It’s a disturbing twist worthy of Lovecraft himself that the nightmare realms of weird fiction he either made popopular or created have become popular and sanitized. In Eternal Darkness, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Bloodborne, Persona 2, World of Warcraft and a thousand other games which crib from but do not truly participate in the tradition, Cthulhu, Nyaralathotep and the other Great Old Ones have been demoted from symbols of epistemological despair and universal capriciousness to take their place alongside the hordes of other fictional abominations similarly reduced from symbols of humanity’s deepest fears to thugs waiting to be pummeled.
Cartoons and movies have reduced these abominations to a gaggle of technicolor freaks: Dagon has been made a Digimon, Nyaralathotep has been left a doe-eyed anime moe sex icon with Nyaruko: Crawling with Love, Cthulhu’s resurrection has been failed variously by the Ghostbusters and the children of South Park while the Necronomicon has become the default name for any writer wishing to inject a menacing mysticism into his writing without having to work too hard. The cosmic and incomprehensible has become quotidian and conquerable; the supremely nihilistic subversions of weird fiction have been appropriated as a kind of nihilistic kitsch in which eldritch gods and the existential dread they once represented are reduced to colorful memes or goofy obstacles easily thrown over with a dose of human ingenuity or, failing that, a heaping of good ole’ ultraviolence.
And yet, if his ideas have been bastardized, at least Lovecraft remains superficially relevant, a fate slightly kinder than the obscurity that has claimed Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith and the legions of other canonical weird fiction authors who once worked with or inspired Lovecraft himself. Like the ancient civilizations and long-forgotten mad prophets they once wrote of, these men have since disappeared under layers of years and cultural developments, unearthed only occasionally by literary archaeologists or the rare devotee who champions their work. For some this championing is a matter of reference: there’s little doubt that Robert Chambers experienced a revival when Nic Pizzolatto made his Yellow King a pivotal part of True Detective’s mythos. Other times it’s a matter of aping, as, again, with True Detective.
Though the series’ aesthetic – its density of atmosphere, its sense of time’s weight, its fascination with the occult side of festival celebration, Rust Cohle’s imminently quotable nihilistic diatribes – seemed wholly unique to most, some few recognized a real debt to the works of Thomas Ligotti. But where Pizzolatto’s work ultimately betrayed its own pessimism to end on a note of unearned syrupy humanism, Ligotti’s work thoroughly rejects any such redemption. As a writer whose characters and stories ask with alarming frequency “why affirm anything?” whose imagery demand that we “indulge in cruel pleasure against ourselves,” Ligotti seems almost wildly opposed against the world, against life.
Perhaps this is why he’s languished so long in obscurity, why it is only now that Penguin has resurrected his earliest and long-out-of-print story collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, in one handsome Classics edition. His work seems almost violently unpalatable. It affords neither easy resolutions nor the seemingly ambiguous but ultimately fulfilling pleasures of so many mystery stories. There’s no overarching mythos full of oddly named deities for the obsessive to parse or which might at least suggest the idea of a guiding authorial hand that stands in so well for God. There’s no cadre of cosmic horrors for humanity to stand hopelessly against and so allow the reader the courage of reckless defiance.
Though Ligotti is more willing to allow sex a central place in his universe than most other writers in the genre he never allows it to titillate: in both “The Nyctalops” and “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech” sexual attraction and attendant romance are both seen as ultimately dehumanizing and fatal for all parties involved. Like festivals, like music, like literature, like movies, like the rest of human endeavors they are ultimately vanities, a willful blindness, a glamour thrown clumsily and half-consciously over the hideous nothing at the center of all life.
As much as Ligotti might have bucked against conventional themes and trappings in his early stories he was not yet a true original. He did not, as Jeff Vandermeer asserts in the introduction, appear “suis generis” or “burst fully formed unto the literary scene”. There are inlkings of the Kafkaesque social satirist that Ligotti would present in “Teatro Grottesco” and “My Work Is Not Yet Done”, yes, but only inklings. “The Greater Festival of Masks” does a fine job of lampooning shallow conceits of identity and their social constructions but it’s too satisfied. The final reveal is clever where it should be disturbing. Though the ending of “The Chymist” is deeply unsettling, the actual narrative’s critique of big pharma and advertising are cloying.
Better are Ligotti’s formalistic experiments, such as “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story”, a story daring both in its style and its philosophy, a parody, a manifesto and a genuinely disturbing narrative about obsession and fractured identity that wryly lampoons the conventions of horror fiction while masquerading as a “how-to”. The riffs on the three styles of horror fiction – realistic, gothic and experimental – and the variations on the unfortunate fate of Nathan (sucked dry by a pair of cursed trousers, poor soul) are howlers that give way to a madcap ending which bends the story back in upon itself in a frightening loop of self-reference. While never so clever, “Professor Nobody’s Little Lecture on Horror” manages to coyly establish the theoretical and philosophical frame for Ligotti’s fiction that would develop over decades into the truly original “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”. But these are the departures. Ligotti is never shy to admit the debt he owes.
The introduction to Grimscribe even begs to be read as Ligotti’s own attempt at locating himself within the cannon. “He keeps his name secret, his many names… but even if I cannot know his name, I have always known his voice. That is one thing he can never disguise, even if it sounds like many different voices… it is always speaking of terrible secrets. It speaks of the most grotesque mysteries and encounters… our name is Grimscribe. This is our voice” (emphasis mine). That he ends the first story in this collection, the highly derivative if deeply unsettling “The Last Feast of the Harlequin”, with a dedication to Lovecraft only further suggests this self-awareness.
It would be hard for him to deny otherwise, given that so many stories read like literal love letters to all of Ligotti’s considerable influences: “Nethescurial” is so little removed from “The Call of Cthulhu” it reads more like a remix than an honest attempt at anything new. There are signs of a unique voice here both in the buddings of a personal iconography that favors clowns and puppets and mannequins over the pantheons of forgotten gods that his forebears favored and in the way he eschews his predecessors’ aloof condemnation of human arrogance to meditate more on the million ways people try to hide their own lack of agency behind the play of festivals, but it’s overshadowed by his more obvious debts.
His prose is similarly derivative. It’s not so archaic as his predecessors, having avoided the love of high flown fancy and antiquarian vocabulary (you won’t find “cyclopean” in any story) many inherited from Dunsany, but it’s often as tortured. Like Lovecraft, like Smith, Ligotti grasps after language wildly, piling adjective on adjective and description upon description and musing upon musing as if to leave out even one would risk inaccuracy. His narrators – almost all of them erudite and aloof scholars – talk in one voice.
The conflicting feelings a child experiences about priests is described as “a thick maze of propositions, a labyrinthine layering of systems in which the abstract dread and a bizarre sort of indebtedness [to ‘the great priestly tribe’] were forever confronting each other.” A girl’s misapprehension about a new word is “an intimation of a thousand misshapen marvels – of things going haywire in curious ways, of the edge of the world where an endless ribbon of road continued into space by itsself…” Nihilistic despair is “a new madness which arrives from a world that is on the wrong side of light, a madness that is unsanctioned and without the seal of our natural selves. It is a forbidden madness, a saboteur from outside the body of known laws.”
Indeed, the revelation of life’s essential emptiness seems to have driven Ligotti – or at least his characters – to cover it up with an excess of words and their own implied meaning, as if he can clog up the void of meaning underlying language through sheer quantity. “I’ve been a didactic writer to a greater or lesser extent from the beginning,” he opined to the Weird Fiction Review in a recent interview and these stories do little to refute his claim. If his distrust of “reality” and his disdain for the complex social manipulations that allow us to live in comfortable ignorance ever seem obscure, that’s only because these stories are so stuffed with language that one often feels tempted to skip ahead or to at least to exercise a more selective reading style.
And yet the specifics of a Ligotti story are largely incidental. His language, his characters, his plots are all merely vehicles to deliver his stark imagery and starker philosophy. It is the imagery – beds of tendrilled, smoky and prehistoric flowers dragging a man into some kind of dreaming hell, a cavern floor writhing with degenerates stuck somewhere in transition between their own debased humanity and bloated nematoads, a gibbering nihilist clad in jester’s garb triumphantly carried away from entropy’s own avatar by a horde of costumed aristocratic revelers – that persist, with an appeal almost elemental. Shocking in their otherness but repulsive in their familiarity, these sights attract because they horrify and they horrify because they update passé fears by furnishing forms that seem somehow wholly new while simultaneously ancient.
Again and again the mundane and safe rip open like the Bambi doll in “The Frolic”, or cracks like the mirror in “Alice’s Last Adventure”, to reveal that the comfortable assumptions underlining so much of modern life are only that. What’s mistaken for unreal or strange because it’s so rarely seen is revealed to be ever-present and constant while the mundane that seems so stable is shown to be impermanent. For all that they remain subdued it’s these hidden elements that provide the foundation of the world: everything else is merely built atop it. There are no evasions, no moments where the dreaded encounter with some “indescribable” other is glossed over by a weakness in language, no moment where dreadful revelations are dodged by death — because there is no escape. Reality itself is malevolent: all of the world is pervaded by an “unseen presence, something… circulating in all things and unifying them in an infinitely extensive body of evil.”
It’s here, in the way he shows us the world and in what he shows us of it, that Ligotti’s work finds its horrifying power and its singular identity. Ligotti does not stoop to shock with the sensationalist’s flair for the lurid or work to unsettle with the psychologist’s penchant for manifesting his patients’ disturbing and secret corners. Instead, he overwhelms the reader the same way he seems overwhelmed. Prose and imagery both seem a direct outlet of this no-holds barred approach to storytelling. No apologies are made, nothing appeals to good taste or sense, and what remains is the image of a horror writer locked in a daily life-or-death battle with a creation he sees in a nakedness that would kill him if it did not terrorize him into this urgent need to illustrate.
Deeply unsettling and often inaccessible in style and in content both and always uncompromising, offering absolutely no concession to the beleaguered reader, Ligotti’s fiction is valuable precisely because of its strangeness, remarkable because for all of its debts it still establishes something so wholly its own.