Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thomas Ligotti - Noctuary

The last vision dies with him who beholds it. (p. 72)

Plotting an author’s career can be a difficult proposition, especially if the reader’s missing some of the puzzle pieces (in my case, Grimscribe). Still, some conclusions are easily drawn by any comparison of Thomas Ligotti’s early and late works. Noctuary, Ligotti’s third collection, is perhaps the least visceral of the author’s work, far closer to Teatro Grottesco’s abstractions than Songs of a Dead Dreamer’s grotesque developments in tone. Interestingly enough, though, Noctuary might be the most traditionally horror of all Ligotti’s collections, at least where plot and structure are concerned.

In an interview conducted a few years ago, Ligotti said:  I don't think I'm capable of depicting a normal, everyday person, and I'm sure I have no interest in doing so. Noctuary, however, features several characters that, if not quite normal, are still innocent, at least when compared to most of the bizarre narrators that fill much of the author’s other works. Mrs Rinaldi’s Angel has a child protagonist; The Tsalal stars a demonic child in a tale that, if it weren’t for Ligotti’s prose and themes, could have been from a half dozen Hollywood horrors; and Conversations in a Dead Language goes so far as to feature a genuinely sympathetic protagonist.

The last of those is especially interesting, because, if Conversations in a Dead Language were found in a general anthology or put forth by an anonymous creator, it could be from another author altogether, albeit another author of extraordinary skill. The story is made up of three scenes, each a successive Halloween night. The main character is a lonely but kind man, connected to humanity only by his mocking coworkers, his mother, and dispensing candy on Halloween night. As the story progresses, the main character is stripped of each of the things he cherishes. The conclusion is remarkable because it’s not an exhibition of Ligotti’s usual eroding depression but rather a melancholy pathos, still a dark tale but one dark in the most human of ways.

In Noctuary, Ligotti often brings religion to the fore, not as a truth in and out of itself but, still, as a force for good, no matter how ineffectual. In Conversations in a Dead Language, the character is described as a "clockwork parishioner," (p. 39), but it's the novella-length The Tsalal that explores the issue in a deper sense. The story is  about the birth of an antichrist-esque figure, a human avatar for the horrific Tsalal, the author of all changes, the great reviser of things seen and unseen, known and unknown. (p. 75) Andrew Maness, that avatar, dreams of a world in which all things were subject to forces that knew nothing of law or reason, and nothing possessed its own nature of essence but was only a mask upon the face of absolute darkness, a blackness no one had ever seen. (p. 78)

Such vistas of unreality are no doubt familiar to Ligotti's devotees. The Tsalal itself, too, appears in other places, namely the later-written The Shadow, The Darkness that concludes Teatro Grottesco. Here, however, the idea is the backbone for an almost conventional tale, one concerned with a physical threat to the world (not just a metaphysical or intellectual one), a town beset by increasingly horrific events, and a group of villagers that meet in the church to confront a manifestation of evil. But if the tale's first layer is that of the ever-shifting Tsalal, and the second is the familiar potential-apocalypse tale that the idea of the Tsalal is used to tell, I would be remiss to not point out the third layer, namely the disassociated and dreamlike way it is told. The chapters oscillate between several time frames, and while some aspects of the tale are examined at great depth, others are left entirely up to the reader to piece together, all of which leaves the story feeling more vision than reality, an experience at once vivid and impossible to ever wholly comprehend.

Mrs Rinaldi's Angel, on the other hand, centers on a child plagued by dreams. In an attempt to cure him of these nocturnal visions, the child's mother takes him to Mrs Rinaldia, who brings the boy to the angel within her home. The story is, in a way, a conflict between two visions of paradise. There is the nightmare-as-reality heaven as glimpsed previously in Songs of a Dead Dreamer's Vastarion, in which change and torment are commonplace and so cease to be negatives at all: The awful opulence of the dream, a rich and swollen world nourished by the exhaustion of the flesh. The world, in fact, as such. Any other realm seemed an absence by comparison, at best a chasm in the fertile graveyard of life. (p. 53) On the other hand there's the pure heaven that the angel brings, a bliss composed not of pain but of absence: If [the angel]  could have spoken it might have told, in a soft and reverberant voice, of the lonely peace of the planets, the uninhabited paradise of clouds, and an antiseptic infinity. (p. 59) As the tale's conclusion makes clear, humanity is not fit for either paradise, and our mere presence is sufficient to turn wonder into horror, but neither of those conclusions impinges on the general decency of the narrator.

To a greater or lesser extent, The Medusa, Prodigy of Dreams, Mad Night of Atonement, and even The Tsalal all concentrate on slowly building effects. This is a fine and often fabulous technique, but it here results in several tales being too focused on the climax at the expense of what comes before. Since many of Noctuary’s stories are less atmospherically dense as those in Ligotti’s collections, their contemplative nature can sometimes lead to too light a hold on the reader until the end.

This is strongest felt with Prodigy of Dreams and Mad Night of Atonement. Neither’s necessarily a weak tale – both have instances of powerful imagery and conclusions nothing short of fantastic – but each feels detached and overly expository in the opening and middle sections. Prodigy of Dreams shows an estate gradually taken control of by morbid oddities, but the narrator is far from the action, and some of the imagery feels more passing strange than fundamentally threatening or revelatory. Mad Night of Atonement’s main character, the brilliant, eccentric, and mad Dr. Haxhausen orates for most of the story’s length. What he says is interesting, and the twist of the final lines is a masterstroke, but there’s little tension up until the practical demonstrations begin. Of the building stories, The Medusa definitely best capitalizes on its structure. The story is about the crystallization of a philosophical idea, but the majority is instead composed of bizarre conversations and little clues that refuse to add up, all of which is fascinating and quite amusing upon contemplation once finished or reread.

The final category of the collection’s first two sections (the third of which shall be shortly addressed) is filled with bizarre, difficult to classify, and well paced stories. The Voice in the Bones is a surreal tale of pursuit and capture. The Strange Designs of Master Rignolo, however, is the collection’s masterpiece (at least in Ligotti’s traditional sense; both it and Conversations in a Dead Language are fantastic stories). The reclusive artist Rignolo has grown fixated on death. Seeking immortality, he’s attempting to immerse himself in his own landscapes. The narrator’s interactions with Rignolo, and with Rignolo’s work, build a powerful and unsettling atmosphere, and the tale’s climax is powerful and chilling. Like The Bungalow House and several others, this tale focuses on man's ability to - as The Conspiracy Against the Human Race would put it - use sublimation to distract us from the inherent plight of our existence. Like those other stories, The Strange Designs of Master Rignolo comes to the conclusion that there is no escape, but it reaches it in a rather different fashion. In The Bungalow House, we realize that we can never connect with others - or their artistic creations - because all those relationships are fabrications of our consciousness. Here, however, Ligotti seems to focus in on the idea that, since the landscapes are created by mortal humans, they can obviously not be used to get beyond normal human comprehension - or normal human mortality.

The final section, the Notebook of the Night, contains a wide array of Ligotti’s flash fiction. The pieces here range considerably. Some are (short) short stories in their own right, others lone images or snippets of ominous conversations and lives, and others are brief essays. The multitude of pieces are never explicitly linked together, but their effect is certainly cumulative. That is not, however, to say that none are successful on their own. Many manage to be as affecting as some of the author’s full length stories. The Career is similar in theme to pieces like My Work is Not Yet Done and some of Ligotti's other corporate works, but, at a page and a half, the story's lean as can be and darkly witty throughout. New Faces in the City features strong imagery and several quotable passages. The Spectral Estate focuses on haunted houses. It's a primarily expository piece, but there are several instances of powerful imagery throughout. Admittedly, a few of the pieces lack the space to make as much an impact on the reader as one of the author's longer tales, but the section is, as a whole, extremely powerful.

Though I wouldn't recommend a Ligotti newcomer begin with Noctuary, the collection is filled with fantastic stories that more than justify the reverence I and others accord Ligotti with. The stories here are often abstract, focused more on the exploration of ideas than on scares or thrills, and the ideas that it explores are fantastic, the prose they are conveyed with is at once dense and beautiful, and the atmosphere that soaks each of these stories is some of the greatest ever evoked. In the end, Noctuary is a brilliant and glowing gem of a volume, and its only comparative flaw is the even brighter glow of some of Ligotti's preceding and following releases.

Standouts: Conversations in a Dead Language, The Strange Designs of Master Rignolo, New Faces in the City


  1. Great write-up, although I think you've definitely misinterpreted parts of "Conversations in a dead language". You write "Conversations in a Dead Language goes so far as to feature a genuinely sympathetic protagonist." and "The main character is a lonely but kind man" when he's clearly a pedophile killing children... I agree that he's written in a way that makes his isolation and mental problems possible to sympathize with (which is part of what makes the tale so chilling) but describing him as a "kind man" seems a bit tasteless to me.

    1. He's a child killer; not a "kind man."

  2. Reading "Conversations in a Dead Language," I did not view the main character as a pedophile. It's certainly possible, however, that I did misinterpret the tale. I'll reread it soon (perhaps with the snazzy new Subterranean Press edition that's soon to come) and see what I think.