Books

Vastarien Issue 3 Continues to Impress with Eclectic Quality

With each new installment of Vastarien, Grimscribe Press is cementing its flagship journal as perhaps the highest quality literary journal in the horror sphere. Each new issue also presents Jon Padgett, a fantastic writer in his own right, as an expert curator. The content is esoteric, but without a doubt high quality, and in a world of self-publishing and instant availability, that’s the true role of the small press—curation. Issue 3 of Vastarien proves once again that Thomas Ligotti’s influence is a powerful and multifaceted thing, and both the fiction and non-fiction that populates Vastarien are worthy odes to the author. 

This issue opens with “five dreams of the red tower” by s.j. bagley. The caps-deficient author proves themself an exciting talent with their nightmarish dream journal of a story. In it, strange men are stabbed, bugs crawl out from wounds—all amidst a desolate cityscape. Its horror imagery—visceral and surreal—while not necessarily congruent with Ligotti’s restraint, reminded me of one of his other acolytes, namely the work of Matthew M. Bartlett. “five dreams of the red tower” is an interesting and noteworthy piece, and its experimental nature is always a welcome addition to Vastarien, keeping the journal feeling eclectic despite its dedicated focus. 

Two fiction pieces shine bright as highlights from this issue. First, “The Rules and Regulations of White Pines, Vermont” by Kurt Fawver (who turned-heads before with “The Gods in their Seats, Unblinking” in issue 1). In this story, framed as a list of community guidelines, Fawver crafts something incredibly unsettling without ever giving into the reader’s need for answers. It’s a delicate balancing act, revealing information that evokes feelings of dread without shining the absolving light of answers on the questions it poses. Fawver is quickly becoming one of our best and brightest voices in the Weird, bringing an Evensonian level of unrest to his inimitable hooks. 

The other fiction highlight in this collection is from Rayna Waxhead, with the incredible “The Glow at Home.” For me, this was one of the more interesting takes on Ligotti’s themes I’ve read. In it, a character is taken by gunpoint, to a world with “bumps and lumps, scratches and ridges,” a place with “itchy clothes” and shadows. This world, which may or may not be our own, differs significantly from the narrator’s home, a veritable child-like fantasy, complete with, “perfect, unbroken, white walls,” a caretaker named Big Mother, and the glow of cartoons. It forms a perfect and terrifying metaphor for existence and being confronted with the truth beyond it. “The Glow at Home” is a tale of the utter annihilation of innocence, so complete, that the reader can’t help but suffer collateral damage. 

The non-fiction in this issue of Vastarien was largely quality, with perhaps one misstep. Preeminent weird-critic and Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi, while suffering a negative reputation (depending on who you ask), does largely have well-considered opinions on the genre. Often times, even when I disagree with him, I find his critiques interesting and illuminating. Here, however, in his essay “Richard Gavin: the Nature of Nightmare,” Joshi does little more than synopsize Gavin’s oeuvre. Unfortunately, it does not compare favorably to the other critical essays featured, namely S.L. Edwards “The Ghost of their Guns: Magical Realism in the Fiction of Nadia Bulkin” and Michael Cisco’s “The Clown Puppet—A Case Study.” The former is a welcome bit of analysis, especially as it concerns an author who is very much contemporary, a kind reminder that we don’t have to wait till our artists are dead to engage critically with their work. The latter is a remarkably in-depth look at Ligotti’s “The Clown Puppet,” examining its relationship to the Weird, along with the how’s and why’s of its own literary mechanics.

Perhaps the most daring and interesting essay brings forth the return of Dr. Raymond Thoss, the non de plume of a therapist whose “Notes on a Horror” turned heads in Vastarien’s maiden voyage. “Trauma Narrating” is a more ambitious piece that seeks to start a discussion on the relationship between story and suffering—and how telling our stories, as well as being heard, can be an effective tool in therapy. It’s a fascinating bit of writing that reveals Thoss as a tremendous thinker in his own right. Of particular note were the ideas of desensitivity and sensitivity and how they relate to Ligotti’s own approach to fiction. 

In three issues, Vastarien has become the best and brightest literary journal in the world of horror. Its commitment to diverse selections of short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry more than adequately tackle, but also continuously renew, the influence and themes of Thomas Ligotti. With each new issue, bold and unique visions are presented within its pages by new and old talents alike. For me, and others of the same esoteric persuasions, Vastarien is required reading. 

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