This week’s Deep Ones reading over at LibraryThing is an early Ligotti work.
Review: “Vastarien”, Thomas Ligotti, 1987.
Ligotti’s story plays not only with some motifs of H. P. Lovecraft but a particular type of weird or horror tale.
It’s also a play on the bookworm clichés on “every book has an ideal reader”.
And it might be commentary on literary cultists and how some jealously guard their “exclusive” relationships with their literary gods.
The plot is, as you would expect from Ligotti, fairly uncomplicated.
Unlike Walter Gilman in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”, who finds the world of his dreams ominous and foreboding, Ligotti’s Victor Keirion longs for the world in his dreams. But Ligotti is not operating in just a Lovecraftian mode here.
Vastarien, Keirion’s dream world, is not a place of balustrades and magnificent sunsets. It’s a dark world, “a petrified and monstrous organism” that others might see has a nightmare city. Who knows what the silhouettes in the windows really get up to in those buildings that curve to match the winding roads. Those windows and doors tilt like “badly hung paintings”. But it’s no German Expressionistic nightmare Keirion goes to every night.
To him, it’s a “beautiful land of shadows”, “the ruins of reality”.
But of which reality? The city bears a strong resemblance to the city of Keirion’s waking hours except it’s missing some “element of the unreal”.
After we hear of his dreams, more Lovecraftian elements are introduced.
Our hero goes to a bookstore.
It’s hardly the first time and, at first, the store looks just as unpromising in its collection of blasphemous tomes as all the others he’s been to because Keirion, very uncharacteristically for a hero in a weird story, is not in the least bit impressed by what he finds. To him, the occult volumes he frequently comes across are merely about
belaboring the most futile and profane of all ambitions: power, with knowledge as its drudge … a vision of disastrous enlightenment, of a catastrophic illumination … a strictly demonic enterprise.
Yet, in this bookstore, a strange man, whose black hair and small stature remind Keirion of a crow, strikes up an unsolicited conversation with him. He tells Keirion he knows he’s looking for something special.
The bookstore owner then leads the other man back to a small room where the really good stuff is, the stuff not on display, and Keirion sneaks after them.
While they’re talking, Keirion finds a book that calls to him. It evokes Vastarien in its incomprehensible language.
He offers to buy the book, but the owner condescendingly quotes him a very large price.
However, the crow-like man intervenes and takes the bookstore owner aside. The latter returns and quotes a much lower price which Keirion pays.
The book, he finds over the coming days, embodies Vastarien, is, in some way, Vastarien incarnate. He takes it back to the world when he reads it.
One day, he returns to the bookstore. Yes, it’s still there, but it’s closed.
However, the owner talks to Keirion and indiscreetly tells him that the mysterious man said “The book has found its reader” and made up the difference between what Keirion paid and the original price. (And, in an ominous aside that Ligotti doesn’t really do anything with and is just there for atmosphere, says he wouldn’t cheat anyone “least of all him.”) The owner also tells Keirion that, perhaps, it would have been better if his interest in the book hadn’t been so clear.
In the coming days and nights, Keirion goes again and again to Vastarien but now, looming over it, is a figure much like the crow-like man, a figure devouring the city and its landscape.
So, Keirion takes steps to protect his beloved “ruins of reality”.
The final scene is in a mental hospital, a place Lovecraftian heroes often end up in.
But Keirion is not, we learn from the attendants injecting him with drugs, the first person to come there after murdering a man they claimed was devouring their dreams.
They discuss taking away Keirion’s book, a book of gibberish. Except that would mean they would have to explain to their superiors why they are unable to do that.
Unable how? They mention no magic. Physically unable?
So, Ligotti plays with several motifs of Lovecraft. There’s a dream-world that most would find a place to flee not seek. There’s a hero who scorns occult powers unlike all those would-be sorcerers bent on power or immortality. And there’s a hero locked up in an asylum. But the hero perhaps has really saved his beloved “ruins of reality” from extinction.
I sense that Ligotti is playing with the psychology of reader’s, particularly readers of weird fiction or followers of “cult” writers.
Isn’t the dark beauty Keirion seeks in Vastarien what readers of weird fiction often seek?
Ligotti’s devouring crow man may embody two ideas: the notion that every outré work of literature may have one ideal reader and the jealousy that reader has that others will negate, diminish, destroy that special relationship.
The remarks of those attendants point to this as a reoccurring phenomenon, but they are also ambiguous. It’s not the same man all those lunatics are murdering. It’s different men. Yet, they all seem to read the same book. On the other hand, do those attendants really know that? How do they distinguish one book of gibberish from another? By the cover alone?
But my interpretation may be wrong. The story only says
… he continued to scream words which everyone in the room had heard before, each outburst developing the theme of his unjust confinement: how the man he had murdered was using him in a horrible way.
Perhaps the words heard before are just Keirion’s. That resolves the contradictions in my interpretation, but Ligotti is not careless in his confusions, and I think he meant for there to be some doubt as to whether Keirion is a one-off in his madness. That possible ambiguity adds something to the stock hero-put-in-the-asylum ending.