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.
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).
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.
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.
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”.