Horrible to Contemplate


I’ve been reading a Penguin collection of short stories by Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, after noticing the author’s other titles categorized near my own Here’s To My Sweet Satan in some Amazon algorithms.  Ligotti has lately established a reputation in the field of horror fiction as one of the most inventive exponents of the genre, and what I’ve perused so far bears this out:  his themes and style recognizably continue the traditions of previous masters, while taking the literature to new depths of cosmic darkness.

Ligotti’s work shows ancestral roots in the refined alienation of Edgar Allan Poe, with the eloquent voices of the artists, academics, and loners cast as his narrators and protagonists; critics have compared his bleak absurdities to those of Franz Kafka, but I see stronger parallels to the sly constructions of Vladimir Nabokov.  The stories in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe are rarely as settled into domestic realities as Shirley Jackson’s, although they demonstrate some of Jackson’s feel for the ways in which the veneer of ordinary life can be pierced by the irrational and the uncanny.  Stephen King has occasionally experimented with surrealism, but King is more grounded in (or by) documentary Americana than the imaginary lands and anonymous urban settings of Ligotti narratives like “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum,” “Masquerade of a Dead Sword:  A Tragedie,” “The Music of the Moon,” and “Vastarien.”  And I thought I detected hints of M.R. James in Ligotti’s technique, whereby the crucial terrors appear in the merest phrase or sentence, going almost unnoticed until their visceral shock sinks in, as in “The Troubles of Dr. Thoss,” or “The Cocoons.”

The most obvious point of reference to Ligotti is H.P. Lovecraft: “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” for example, is dedicated to Lovecraft’s memory and tells of a small town with a strange history, in clear echoes of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” while “The Sect of the Idiot” has an epigram purportedly from Lovecraft’s invented Necronomicon.  “Nethescurial,” about a secret global cult, is a bit like “The Call of Cthulhu.”  Like Lovecraft, Ligotti writes of human beings perched precariously on tiny platforms of order within an insane universe, but Ligotti cranks up the adjectival nihilism beyond even Lovecraft’s infamously modified prose.  Passages of “Nethescurial” and “The Spectacles in the Drawer” are almost rhapsodic in their morbidity.

This device, in which awful concepts are invoked in more detail than the material awfulness that inspires them, can descend into cheap effect if the writer lacks the vocabulary and the diction to pull it off (even Lovecraft has been faulted for his overwrought language), but Ligotti’s skills are equal to his grand, grotesque task.  The pieces in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe will make delicious reading in coming months, when winter comes over the hemisphere and we are enveloped in a galactic vortex of malignity that churns around and through the wasteland of lifeless unreason we have named existence, the blind torrent of filth emptying down to a stagnant ocean of the loathsome gibbering sick, O unutterable black realms of fathomless infinity, all eternal midnight, how vast the swarming pestilence of foul decrepitude which must feast forever on our carrion souls –

Sorry about that.  I’ve been reading Thomas Ligotti.