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.”

Dr. 999, by Matthew M. Bartlett

“The item arrived without any protective packaging—I found the bottle on its side on my front step, with no mailing label nor postage that I could see.”

62a3e5b0ff498692a87cc7ca1b7d278a_original[1].jpgContinuing to make inroads with the new cosmic horror/noir/Lovecraftian anthology, “Ashes and Entropy,” edited by Robert S. Wilson and published by Nightscape Press (2018), I came across the curious story Dr. 999 by Matthew M. Bartlett. Bartlett is an author I’ve heard about, but have never read. He’s published professionally as well as on his own, and is perhaps most well known for his bewitching tales of covens and radio waves set in Leeds, Massachusetts. Now, he may write horror, but he’s far from a horrific person. That might sound like a dumb thing to say, but I think those on the outside of the horror community often assume all these authors and readers must be terrible, disturbed people. So, I love it when horror writers are discovered to be not only real people with real lives, but kind, charitable, and decent folk (hint: most of them are). On that note, I’m pleased to share that Mr. Bartlett has just written a new chapbook called If It Bleeds!, and has dedicated one-third of the proceeds to benefit his local humane society. Buy the book; help save a cat or a dog.

Dr. 999 is unlike any horror short story I’ve ever read, necessitating a departure from my usual style where I tell you about plot first and then get into structure and writing. Today, I am compelled to proceed backwards. This story’s structure is totally unique and it really couldn’t have been told in any other way. I suppose you could say it takes an epistolary form, but even that doesn’t describe it. This is a story told entirely as an online product description and the reviews of that product. The reviews progress in order from the insane one-star review (we’ve all read insane one star reviews before, but perhaps not quite like this) to the glowing, life altering four-star review. We don’t get a five-star review, and I have to wonder what that might have been like. However, I suspect the person who’d be inclined to write the five-star review is living happily in another dimension just now.

The product in question is “Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk.” And then he throws a “(DISCONTINUED)” in there. I loved that. So, what is it, exactly? This terrible product of eldritch horror is hair conditioner. Actually, if you ask my daughter at bath time, she could confirm that all hair products are eldritch horrors. Right from the beginning we can guess this will be odd, “Bad hair can inhibit or even obstruct your spiritual growth.” hqdefault[1]Now, I went online and looked at several hair conditioning products and not one of them including anything about spiritual growth.

The one-star review comes next and begins innocuously enough, complaining that when the product arrived, it wasn’t even in a box or packaging of any kind. We move quickly into how the product actually hurts when applied, how the reviewer’s hair hurt the next day, and how in turn, that led to poor client relationships and decreased sales. In a fit of frustration, she pours the bottle down the drain which only makes things worse. Black bubbling water burps up from the sink and toilet and eventually the whole neighborhood’s sewer system is affected in a noisome scene ripped from a real life experience of the author’s.

As we move through the different reviews, it’s almost as if the product itself is changing, morphing based on the previous bad review, rather than just the reviewer’s subjective experience changing. Whereas the one-star reviewer complained about the lack of packaging, the four-star reviewer raves about receiving the conditioner “well-packaged in bubble wrap and unbroken cardboard, and undamaged.” The user might not have grown spiritually, but the product sure has. I found this idea particularly creepy. The three-star review, broken into two columns of enumerated pros and cons was actually my favorite. Tossed in the middle of the cons, as if it ain’t no thing, was this gem, Closeup-Hand-Eyes-Scary-Hair-Faceless-Evil-2958141[1].jpg“3. The trampling of the flower garden outside the bathroom window.” There were a few others like this, too. The four-star review goes on for a long time, going into great detail about the freedom and the emotion the conditioner product delivers to them. There’s a lot of attempts to inject the weird and a sense of dread here, but none were as effective as the one listed above about the flower garden. I actually felt the four-star review, the final section, went on a little long, but that’s just my taste. The ending is enjoyably Lovecraftian, with enough fingers twining back through the various established threads to be satisfying. The shades of Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond and Robert Olmstead from The Shadow Over Innsmouth dance just out of sight.

I think this would be a very difficult story to write well, but Bartlett did it. Mastering many different voices in the various reviews well enough to make them believable is a tall order, but he was up to it. We’ve all read bad Amazon reviews. We know what they sound like. The bad grammar, the misspelled words, the invented words, the non-sequiturs, the irrelevancies, and the detours. But try to write that way on purpose, convincingly, and I think you’ll understand a little bit more about the feat that he accomplishes here. A different feat, I think, than writing separate characters or even POVs.

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All of that is to say that it’s incredibly annoying that Bartlett wrote this in less than two hours. The backstory involves an actual bottle of hair conditioner the author was using. He said, “I was reading the hyperbolic copy on a conditioner bottle. I thought, who writes this garbage?” Garbage, indeed. On the backs of bottles and on the pages of Amazon. I couldn’t help but think of bottles of “Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap,” a real product (and a delightfully scented one, truth be told) packaged in a bottle covered in the strangest copy. Seeing is believing.

Our current culture is obsessed with the instant gratification found in the facebook like, the re-tweet, the instagram heart, and the like. We have to grade everything. We can’t ask a question of a customer service agent without being requested to hang on the line for a brief survey. We get called by the manager of the car dealership if we rate them less than perfect tens down the line. Dr. 999 is tapping into the horror of that judgmental climate as well as the culture of needing to be heard regardless of the worth of your speech. Somewhere, someone is watching. Someone is grading your paper. Someone is marking a one for you on a survey. And none of it ultimately matters. For when you are DISCONTINUED, there will be another to take your place. “At night, [Dr. 999] basks in unthinkable, terrible pleasures, and during the day he toils in his laboratory with a silent coterie of masked assistants, devising a new formula which will, he claims, put Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk to shame.” Products are changing all the time, and the real-life horror is to be found in how they are changing us.

This review was composed while listening to the piano works of Leo Janácek.

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

Thoughts on the first day of work after using my new conditioner: “I felt overheated and feverish. Shadows loomed high and wavering on the walls and at times the very desk at which I was sitting seemed miles away. When I reached out to grasp the edge of the desk, my arms elongated until they were thin white threads sailing off into a blurry distance.”