Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thomas Ligotti - Songs of a Dead Dreamer

It is said that death is a great awakening, an emergence from the mystifications of life. Ha, I have to laugh. Death is the consummation of mortality and – to let out a big secret – only heightens mortal imperfections. (p. 94, Only Drink to Me with Labyrinthine Eyes)

Songs of a Dead Dreamer opens with The Frolic, a seemingly simple story about a child abductor. Out of all the collection’s stories, The Frolic is by far the most traditional, complete with easily sympathetic characters and a thoroughly sane narration. In the distance, however, are hints of something far stranger. The incarcerated abductor is clearly insane, but his delusions aren’t of grandeur but of insignificance, denying himself even a proper name. John Doe, as our psychologist protagonist tags him, says that the abuse he defiles his victim with is wholly irrelevant to his true purpose. John Doe, instead, frolics with the children, claiming to liberate them and take them to a cosmos of crooked houses and littered alleys, a slum among the stars. (p. 21, The Frolic) But, until the end, that strangeness is kept at bay:

Until then their home had been an insular haven beyond the contamination of the prison, an imposing structure outside the town limits. Now its psychic imposition transcended the limits of physical distance. Inner distance constricted, and David sensed the massive prison walls shadowing the cozy neighborhood outside. (p. 14, The Frolic)

As the Frolic ends, the bizarre explodes into the ordinary, and the collection proper begins.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is an incredibly difficult reader. Like all the best horror, Ligotti’s works are drenched in atmosphere. This is not, however, the kind of atmosphere that you sink into and are carried away by. The book is, instead, a very active read; the reader has to build up their own atmosphere, brick by brick, with the pieces that Ligotti provides.

What makes the experience truly trying is what you are expected to imbibe. Ligotti, like Lovecraft before him, is a truly cosmic author. This is not fiction meant to simply unsettle you. Ligotti entirely forgoes the standard pathways of horror; there is no gore here, precious little suspense, scarce violence. Ligotti’s words will, instead, get inside your mind and, once there, ransack everything that you hold dear. This is one of the bleakest collections you will ever read, a grand altar assembled to celebrate the utter unimportance of your world. These stories will not evoke your sympathy, because while reading you will realize that no living creature deserves sympathy. These stories don’t even have the prospect of a happy ending, because while reading you will come to realize that there is no such thing as a happy ending. Story after story is an inexorable slide through darkness, the blessed perhaps ending in a Ligottian paradise:

And was it a world at all? Rather the unreal essence of one, all natural elements purged by an occult process of extraction, all days distilled into dreams and nights into nightmares. Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm, while imperfection was the paradoxical source of idealities – miracles of aberrance and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or a thwarted searching for the good. Instead, there was proffered a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal. (p. 276, Vastarien)

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the stores in Songs of a Dead Dreamer are dry or uninteresting, not at all. In an interview a few years ago, Ligotti said that Literature is entertainment or it is nothing, and he lives up to that principle in every single piece here. A large part of the enveloping atmosphere of the collection comes from Ligotti’s prose, which is nothing short of incredible:

Best of all, though, would be the depiction of my life as an abstract painting – a twilight world, indistinct around the edges and without center or focus; a bridge without banks, tunnel without openings; a crepuscular existence pure and simple. No heaven or hell, only a quiet withdrawal from life’s hysteria and death’s tenacious darkness. (And I tell you this: What I most love about twilight is the deceptive sense, as one looks down the dimming west, not that it is some fleeting transitional moment, but that there’s actually nothing before or after it: that that’s all there is.) (p. 147, The Lost Art of Twilight)

Ligotti’s writing is incredible at capturing a moment and then making that moment seem like all eternity. His use of description in Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech, for instance, fills the room with so many oddities that it’s impossible to picture all at once, leading to a claustrophobic and cluttered atmosphere where the reader is sure something vital is lurking behind them. The one drawback of the style comes about in Masquerade of a Dead Sword, which is essentially a nihilistic heroic fantasy story. The majority of the tale works quite well, but when the climax comes around and events are supposed to leap into motion, the immediacy that such an action scene requires is smothered under the oppressive weight of the atmosphere.

Ligotti has said that he has no interest in capturing the lives of “normal” people in his stories, but, when it comes to the fringes of society, he has almost no equal. The discomfort and fear of Alice (Alice’s Last Adventure), or the repressed dreams of the “fair haired girl” (The Eye of the Lynx), the conflicted nature of Alb Indys (The Troubles with Dr. Thoss), the sheer longing of Victor Keirion (Vastarien), these are portrayals that are almost painfully poignant, characters outside our own experience whose plight is so vast that we not only come to recognize theirs but lose the ability, for a time, to even glimpse our own.

When it comes to the integration of philosophy and atmosphere, Dream of a Manikin is a good example of Ligotti’s general style. The story uses several different frames to layer itself, gradually building an extremely unsettling air while introducing us to Ligotti’s concept of shared dreaming and Divine Masochism (p. 61, Dream of a Manakin). The majority of the story is discomforting and thought provoking, but it’s only at the end, when Ligotti has fully developed both idea and atmosphere, when events became truly visceral. The story’s conclusion causes the entirety of the text to come to life and turn on us, infusing what seemed like a relatively contained exploration of ideas into a rapier stabbing into us.

That sudden reversal characterizes many of the stories here, though it rarely comes in the form of a conventional twist. Often, the majority of the story will describe a ritual, setting, or mindset that seems at once standard and ye so subtly wrong that we can’t do anything but fail to comprehend it again and again. Then, as the story closes, Ligotti puts down the final piece of the puzzle and pulls the whole story into focus, showing us that not only was the world we’d been seeing correct, but that it was, in fact, the world we live in, the only possible mindset to ever even contemplate. A great example of this is The Greater Festival of Masks. The vast majority of the story takes events that seem simple and makes them so surreal as to be indecipherable. Noss tries on a mask, watches over the mask shop, supplies a mask or two, and then goes off with his mask. It’s only at the end that the reader can truly appreciate the story and see why no word of it was wasted, which is the reason that so many of Ligotti’s stories are even stronger on reread.

The use of several different frames is a technique that Ligotti uses throughout the collection. Many of these stories are about identity, so the constantly shifting nature of how the tale is told compliment that perfectly. Probably the most accomplished of the shifting frame stories are Notes on the Writing of Horror Fiction (a piece that is delightfully metafictional, informative, and creepy as hell) and The Christmas Eve of Aunt Elise. The latter is interesting because the narrator’s feeling of familiarity and tradition are only matched by the reader’s sense of dislocation. Is the tale Jack recounting his experiences many years later? Is it a new experience that the narrator is having? Perhaps, the center of the stale is the story that Aunt Elise is telling. Or, perhaps, it’s another possibility, only coming to light at the end, and grotesquely altering everything that came before.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer will terrify you, and I’d be lying if I said it was a truly pleasant experience. All the same, this collection is absolutely essential. If you are going to read two works of horror in your life, make one Lovecraft and the other Ligotti.


My analysis of the Nyctalops Trilogy is here.

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

If you've read Ligotti and want to discuss interpretations, there's no place better to do so than at the dedicated Ligotti website The Nightmare Network.