The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the ninth entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors
Literally: a laying waste to a land or a psyche; a physical or psychological devastation; desolation. More specifically: a term introduced into the stream of Western religious thought by Emanual Swedenborg (1688-1772), who used it to characterize a particular crisis in the extraordinarily complex dramatic actions which characterize his cosmogony in action. It here defines the disintegrative moment when the elements or accidents of evil are separated off from the essential goodness of those who, thus purified, then approach salvation; it also defines the even more disintegrative moment when the accidents of goodness are shaved mercilessly from the unsalvageable central core of the wicked. As far as this lexicon of Horror is concerned, those who are destined to be saved are of less interest than those banned from any subsequent Swedenborgian uplift.
But the relevant consideration here is not so much the profound desolation experienced by the Vastated, for our diagnostic language is amply rich in terms descriptive of modes of depression in modern humans, just as it is rich in the description of subjective understandings of the external world; the point here is that Vastation is the consequence of a measurable change in the relationship of the sufferer to the world story. It is an emotion linked to the story of the world at those moments when that story threatens to overwhelm us, or when its incoherence or coherence becomes mercilessly visible — as H P Lovecraft puts it in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928 Weird Tales): “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” The term does not inherently fix to any particular moment in the four-part model of the moves of horror that has shaped this lexicon; the moment of Sighting may clearly prelude a full immersion or clarity, though the final, Aftermath moments of a tale normally serve to focus the kind of awareness — like that of Vastation — whose effect is terminal.
Vastation is not, therefore, used in this lexicon as a synomym for depression or bipolar disorder, nor for personal grief; nor for hallucinatory states, nor any other sort of false understanding of the external world. An hallucinatory vision of a ghost is an hallucination. To experience the malice of the made or revealed cosmos — as with the narrator’s philosophical despair in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) after a curse-induced plague (see Infection) has begun to end all human life; or when “the enormous machinery of hell” expresses itself into the world through the objective emblem of the monkey demon from Hell in J Sheridan Le Fanu’s great Swedenborgian “Green Tea” (1869 All the Year Round) — is to experience Vastation. What happens to Le Fanu’s victim protagonists, in particular, is that they find out too much about the world; more specifically, they find out, in a sense, that the world means its malice, for a natural disaster may evoke a million griefs, but not, in the sense here understood, Vastation. Mourning experienced after a death in the family may be multiplied a thousandfold, but still be adequately defined as mourning; mourning experienced as a consequence of the Final Solution is Vastation.
In the literatures of Horror, Vastation contagiously joins the world — which is the fundamental arena for all forms of what is here designated the Bound Fantastic — to the sentient creatures (almost always humans) tethered to its disintegrating and/or newly exposed frame; it represents, in fictional form, a vision of the deranging effect of the world on story (see part 3 of Difficulty for short discussion), and consequently upon the utterands of Story, who are usually us. Vastation occurs when the “malignant system of the world” (as Le Fanu puts it) is tearing you apart: after Vastation, the utterands of Story, and Story itself, falls into dead silence: for there is no way to proceed. Most of the protagonists in H P Lovecraft’s linked stories about the Cthulhu Mythos are shattered by Vastation after they see the true face of things; it is depicting a character so devastated that Fred Chappell’s Dagon (1968) reflects most deeply on Lovecraft. The stories of Franz Kafka are full of the Vastation consequent upon attempting to ascertain rules in a world that cannot hear them. Vastation eats Beckett into a silence which it is his heroism to break. In very many of the tales of Robert Aickman, the term will represent the internal disintegration of a protagonist when the real world cannot any longer be apprehended as knowable, any more than existence after a profound mid-life crisis may seem knowable; alternately, the protagonist of a novel like Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953) suffers internal despair because she apprehends the real world as intolerably storyable: what might be called the Lesser Vastation describes not only incoherence and nullity, but also Bondage. The sense of Belatedness and entrapment and staleness felt by various protagonists of the stories assembled in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover (coll 1945) is precisely tied to their intuition that World War Two has repeated as terminal farce the reaving of the civilized world first experienced through the catastrophe of World War One: history repeating itself Vastates her world into an irredeemable belatedness.
The poetry and fiction of the Great War to End War is of course irradiated by a different sense: that we have, here and now, come face to face with the present tense of things (see again Aftermath. There are many famous examples; a lesser-known but supremely horrific text can stand for all of them. In The Cross of Carl: an Allegory (1931) by Walter Owen (1884-1953), the burning of the Auschwitz-like “utilization” factory — where human corpses fresh from Somme-like slaughter are rendered into pig swill — does not mark the extinction of horror, but a prophecy that it is eternal. What Carl sees in the flames from a distance is a Serpent’s Egg giving birth to Vastation forever: “a great red eye”, “an iris of orange light that hung spectral-like above the wold…” What he sees is Sauron awakening into his kingdom.
When the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand (1969) time-slips into an England devastated by the Black Plague, the desolate world he sees foretells “all the most hideous features of a twentieth-century landscape after disaster, suggesting a total abandonment of hope, the aftertaste of atomic doom.” “Two Sadnesses” (in Bad Moon Rising, anth 1973, ed Thomas M Disch) by George Alec Effinger is a fantasy whose beast-fable protagonists, taken from tales by Kenneth Grahame and A A Milne, discover that their hallowed pre-Aftermath enclaves have been invaded by the history of the later 20th century, and that, “Indeed, up ahead the thick, orange water of the river itself was blazing in a towering wall of flame.” In “The Warden” (in The King’s Indian, coll 1976) by John Gardner, the eponymous protagonist is Vastated through having to promulgate Kafkaesque rules in a venue which vitiates any attempt to enforce them. Almost every character in Elizabeth Hand’s Glimmering (1997) has a Vastated sense of the imminence of the end of the world. In Thomas Ligotti’s “I Have a Special Plan for This World” (2000 Horror Garage), a yellow fog wells up through the unnamed city where the protagonist exercises his capacity, in the coils of a great corporation, of wringing events to their uttermost, and thus exposing the “baseless sense of purpose” which underlies all actions here and now in this urban fantasy world. In this story, experiencing Late-High Capitalism is seen as a form of Vastation.
In Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution (2004), a black clergyman understands his utter despair — at the ruin of his life, his faith, his son, his marriage, his career — as precisely equivalent to the ruining of London while the Blitz progresses, though he has no way of knowing that this Lesser Vastation hovers over the deeper Vastation of the Final Solution. Indeed, it may be said that the underlying tenor of all Holocaust Fiction is Vastation; and the paradigm text for understanding the etiology and action of the term may well be D M Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981), in which the clairvoyant protagonist’s private griefs and hysteria and valiant healing exfoliate inexorably into a profound memorial paeon for the loss of civilization as a whole, but in particular — as she approaches her temporal end at Babi Yar in 1941 — for Europe Between the Wars. Her Vastated bone vulnerability to the malice of the world is as clear a representation of the inner genius of the Bound Fantastic as can be found in the literature.