English version by Yolanda Espiñeira, Cristina Jurado, J.M. Oriol, Pedro Vela, María Leticia Lara and Rocío Martínez with corrections by Richard Gavin. Thank you all for your efforts. Read it in Spanish here.
Now, my theory is that the Supernatural is the Impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only something in the laws of nature of which we have been Hitherto ignorant. Therefore, if a ghost rises before me, I have not the right to say, “So, then, the supernatural is possible,” but rather, “So, then, the apparition of a ghost is, contrary to received opinion, within the laws of nature-i. e. not supernatural.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The House and the Brain.
What you are reading is not a review, nor do I want it to be; is a messy relation of the ideas that passed through my head while I was reading the book that I consider to be one of the essential of last year, and the later and very clarifying Facebook chats I kept with Richard Gavin. Both the reading and the conversations took place more than a month ago, but I hadve not been able to sweep them from my mind, so I decided to trust them to the uncertain materiality of electronic ink as in an exorcism. I won’t lavish praise to the book: it does not need it. It is available, so you can buy it and double-check its virtues by yourselves; you may find something I have not been aware of. If my opinion is of anyone’s interest, Spanish publishing houses should be fighting for the rights to translate it just now, but, what do I know?
This text will be brief, as I aspire to translate it into English to make it available to Gavin, and, because, as Wittgenstein dixit, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Supernatural horror in Literature.
Not until my father took the highway cut-off nearest to our street did my appropriate feeling for Capricorn return: fear.
Richard Gavin. Eldrich Faith.
I would dare to say that the concept of “supernatural” did not even exist for the generations that lived and died before Enlightment and Rationalism. Only from that definition of Nature as a realm governed by mechanic laws and inhabited only by inert matter does it make sense to refer to those facts that ostensibly don’t follow the rules as “supernatural”; the same prodigies that were usual in Homeric or Biblical times, but today seem awkward. Awkward in a sense of extraordinary, but also aberrant, a real offense to our epistemological dignity that should be persecuted and removed, or, at least, derided by all means.
That situation, they ensure us, is temporary. In the end the Light of Reason will reach even the darkest corners, and all of this that now remains unexplained will be solved with the same mechanic neatness that now we use to explain Sun’s power or the season’s rotation. But there are variables not open to be cleared up, and to them soon will be linked a sense of numinous horror, subtle remainders of a mental economy in which things were not so clear and the world was full of gods, some of which were feared on its own right, but now they are more feared because they serve in the atavistic and repressed band. Nobody likes to be disregarded or ignored, nor do they, so the relationship of modern man with them is the same that parents maintain with their children invisible friends: they are denied and feared…
“I thought all that was settled a long time ago.”
“We did settle it, King Him didn’t.”
“But you said you banished King Him after … that you banished King Him the last time.”
“I did. King Him came back.”
Richard Gavin. King Him.
Suspension of Disbelief.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them.
Madame du Deffand.
As evidenced by this famous quote from such a canny and enlightened woman, there is a mismatch between reason and feeling, so what has been vanished to the land of the unbeing still has a certain power over the soul through fear. The best answer our time has come up with to manage this paradox is to turn it into a pleasure shaped as terrifying fictions; in them, we can experience the “delicious shiver” without risking our sanity, since we are constantly aware of the artificial nature and fundamentally harmless object of our fears. It’s no wonder that in centuries so neat as XVIII and XIX, the horror tale went through a real arms race of increasing sophistication. Being afraid had become an acceptable pastime for educated and civilized men and women, maybe a complement necessary to a life ruled by the dry principles of materialist ontology.
Some have argued that this phenomenon could be understood as a laudable and romantic way to re-bewitch a world which, having been unloaded of magic by the Enlightenment, was dutifully headed to the Weberian iron cage. Right. Although it can be argued just as easily that the whole development of the modern horror tale is nothing but a blatant attempt to steal strength from the numinous to turn it into an entertainment, a toy, as beasts are jailed in zoos or forced to perform in circus for the enjoyment of young and old. The real explanation, if any, will certainly be more complex and include elements from both points of view.
KING HIM COMES AND GOES THROUGH ‘THE MATHEMATICS OF MAKE-BELIEVE.
Richard Gavin. Extract fron King Him’s Cardinal Rules, King Him.
Anyway, it soon became clear that these modern dealers of false nightmares needed to arouse in their unbeliever readers what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”, a difficult and very stressful task, since public tastes evolve quickly and tricks that worked so well to Ann Radcliffe ( the howling , the noise of chains … ) were risible to the next generation of readers. This is a highly respectable and demanding form of craftsmanship , in the sense that it’s not art but craft , which explains the unfortunate state of the genre today, in which the reader feels he is being manipulated by an author who is more a gambler than a poet in Heidegger’s sense of the term (i.e. , a shepherd of Being ) . This is especially true of those varieties that obtain greater commercial success or at least aspire to it , which as you know are full of plain characters and standard tricks, unfair cliffhangers and gross emotional blackmail; and is less true , or rather , absolutely false in the case of the tradition that goes more or less from MR James to, yes, you guessed it, Richard Gavin walking through Lovecraft, Robert Aickman or Thomas Ligotti and which Anglo-Saxons, with their characteristic terminological precision, would label Weird rather than Horror.
To explain the curious nature of the Weird and in what differs from what we simply know as Horror, I am forced to use a second time the wise words of Mr. Reggie Oliver in the introduction to his remarkable anthology Masques of Satan (Ash Tree Press ) :
The stories that follow may contain humour and artifice, but they are essentially serious. They are not divertissements: in fact, I have become convinced that to write ghost stories of lasting merit it is necessary to believe in the possibility of eternal damnation. I am fully aware that this sounds a harsh, even barbarous statement, but I do not want to qualify it, only to explain. I do not mean by it that one needs to subscribe to a particular religious creed. On the contrary I believe that rigid, dogmatic beliefs are usually inimical to good writing, especially when the holder of those beliefs cannot resist a sermon. (Dante, Milton and Bunyan may perhaps provide partial exceptions to this rule.) On the other hand a sensitivity to the spiritual is essential, as is a belief in its eternal significance.
Every day I am surer that this is the key. The tools were there from the beginning but we were grabbing them from the wrong end: if the author wants to produce a real terrifying effect, he should start by achieving HIMSELF the willing suspension of disbelief, taking place in the uncomfortable position of a modern medium or shaman who guides the reader on his round journey across the Styx, after paying the mandatory toll to the ferryman. Gavin himself confirmed this impression to me in our brief exchange of messages: I often say that my fiction is less manufactured storytelling than it is reportage of liminal experiences and impressions.
There is another way to face what terrifies us and is just to embrace it and love it for what it really is , even transform ourselves into it, as usually happens to the characters of Lovecraft and Gavin by the end of their stories . There is a kind of joy in that Dionysian delivery, easily confused with insanity, that is the only possible happy ending to this kind of story. Any attempt by the characters to hold on to their own identity leads to an even greater disaster.
I have enclosed the jade amulet with this letter. Please wear it whenever you lie down to your sleep. This is how your Initiation will begin, Mother; in the guise of terrible dreams. I beg you; do NOT dismiss them as just nightmares when you awaken. You must record these experiences in minute detail, and must then treat these accounts as your unique black gospel. Nightmares are the means by which you will learn to wrench yourself from the human, learn to Shift as I and my Teacher have. I still find Shifting rather painful, but not nearly as when I first birthed my wings. It is now almost as easy as disrobing.
& wait until you get your first direct blast of the Starry Wisdom, Mother; sheer orgasms of light & thunder.
Richard Gavin. Faint Baying from Afar.
Mind meets Body.
I understand you say I am a mess,
But it’s my brain, I don’t feel responsible.
If you calm down and let me explain,
You’ll see the unfathomable mysteries of the Psyche.
The most disgraceful consequence of materialism, however, is the way in which it separates consciousness from the World and, indeed, from their own bodies now understood as parts of the World. In that it has the tacit support of Christian scholasticism, (a reading very popular for Descartes, as when he was forced to flee to Holland, he just carried a change of clothing and works of Thomas Aquinas), and his insistence on free will: it is important that people make their decisions with full freedom in order to send them to hell with a good conscience. That is why if we are to submit all Nature to a deterministic law, before is necessary to cut off the bonds that connect the human soul with the Anima Mundi that also, we are warned, does not exist. Inert matter, do you remember? And so the poor human remains trapped in his own and claustrophobic subjectivity, in the same situation as those who had a villa with sea views and someone built a shopping center in front of his door. From now on, your whole life will be held behind closed doors, in that place that is primarily a theatre in which the outside world is represented, because the outside world is unattainable. The anomalous situation, far from slackening, aggravated when an authorized figure as such Kant declares that, indeed, we can never know things as they are in themselves and have to be content with shadows and signs forever.
This solipsistic dream has an advantage for terror fiction writers, this advantage being that it can easily turn into a nightmare. The world is perfectly squared, but conscience is precisely the place where disorder, arbitrariness and, why not say it, insanity, can manifest themselves. This is the beginning of the so called “psychological terror” o, to put it in other words, that kind of story in which every disturbing event is assigned to an ill mind (the narrator’s one) and everybody can go to bed and sleep deeply when it ends. Don’t misunderstand me, I know this kind of story has good tales or even excellent ones, especially when the author plays with the ambiguity between reality and perceived reality like James’ The Turn of the Screw, but these achievements are obtained with no thanks to, but in spite of, those despicable premises. And it’s not like there is a shortage of efforts to overcome this dichotomy (not only in the terror story but in the common history of ideas), beginning with romanticism and Hegel’s idealism, so obnoxious, and, already in the XX century, the phenomenology, avant-garde, and all the mysticism and modern esoterism. In light of this tradition is how I think we should read Gavin, who declares himself firmly against every psychologist interpretation of his works: the motivation of my creative impulse, he says, is represent the other-worldly as a pure and authentic level of reality, as opposed to a mere symptom of an ill mind.
In his tales collection’s introduction, Omens, Gavin exposes some of his convictions about the nightmares that can be useful for you, poor lost souls, to navigate in this Dedalus of heretic ideas. Gavin admits that most nightmares are simply what the accepted interpretation in our times says they are, I mean, psychic residua of things that bother us during daytime, although in a few cases our dream terrors overcome by far what our limited power of imagination could produce and reveal landscapes of a vastness that there’s not a way to consider “interior” or “subjective”. Gavin calls them gnostic nightmares and, by the way, encourages his readers to refer their dreams to him if they suspect that can be discerned a numinous hint in them. This is the matter of Gavin’s stories and one of his distinctive features is that it does not plunge into oblivion as easily as usual nightmares, therefore, our reincorporation to the world is not simple after going through one of these deep spiritual experiences. The same happens with the stories, beware.
In such moments we suddenly wonder if is we who are dreaming, or if we are being dreamed.
Richard Gavin. Gnostic Nightmares and Haunted Dreams
What it works for nightmares also works for the aloofness of the agreed reality, usually known as “madness”. In the majority of cases, it is just the devious product of the individual psyche, as it is mutilated from its bond with the world, but in certain occasions it can produce insights of authentic and genuine gnosis. I do not believe that this notion should raise any eyebrows: Freud wrote that religion is nothing but a collective neurosis and, at the same time, phenomenology of religion declared that -through faith- it is possible to reestablish the link between the soul and the world. It would not be odd to consider that private neurosis can have that occasional liberating potentiality. Short stories like The Eldrich Faith or A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress are especially representative of Gavin´s craft. In those, he suggests –using his own words- an exploration of how isolation from the flocks agreed reality allows the blossoming of private mythologies that, occasionally, exceed in depth the revelations of organized religions. In the first of the short stories, we are informed early on that the main character, an estrange guy who wanders the streets of a bombed city, fantasizes about living a children’s´ story.
Josef liked to believe that these voices belonged to spirits, and that the destroyed cities were Halls of the Dead. Such games reminded him of the tales his mother had told in order to decorate his childhood; stories of Fairyland, of child-munching witches, of Cruel Frederick giddily maiming his pets.
Richard Gavin. A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress.
The reference to fairy tales is not idle. During the reading of At Fear’s Altar prevails the sensation of being faced with true fairy tales, prior to any sweetening of pedagogical intention. Eldrich Faith, the story which closes the book, reveals itself as a genuine apotheosis of this feeling, and it is the best example of all of what it has been explained so far. I would like to end this post with a fragment of this story, as a final example of the prodigious and dark sense of wonder living in its pages.
I found myself standing on a paved path that was swarming with smaller denizens of Autumnal; cackling goblins and wraiths running amok in a great game of Curtains. The air was redolent with sickly-sweet offerings, with libations. All around me, rustic temples watched the procession of ghouls with solemn, patient eyes. The temple steps were alight with gourd lamps blazing like jewels in the night, as if to mark the birth of some new Hallowed king.
Richard Gavin. The Eldrich Faith.