A Review of Vacui Magia by L.S. Johnson

The last collection of short-fiction I read was a Best of Lovecraft anthology. And before that. The Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville. So I thought I was quite prepared to take a stab at this little collection.

I wasn’t, really. This was a side of weird-fiction I hadn’t really encountered before.

It was like Christmas (or shall we say, Cthulhumas) came early, honestly.

There are a lot of elements of magic-realism here but it never gets too artsy for its own sake. It never pushes into that realm of wishy-washy Spec-fic too scared to move away from literary fiction.

This is a very grounded, decidedly speculative little collection.

Let’s have a look at it story by story.

Little Men with Knives is a very solid opener about a middle-aged, lonely high-school cafeteria lady plagued by the eponymous little men with knives. On paper, the story is as weird as weird gets. Come on, a hardcore retelling of The Elves and The Shoemaker is basically what this is. But then, it never takes itself there. While writing that previous line, I was just thinking about how cool that is. But I never felt that while reading the story. It takes itself, and it’s concept very seriously, making its protagonist and the reader question almost everything they encounter.

The title track, Vacui Magia sets the high bar even higher. It is perhaps the only time other than Dolores Clairborne that I have tolerated any form of second-person storytelling. The story is structured as a sort of grimoire about how to raise a golem. But as we read on, we realize that this grimoire and this golem are far more personal than we thought. This story is a sort of thematic center for the whole book and the ending will probably leave you a little choked up and disturbed. It has done it’s job right, then.

The Pursuit of the Whole Is Called Love is perhaps the weirdest of the lot. The story took a couple of rereads for me to wrap my head around and ended up being one of my favourites. I can’t really think of a way to summarize this story but I can tell you that it’s got aliens in it (maybe) and it explores themes as far-reaching as sex, marriage, abuse, violence and the individual. All while being really cool. Almost every page had me marveling at how cool this story was.

Germinant is about a girl with a lot of potential who does what she’s told not to do and has to suffer for it. In a surreal way. This story reminded me, bizarrely enough, of Mieville’s Iron Council (take a shot each time I mention his name on this blog and you’ll die of alcohol poisoning). There’s a very active exploration of punishment, the scars we bear for our past mistakes and how they become a very important, perhaps even vital part of us.

Vendemiare is perhaps Johnson’s answer to Machen. Or Lovecraft’s The Duncwich Horror. It takes a very tried and true concept of half-blood demon children and explores it from a very new, very tender point of view. This motherfucker is thematically dense and I don’t really want to spoil any more of it than I have. It’s one of the best.

The Is How You Lose Yourself is basically a prose poem. It’s a really good prose poem.

Clotho is the only one of Johnson’s stories I had read prior to picking up Vacui Magia. I thought the story was one of the best I had ever read when I first read it. However, after reading through the rest of  collection, it seems to be the weakest. It is still an amazingly well written bit of fiction and the conclusion hits as hard as any of the other stories but it plods a little too much in the beginning.

Julia is the final piece of this collection and in my opinion, the piece de resistance. It is a wildly inventive little tale structured on known facts about the life and death of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story. But then, aren’t they all?

There’s certainly a lot of things common to all these stories.

The prose is absolutely gorgeous. It is poetic, dense, very very aware of itself and not trying to minimize its presence in any shape or form. There was never a single moment in this entire collection where I felt the prose or dialogue were lacking. I made roughly 20 highlights per story on my Kindle. I would recommend this based on the attention to detail and word choices alone.

But there is so much more than that to complement. This collection is chock full of inventive, amazing ideas. The structures and plots are close to perfect. There is perfect balance between monologue and dialogue.

And then there’s the thematic material.

It isn’t too hard to see similarities that stretch between all these stories.

The protagonists are always women (save for that alien story). And the setting is almost never the urban sprawl weird-fiction-even my own-seems to love.

The usual weird aesthetic is a solitary individual (usually a man) seeking companionship in a crowded, packed menagerie of the bizarre. Almost every story here is a complete reversal of that. These stories involve individuals caught in flux. Trapped between generations. The continuum from daughter to mother to crone is a leitmotif that plays again and again and again and there is often a deep, thirsty need for escape from that sequence. And sometimes that need is granted. And most of those times, it leaves the protagonist and the reader feeling a little less whole.

Mieville’s short ficiton, Lovecraft’s short fiction and many other short stories like this are often stories of ideas but these focus a lot more on the characters than the ideas.

This isn’t the weird of the city.

It isn’t the weird of the monsters.

It isn’t the weird of the space-gods.

It’s the weird of the real people.

The weird of the weary, the middle aged, the exploited, the trapped, the marginalized, the ignored. The weird of the mundane.

The weird of the kind of people you see everyday. Or rather, the people you don’t see.

L.S. Johnson, I’m hooked.

I’ll have that novel now.

You can purchase Vacui Magia here



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