in the collection, mostly owing to the simplicity of the central conceit. It is a chilling ghost story, one with disturbing implications for Michael and an end twist that turns everything on its head leaving the door open to other, fascinating possibilities. I loved it. There's a Midsomer feel to "Tending the Mists" with Muni dragged to a country wedding at the behest of her dominating twin sister, only to find the ceremony far more unusual, not to say minatory, than she ever could have anticipated. It's a story that to my mind reads like a combination of Aickman and Blackwood, with eerie events and a sense of the ordinary being warped out of true in the train of events until it is completely unrecognisable.

An uppity caretaker is possessed by a "Fume" that transforms him and opens him up to a world of unbridled sensuality. The plot line here feels slightly contrived, but the writing is brilliant at bringing this scenario to life and underlying it all is a subtext about how we have grown afraid of our own natures, of the things of which we might all be capable, so that like Clark we come to prefer the ordinary to the miraculous, with the latter seen only as threatening instead of something to embrace and enjoy. Marietta in "Goatsbride" takes an entirely different path, seeking the love of a god in a story that marks both Pan's passing and his resurgence. It's a powerful piece, one with an almost mythic quality as we learn that modern ways are helpless against the magic of an older reality.

The monks at a monastery keep a monster in check with offerings of blood, but a new brother seeks to end the practice with dire consequences in "Weaned on Blood". This was a strange and compelling piece, with a mystery giving way to an original and disturbing vision of a monster, and a back story that gives it all a chilling human element. Returned to his home town, Reid takes vagrant Agnes to "Tinder Row", an area with a reputation for being a liminal place. This is another piece in which there is a strong sense of other worlds impinging on our own. When I reviewed it back in Black Static #35 I said the story 'was at its best when describing the people and things that got abandoned along the way and the feelings they invoke in those of us who continue on, perhaps as much envy as guilt'.

As an adult Langdon is assaulted by the "Wormwood Votaries" who first came to him in childhood. There's a contrast here between the weirdness of Langdon's visions and the normalcy of his life, which has an almost ritualistic quality to it, with the upset of the latter the cue for entry of the former. Ultimately I didn't feel the story went anywhere much, but it is an impressive depiction of the surreal and outré, one that rewards careful reading. The return to an isolated family cabin in the woods brings back memories of "The Old Pageant", a fearful game taught to Diana by her grandmother. There are echoes here of Machen and the games in his work, with something truly sinister underlying events and an end transformation that is chilling, making this story one of the most effective in the collection, primarily because of what is not said, only left to be inferred.

After abandoning his fiancé, Ian goes on holiday to her ancestral Wales, only to end up on the wrong side of "The Stiles of Palemarsh" in a story that is open to interpretation. On the one hand it is a supernatural tale, with premonitions of death in the text, and on the other there is the feeling of guilt being externalised. As ever Gavin is adept at bringing the natural world to life on the page and conveying that ultimately it is unknown and unknowable, as much our foe as a friend. Second longest story in the book, "Mare's Nest" sees a couple preparing for the death of the woman and her entombment. The story offers us an absorbing and fascinating account of the preparations for death, giving us each and every detail, and showing how transformation can be achieved, a kind of immortality, if not deification itself. It is a strange and powerful ending to an impressive collection of stories.






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