Aharesia, by Natalia Theodoridou

“I remember a time when I felt lured by the world’s wonders, when I wanted to see everything,” he wanted to say. “I wanted to live more, be more. What happened to me?”

cover-vol2-issue1[1]There’s been a time or two in my adult life when I felt like I didn’t belong; more if you count my youth. I imagine both go without saying for most of us, which is what makes a theme of displacement so potentially potent. All of us are taken back to “a time when…” Once in a while, when the stars are seemingly aligned, some of us have a chance to return to a place if not a time. Of those who leap at such a rare opportunity, most discover two important truths: the stars were never aligned, not that way, and you can never, ever truly go back. Life has changed for you and the place you left. Both have had divergent sets of experiences, circumstances, and occurrences. To imagine that such a bifurcation can be undone is a daydream. World Fantasy Award-winning author Natalia Theodoridou, explores these themes in her story Aharesia, to be published this Spring by Grimscribe Press in Volume Two, Issue One of “Vastarien: A Literary Journal.” I’d like to thank Jon Padgett and Grimscribe Press for providing me with a review copy of this issue of “Vastarien” in exchange for this fair and unbiased review.

Before we go further, a word about this journal’s literary pedigree is appropriate. In the event you haven’t heard of it (for shame!) you should know that it’s the dream child of Jon Padgett, (an author I’ve reviewed here before), who is something like a literary godson of Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, in turn, found a muse early on in ole HPL, but as Jeff Vandermeer says in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Ligotti’s omnibus collection “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe,” “…in a kind of metaphysical horror story of its own, Ligotti early on subsumed Lovecraft and left his dry husk behind, having taken what sustenance he needed for his own devices. (Most other writers are, by contrast, consumed by Lovecraft when they attempt to devour him.)” So, authors published in “Vastarien” are going to be playing in Ligotti’s sandbox more than Lovecraft’s, but there are non-Euclidean corners overlapping to be sure.

The Road HomeAharesia opens with a young couple, Nathan and Sammie, on a road trip back to Nathan’s hometown, Aharesia. There’s only one problem, as the story’s memorable opening line proclaims, “Except the town wasn’t there.” No map app, no GPS can seem to find it. The only evidence that it exists at all are Nathan’s clear and fond memories of growing up there. His brother and he, riding bikes. Fossil hunting. Eating pancakes at Finn’s with his mom. Swimming in the lake with Brandon. Or was it the pool? Nathan’s memories wobble a bit. But at the same time, they’re so clear, so real. Sammie wonders if he’s suffering a breakdown. For as much as she loves him, she knows he’s coming apart at the seams. Has been, since she met him when she was working at a diner. “He’d shown up, sat at the bar. Lots of guys who hung out there looked haunted, but not the way Nathan did. He’d walk into a room and you’d say, that’s a broken man. Just her type. He hadn’t asked for coffee that day. All he’d wanted was water, so Sam had kept serving him as he emptied glass after glass.” The whole story is told in this dreamlike fugue where reality wavers, an image glimpsed through deep water. The truth dances like a tiny tropical fish, drawing you in with its vibrant colors and then flitting away just as you think you’ve got your hand on it.

IMG_1989_1024x1024[1].jpgAt last, a signpost in the wilderness, as the pancake house Nathan recalls having dined at with his mother “appeared on the right, its green triangular roof and yellow-trimmed letters exactly as he remembered them.” The waitress even recognizes him and things are looking up as they speak of the past. But sore subjects are quickly poked. The waitress, apologetic, “…bit her lip and perked up. “Look at me, dredging up the past like that. No use, I suppose. Your mother knew not to speak about things that are better left unsaid.”” Theodoridou consistently and effectively sprinkles her narrative with these nuggets of malice, almost like lures, that leave the reader nervous and wondering.

As a nightmarish transcorporeality begins to affect Nathan, things dive quickly down. For all she tries, Sammie cannot help him. “No, you don’t understand,” he shouted. “It’s not real, none of it is real, I’m not who you think I am. I’m not who I thought I was.” The whirlpool does not relent, spiraling towards a shocking ending that will leave you gasping for air and answers.

Aharesia is going to appeal to Lovecraft fans, calling to mind stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The White Ship, and The Night Ocean. I’m less versed in my Ligotti (which I am slowly correcting) but of the stories I have read, I found similar themes of displacement and memory in a haunting little tale that creeps up on you afterwards called The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise. The writing, as should be evidenced by the quotes I’ve given you, is superb. Though it is not lush, it is sneakily substantial. She knows how to string you along, gathering your interest, sparking your curiosity, stretching your sense of normality, and then, with a short sharp pain, she sets her hook and you’re hers. Her dialogue is believable. Never once was I taken out of the story to scratch my head at some unrealistic conversation. The characters she draws are likewise believable and real. Their pain is palpable. Their search for what they’ve lost is melancholic. I could close my eyes and be in the booth behind them at the pancake house, guiltily eavesdropping on their misery.

2937692939_c323035788_z[1].jpgAs is usually the case when it is not immediately obvious, I am curious about the title. A quick Google search reveals nothing (which, frankly, I should have expected, given the plot). But the first four letters triggered something in my way-way back memory. It sounded to me like a Hebrew word, so I checked that out and, in fact, it is. Ahar is a word found in Biblical Hebrew meaning “to tarry or delay,” frequently with a sense of leaving something behind or discarding something. I have no idea if this was in the author’s mind when she composed the story or titled it, but I found it surprisingly apropos, for what it’s worth (which may be exactly nothing).

This issue of Vastarien also contains stories by Gemma Files, Matthew M. Bartlett, S. E. Casey, as well as the poetry of K. A. Opperman and scholarly work by Gwendolyn Kiste and David Peak. Everything I’ve read in “Vastarien” has been of the highest quality, combining an enviable erudition with exemplary Ligottian homage. An annual subscription, delivered to your e-reader, costs only $13.50, and were I you, I’d subscribe today so you get this issue when it is released very soon. It’s very much worth it.

This review was composed while listening to “Curse of the Daimon” by Daemonyx (Matt Cardin).

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

For the sake of clarity: “There were no signs for Aharesia Town on the way.”

A Circle That Ever Returneth In, by Orrin Grey

“…each of the three possesses one portion of a riddle, map, or clue meant to lead them to the jewel…each one believes their portion to be the most pertinent and therefore of the most value…”

gost-cov300[1].jpgEarlier this year I read a story that I really enjoyed in “Autumn Cthulhu” called The Well and the Wheel (review here) by Orrin Grey. As I was just then beginning my exploration of these sorts of stories, Grey’s name was new to me. Well, it’s new to me no longer and thank goodness for it! I’ve since come to understand he’s referred to in the business as “the monster guy” for his many ingenious takes on familiar and not so familiar monsters, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to him expound upon his writing and his influences in a pair of “This is Horror” podcasts (available here or wherever you get your podcasts). A while ago I saw on his blog that his new collection, “Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales,” would be coming out soon and I couldn’t have been more excited. It is now in print (2018) and available from his publisher here. (I actually received a free e-copy directly from the publisher just for voting. That’s right, just for performing my civic duty and telling them about it, the good folks at Word Horde gave me a free e-copy of this great collection.)

There’s three noteworthy things about this collection that I’d like to draw to your attention, gentle reader. The first is obvious from the cover: Gemma Files has given the introduction, which, if that weren’t noteworthy enough, know also that it’s an introduction in which she describes her inescapable desire to eat Mr. Grey.  Gemma is a considerable talent and it speaks well of this current volume that she wanted to be a part of it. The second is that the author comments on each story after its conclusion. I think he does this in his other collections too, but I absolutely love this feature. There’s nothing I enjoy more after reading something that I loved than to talk about with others who’ve also read it, and these author notes are like getting to do so, however all too briefly, with the author himself. So, thank you for that! Third, and finally, when I got this book it caused me to temporarily put down the other book I was reading—Paul Tremblay’s latest “The Cabin at the End of the World”—which is a rare enough feat as it is, but especially so in this case as this novel by Tremblay is rather un-put-down-able.

journey1[1].jpgI reached out to Mr. Grey on Facebook asking him which of these tales was particularly Lovecraftian, and, because he’s the standup guy that he is, he actually got back to me and shared with me his own personal enthusiasm for the tale we’re examining here. A Circle That Ever Returneth In is a Lovecraftian/sword-and-sorcery mashup that is also a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.  That’s right, you read that correctly. What literary-minded child of the 80’s could forget these wondrous tomes?! Now, imagine all that you remember about reading these books and then add in both Lovecraftian and sword-and-sorcery elements and you’ve got the picture, and it is a sight to behold. It’s reprinted here in this volume, but originally it was published in “Swords vs. Cthulhu,” edited by Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer.

This tale, like so many of its ilk (well, those worth their mead anyway) begins in an inn, with a group of adventurers around a beaten up table near a roaring fire. You (because, of course, this is written in the second person) overhear their conversation and your interest is peaked. There’s maps, treasure, danger, and everything that goes along with it being discussed. tavern_by_ltramaral-d55g796-1024x595[1].jpgBut then, there’s a disagreement, a parting of ways, and you’re left with the choice of following only one of the three adventurers, the sell-sword, the cut-purse, or the doll mage. I immediately chose to follow the doll mage (duh), being instructed to turn to a numbered section rather than a page, as it was of old. I figured I knew what a sell-sword and a cut-purse were, but of the doll mage I only had high hopes. She did not disappoint.

88e1e11768bbcbb365d0ca09798614df[1]The doll mage’s tale took us through a few hasty voodoo-like lessons wrought on the anvil of you, the main character. “You see that she is holding a doll, a tiny effigy of cloth and wax, and you notice with a start that it looks like you…she pulls out a black stitch from across the doll’s mouth, and suddenly you find your voice.” You discover that you’re searching for the Shining Trapezohedron (putting versed readers immediately in mind of The Haunter of the Dark) and that you must cross the Forbidden Plateau in order to seek it out. Naturally, it is overgrown with large, predatory fungi. Past that you enter into the court of the King in Yellow and must decide how you’ll handle him, for he holds the Shining Trapezohedron in his hands. I fully admit giving in to my old bad habits while reading these stories and reading with a few fingers (in this case, e-bookmarks) placed at different junctures—come on, you did the same—while at the same time reading with one eye closed so I didn’t accidentally see the bolded final sentence detailing my fate.

I enjoyed my ride through this adventure so much that I went back through it a second time, choosing the sell-sword this time and was pleasantly surprised by how different the story was. Even set pieces that I thought would be static were not and were actually dramatically different lending a completely different feel to the story, though I eventually met the same end. I fully intend to go back once again and see where the cut-purse’s tale will take me, and then maybe go through it all over again making different choices. There’s enough paths here to make that worth your time, while also being short enough that that doesn’t feel tedious.

r1heyg3hbtwz[1].jpgThe prose here is not particularly special, but it isn’t meant to be and it doesn’t have to be. It reads exactly as I remember a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure reading, which may or may not be an accurate recollection of reality. The ideas are simple, the journey enjoyable. But, don’t let that fool you. As an homage to this singular slice of juvenile literature, it’s brilliantly conceived and, more importantly, lovingly executed. The Lovecraftian elements are thoughtfully included, yet don’t take over. The King in Yellow is, of course, properly a Chambers creation, but has been adopted into the Lovecraft canon pretty fully by now I think. You’ll enjoy seeing the different interpretations Grey takes with him in each iteration of the story. The sword-and-sorcery elements are more prevalent, calling to mind Fritz Lieber’s iconic characters and land—Grey admiringly nods to Lieber in naming his country Lankhende.

Above all, I had fun while reading and rereading this, and I think that is his main goal. I was taken back to early mornings huddled in the school library, trying to decide if I could finish my journey before school began, or if I needed to check the book out. I was taken back to my family room floor, surrounded by dice and friends and DM screens and character sheets. I was taken back to watching my taped-off-TV copy of Conan the Barbarian. I was taken back to a time when adventure mattered more than anything, to when traps were actually deadly, and to when the endings could be rewritten as often as you liked. I was taken back. And I loved it. Thank you, Orrin Grey.

This review was written while listening to the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian, the movie, transcribed for organ, because why not. I have to imagine there aren’t many people who’ve listened to this album.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Roll for Initiative: “Gone are the cyclopean walls, the towering buildings with their many windows for trysts and burglaries. Here the walls lie in rubble, the towers rise a few stories and then terminate abruptly. It is a ruin, and what better place than a ruin for ghouls to dwell.”

Hairwork, by Gemma Files

“Ownership works both ways, you see. Which is why, even in its hey-day, Riverside was never anything more than just another ship, carrying our ancestors to an unwanted afterlife chained cheek-by-jowl with their oppressors, with no way to escape, even in death.”

41QCstEYmQL[1]Oh boy, there is a lot of background that we need to go into on this one.  I guess first I want to say a word on the collection in which this story is found.  She Walks in Shadows is an anthology published by the Innsmouth Free Press, released in 2015, that collects Lovecraftian stories, poems, and artwork by and about women.  Now, if you know anything about Lovecraft you know he didn’t hold women in a high regard generally, and he wrote very, very few of them into his stories.  (Off the top of my head, I can think of Lavinia Whateley, Asenath Waite (only sort of a female character, as she was possessed by a male character), and Marceline. Oh, and poor Charles Dexter Ward’s mom. If you can think of more, please, leave a comment.  Though I haven’t yet read many of the stories in this book, it is a collection I already treasure because it is participating in something that I call the “redemption of Lovecraft.”

Ole HPL was a famous bigot, as you likely know.  Basically, if you weren’t male, white (of Anglo descent even), and of New England stock, he didn’t want to give you the time of day.  I didn’t want to address this topic with my very first post, but I knew I wanted to get to it in short order, as it is very important.  Many people, scholars and lay-persons, have out and out written Lovecraft off on account of his bigotry that shows up in his writing in sundry places (“The Horror at Red Hook” and “Medusa’s Coil” being easy examples).  I won’t say they’re wrong to do so, but I do think they might be missing out and for that I am sorry.  Now, a number of modern writers who love HPL’s stories are tackling this head on.  Victor Lavalle, in his amazing novella The Ballad of Black Tom, for example, gives us a black man as the hero of his Lovecraftian story, and even sets it in Red Hook!  Ruthanna Emrys wrote a brilliant novel called Winter Tide (which I just finished) that flips the script on Innsmouth, giving us a female main character who is in the process of becoming a Deep One (!) and tells the story of how the citizens of Y’ha-nthlei were really just misunderstood.   Great stuff there.  And in this collection, women authors, poets, and artists give us stellar work featuring female characters, some familiar and some unfamiliar, who tell tales that would likely cause HPL to roll over once or twice in his grave, if he’s even in it.  So, I wanted to do a story right off the bat that participated in this redemption of Lovecraft.

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Zealia Bishop
“Hairwork” is a direct sequel to a short story Lovecraft collaborated on, or even just ghost wrote, with an author named Zealia Bishop. You may notice, she’s a she. Their story, and I’ve already mentioned it, is called “Medusa’s Coil,” and it is regarded by many to be Lovecraft’s most bigoted story.  So, three cheers to Gemma Files for taking it on!  When I first understood what “Hairwork” was, I panicked because I’d never read “Medusa’s Coil.”  I knew a bit about it and had avoided it (much like I avoided “Red Hook” for the longest time, but I finally did read that one). After some thought, I decided I didn’t need to read it. I knew the synopsis, and I certainly knew how it ended. To understand the power of Files’ story, you have to understand “Medusa’s Coil.”  In the original story, it tells of the de Russy family, a slave owning family in Missouri, and of how their prodigal son, Dennis, returns from Paris with a foreign wife named Marceline.

medusa__s_coil_by_thinkbolt-d3cdbwt[1]
Artist Keith McCaffety’s rendition.
She’s described by Lovecraft and Bishop thusly, “Her complexion was a deep olive – like old ivory – and her eyes were large and very dark.  She had small, classically regular features – though not quite clean-cut enough to suit my taste – and the most singular head of jet black hair that I ever saw.”  Dennis’ artist friend, Frank Marsh (of the Innsmouth Marsh’s) comes for a visit and Dennis catches him painting a nude of Marcelline.  So Dennis kills Marceline, but her hair seemingly comes to life and strangles Marsh to death in the commotion.  In horror, Dennis kills himself, leaving the gruesome scene for his father to find.  But the real horror of the story, as HPL intended it, comes at the end when it is revealed that Marceline, whom Dennis de Russy had married, “was a negress.” The strangulation scene then takes on airs of some deep-seated fear or disgust of the hair of people of African descent, a racist belief that still pops up today every now and again.

Pause.  Full Stop.  Lovecraft was a racist. Sure, he was a product of his time as many like to say, but that does not make being a racist any more acceptable.  It only made it more palatable to the dominant demographic. Racism is evil, no matter how you slice it, and it is the presenting sin of dominant American culture today.  So, I’m not here to apologize for or excuse Lovecraft’s racism and bigotry.  I will call it out though.  That said, to most of us today, the final line of “Medusa’s Coil” is so bad it’s almost like the joke is on HPL himself.

That brings us to Gemma Files’ sequel, told from the perspective of the buried but not yet truly dead Marcelline, who lies in wait under the mouldering earth to ensnare and kill every last de Russy family member in vengeance.  She tells of how the de Russy’s made their slaves bury their own dead after dark, in an unceremonious heap, because they couldn’t stomach it. She writes gorgeously, if with a deadly tone, when she tells of “how deep those dead slaves had sunk their roots in Riverside’s heart: deep enough to strangle, to infiltrate, to poison, all this while lying dormant under a fallow crust. To sow death-seeds in every part of what the de Russys called home, however surface-comfortable, waiting patient for a second chance to flower.” Into this long lain trap innocently walks a descendant of the de Russys and her guide (who has some de Russy blood as well), who will both meet a terrible, hirsute end.

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A hair work tiara.
The title of the story, and how it ends, is braided together with both an art culture and the unreasonable fear present in HPL and Bishop’s tale of black people’s hair.  Hair work is a type of art that uses hair of a loved one (mostly living but sometimes deceased) to weave a piece of jewelry or other accoutrement or decoration.  It was considered a great and intimate gift to give someone a piece of hair work jewelry, primarily during the Victorian era, though you can still find artists who will do it today.

The short length of Files story here belies the depth of her subject matter.  Frankly, it’s enormous, and of enormous importance.  Taking, head on, Lovecraft’s racism and sexism, from a fan’s viewpoint rather that purely as an antagonistic critic, is a true labor of love, and ultimately, even respect. It is as if to say, “Dear Howard, here is what you might have become, had you had the chance.”  Now others may disagree and say, he had every chance, and he still wrote these horrid, bigoted tales.  I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.  About this story, personally, I loved it.  I soaked in the raw emotion of it.  Just read this in Marceline’s voice, “I am your revenge and theirs. No one owns me, not anymore, never again. I am … my own.”  One gets the impression she’s speaking both as a black person and as a woman, and it is powerful.  You would do well, fellow Lovecraftians, to not only read this story, but pick up this whole collection.  And get Emrys’ Winter Tide, and Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom while you’re at it.  Lovecraft may be dead, but his work, style, and genre live on.  It’s really amazing to see it transformed in this way. Let the redemption of Lovecraft continue!

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Favorite line: “When my father-in-law disinterred us days after the murders, too drunk to  remember whether or not Denis had actually done what he feared, he found it wound ’round Frank’s corpse, crushing him in its embrace, and threw burning lamp-oil on it, setting his own house afire.”