Archive for Weird Tales

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”.

 

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Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Witchcraft of Ulua”

Posted in August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Necronomicon Press, The Mother of Toads, The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith, The Witchcraft of Ulua, Weird Tales, Witchcraft Stories with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Having enjoyed so much re-visiting my Necronomicon Press chapbook of “Mother of Toads”, from their “Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith” series, I decided to re-read “The Witchcraft of Ulua”, which first appeared in a slightly watered down version in the February 1934 edition of Weird Tales.

Weird Tales, February 1934.

Weird Tales, February 1934.

Apparently, as in the case of “Mother of Toads”, Smith had shopped it around, but was rejected because of its erotic overtones. Smith balked at the notion and is quoted in the forward to the chapbook as having said in a letter to August Derleth:

“As to the so-called sexiness, it would not interest me to write a story dealing with anything so banal, hackneyed, and limited as this type of theme is likely to be. Too many writers are doing it to death at the present time; I have ended [up] by revolting literarily against the whole business, and am prepared to maintain that a little Victorian reticence, combined with Puritan restraint, would harm nobody.” (The Witchcraft of Ulua, The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press)

"The Witchcraft of Ulua", by Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press.

“The Witchcraft of Ulua”, by Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press.

The scene which seemed to upset everyone at the time is the seduction scene where our young hero, Amalzain, a studious young man who has been offered the job of cup-bearer to the infamous King Famorgh, is tempted by the petite but exquisite nymphet, Princess Ulua. I must say, that even in it’s unexpurgated version, this all seems to be much ado about nothing. One night, during his downtime from his service to the king, Amalzain is snatched up and away from his studies by a “huge negress” and is carried to Ulua’s lair where…

“Angry, and full of discomfiture, he found himself deposited in a chamber hung with shameless designs, where, amid the fuming of aphrodisiac vapours, the Princess regarded him with amorous gravity from a couch of fire-bright scarlet. She was small as a woman of the elf-folk, and voluptuous as a coiled lamia. The incense floated about her like sinuous veils.” (The Witchcraft of Ulua, The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press)

Perhaps one might infer from the reference to her size that she might have been a bit on the young side, but this does not seem to be what publishers were griping about. At any rate, all she does at this point is tell him that there is more to life than musty old books and asks him if he is not attracted to her. Having been given a charm previously in the story by Sabmon the anchorite (a hermit, to us lay-folk) to ward off evil and protect him against Ulua’s wiles, he responds in the negative, which sets her off. She tells him he can go, but assures him he’ll be back before long, of his own accord. When he does not in fact return, the aforementioned witchcraft really begins to manifest as he is haunted by the image of Ulua. She is always on his mind, she always seems to appear everywhere he goes, and he feels her presence constantly. When even this fails to inspire his interest, the enchantment gets nasty and Amalzain begins to see rotting corpses in his bed and nasty specters at every turn. Fearing what may come next, he asks Ulua’s father, the King Famorgh, for permission to take a few days leave. Famorgh being pleased with the service the young man has done for him as a cup-bearer, and seeing his wan complexion (from lack of sleep) grants him leave.

Once back home, he visits Sabmon again who helps rid him of the curse and rid the world of the debauched King and his temptress daughter, along with their acolytes. If anything, the tale is a little moralistic in it’s association of libertine lifestyles with evil. Yes, Ulua did try to seduce him with magic when Amalzain wouldn’t succumb to her charms, but what if one were to take the fantasy element out and just make it about a popular woman who is intrigued by a suitor she cannot have, so she indulges in some underhanded tactics to sway him; should she suffer the ultimate punishment for this? Her biggest crime is that she was free with her charms, and her father was a lush who was usually too drunk to enjoy the orgies her threw. They weren’t torturing or murdering anyone, and I think their punishment was a bit extreme. Even so, the story was told, as usual, in beautifully wrought prose with evocative imagery.

Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads”

Posted in Uncategorized, Weird Tales with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Back in the early 90’s I used to frequent the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury St in Boston, Massachusetts. It was conveniently right across the street from my job at Tower Records, the atmosphere was great, the staff was friendly, and the selection was awesome. I spent many an afternoon there as well as a generous amount of my hard earned cash! It was there that I really began to delve into the writings of the Weird Tales crowd as well as other writers of Horror and Fantasy. For instance,it was there that I bought the Donald Grant editions of Charles L Grant’s Oxrun novels featuring the classic monsters. It was there that I first found Les Daniel’s Don Sebastian de Villanueva novels, and it is there that I found the Necronomicon Press chapbooks featuring the unexpurgated writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, et al.

Although I had read a little Lovecraft already by this point, I had only heard of C.A. Smith, most likely from having read L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lovecraft: A Biography”. The chapbooks were colorful, scholarly researched and contained such strange content, and because of their indie press look, I felt like I was in on a secret that only the enlightened (benighted?) few were aware of.  Every paycheck, I would go across the street and see what fresh horrors awaited me on the shelves. Usually, I would buy two, which would run me around $10, being at that time about $4.95 a piece. Now, having been out of print for so long, they fetch exorbitant prices on Amazon.com.

An assortment of Smith titles from Necronomicon Press. Although this image is from the Internet, I do own all of the titles featured here.

An assortment of Smith titles from Necronomicon Press. Although this image is from the Internet, I do own all of the titles featured here.

I tried a few of the different writers covered by the series, but found that I preferred the Lovecraft and Smith stories to everything else. In particular, the chapbook “Nostalgia of the Unknown” featuring the complete prose poetry of Clark Ashton Smith, had an impact on me as a writer of both poetry and prose, echoes of which can still be discerned in my work today.

Nostalgia of the Unknown (1993, Necronomicon Press).

Nostalgia of the Unknown (1993, Necronomicon Press).

Of the stories, I believe my favorite was “The Mother of Toads”, which takes place in Smith’s fictional medieval French province of Averoigne.

A map of Smith's Averoigne.

A map of Smith’s Averoigne.

I think I liked that it was more of a Horror tale and less Sci-Fi, as some of his work can be. It also had a bit of an unsavory sensuality to it which I am sure appealed to my still adolescent 20-something tastes. Apparently, Smith had intended it to be a sort of weird bawdy tale and tried to sell it to Spicy Mystery Stories, but they rejected it. After another rejection from Esquire, he toned down the more lurid parts and sold it to Weird Tales, which published it in their July 1938 issue.[Smith, Clark Ashton. The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies. pp 357-358. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.]

Mother of Toads (1987, Necronomicon Press).

Mother of Toads (1987, Necronomicon Press).

The story is of a young apothecary’s assistant named Pierre, who is sent by his boss to retrieve a magic philtre from the witch Mère Antoinette, who is apparently known around town as La Mère des Crapauds, the Mother of Toads, partially because of the veritable infestation of  large toads that surround her residence, which are rumored to be her familiars, and also because of her “batrachian” aspect. Here, Smith is a bit heavy-handed with the hints of things to come, comparing her voice to a croak, and comparing her physical features to that of a toad,  even down to her webbed fingers and “huge breasts” which he describes as “pale as frogs bellies”.

To make matters worse, the witch seems to have a thing for the young assistant and is always hitting on him every time he visits on an errand for his master. On this particular visit, she lays it on thick and even offers him a drink of mulled wine to fortify him on his long walk home in the cold. Hesitant at first, he relents and of course, lives to regret it–for a while anyway.

Although it is fairly obvious where the story is heading, it is told so masterfully and in such gorgeously baroque and evocative language, that one cannot help but read on to the inevitable and grotesque denouement.

“Mother of Toads” also bears the distinction of being one of the few Clark Ashton Smith tales to have been adapted to film. In the 2011 portmanteau film “The Theatre Bizarre”, director Richard Stanley filmed a segment which is a sort of modern retelling of the story. In his interview with Unfilmable.com he explains, ” I have always been a huge fan of Smith’s work and as much of his fiction is now in the public domain it seemed to me that the time was ripe to produce a cinematic homage, based around the folkloric character of the ‘Mother of Toads‘ herself and assimilating various elements of the Lovecraft canon such as the dreaded Necronomicon and the cult of the Old Ones. Smith’s story was a grim fable recounting the erotic misadventures of an apothecary’s apprentice in dark age France whereas I think you’ll find that our similarly titled short is a rather different animal. The completed film is firmly rooted in the 21st century and concerns a young American anthropology student and his girlfriend who come into contact with the fictional sorceress’s real life counterpart with bizarre and ultimately ghastly consequences.” [http://unfilmable.blogspot.com/2010/11/unfilmablecom-interview-richard-stanley.html, retrieved 07-02-15]

My only real complaint about this version, aside from the modern setting, is the mention of H.P. Lovecraft and the Elder Sign. This is one of the very few adaptations of a Smith story (the other adaptation of note is the Night Gallery episode of “Return of the Sorcerer”, with Vincent Price, which took a really creepy, somewhat gory tale of black magic and turned it into a campy romp) and if they were going to bring things into the real world so to speak, why did they not mention Smith instead of Lovecraft? To anyone seeing the segment, they might get the impression that it was just another Lovecraft tale.

Stanley does get points, however, for his use of the French countryside, which is gorgeous and not a little ominous looking. The segment starts off with a couple at a fair in the ancient French village of Montsegur, where the girl spies some unusual looking earrings. The young man, Martin, recognizes the design as the Elder Sign, and goes on about H.P. Lovecraft. The vendor, a spooky looking woman in what looks like a black burqa, seems taken with him. The girl insists on having the earrings and Martin begrudgingly buys them for her. The witch lures the young man to her lair with talk of possessing the Necronomicon. Once there, things wind up more or less as they did in the original tale.

Catriona MacColl as Mère Antoinette.

Catriona MacColl as Mère Antoinette.

The witch, played by veteran horror actress Catriona MacColl, is suitably intense and creepy, but a bit too attractive to have the same repulsive affect on Martin as Mère Antoinette had on Pierre. The rest of the segment plays out like the original tale with the added fate of the girlfriend. I understand what Stanley was going for, and he gets points for atmosphere and for the bits that did follow the original tale, which were fun to see.

I understand that the rest of the Theatre Bizarre is hit or miss, as most films of this type tend to be, but I did enjoy this segment, warts and all, if only to see one of my favorite tales by one of my favorite authors brought to life on the silver screen.

The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop closed down years ago, but apparently has an online presence which can be found at http://avenuevictorhugobooks.com/.