Thomas Ligotti: Dreams are Doorways

I wanted to publish a blog post about one of my favourite authors at the moment: the American author of supernatural/horror/weird fiction, Thomas Ligotti. I should point out at this juncture that so far I’ve read four volumes of Ligotti’s work: the short story collectionsSongs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (re-published together in one excellent edition by Penguin Classics recently); another collection of short stories, Teatro Grottesco; My Work is Not Yet Done (a novella and two short stories); and The Spectral Link (two novellas, ‘Metaphysica Morum’ and ‘The Small People’). So that means that I haven’t yet read Noctuary, The Nightmare Factory (two more short story collections), The Conspiracy Against the Human Race or any other little bits and pieces. In fact, Ligotti has published only sparse amounts in the past three decades, since his first collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer was originally published in the mid-1980s.
Funnily enough, I only discovered Ligotti’s work two or three years ago, and it was not through any literary links: I had enjoyed the first season of the American television detective drama, True Detective. I read somewhere that the show’s creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, had been influenced by the unsettling writings of this author, Thomas Ligotti. I researched Ligotti and discovered he’d received much literary acclaim- he’d been compared with some giants in horror fiction, and was regarded as one of the great modern writers of supernatural and weird fiction. So of course, I was compelled to investigate further and make myself familiar with his work. I should also admit that after reading some of his stories, his style influenced one of my own- ‘The Vacancy’, which was published in my collection Echoes and Exiles, and in KZine 13.
I want to encourage people reading this blog article of mine to also read Ligotti, so as with previous blog posts I don’t want to give too much away about the plots of Ligotti’s stories and ruin them beforehand (no spoilers) However there’s some room to analyse aspects of his writing without giving too much away.
Firstly, how to define his style? Ligotti is able to create a sense of the bizarre and strange even in the most routine and mundane contexts. His fiction is dreamlike and eerie; both illogical and surreal. The novella ‘The Small People’ in The Spectral Link is one example representing Ligotti’s sense of the uncanny, in terms of the narrator’s idiosyncratic perception of reality as he relates his confessional monologue. The link with dreaming or nightmares is fundamental- I think Ligotti owes his success as a writer due to his ability to tap deep into the subconscious and connect with the deep irrational fears that are most peculiar and disturbing. However, although morbidity is one of his inherent traits as a writer, his stories are also laced with a dark twisted humour. I found his dry humour and black comedy most evident in the corporate satire of My Work Is Not Yet Done. His protagonists are frequently outsiders, those on the fringe of society or those who are paranoid and disaffected. Oh, and labyrinthine might just be his favourite word.
Come here if you’re interested in a selection of quotations from Ligotti’s work. I tend to find Ligotti’s fiction/storytelling more interesting than what might be described as his mission statements. This is why I haven’t been attracted to reading The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and why I wasn’t such a fan of his deconstructive approach to the horror story in ‘Notes on the Writing of Horror: a Story’ and ‘Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror’. I think these wittily sarcastic pieces perhaps might appeal to (or, hopefully, annoy) anyone who is more inclined to be a critic of fiction.
The earlier collections owe a great deal to HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and I suppose the gothic tradition of supernatural fiction. By Teatro Grottesco, it seemed clear to me that Ligotti had perfected an eerily morbid, bleak and ominous style which works to unsettling effect.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer, favourite stories: ‘Les Fleurs’; ‘Dream of a Manikin’; ‘Dr Voke and Mr Leech’ (like a dark, sinister Laurel and Hardy); ‘The Sect of the Idiot’; ‘The Music of the Moon’ (eerie and surreal, like a nightmare)
Grimscribe, favourite stories: ‘Flowers of the Abyss’ (reminded me very much of HP Lovecraft); ‘In the Shadow of Another World’; ‘The Cocoons’; ‘The Glamour’ (a hideous witch story); ‘Miss Plarr’ (very mysterious and eerie)
Teatro Grottesco, favourite stories: ‘Purity’, ‘The Town Manager’, ‘My Case for Retributive Action’, ‘The Bungalow House’ , ‘Our Temporary Supervisor’ and ‘Gas Station Carnivals’.
Themes and tropes in Ligotti’s fiction
·        Protagonists who roam dark, mysterious streets and find themselves in danger. This occurs in a number of stories- My Work is Not Yet Done, ‘Notes on the Writing of Horror’, ‘The Troubles of Dr Thoss’, ‘Masquerade of a Dead Sword’, ‘The Music of the Moon’, ‘The Journal of JP Drapeau’, ‘Vasterien’ (Songs of a Dead Dreamer), ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, ‘The Dreaming in Nortown’, ‘The Cocoons’, ‘The Night School’, ‘The Glamour’ (Grimscribe) and ‘Purity’, ‘The Town Manager’, ‘The Clown Puppet’, ‘In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land’, ‘Teatro Grottesco’, ‘Severini’ and ‘The Shadow, the Darkness’ (Teatro Grottesco)
·        Locations such as crumbling and ominous factories, mansions, warehouses, mausoleums, sanatorium, or decaying old buildings in general. Again, many examples- the derelict warehouse in My Work is Not Yet Done; ‘The Lost Art of Twilight’, ‘Dr Locrian’s Asylum’, ‘The Sect of the Idiot’, ‘The Music of the Moon’ (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, ‘Flowers of the Abyss’, ‘In the Shadow of Another World’, ‘The Cocoons’, ‘The Night School’, ‘The Glamour’ (Grimscribe); ‘Purity’, ‘The Red Tower’, ‘Our Temporary Supervisor’, ‘The Bungalow House’, ‘Severini’ and ‘The Shadow, the Darkness’ (Teatro Grottesco)
·        Small town gothic: gloomy, mist-wreathed small towns with dark secrets; bleak places in the middle of nowhere. Stories with this feature include ‘The Small People’ (The Spectral Link), ‘The Frolic’, ‘Dr Locrian’s Asylum’, ‘The Sect of the Idiot’, ‘The Greater Festival of Masks’ (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, ‘Flowers of the Abyss’, ‘The Dreaming in Nortown’, ‘The Shadow at the Bottom of the World’ (Grimscribe); and ‘The Town Manager’, ‘My Case for Retributive Action’,  ‘Our Temporary Supervisor’, ‘In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land’ (Teatro Grottesco)
·        Flesh and decay; degeneration/corruption: My Work is Not Yet Done; ‘Alice’s Last Adventure’, ‘Dream of a Manikin’, ‘The Nyctalops Trilogy’, ‘Notes on the Writing of Horror’, ‘The Lost Art of Twilight’, ‘The Troubles of Dr Thoss’, ‘The Sect of the Idiot’ (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); ‘The Spectacles in the Drawer’, ‘The Cocoons’, The Glamour’, ‘The Library of Byzantium’, ‘The Shadow at the Bottom of the World’ (Grimscribe), ‘Purity’, ‘The Red Tower’ and all of the stories in the ‘Damaged and Diseased’ third section of Teatro Grottesco.
·        A hidden fourth dimension underlying or parallel to the real world if we are prepared to ‘lift the veil’: My Work is Not Yet Done; ‘The Frolic’, ‘Les Fleurs’, ‘Dream of a Manikin’, ‘Dr Locrian’s Asylum’, ‘The Sect of the Idiot’, ‘Vasterien’ (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); ‘Nethescurial’, ‘The Dreaming in Nortown’, ‘The Mystics of Muelenberg’, ‘In the Shadow of Another World’, ‘Miss Plarr’ (Grimscribe); ‘The Shadow, the Darkness’ (Teatro Grottesco) The existence of a fourth dimension or ‘other worlds and dimensions of existence’ may be implied in other stories too.
·        Transformations– can take the form in Ligotti’s fiction as characters who are tortured, possessed, disfigured or transfigured by evil entities, or transform physically in a supernatural sense of their own volition or caused by extraordinary events. This appears in stories such as My Work is Not Yet Done; ‘Les Fleurs’, ‘Dream of a Manikin’, ‘The Nyctalops Trilogy’, ‘The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise’, ‘The Lost Art of Twilight’, ‘Masquerade of a Dead Sword’, ‘The Sect of the Idiot’, ‘The Greater Festival of Masks’, ‘The Music of the Moon’ (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, ‘The Spectacles in the Drawer’, ‘Flowers of the Abyss’, ‘The Dreaming in Nortown’, ‘In the Shadow of Another World’, ‘The Cocoons’, ‘The Glamour’, ‘The Shadow at the Bottom of the World’ (Grimscribe), ‘My Case for Retributive Action’, ‘In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land’, ‘Severini’ and ‘The Shadow, the Darkness’ (Teatro Grottesco)
·        Evil entities/presences/demonic forces– these are in nearly all of Ligotti’s stories, and so there are too many to list, there is no point. Sometimes these entities take shape and appear prominently. Sometimes Ligotti only suggests, implies or hints at their presence and their manipulation of events, and of both dreams and reality. Sometimes they manifest with shocking clarity within a story. Sometimes they may be a figment of a damaged or ill character’s mind.
·        Carnival, masks, clowns, dolls, simulacra or shrunken versions of people, puppets and mannequins/manikins– very common features of Ligotti’s work. Sinister ‘miniature people’ are central to the plot of ‘The Small People’ in The Spectral Link. The ‘manikin hands’ of My Work is Not Yet Done are another mention of this theme. More obvious examples are ‘Dream of a Manikin’, ‘The Nyctalops Trilogy’, ‘The Greater Festival of Masks’ (Songs of a Dead Dreamer); ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’; ‘Nethescurial’ (Grimscribe), ‘The Clown Puppet’ and ‘Gas Station Carnivals’ (Teatro Grottesco)
·        Witches and witchcraft– referred to obliquely in a majority of stories, but Ligotti has written two stories in particular where an evil witch and witchcraft feature, which I like: ‘My Case for Retributive Action’ in Teatro Grottesco; and ‘The Glamour’ inGrimscribe.
·        Mysterious, sinister doctors or doctors as vital characters: a long list, starting with Dr O. in ‘Metaphysica Morum’ (The Spectral Link); the narrator of ‘The Small People’, also in The Spectral Link, relates his monologue to an unseen doctor. Dr. David Munck is the central character of ‘The Frolic’; Dr Thoss in ‘The Troubles of Dr Thoss’ (a Dr Raymond Thoss also appears in ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin in Grimscribe); Dr Voke in ‘Dr Voke and Mr Leech’; Dr Locrian and his descendant in ‘Dr Locrian’s Asylum’ (all Songs of a Dead Dreamer); Dr N. in ‘Nethescurial’; Dr Dublanc in ‘The Cocoons’ (Grimscribe); Dr Klatt and Dr Zirk in ‘In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land’; Dr Groddeck in ‘Teatro Grottesco’; Dr Fingers, a sideshow act in ‘Gas Station Carnivals’ (Teatro Grottesco)
·        Dreams/Nightmares: Dreams are doorways, providing contact with beings and entities outside reality/the waking world. Or ironically, dreams in Ligotti’s fiction provide lucid exposition that reality fails to do. Ironically, reality is fog while sleep offers clarity. The role of The Dealer in ‘Metaphysica Morum’ (The Spectral Link) is an example of a plot working in this way. Dreams are obviously a central theme ofSongs of a Dead Dreamer and ‘The Dreaming of Nortown’ in Grimscribe.
·        Evil clowns– if you suffer from fear of clowns (coulrophobia) then Ligotti is the writer for you (or perhaps not!) His fearsome clowns are the equal of anything in weird/horror fiction, perhaps even more sinister than Pennywise in Stephen King’s It. See the short stories ‘The Clown Puppet’; the Showman in ‘Gas Station Carnivals’ (Teatro Grottesco) and ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’ (Grimscribe)
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