The tri-annual literary journal VASTARIEN describes itself as source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas. Its issues are an eclectic mix of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, artwork, and other hybrid pieces. VASTARIEN differentiates itself from the other horror/sci-fi/weird publications in the market with a focus on philosophy and experimental forms. See Christopher Ropes’ “Singing the Song of My Unmaking” in Vol 1, Issue 1 as example, a combination poem, fictional narrative, and confessional biography exploring the depths of clinical depression.
VASTARIEN issue #4 continues this tradition. In “All the Stage is a World” by Forrest Aguirre, a university student makes an unfamiliar cross-town trip to attend a off-campus play required for class. The play is absurd, the performance and its motivations unclear. Without giving away too much of the ending, in reading this, I was reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s story “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” where (speaking through the character of a like horror author Professor Nobody) Ligotti differentiates two types of horror writing. He argues that there are “stories that are just stories”—that is spun tales with a coherent plot, characters, and theme. Typically, in horror a monster is used as a device to represent some human fear (death, aging, insanity, isolation) in a fashion to make us “squirm and quake”. In contradiction, the good Prof. Nobody continues, there is also the story that doesn’t seek to confront our fears at a metaphorical arm’s length as a way to delude ourselves into thinking we have any measure of control over a horrible world; but rather a story that pulls back the lens to reveal the indifference of a universe in chaos. The universe in its many dimensions doesn’t consciously conspire to threaten us with mundane horrors, but instead is simply deranged. The highest law is disorder: existence as nightmare. So does “All the Stage is a World” linger, the horror not in the performance changing the world in some sinister way, but in the implication that the performance changes nothing, only dispels the illusions of coherence.
Another stand out story is “In the Way of Eslan Mendeghast” by Farah Rose Smith. The imagery featured is rich and darkly beautiful. The writing is top-notch, language flowing and poetic. Again, the focus is not so much of a structured narrative, rather a frightening peek into an absurdist void.
“Vanpool” by C.M. Muller is an anxious and claustrophobic tale. The characters are unnamed, as is the suburb where it is set, but these ‘story’ details aren’t important. Told from the perspective of a child, there is the looming sense of the unknown existing beyond the confines of the home. Of course, as children, what did we know of where our parents go every day? Certainly, this mystery is traumatic, a daily ritual of abandonment. And who are ‘parents’? How does a child validate their creator’s backstory and origin? Not armed with the proper perspective or life experience to understand, there is little that can be done to alleviate these anxieties. And what of us? What assurances do we have of any ‘intelligent design’ of the universe in which we, ourselves, inhabit?
The two non-fiction essays are focused on horror authors Mark Samuels (essay by David Peak) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (by Gwendolyn Kiste). While I wasn’t familiar with either author, both essays proved to be illuminating. Like any story, allowing the writer to guide me forward, I ended up finding found both pieces interesting and relevant.
VASTARIEN’s other non-fiction entry is “Effigies of Former Managers” by Matthew M. Bartlett, a character study of his former bosses. Okay, *wink*, it’s fiction—one of those stories that for whatever reason I only wish were true. A group of character vignettes done in his ineffable style, it’s not a Leeds story (the fictional town that is the basis of Creeping Waves, Gateways to Abomination, etc), but is written in a similar vein. Like his collection of Leeds’ finest, Bartlett defines his middle manager wretches through a series of compulsive quirks which are so consuming to drive the humanity from them. If we can be defined as animals gifted with a ‘divine spark’, these characters are cursed by a doomed lodestone. They are haunted meat puppets, unconsciously possessed by their ghastly obsessions (and then nailed to the ceiling).
“Venio” by Gemma Files is the most ‘story’ story in the issue. It names its characters, flushes them out, and has a well-defined plot. It’s an invasion story with a Ligottian bent: a fantastical intrusion not into the world, but rather the sanity of its characters. By contrast, “The Lord as an Active Shooter” by Fiona Maeve Geist is a largely philosophical piece. Told in the second person, it explores the collision of gun culture with our evolutionary reflex of superstition in a parabolic way. I think Professor Nobody would approve of both tales.
Other stories include the fableist “The Curse of the Biblical Magi” by Sepehr Goshayeshi, the cosmic horror “Aharesia” by Natalia Theodoridou, the weird ritualistic short, “Burger Shop” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, the body horror “Rat King” by Lia Swope Mitchell, and the satirical “Ageless Agelasts” by Rhys Hughes. Poetry includes “Orchid Architecture” by the prolific K.A. Opperman and the creepy “The Sisters” by F.J. Bergman.
For full disclosure, my own cosmic horror flash story, “Silhouette Golems”, is a part of this issue. I’m the worst judge of my work, so I’ll leave it that I am honored and thrilled to be published alongside such talented authors. Thanks to Jon Padgett for publishing and for creating a publication dedicated to Thomas Ligotti in the first place.
VASTARIEN is available at Amazon, however, it also can be ordered direct from the Grimscribe Press website. If anyone is interested in checking this or any other issue, please consider buying direct as more of the proceeds will go to the publisher. At the time of this review, the price of the ebook is actually lower at Grimscribe Press, so this is one virtue that will save you money. Of course, if you are absolutist in the belief that virtue must be accompanied with pain, you can certainly take the savings and buy another issue.