Archive for Clive Barker

Thomas Ligotti’s “Songs of a Dead Dreamer”

Posted in Brandon Trenz, Clive Barker, Grimscribe: His Lives and Works, Psycho (novel), Robert Bloch, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, Tekeli-li! (Journal of Terror), The Frolic (short film), The Hellbound Heart, Thomas Ligotti, Weird Tales with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Much has been written about Thomas Ligotti and his personal brand of psychological horror. Many have pontificated about the  hidden meanings behind his enigmatic stories and thus proven their total lack of comprehension towards his art. I do not profess to understand the mind of this troubled genius nor shall I embarrass myself by putting forth my take, as it were. Instead, I will tell you briefly how I came to hear about him, totally misjudge him, and finally embrace the bleak nightmare vision which he delineates so eloquently.

I first came across Thomas Ligotti sometime in the early 1990’s. At the time, I was immersed in Lovecraftiana, and was scouring the 2nd hand bookstores for anything I could find which pertained to H.P. Lovecraft and his associates. This was the era, however, where much of that sort of fiction was unfashionable and many horror publications were printing a lot of  “Splatterpunk” horror, which was known for it’s almost pornographic depiction of graphic and gruesome violence. Names associated with the scene are David Schow (the acknowledged progenitor of the genre), John Skipp, Craig Spector, and Clive Barker, to name a few.

Authors and enthusiasts of  literary horror were torn between the two camps of Splatterpunk versus what was being touted as “Sublime Horror” or horror fiction which focused more on atmosphere and implied chills than the explicit offerings of these upstart authors. I, being a traditionalist, sided with the sublime crowd, and would not even consider looking at anything which smacked of serial killers, or just visceral horror in general. This kept me from exploring many worthwhile writers, including much of Robert Bloch’s literary legacy, until fairly recently, much to my personal shame and embarrassment. I did, however, read Clive Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart” and found it to be very beautifully written, and have since loosened up and read other genre writers such as Joe R. Lansdale, whose “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road ” I found to be very enjoyable.

Somehow, inexplicably, I lumped Ligotti in that group of taboo horror writers. I think that since I knew nothing about him, and he was a contemporary of some of these other splatterpunks I just assumed he was of their ilk. In 1990 or 91 I began to purchase the latest issues of the revived Weird Tales magazine which is where Lovecraft and his cohorts first got published back in the 1920’s and 30’s. I loved the artwork, and found the digest format very attractive. I collected them and read for the first time many authors I had only heard of in passing. It is here that I first got to read Robert Bloch’s non-Psycho related fiction, although I had actually read Psycho years before and loved it; why I had disparaged the rest of his work without having read it is beyond me now. Now matter how many times I saw his name pop up between it’s pages, however, I refused to read Ligotti.

Weird Tales Ligotti Issue (Winter 1991-92), which I owned, but never read.

Then came the short-lived “Journal of Terror”, “Tekeli-Li!”, which I actually donated to a fundraiser to help get the premier issue published. I did so because they promised to focus on “Sublime Horror”. There were only four issues, and I received each one as a missive from beyond preaching the gospel of old-school horror. In the fourth and final issue, they had a Thomas Ligotti interview, as well as an essay and the short story,  “The Night School’ from his second collection “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works” (1991).

Tekeli-Li! #4 (1992)

I read much of the other stuff in the journal, but skipped the Ligotti stuff. By now you’d think I’d get the hint that he wasn’t like I thought he was, but I was a bull-headed fanboy, and I stuck to  y guns. I also, of course, passed up the opportunity to acquire many of his books in original editions which are now rare and fetch exorbitant prices, which leads us to how I finally gave in and found out what I had been missing.

In 2015 Penguin Books put out an omnibus of his first two story collections, “Songs of a Dead Dreamer”, and “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works”. I had been following their releases of classic horror since the first batch which featured many of my favorites; Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelly, as well as Ray Russell, whom I grew to love once I read his “Haunted Castles” collection from this series. When I saw Ligotti’s name listed in the second wave of releases, I began to wonder if I had misjudge him. I read about him on Amazon, Wikipedia, etc and found that two of his influences were Poe and Lovecraft! I took a chance and ordered a 2nd hand copy of the Penguin collection from the bookstore chain I worked for and from the first tale, I was hooked.

“Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” (2015, Penguin Books).

Now, let me clarify a big misconception about Mr. Ligotti, which I see proliferated through countless reviews of his work. Yes, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft were two of his influences, among others like Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulze, but his work is nothing like either of those writers or any other others for that matter. Ligotti is sui generis. Occasionally one may see an odd reference or tribute to one of his  mentors, like the forbidden tome (like Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon”) in “Vastarian”,  but he is his own man. His stories are beautiful nightmares. He speaks in the language of the subconscious and he mines the deep psychological hang-ups and fears of the human psyche.  Anyone looking for blood and viscera need not look here, but conversely, anyone looking for tentacled monsters from outer space are in the wrong place too. His horrors are subtle and often only wryly implied. I confess, sometimes I have to re-read a passage to get the gist of what he is trying to get at, but that is not his fault, I’m just not on the same level as he, intellectually. Ligotti doesn’t write down for the common man. His stories are for the thinking person whose vocabulary extends beyond the parameter of the latest bestseller. His concepts are deep as they are dark. He has a very nihilistic view of existence and it shows in his work. Yet, in spite of it all, I find his work inspiring.

Stand-out stories for me were the Frolic, a story about a serial child killer which in the hands of a lesser writer would have become a sordid exploitation piece, yet in Ligotti’s skillful hands it becomes and subtle tale of metaphysical horror and a nihilistic commentary about the inexorable advance of Doom. Ligotti also penned a screenplay for a short film based on this story, by Brandon Trenz, which is fairly faithful to his tale. It is only 22 minutes long, but it is worth watching if you can find it.

Poster for the film adaptation of “The Frolic” (2007).

Another stand out was  “The Chymist” from “The Nyctalops Trilogy” which is the tale of a chemist who develops a drug that allows him to have his way with the recipient, but not in the way you are most likely imagining as you read this.

There is “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story”, in which Ligotti gives a Master Class on how to write a Horror story. He creates a scenario, which he writes out in several different styles, each with a unique outcome. It is at once entertaining and indicative of his mastery of the genre.

“The Lost Art of Twilight” is a vampire tale to end all vampire tales. It is contemporary and unique in his conception on the creatures of the tale and it is truly frightening.

And the list goes on…

If you like your horror tales to be a little more involved than the zombie apocalypse of the week, and are not afraid of the dark recesses of the human psyche, then I highly recommend Thomas Ligotti’s “Songs of a Dead Dreamer”. I’ll have more to say once I read “Grimscribe”.



Clive Barker’s “Haeckel’s Tale”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 13, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

A few years ago, I saw an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series that featured an adaptation by director John McNaughton (whose lone previous Horror credit seems to be the infamous “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”) of a rare Clive Barker tale entitled “Haeckel’s Tale”. I confess I was initially a little squeamish about watching it because I had a vague idea that it involved some sort of zombies (of the George A Romero ilk, not the traditional voodoo kind) and I knew that any film based on a Clive Barker story is most likely going to be explicitly graphic, but the period setting and online reviews referencing Frankenstein eventually won me over in the end and I took the plunge. Expecting something like “Re-animator” (a la Clive Barker), I sat down and braced myself for whatever was to come. In the end, it wasn’t so bad and I enjoyed a truly fun mélange of Gothic Horror, Grand Guignol, and the current flesh-eating zombie trope.
In fact, so taken was I with this admixture of Horror styles that I wanted to seek out the original source material; unfortunately, this proved to be a bit problematic. Apparently, the tale had just been officially published in September 2005 in “Dark Delicacies: Original Stories of the Macabre from Today’s Greatest Horror Writers”, so at the time of the Masters of Horror episode debut (January of 2006, according to Wikipedia) none of the subsequent reviews contained any information on where to find it.

Dark Delicacies (2005) which first featured the original Barker story.

It has taken me a few years of hunting, but just the other day I noticed a collection at work entitled “The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror” (2010), which featured the original tale in all its gory glory!

The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror (2010), where I finally found the tale.

Although I hadn’t seen the Masters of Horror episode in some time, I knew it well enough to notice the differences, which were minor: some were understandable, like the combining of characters to streamline the narrative for the 1 hour allotment of the show’s running time; some were not, like the allusion to Frankenstein, which was seemingly thrown into the mix for no apparent reason, since it does not appear in the tale.

Ernst Haeckel’s Frankensteinian aspirations come to naught…perhaps because they were never mentioned in the original tale.

The main disparity for me, however, was the atmosphere and general tone of the tale, which was noticeably different. The TV episode was treated like a campy Tales from the Crypt episode mixing Frankenstein and zombies, culminating in a grotesque orgy replete with graphic (for television) depictions of every sort of depraved necrophilic act one can imagine.

Elise has conjugal relations with her zombie husband…among other things.

The story, although similar in its climax and dénouement, starts off very differently and even though the main plot points can be checked off as the show progresses, there is a vibe which is inherent in the story that does not translate to the screen. To me, I believe that in this tale Barker was giving a tip of the hat to the Gothic Tales and Ghost stories of yore, albeit with his own idiomatic stamp on it. The initial set up seems like something out of a Victorian ghost story by MR James or JS Le Fanu.
The Masters of Horror episode is transplanted to somewhere in the American South during the mid-to-late 19th century—there seems to be a trend in stateside adaptations of period tales to transplant them to the American South, as in the case of 1990’s “Carmilla” with Meg Tilly as the Sapphic vampire; maybe it’s so they don’t have to deal with foreign accents or exotic locales, but a feigned Southern drawl can be just as distracting as a bad English accent—and a young gentleman, John Ralston, is looking for the necromancer Miz Carnation, to implore her to help raise his recently deceased bride from the grave. Before accepting his offer, she tells him the cautionary tale of Doctor Haeckel’s misadventure.

John Ralston consults Miz Carnation in the Masters of Horror adaptation.

In contrast, Barker’s story begins in Hamburg Germany, 1822, with a club room full of aspirant young scientists conversing about a local soothsayer named Montesquino, who was holding séances in the parlors of the local ladies and claiming to possess the necromantic powers of communicating and even raising the dead. The young men scoff at the claims and denounce him as a “contemptuous cheat and a sham”. Soon their attentions turn to the only silent voice in the room, Ernst Haeckel. When asked for his opinion, he simply says, “You don’t want to know.”This does not have the intended effect on his colleagues whom, intrigued, press him further, whereupon he replies, “Very well then, (…) I’ll tell you.” And so begins “Haeckel’s Tale”.
In the TV episode, Montesquino is presented as a sort of traveling necromancer who uses the carcass of a dog in a show to demonstrate his necromantic abilities, much like a 19th century snake oil hawker. He later pops up at the house of Wolfram, the aged gentleman who gives Haeckel shelter for the night, and is paid by him to perform a ritual for his wife, Elise, who craves the cadaverous touch of her previous paramour. In the story, Montesquino is only mentioned at the opening scene and it is an Englishman, a Doctor Skal, who proves to be the necromancer who sets off the blasphemous in the tale’s climax (no pun intended…well maybe just a bit).

Montesquino shoots a resurrected pooch in the Masters of Horror adaptation.

The rest of the show follows the story, more or less, and the cemetery scene pretty much as Barker describes it while still keeping things within the allowed parameters of what is acceptable on television. Even the ending is similar with the bookend narratives being the only differences. If you’re looking for more detail, or the ultimate reveal of the story, I recommend you either read the tale or watch the Masters of Horror episode.

Artwork for an Eastern European (?) DVD cover of the Masters of Horror episode.