Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thomas Ligotti - Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech [Short Story Review]

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

2. The following has spoilers for Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech, and a basic understanding of the plot is assumed.]

Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech is unique within Songs of a Dead Dreamer due to the mundane nature of the protagonist’s goals. This is not Dream of a Manikin, where we are questioning the veracity of our very existence, not Masquerade of the Dead Sword, where we are seeking to blunt our horrible knowledge of the world, and certainly not Dr. Locrian’s Asylum, where we are seeking to blot out the proof of our viewpoint’s shortsightedness. Instead, Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech hinges on a man’s problematic love life:

“I suppose I should say there is someone –“

“Whom you have taken a liking to,” Voke finishes.

“Yes, but then there is someone else –“

“Who is somehow an obstacle, someone who has made your nights so frosty. This seems very straightforward.”
(p. 199)

This is a story of elaborate silences shattered by sudden action, built of three scenes, each of which build up to a key point with added detail before suddenly shifting gears. Veech’s goals may be mundane, but Voke’s means are not, and each of those scenes meticulously color in every detail of the material world around us before shattering that fa├žade with the introduction of the bizarre.

Every scene has three key elements. The first of these is the mundane, pathetic and, at best, pitiable. There is a gradually building dread, a knowledge that the familiar scene before us will soon be violated and discarded. Then there is the coming of the strange, the bizarre, the inhuman. And, in the end, the inhuman withdraws to show us the real shape of what we assumed that we knew. Each scene is constructed in this fashion, but it’s the manipulation of the players that Ligotti uses to drive his horror home.

The first of the three scenes is Veech’s journey into Voke’s home. Anticipation is built even before Veech enters; his walk up the stairs slow and obstructed. When he gets into the good doctor’s home, we are treated to a description of every object within it. Ligotti’s eye moves with painful slowness, here, and a seeming randomness, the effect of both to fill in the environment all around us with no more rhyme or reason than Voke’s collection seems to have. Ligotti adds more and more detail, practically drowning us in minutia and leaving us unable to remember it all, glancing over our shoulder for that one detail that we know we’ve missed:

Somewhere above the gritty floor, more than a few life-size dolls hang suspended by wires which glisten like wetted strands of a spider web. But none of the dolls is seen in whole. The long beaked profile of one juts into the light; the shiny satin legs of another find their way out of the upper dimness; a beautifully pale hand glows in the distance; while much closer the better part of a harlequin dangles into view, cut off at the neck by blackness. Indeed, much of the inventory of this vast room appears only as parts and pieces of objects which manage to push their way out of the smothering dark. Upon the floor, a long low box thrusts partway into the scene, showing off its reinforced edges of bright metal strips plugged with heavy bolts. Pointed and strangely shaped instruments bloom out of the loam of shadows. They are crusted with age. A great wheel appears at quarter-phase in the room’s dimness. Other sections appendages, and gear works of curious machines also complicate this immense gallery.

As Veech progresses through the half-light, he is suddenly halted by a metal arm with a soft black handle. He backs off and continues to wall bout the chamber, grinding sawdust, sand, perhaps pulverized stars underfoot. The dismembered limbs of dolls and puppets are strewn about everywhere. Posters, signs, billboards, and leaflets of various sorts are scattered around like playing cards, their bright words disarranged into nonsense…
(p. 196-197)

And then, when the tension reaches its peak (after more of the description that I just quoted), the eerie calm is shattered:

Veech approaches the booth a little cautiously. He seems to be most interested in the figure within. Through a semi-circular opening in the glass, Veech slides his hands into the booth, apparently with the intention of giving the dummy’s arm a shake. But before his own arm creeps very far toward its goal, several things occur in succession: the dummy casually lifts its head and opens its eyes…it reaches out and places its wooden hand on Veech’s hand of flesh…and it’s jaw drops open to dispense a mechanical laugh – yah-ha-ha-ha-ha, yah-ha-ha-ha-ha. (p. 197)

In this case, the bizarre was only a manikin. Such an everyday object, however, is given horrendous importance here. The manikin is the most important aspect of the story, but for now it is only an intrusion, remarkable only for its unpleasant likeness to us. It’s a man without the ability to do anything but laugh, but still a man in form, the twisted counterpart of Veech’s paltry grief.

As I said before, the bizarre is always removed before the scene’s conclusion, leaving us with the all too human aftermath. In this case, Voke - who enters as the manikin laughs - asks Veech what his problems are. Sounding pathetic and terrified – made insignificant by his surroundings and the manikin that stands over their conversation like a third participant and yet is above it like a deity – Veech tells Voke of his troubled love life.

The second scene follows the pattern of the first. Apprehension is built by our knowledge of Veech’s goal, and our fright of Voke’s means, so the arrival of Veech, his desire, and her lover in the Street of Wavering Peaks is already a moment fraught with tension. The Street is then described as something all around us, something unreachable with our unaided eyes, and cloaked in obscuring mist. The increasing nervousness of the lovers affects us because, though we don’t know the specifics of what is to come, events will soon turn against them. And then, with no warning whatsoever:

One moment Veech is drowsily conversing with his two companions, both of them looking sternly suspicious at this point; the next moment it is as if they are two puppets who have been whisked upwards on invisible strings, into the fog and out of sight. (p. 201)

That is not the end of the scene, however. We only conclude when the two lovers are brought back to us, returned to the world that we understand, returned grotesque but all too comprehensible: Two went up, but only one comes down – a single form suspended an arm’s length above the stone-paved street and twisting a bit, as if at the end of a hangman’s rope. (p. 202)

It’s with the third scene that Ligotti shakes up the pattern, not by changing the order of steps but by changing the participants. We start with the same manikin’s laughter that disrupted us before, but now that laugh is hideously ordinary, albeit unpleasant, the dummy and Mr. Veech forming a chorus with their demented laughter: What [Voke] sees is Veech and the Ticket Man both screaming with laughter. Their cachinnations stir up the stagnant air of the loft. They are two maniac twins crying and cackling with a single voice. (p. 202) Now, Mr. Veech is a man without the ability to do anything but laugh, but still a man in form.

The scene only shifts when Voke enters. Before, Voke was strange, but still relatable. Now he is different, almost wholly alien and utterly unsympathetic: You said you didn’t mind what form the solution to your problem took. Besides, I think it all worked out for the best. Those two were making a fool of you, Mr. Veech. They wanted each other and now they have each other. Two by two they have become as one, while you are free to move on to your next disaster. (p. 203)

Like before, the bizarre moves with an artificial jerkiness, one moment here and one moment there, one moment sane and the next anything but. One moment, Mr. Veech is laughing, the next moment Mr. Veech is dead. And then, like before, the bizarre departs just as suddenly as it came, Dr. Voke plummeting down the stairs without a care in the world, his insane laughter the twisted counterpart of the paltry grief of the only remaining character.

Throughout the story, death is idolized. The inanimate is, according to Dr. Voke, the perfect state, a sleep that should never [be] broken. (p. 198) Here, only in death can humanity escape its flaws, as was the case with what lies within Dr. Voke’s precious black box.

All that is left is the manikin: Those screams, the ones from beyond the doorway at the top of the stairs, belong only to a helpless dummy who now feels warm drops of blood sliding down his lacquered cheeks. For the Ticket Man has been left – alone and alive – in the shadows of an abandoned loft. And his eyes are rolling like mad marbles.(p. 205)

The manikin, now, is rendered alive, put through the most horrible tortures – that of wood waking up, life coming into being – and he is, as the story closes, more understandable to us than the demented Veech or the homicidal, suicidal Voke, though his screams still register as nothing but a coda to the death of Voke, in the same way that Veech’s pleas were, before, pathetic compared to the manikin’s own laughter. One moment the manikin was as foreign as something could possible be, the next as familiar. And, as we’ve learned, familiar is a rather sorry place to be.

The manikin has no back story. There’s no sense of how it got where it was, or where it wants to go. But there was no back story for Veech or Voke, either, and their sudden departures and arrivals are, perhaps, all there is to them and any of us.


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

My in-depth look at the Nyctalops Trilogy can be found here.

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

1 comment:

  1. Interesting idea, the fact that this story is cycling through patterns as so. Thank you for the review