“While we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page.”
While the name Thomas Ligotti may be unfamiliar to the occasional dabbler in horror fiction, he is a legendary figure to readers and writers devoted to all things weird and worrisome. Ligotti’s tales fall under the category of Weird Fiction, that specialized genre that combines elements of the outright horror story and the mythical realm of the occult and otherworldly. Notoriously difficult to define, Weird Fiction usually combines a sense of aesthetics derived from realms of consciousness that stand outside of what Jonathan Letham termed “consensual reality.” The artist in Lovercraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” and Clarke and Raymond in Machen’s The Great God Pan find that both artistic inspiration and scientific inquiry can open holes in the walls separating consensual reality and other realms of the occult and supernatural.
Flowering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tradition moved from the pulps closer to the mainstream though the works of Clive Barker, Angela Carter, and Stephen King before experiencing a revival in the new works of Kathe Koja and Adam Nevill, as well as the smash first-season hit of HBO’s True Detective.
But largely absent from mainstream readers’ discussions of the weird in literature and film is the name Thomas Ligotti. Listed by numerous horror authors and screenwriters as a seminal figure in the development of horror fiction in general in the 1980s, he remains as much a figure of the shadows as the reclusive and isolated characters he created.
The connection between Mathew McConaughy’s character in True Detective and Ligotti’s pessimism and gorgeously worded horror tales brought a brief flame of interest to his writing a few years ago, introducing him to readers previously unfamiliar with his work. That flame of interest began to wane, sadly, after the frustratingly disappointing (and unrelated) second season of True Detective. Ligotti is too influential a writer to let return to obscurity, so now let’s return to his landmark collection of weird tales, rituals, madness, and murder.
I first discovered Ligotti in high school, coming across a copy his then recently published Songs of a Dead Dreamer one winter afternoon while haunting my local library. Having already read my way through Lovecraft, Machen, and Algernon Blackwood, I thought I was prepared for what Ligotti had to offer.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Ligotti’s tales started off down familiar dark paths: unreliable (and unhinged) narrators, inexplicable events, dabbling in secret societies and arcane rituals. But the contemporary settings and frequent turns to metafiction brought a new level of slowly-creeping dread along with brilliant mini-treatises on the history of horror literature and the art of the short story.
The stories “Vastarian” and “Les Fleurs” offer Lovecraftian dream journeys into terrifying realms of existence only discoverable to souls insane or curious enough to attempt lucid dream traveling, both ending in madness and murder. “Dreams of a Manikin” offers a fresh take on the uncanny, where dolls represent humans and humans represent dolls. The anthropologist at the heart of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” finds himself setting off on an academic exercise only to be trapped in an archaeology of the mind as thorough and many-layered as sediments on a research dig. “The Frolic,” which opens the collection, presents one of the most chilling and disturbing serial killer story I’ve ever read, blending the vicious and perverse crimes of a killer of children with a poetic, opium-dream language that I couldn’t shake off. For Ligotti, it’s not the gory details that make for horror, but the blend of the poetic and esoteric language and nasty subject matter that produce the kind of creeping horror that gets under the skin and stay there.
In all of these stories, Ligotti takes the nightmare landscape of nightmare worlds and turns them inward, representing a dark and terrifying inner landscape of the self. But my favorite story in the lot is the stunning “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story.”
What begins as what seem to be notes by a horror author on how to approach a horror story from different perspectives (the realist, the Gothic, and the experimental) is like a master class on the craft of writing. The narrator brings the reader through the application of each approach on a single idea: a man preparing for a first date buys an exquisite pair of pants that, unknown to him, were last worn by a man who died in them. As he leaves for his date, his car breaks down in a nasty neighborhood and he finds that not only can he no longer move his legs, but that his legs are, in fact, rotting away beneath the pants.
Each approach brings out different aspects of the story, the multi-layered symbolism of the pants, a wristwatch, and an overcoat; the eccentricities of the main character, who becomes more or less sympathetic under different treatment; the body horror and psychological violence; the doubling and redoubling of identities. At the conclusion, readers discover that this has been much more than an academic exercise, as the narrative voice shifts fully into the world of the waking nightmare.
Reading (and rereading) the story taught me much of the art of writing an effective horror story, and also provided a blood-chilling story in its own. Read it and learn… and try not to have nightmares after.