Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thomas Ligotti - The Nyctalops Trilogy [Short Story Review]

[Note: 1. This is a more in-depth analyses of a group of stories from Ligotti's Songs of a Dead Dreamer collection.

2. The following has spoilers for Dream of a Manikin and the Nyctalops Trilogy]

Like the rest of the collection, the three stories that make up The Nyctalops Trilogy stand perfectly well on their own. Also like the rest of the collection, however, their placing, the shifts in tone and content, the order that builds the images higher in your mind with each word and story read, lends the stories even more power when considered in their context. Like the rest of the collection, The Nyctalops Trilogy is a work open to several interpretations.

Dream of a Manikin, the story before the trilogy, introduces us to the concept of shared dreams. In it, a male psychologist is investigating a patient’s dreams, which are not so much fantasies as they are images of a wholly separate life. At the end of the tale, we discover the possibility that it might not have been the male psychologist writing at all, but rather a third character who was dreaming him. The bizarre and shifting roles and viewpoints drive Ligotti’s point home and stayed with me as I continued to read. I found myself viewing the following Nyctalops Trilogy through the lense that Dream of a Manikin provided and, to my surprise, discovered that not only did the theory of dreaming other lives make sense to explain the trilogy, it fit the stories better than any other explanation I could think of.

The Chymist is the story of a man meeting a prostitute and driving to her home, told entirely through the man’s monologue, every word coming directly from that one character’s mouth, from within that real time scene. The style is, on the surface, bizarre for Ligotti’s style of atmosphere and vivid description, but Ligotti manages to turn the unconventional narration into the story’s greatest strength. Every line of this tale is measured, the words coming with an off kilter yet driving beat that forbids you from looking away and drags you into its cadence.

The core of that is that, as all of Ligotti’s fictions amply shows, Ligotti is not writing from a “normal” mindset. His characters, instead, are the bizarre and grotesque edges of society and of sanity. As a result, the constant narration comes off not as artificial or masturbatory but as organic and as a mirror by which we may learn more about the speaker from his words than we ever could through any other means.

Unlike many of Ligotti’s stories, the core of The Chymist is motion. The story is constantly on the move, the characters constantly advancing towards their respective destinations. Change is the center of this tale, exhibited both in the main character’s steadily shifting conversation and in the environment around them:

Blank locales you’d rather not think about, but at the time couldn’t keep from your mind. Another time you could have. No two times are the same. No two lives are alike. We’re like aliens to one another. And when you’re travelling through these streets with some stranger, you have to contend with how they see things, the way you now must deal with my 20-20 visions and I with your blasé near sightedness. (p. 78, The Chymist)

The story’s climax is a twisted fulfillment of the prostitute’s desires, the narrator using the drugs that she asked for to twist her very essence in the same way that the city morphs around them and the narrator alters her name with each mention. As the tale concludes, the man, in a move reminiscent of the conclusion of Dream of a Manikin, takes complete control of the woman’s body. He is dreaming (p. 82, The Chymist) her. The two are about to embark on a bizarre journey:

We are presently coming into perfect tune with each other, my dreams and my dream girl. You are about to become the flesh and blood kaleidoscope of my imagination. In the latter stages of the procedure anything might happen. Your form will know no limits of diversity as the Great Chemists themselves take over. Soon I will put my dreaming in the hands of prodigious insurrection of eternity, and I’m sure there will be some surprises for both of us. (p. 82, The Chymist)

It’s obvious that the two are now going to enter into wholly new things. Perhaps even entire new lives? After all, we know that what they experience will change them: Under the stress of such diverse metamorphoses, the original structure of the object somehow breaks down. The consequences of this is simple – you can never be as you once were. (p. 82)

Drink to Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes, the second story of the trilogy, is a story about hypnosis, and, as such, it’s fitting that the prose is enveloping and flowing. This is a story that you can lose yourself in, sinking into the power of the narrator’s spell even as you try and keep your wits about you. This is not an ordinary tale, as is made plain by every word uttered by Ligotti’s pen, but the seductively smooth writing lures you closer and erases all traces of apprehension from your body:

Everyone at the party comments on them. They ask if I had them altered in some way, suggest that I’ve tucked some strange crystallized lenses under my eyelids. I tell them no, that I was born with these singular optic organs. They’re not from some optometrist’s bag of tricks, not the result of surgical mayhem. (p. 85)

Like every story in the trilogy, the principle characters here are a man and a woman, the man narrating and, as the story progresses, dominating and shaping the woman. We begin with the female character hypnotized and able to perform extraordinary feats. If we view each story as being linked, this isn’t surprising in the least. In the Chymist, we see that the narrator has complete control over the female character’s form. He takes away her ability to scream by changing her physical appearance: I’d better dream of someone who hasn’t anything to scream with. (p. 82, The Chymist) Surely, if he can erase her mouth, he can break and heal her limbs to let her fit in a box and that and the divine metamorphoses previously quoted would certainly back up her near-transformation to a celestial icon (p. 89, Drink To Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes).

At the end of the story, we discover that the female was really a corpse all along, the guests only unable to grasp that fact due to their hypnosis. When the narrator releases them from his spell, he’s confident that they will be amazed (p. 92, Drink To Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes). The sudden shock at a transformation isn’t a new thing; it came up at the end of the Chymist. There, we’re told that the female is going to be in some curios incarnation (p. 82, The Chymist) and die shortly after he departs. She is, in fact, going to rattle the wits of her whoever discovers her. I think that that death is the equivalent of the physical death that comes with the end of the second story.

While Drink To Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes struck me as the physical death/transformation of the narrator, I viewed The Eye of the Linx as the mental equivalent. It deals with giving her (and keep in mind that the female characters in both The Chymist and Eye of the Lynx are prostitutes) a twisted version of what she wants, subservience, in perhaps the same way that The Chymist deals with giving the female character the drugs she was after, just in a perverse and soul-destroying way.

In the opening conversation, the male narrator has a complete understanding of everything the female character will say before she can say it: “You sure have,” I thought to myself. “You sure have,” echoed the blonde…”What will it be tonight?” I inwardly asked me. “What will it be tonight?” she asked aloud. (p. 96). This state of affairs is reminiscent of the conclusion of The Chymist, where the male again knows the exact thought process of the female: Damn! I supposed that was your attempt to scream. (p. 82, The Chymist). In addition, the singular optic organs (p. 85, Drink to Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes) might come up again here, where we learn that: Locked doors were no obstacle for my eyes. (p. 100, The Eye of the Lynx)

The Eye of the Lynx takes place in the gothic brothel “The House of Chains.” In Ligotti’s hands, The House of Chains becomes a nexus of sorts, the various rooms along its hallways like other worlds: There was much to see on the way – a Punch and Judy panorama with characters of all kinds as well as the occasional whacking stick. Each scene flipped by like a page in a depraved story book. (p. 99, The Eye of the Lynx).

The various scenes all around the narrator, made of playacting prostitutes and their clients, are described like their own grotesque worlds: Behind one [locked door], where every wall of the room was painted with heavy black bars from floor to ceiling, the Queen of Pain – riding crop raised high – sat atop her human horse. (p. 100, The Eye of the Lynx). When the narrator and the female character enter their own room, there’s almost no transition. The situation as, suddenly, changed to that of puppet master and puppet, as if the two left their forms behind and dressed themselves in new roles.

Our first glimpse of other perceptions, however, comes even before the hallway, occurring on the second page of the story, where the narrator spots a security camera and wonders how the camera’s eye would translate that redly dyed room into the bluish hues of a security monitor…We might all be electronically meshed into a crazy purpurean tapestry. (p. 96, The Eye of the Lynx). The multiplicity of worlds, their intersections and the ease with which the narrator falls from one to the other, is more than a little evocative of Dream of a Manikin’s levels of dreaming.

All three stories also seem to have a preoccupation with audience, as if it isn’t enough for the two main characters to do what they do alone, the crucial element being how they were observed by those around them (and by the reader?). In The Chymist, we are told that the prostitute’s remains will rattle the wits of whoever is unfortunate enough to find [her].(p. 82, The Chymist) In Drink to me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes, the focus is not on the female character’s transformations, nor on the male’s acts, but rather on the crowd all around them. Finally, The Eye of the Link opens with an outward view of events, including both the aforementioned security camera and quotes from various journalists relating to the narrator’s activities.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that two thirds of the trilogy a meaningless fever dream, but rather that the mechanism of dreaming someone else we were introduced to in Dream of a Manikin was at use once again, and that the male character was following and influencing the female through a string of different lives. Each story in the collection stands on its own, the trilogy most certainly not exempted, but I kept finding little interconnected hints, such as how in a wholly separate story, the narrator spots his mother speaking to a man with labyrinthine eyes (p. 146, The Lost Art of Twilight). Regardless of how you interpret it, The Nyctalops Trilogy was one of my favorite pieces in Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and that’s saying something when one looks at the sheer quality on display in every single story.

FURTHER READING

My full review of Songs of a Dead Dreamer is here.

My analysis of Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech is here.

There's no better place to go for Ligotti discussion than right here.

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