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.”

Dagon’s Bell, by Brian Lumley

“Then I remembered something he had said. “David, you mentioned two manifestations of this—this ghostliness. What was the other one?”
“Eh?” he frowned at me, winding up his window. Then he stopped winding, “Oh, that. The bell you mean…”
“Bell?” I echoed him, the skin of my neck suddenly tingling. “Which bell?”
“A ghost bell!” he yelled as he pulled away from the kerb. “What else? It tolls underground or under the sea, usually when there’s a mist or a swell on the ocean…”

1635159[1].jpgAlongside such venerable names as Clark Ashton Smith, Lin Carter, Robert Bloch, and Frank Long, one of the other early mythos writers was Brian Lumley. He would, of course, go on to fame in his own right with his best-selling Necroscope series, but it was writing in Lovecraft’s world where he cut his teeth. He created the original character Titus Crow who, quite opposite HPL’s more academic characters, was a man of action who greeted bad guys and monsters alike with persuasive displays of force.  If you find you’re interested in a more action-oriented approach to the mythos, you might want to look up those books, but this present story, however, does not feature Crow. Dagon’s Bell, which I found not in the pictured volume, but in the “Shadows Over Innsmouth” collection edited by Stephen Jones published in 2013 by Titan Books. Originally, however, it was published in two parts in “Weirdbook,” numbers 23 and 24, in 1988.  It definitely falls more into the category of pastiche, though not totally as it picks up a bit after the Shadow Over Innsmouth left off, and in an original location. The seeds of Lumley’s own creativity and originality are here, but Dagon’s Bell relies heavily on HPL’s work. Not that that’s a bad thing at all!

f4865a24edeb1c63e3fc6e58f57ce52d[1].jpgWilliam Trafford is our protagonist who gets, with an old school chum named David Parker, caught up in a great misadventure on the north-east coast of England at a place called Kettlethorpe Farm. One of the things I really liked about this story was how it developed. It starts off fairly innocuously, building little clue by little clue towards a horrible set of realizations. In some ways, it reminded me of the pattern of discoveries made in The Call of Cthulhu. “It strikes me as funny sometimes how scraps of information—fragments of seemingly dissociated fact and half-seen or -felt fancies and intuitions, bits of local legend and immemorial myth—can suddenly connect and expand until the total is far greater than the sum of its parts, like a jigsaw puzzle.” Accordingly, it is also a bit longer than most of the other stories I’ve been reviewing here, checking in at around 42 pages. It’s organized in short chapters though and, because of the way that it builds, makes for compulsive reading.

There’s loads of mythos stuff in here for fans to enjoy, everything from deep ones to degenerate, ancient bloodlines, while introducing new elements like the eponymous bell (which, by the way, was decidedly creepy) and something called “deep kelp” which rose from the bottom of the sea at certain times of year to blight the surface waters with its noxious miasma. Those certain times tended to be around lesser known Christian holidays, like Roodmas (September 14, celebrating the alleged finding of the “true cross” by Helena, Constantine’s mother, in Jerusalem in 355). This taps successfully into the common idea that these holidays were really taken over by Christianity once it developed as a global religion, but that they already existed, for some good reason, as sacred days of certain special, and older, observances.

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CGI art by Martin Punchev
Kettlethorpe Farm, which Mr. Parker has purchased with his new wife, seems to have been built for purposes other than raising a young family, hale and hearty. It’s built in a U-shape, facing the sea like arms outstretched in embrace, and underneath it, the entrance hidden by one of the buildings on the property, lies a great series of caverns. By now you’ll be able to guess what inhabits those caverns. They call to the newly anointed Mrs. Parker and she hears them, hears them and is unable to ignore their siren sound. Her health deteriorates as she is only ever able to focus on things below and not more mundane stuff, like eating. Mrs. Parker will not leave and when Trafford asks why, her husband replies: “The place is like…like a magnet! It has a genius loci. It’s a focal point for God-only-knows-what forces. Evil? Oh, yes! An evil come down all the centuries. But I bought the place and I shall cleanse it—end it forever, whatever it is!” Here we get a glimpse of Lumley’s preference for more direct men of action, and then we’re launched into the deep delve that will see the story through to its frantic end.

Lumley’s writing is very mature, controlled, and precise. He knows what he wants to do with words and the effect he desires them to have. There are occasional moments of logophilic joy. See, “…that sluggish stream, bubbling blindly through airless fissures to the sea.” The sounds are performative; they do what the words describe. The double “G’s” in sluggish slows down the sentence, and thus describes the stream in the way he means.  Your head almost physically bobs up when pronouncing the quadrilogy of “B’s” in bubbling blindly, forcing an embodiment of the way this water moves, before gliding easily into the sibilants of the conclusion. It’s great stuff!

bell_by_alexandreev-dc7cu85[1]
“Bell” by Deviant Artist: alexandreev
If you’re a Lovecraft fan, it almost goes without saying (I’m sure there’s an oddball out there) that you’re a Shadow Over Innsmouth fan. Here, you are in luck, for there’s just a lot to like in this story. Sure, it’s pastiche, but again, you liked the original for a reason, so don’t be silly and lay off something as fun as this because it isn’t original enough. It’s plenty creative, and brilliantly plotted. And, as a bonus, there’s no long, rambling section of infodump by a drunk in the middle, written in almost nigh unreadable dialect. Though there is a nod to ole Zadok Allen, which made me smile at least. I believe most HPL fans will enjoy this one, but I guess I should say that if you’re not an HPL devotee, or not familiar with Shadow Over Innsmouth, then there’s probably not a whole lot of reason that you’d really enjoy this one, unlike some of the others I’ve reviewed. Like most things, read the original first. As a final piece of parting advice (though I suppose it should go without saying, but I’ll not bear that responsibility for the sake of brevity), when purchasing real estate by the seaside, avoid property built over buried temples from which emanate—on a quarterly basis—horrible, ghostly visages of possibly Phoenician gods to the distant sound of a discordant bell. There, now you can’t blame me.

This review was composed listening to some of the greater organ works of J.S. Bach, in minor keys.

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

Miasmic Words of tempting: “I seem to recall loading my shotgun—several times, I think—and I have vague memories of discharging it a like number of times; and, I believe that David, too, used his weapon, probably more successfully. As for our targets: it would have been difficult to miss them. There were clutching claws, and eyes bulging with hatred and lust; there was foul, alien breath in our faces, slime and blood and bespattered bodies obstructing our way where they fell…”