HELLNOTES: Welcome back, Jon! We’ve talked to you previously about your own stories, but today we’re going to discuss Vastarien: A Literary Journal. This is a new journal that you edit alongside Matt Cardin and Dagny Paul, but could you tell us a little about Vastarien’s aims and maybe the significance of the name, too?
JON PADGETT: Thanks for having me back! Vastarien is, in a nutshell, a creative response to the work of a legendary master of weird, literary horror, Thomas Ligotti; the authors who have influenced him; and contemporary authors who—consciously or not—share a kind of Ligottian, authorial DNA with him. We include nonfiction articles and analyses as well as fiction and poetry and visual art. Also, we act as a home for hybrid pieces—some of which could be classified as poetry, fiction and nonfiction simultaneously.
Vastarien is the title of a Ligotti story, which concerns a textual entryway, via forbidden tome, into “a place where everything was transfixed in the order of the unreal… Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous — wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.” Not surprisingly, quite a few of our journal’s pieces to date concern themes of illness, degeneration and despair. Paradoxically, these bleak Ligottian sensibilities can be a source of comfort and even relief to sympathetic readers. To quote Dr. Raymond Thoss (a pseudonymous, Vastarien Issue 1 author of the nonfiction piece, “Notes on a Horror”), “When I encountered Ligotti at age seventeen, I was deeply suicidal, as directly related to twelve years of ongoing child abuse and other traumas (such as the death of people I loved). Thomas Ligotti gave the most beautiful eloquence to things I saw but no one else would ever affirm. It resonated with my reality and the reality of those who were like me. To encapsulate in a single sentence what Thomas Ligotti did for me: He literally saved my life. When everyone else, therapists included, told me I was ‘depressed’ or ‘mentally ill,’ he told me, ‘No. You are not. You are awake.’”
HN: Thomas Ligotti seems to be undergoing a slow but steady surge in visibility over the last few years. While some of that may have been due to True Detective’s incorporation of some of his ideas, I question if that was a catalyst or just a bellwether. In addition to your own longstanding Thomas Ligotti Online and now Vastarien, Ligotti’s work is being made available to a wider audience with Penguin reprinting Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe in 2015 and now The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (forthcoming October 2018). What do you think it is about Ligotti that resonates with people, and where do you see Vastarien fitting in?
JP: As evidenced above, Ligotti’s work resonates with certain readers, myself included. There’s no doubt in my mind that the True Detective (let’s say) inclusion of singular images and ideas straight from Ligotti’s prose was both a catalyst for and a bellwether of his higher profile. I think it sped up what was inevitable, but I also believe that it worked the opposite way as well. The reason viewers were so taken by the first season of that show arguably had to do with Rust Cohle, who was a walking, talking Conspiracy Against the Human Race of a character. He was the most unusual element of the show, and Rust’s early episode espousal of Tom’s work was the element that most viewers had never heard before. And it resonated with many of them. Not only hardcore Ligottians felt the power of Ligotti’s prose. Indeed, a significant percentage of the viewing audience seemed to be deflated and disappointed by Cohle’s phony, last second redemption from his bleak but honest Ligottian worldview.
I could write many words about why I think that Ligotti’s work resonates with his readers, but I’ll abbreviate. In a recent interview by Matt Cardin, Tom wrote, “If you read a lot of horror literature because you like to be scared, then you’re probably a normal, healthy person. If you read horror literature to fulfill some deeply personal predisposition, be assured there is probably something odd and unwholesome about you. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not all right to be that way.” As a member of the latter group, I’ve always sensed a kind of author-reader intimacy/camaraderie in Tom’s work. In the words of one of his most famous short stories, “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” “He is one of us. He has always been one of us.” Indeed, the most eloquent of us.
And that’s where Vastarien comes in. I don’t think I can do any better than by quoting a recent review of Issue 1, regarding the contributors: “These are modern, plain-speaking humans coming to grips with the terrifying and (again) realistic notions of Ligottian futility and dissonance. These are your sisters, your coworkers, your FRIENDS realizing that they’ve only ever really wanted to die in peace. This is your therapist letting you know you’re never really going to be ok, even though professionally she can’t tell you that. I’ve had SEVERAL conversations with friends at 3 am that were a perfect mirror to ‘Notes on a Horror.’ People who seemingly have it together revealing that there is no together, that they’re hopeless and terrified in the face of their own workaday lives. Even the meta-context, that this is a REAL therapist, who does real work somewhere in the world, is contributing to this journal in an anonymous but intimate way. Telling you in this liminal, 3 am space like an old college friends’ ‘nah man, it’s all a racket, it’s always been and there’s no point’.”
HN: When Vastarien’s first issue was released, one of the topics of discussion around it involved the seemingly all-male Table of Contents. After listening to people on social media, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how Vastarien is addressing the issue of diversity and what strategies the editors will be applying to future issues.
JP: “Seemingly all-male” is right. Several of our Issue 1 authors are females writing pseudonymously, either with androgynous or male pen names. That stated, despite numerous, past solicitation attempts and a prominent diversity statement in our submission guidelines, we failed to reach out sufficiently beyond the small world of Ligotti’s core readership. I’m the creator and co-administrator of Thomas Ligotti Online, which celebrated its 20th year of existence on the web this year, and a recent audit of our membership reveals what I already knew: that there are far more males than females registered there. I was naïve to believe my own limited social media network was sufficient to reach a wider, more diverse group of potential contributors. This reflects Tom’s core readership and the authors who submitted work for Issue 1. As someone who has made it his adult life’s mission to spread the word of Ligotti’s work, I take this as a personal failing.
However, the Vastarien gender controversy/misunderstanding paradoxically gave our little journal quite a bit of coverage, which we used as an opportunity to reach authors far beyond Ligotti’s typical readership. The result: Issue 2’s TOC contains slightly more non-male contributors than male ones. I don’t know whether this almost perfectly balanced gender ratio can be sustained over time. It will doubtless be an uphill battle, but the onus is on us to do better than we did with Issue 1. I’ve always imagined Vastarien acting as a gateway to Ligotti’s work by way of varied voices aiming at or commenting on similar themes and ideas. We want our (and Ligotti’s) audience to grow; not remain static.
All this stated, when the editors at Vastarien read work for possible purchase and publication, the authors’ demographics aren’t taken into consideration one way or another. We care about the quality and applicability of the piece itself. The trick is to consistently induce diverse voices to submit to us in the first place. If we do that, balance should more or less be achieved in the future.
HN: As Vastarien continues to grow, what kind of submissions are you hoping to see more of? What kind of content is currently being under-submitted and what kinds of voices are you looking to reach out to?
JP: We want to see more scholarly, nonfiction pieces. That’s often a struggle. We receive a huge number of fiction pieces, so aspiring fiction contributors need to manage their expectations accordingly. Competition is fierce. I’d say our number one reason for rejecting work has to do with content that doesn’t fit our specific guidelines. As our Co-Editor-In-Chief, Matt Cardin, recently stated in an interview, “It would perhaps be an easy mistake to think we’re simply looking for horror fiction, poetry, essays, and visual art in general. We are not. We’re looking for such things as they intersect with the types of subjects, themes, interests, concerns, emotions, and issues laid out in those guidelines and discussed in our response to the previous question.” He’s 100% correct here. We’re not a wide-spectrum horror publication like, say, Nightmare Magazine or The Dark Magazine. Vastarien’s editors are looking for work that, again in Cardin’s words, “flat-out transfixes us with its vision and voice.” Conventional horror tales, however well written, have a zero chance of getting picked up by us. We’re looking for Ligottian writing and art. If you’re an aspiring contributor and don’t know what that means, I’d suggest familiarizing yourself with the work of Thomas Ligotti before submitting work to Vastarien. That stated, we’re not interested in mere Ligotti pastiche. We’re looking for work that creatively and authentically delves into Ligottian themes and content—even work that explicitly subverts, challenges or even argues against it. But an author who isn’t familiar with those concepts (and related authors) in the first place has little chance of getting published in Vastarien.
HN: Speaking of future issues, having published one and being at work on the second, have you seen any kind of shift in Vastarien’s aims or goals? It often seems that sometimes as projects come to life, they begin to shift in unanticipated ways.
JP: Two works from issue 1, the aforementioned “Notes on a Horror” by Dr. Raymond Thoss and “Singing the Song of My Unmaking” by Christopher Ropes, are brutally honest and courageous confessions revealing the authors’ severe depression, suicidal ideation and struggles with past trauma and abuse. Many readers I’ve heard from have found solace in these and other similarly themed pieces in the issue. I’d love to encourage potential Vastarien contributors to submit more work (fiction, nonfiction, poetry or any combination of the three) that digs deeply and unflinchingly into such harrowing personal experience. Over the years, I’ve known many readers, myself included, who have been paradoxically relieved to one degree or another by Ligotti’s bleak, uncompromising poetry and prose. I’d love for Vastarien to offer such “deliverance by [literary] damnation.” As readers of Issues 2 and 3 will soon discover—and much to our delight—more such work is on its way.
HN: Finally, in addition to Vastarien you’ve been busy with your own writing and narration. Where can our readers find your more recent projects? What do you have coming up for us to look forward to?
JP: I’m happy to report I’ve been very busy, creatively speaking. First and foremost, my “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” has been released by Cadabra Records as an LP. It is available now in limited quantities, in black and yellow vinyl editions. I narrate, and Shawn M. Garrett, the co-editor of Pseudopod, created incredible “sound patterns” that become increasingly part of the piece as the record goes on. Brilliant artists Yves Tourigny and Dave Felton created the front and back cover respectively, and I’m honored and thrilled to have Thomas Ligotti himself provide the Foreword for the piece.
Yves Tourigny also fully illustrated, designed and released a separate chapbook version of 20SS that is the single best printed version of the story I can imagine. These copies are also limited in quantity and are available now.
In the coming weeks, Cadabra Records is also releasing Thomas Ligotti’s masterpiece, “The Bungalow House,” which I narrate. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of any voiceover work I’ve done. This is, simply put, my favorite short story, and being a part of this audio offering was a dream come true. Chris Bozzone’s haunting score and Jason Barnett’s original artwork is perfect, and Matt Cardin writes a critical piece on the story that alone is worth the cost.
Continuing the narration theme, the aforementioned Pseudopod has published Part 1 and Part 2 of my three-part reading of Laird Barron’s magnificent cosmic horror infused novella, “Mysterium Tremendum,” and I just agreed to produce the audio version of Philip Fracassi’s equally powerful novella, “Shiloh.”
As far as new writing goes, I just signed a contract with Nightscape Press, which will be publishing my novelette, “The Broker of Nightmares.” It will be a signed, illustrated edition, and there will be more details about that soon.
Thanks so much for the good conversation!
Jon Padgett is a professional—though lapsed—lesser ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter, a cat and a dog. Padgett has work out or forthcoming in Weird Fiction Review, Pseudopod, The Lovecraft eZine and Xnoybis. Padgett’s first short story collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, was released by Dunhams Manor Press and received the Best Fiction Award of the Year from Rue Morgue Magazine. He is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of Vastarien: A Literary Journal.