Monday, November 2, 2015

Nihilism For Marionettes

Songs of a Dead Dreamer (With these contents 2010) by Thomas Ligotti, in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (2015). Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer; containing the following stories:

The Frolic • (1982)
Les Fleurs • (1981)
Alice's Last Adventure • (1985)
Dream of a Manikin • (1982)
The Nyctalops Trilogy, consisting of The Chymist • (1981), Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes • (1982), and Eye of the Lynx • (1983)
Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story • (1985)
The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise: A Tale of Possession in Old Grosse Pointe • (1983)
The Lost Art of Twilight • (1986)
The Troubles of Dr. Thoss • (1985)
Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie • (1986
Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech • (1983)
Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror • (1985)
Dr. Locrian's Asylum • (1987)
The Sect of the Idiot • (1988)
The Greater Festival of Masks • (1985)
The Music of the Moon • (1987)
The Journal of J.P. Drapeau • (1987)
Vastarien • (1987) 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer first appeared in 1985 as Thomas Ligotti's first short-story collection. Its contents changed in different editions over the years. In this Penguin 'Double,' paired with Grimscribe, his second collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer uses the same contents as the 2010 Subterranean Press edition.

Ligotti is a relatively unknown quantity outside horror fiction -- his biggest career exposure came as people on-line debated whether or not he'd been plagiarized in the first season of True Detective to supply Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle with all his best lines.

Prior to that, Ligotti was a mysterious figure. After that, he was also a mysterious figure. His reclusiveness isn't at the level of Pynchon or Salinger, but it's still remarkable in today's media-saturated age. His stories and essays tell the story. He doesn't write novels, though he has written one fairly long novella (My Work is Not Yet Done). He's certainly not for everybody, but then again, what writer is?

Ligotti's literary universe, already distinctly Ligottian early in his career, resembles something assembled in a laboratory from pieces of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges. Then someone threw in an obsession with puppets, mannequins, and marionettes. Then someone set Phasers to Nihilism and roasted everything for about an hour. And that doesn't really describe his corpus all that well. He's got a more noticeable sense of humour than the four named authors, for one. Poe occasionally had a similar sense of humour in his blackly comic stories, but he didn't tend to exhibit that sense of humour in his horror stories. Ligotti often does.

But while there will always be attempts to classify Ligotti as Weird (including one by Weird spokesman Jeff VanderMeer in his clumsy, vague introduction to this Penguin volume), he's horror all the way down. His narrative structure and voice sometimes seem more Absurdist than horrific, but next to Ligotti, Kafka and other absurdists look like Pollyannas. 

There are no happy endings in these stories. There aren't even any points where one can imagine that anyone, anywhere is happy, or fulfilled, or anything other than Totally Damned except when that person is fulfilled by doing terrible things to other people. The biggest positive moral triumph in any of these stories comes when a mind-blasted person manages to kill himself, leaving a "victorious corpse" as a rebuke to his nemesis, a nemesis which is in actuality the personification of the Universe as a malign chaos at eternal play with everything that composes its body. That's a happy ending. 

For all that nihilism, the stories are exhilarating, witty, unique, intellectually challenging, aesthetically pleasing, and often bleakly hilarious. Ligotti riffs on predecessors such as H.P. Lovecraft and genre tropes such as vampirism at certain points ("The Cult of the Idiot" posits a cult devoted to Lovecraft's burbling, bubbling, atomic chaos of an idiot god Azathoth; "Alice's Last Adventure" bounces Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl and several other writers off some very hard and unforgiving walls; "The Lost Art of Twilight" makes vampires both horrible and absurd). 

Throughout, Ligotti offers short stories with enough Big Ideas to support entire novels. Ligotti may not write novels, but he certainly doesn't write miniatures. Stories such as "Vastarien" and "Les Fleurs" supply massive mythologies in Fun-Size form. And "The Frolic" presents one of the most annoying and tired of modern horror tropes, the antic and seemingly omniscient serial killer, in such a fresh and sinister way that in other hands it would have supported a trilogy. 

"The Frolic" is the first story in the collection and it's a killer -- a serial killer who makes Hannibal Lecter and his ilk look like the tired pop contrivances that they are and a horror mostly implied that clutches the heart. "The Frolic" also showcases a relative rarity for Ligotti as 'normal' suburban characters are set off against the horror of the world. It could almost be a Charles Beaumont or T.E.D. Klein story except for the bleak, nihilistic cosmic vistas described by the serial killer. 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is an extraordinary collection, one that does indeed make one nervous about the realities of, well, reality. If your perfect model of horror runs to Stephen King (or John Saul, gods help you), then one should probably avoid this collection -- or buy it and shake yourself up. To lift Buzz Aldrin's phrase about the Moon, this is Magnificent Desolation. But Jesus, does Ligotti love puppets. Highly recommended.

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