We all know the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, right? If you don’t, maybe this well known tentacled monstrosity will refresh your memory.
Yes, that’s right, our old friend Howard Phillips was responsible for our favorite non-Japanese kaiju, Cthulhu. But what many people don’t seem to realize, probably because they haven’t read H.P.’s work, is that Cthulhu and his brothers, the Great Old Ones, were not merely radioactive mutants or flesh and blood alien conquerors. They are the gods that our ancestors worshipped, the ones that called for blood sacrifices and rampaged across the land when they weren’t delivered. They are beings hailing from a plain of reality so alien to our own that merely looking upon them can drive a person insane.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, inside that alternate plane of reality are the creator deities that the Great Old Ones worship as gods, the Outer Gods. Instead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, however, we get Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth. This trinity cares not for the struggles of a tiny, insignificant species like ourselves. And even if they do, they offer nothing in the way of salvation. They just make us wish they would leave us alone and make the torture stop already!
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos at large… To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.H. P. Lovecraft to the editor of Weird Tales, c. 1927
That’s certainly a very bleak way of looking at the world. Lovecraft essentially portrays our universe as a tiny bubble floating in the vastness of the ocean, vulnerable to being popped by the jostling of an oblivious sea creature that didn’t even notice it was there in the first place.
But what if you took that idea one step further? What if you concluded that it is not that malignant eldritch deities are infiltrating reality? What if, instead, reality itself was an inherently malignant deity that we all had to suffer inside the rancid belly of? This is the premise that lies at the heart of the literary creations of Thomas Ligotti.
Much like Lovecraft before him, Ligotti has never been a happy person. He suffers from clinical depression, chronic anxiety, and even anhedonia (a lack of motivation or even the ability to experience pleasure). This naturally led to a strong disillusionment with life that manifests strongly in the often crushing cynicism that pervades his work. From clowns and puppet shows and dreams to medical professionals and office work and decaying urban centers, many aspects of everyday life are tools in his modus operandi of examining everyday life from his detached and darkly comic perspective and dissecting it to find the weirdness and horror lying within.
With that, let me introduce to my ten favorite Thomas Ligotti stories (in no particular order). And maybe keep a nightlight on while we make this journey.
1. The Frolic
This story is Ligotti’s take on every parent’s worst nightmare: the child sexual predator. It focuses on Dr. David Munck, a psychologist who works in the criminal justice system, as he opens up to his wife Leslie about a very unnerving John Doe he’s been working with. This John Doe, a serial child “frolicker,” as he calls it, is infamous among the other doctors for his utter uncanny strangeness.
He insists he has no identity, which seems to be backed up by the fact that no one can find any documentation on him. He speaks and acts in a very childish manner, often shifting between various strange accents. He seems to lack any inkling that what he does to his young companions is wrong in any way. He claims to have come from what Dr. Munck describes as “a cosmos of crooked houses and littered alleys, a slum among the stars,” which is where he does his “frolicking.” He even goes as far as to claim that going to prison is merely a vacation from his work with children and that he can get out any time he wants. But probably the worst thing about Dr. Munck’s interview with John is when the “frolicker” asked if he had “a misbehavin’ lad or little colleen of your own.” And colleen is not that far off from Norleen, his daughter’s name…
Indeed, it’s probably not the best story to read if you’re a parent, especially if you’re paranoid about this sort of thing. Especially if you don’t fancy your child going on a field trip to a place featuring such landmarks as “a moonlit corridor where mirrors scream and laugh, dark peaks… that won’t remain still,” or “a stairway that’s ‘broken’ in a very strange way.”
2. The Chymist
This story is told entirely as a single side of an entire conversation, in a similar manner to Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model.” Rather than a Bostonian who paints portraits of corpse-eating ghouls, though, this story’s main character is a man who calls himself Simon, who fancies himself a modern-day alchemist. The story is narrated from his perspective as he carries on a conversation with a sex worker named Rosemary that he meets at a bar. He waxes philosophical about the decay in the city as he takes her back to his apartment to get freaky… but not in a good way. For you see, Simon here specializes in creating waking dreams with his brand of alchemy. And he has a very Freddy Krueger-esqe way of using the human body as his dream canvas as he gives himself over to nebulous unseen entities to help him do his work…
This piece manages to be so effective in its horror by the way it puts us in Rosemary’s shoes. As the readers, we are charmed and amused (or annoyed) by Simon’s ridiculously flowery soliloquies as he takes us on his journey through the decaying city that he and Rosemary call home. And it makes it all the more bone-chilling when Simon reveals his true purpose for the poor woman. It really says something that Ligotti manages to make a simple rape look like a step up compared to the implications behind “Now Rose of madness- BLOOM!”
3. The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise
It’s probably no surprise that someone of Ligotti’s mental disposition might not have the fondest view of the holiday season. This distaste is embodied through a younger relative of the titular character, Jack, as he narrates his lack of joy whenever his parents take him to his aunt’s house every Christmas Eve to celebrate. On his twenty-first Christmas at her house (which he vows will be his last), he listens as Aunt Elise tells a story about the old man who lived in a now abandoned and torn-down house down the road. She tells of how an antiquarian visited his house before he died, only to find himself having been transported to another world filled with a dark fog where tortured shapes wander aimlessly, and realizes he has become the old man himself. Jack shrugs off the story as he leaves to go home, only to see the house has seemingly returned, bedecked in Christmas lights…
This story seems to speak to the portion of us who feel somewhat alienated from our families, especially around the holidays. Personally, I still love the holiday season. Still, they seem to become less fun with the overly-commercialized stranglehold that capitalism has on the Christmas season and as my political views deviate further from the rest of my mostly conservative and patriotic family. The story also illustrates just how strong family bonds can be in a horrifying way with its ending twist, especially for those who can’t stand theirs.
4. Masquerade of a Dead Sword
This story is a dark fantasy tale that takes place in the city of Soldori and follows a bespectacled swordsman named Faliol. A messenger named Streldone takes him to the local duke’s palace to celebrate a local festival. Once there, Faliol begins making grand speeches about a new realm of reality he has experienced, one where demonic spirits tell him maddening secrets about reality. Now his only wish is “to see the world drown in oceans of agony” to relieve himself of “a madness which is not of this world.” While the court mage at first seems to dismiss his ramblings, he soon shows himself to be not all he seems when he starts orating about the need to overthrow the hold that Anima Mundi has on the living beings of this earth. And Faliol is to start the cleansing at the duke’s masquerade ball…
This is definitely one of the more interesting diversions Ligotti has made from his usual modern-day urban horror setting, and it works really well. As one might expect, with Ligotti’s trademark philosophical pessimism at the forefront, he manages in just twenty pages to create a dark fantasy world that would even make George R.R. Martin go, “What the fuck?!”
5. The Journal of J.P. Drapeau
This story follows the titular author as he chronicles his stay in the Belgian city of Bruges in the 1890s and early 1900s. Drapeau’s entries are relatively normal until he recounts an instance where he bumped into an older man being taken away to an asylum, who warns him never to say a word about the things he knows. True, Drapeau sometimes harbors fantastic notions. He attributes the noises in his closet to two corpses that live in it and believes that demons who played with his body parts as a child still live among the stars. However, even as he denigrates other people’s notions of a world beyond ours, he begins to feel as if an ineffable presence is calling out to him. Then he begins to notice something off about his reflection in the mirror and that an alternate version of Bruges from his books is starting to take shape around him…
While I’m not entirely certain what Ligotti was trying to say with this story, I feel like this might be a comment on escapism and how retreating into your own fictional world too often can cause you to lose sight of the real world. Of course, Ligotti, ever the cynic, decides to take it a step further by making it quite literal.
This may be the closest thing to an optimistic story that Ligotti has written, and even has something of a happy ending, depending on your point of view.
The title refers to a fantasy dream-world that has been created in the mind of an asylum inmate named Victor Keirion. It is a world where normal earthly laws and rules have no meaning, resembling a dark and crumbling city where the buildings are twisted at odd angles, sometimes to the point that their roofs face the ground. But his dream sanctuary becomes threatened when a crow-like man invades Vastarien and threatens to destroy it. Can Victor save his dream paradise from destruction?
Interestingly, this story comes right after “The Journals of J.P. Drapeau” in the Songs of a Dead Dreamer collection and has similar themes of disappearing into another world. Whereas the former portrays this as happening against the protagonist’s will, in “Vastarien,” the protagonist deliberately escapes into his dream-world and leaves the Earth behind. Perhaps escape into another world is not always a bad thing after all?
7. The Last Feast of Harlequin
This story can be described as “Shadow Over Innsmouth but in Appalachia” and is even dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft’s memory. Ligotti has also stated that this was the first story he ever published, which really shows how well he had mastered his craft by then.
The story follows an unnamed anthropologist as he travels to the town of Mirocaw, curious about their pageantry festival that centers on a clown motif. Things begin to take a turn for the strange, however, when he bumps into his old mentor, Dr. Raymond Thoss, who has been missing for several years. As the anthropologist investigates further, he soon makes a horrifying discovery about the festival’s true nature, including human sacrifice, a biological secret about the festival-goers that comes out at the sacrifice, and worst of all, the anthropologist’s disturbing connection to all of this…
While people who have read Shadow… can likely guess the ending twist based on my description, the story also bears a strong resemblance to Lovecraft’s earlier story “The Festival,” which features a similar revelation about the true nature of the festival-goers. The only difference being that Lovecraft’s story is implied to be all a dream at the end, whereas here it’s all too real.
This story is undoubtedly one of the most stereotypically Lovecraftian pieces that Ligotti has written. It is also one of the best ones to demonstrate his “reality as a malignant god” concept.
The story follows an unnamed narrator as he recounts his studying of a journal by one Bartholomew Gray as he travels to an obscure island named Nethescurial with an archaeologist named Dr. N-. There they learn of the patron deity of the native inhabitants, who ended up smashing the idol depicting it and scattering to all corners of the globe when they learned of its evil nature. Gray recounts finding all the pieces, only to smash the idol once again when he started seeing the god’s essence squirming around inside everything he saw. At first, the narrator writes the story off as a middling adventure yarn until he, too, starts to feel the evil god’s presence in every wall and floorboard and becomes aware of a shadow covering the moon…
Indeed, this story reminded me of “The Call of Cthulhu” in some ways, in that it involves a narrator reading notes about a globetrotting adventure that eventually leads to the uncovering of forbidden ancient knowledge that drives one insane. At least Cthulhu has a physical body, though. What Ligotti describes here sounds more a Satanist’s idea of pantheism, a black substance that literally permeates every atom of existence. But don’t worry, guys: “Nethescurial is not the secret name of the creation.”
9. The Shadow at the Bottom of the World
This story tells of a farming community that discovers a black mold-type substance formed under a scarecrow’s clothes. The black mass retreats into a bottomless hole shortly after its discovery, and the townspeople elect to board it up and forget about it. However, the warm temperatures of the growing season seem to stick around. Strange colors appear in the vegetation, and a constant droning, like that of a swarm of cicadas, seems to fill the air. The townspeople soon begin to suspect that the black mold is part of a larger entity that demands sacrifice in return for their harvest…
My first impression was that this story seems to be using the black mold as Ligotti’s twisted interpretation of a Mother Nature archetype. It’s not hard to see the whole sacrifice theme as a commentary on humanity taking what they want from the Earth and the Earth finally having enough and demanding something from them in return. Also worth noting is how the narrator doesn’t seem to be a singular person, but rather the town as a collective. The word “I” never appears at all, and the plotline involving Mr. Marble, the only character with a distinct individual identity, might be Ligotti’s commentary on conformity in small-town American society.
10. My Work Is Not Yet Done
Ligotti’s only novella is divided into “Three Tales of Corporate Horror,” as the subtitle suggests. The bulk of the book is taken up by the titular story, which follows junior manager Frank Dominio as he plots revenge against the seven other managers who got him fired from his job. His plans become much more elaborate than a simple shooting spree, however, when a dark force that animates all life on Earth gives Frank psychic powers which he uses to inflict ghoulishly creative and ironic punishments on those who wronged him.
The other two stories are “I Have a Special Plan for This World” (which tells of the Blaine Company’s plight as it deals with a high murder rate in its home city and a yellow haze that constantly covers it. All of this is narrated from the point of view of an employee who seems to know more about what is going on than he lets on…) and “The Nightmare Network” (told in an epistolary format, it chronicles the merging of Oneiricon with the titular network, with catastrophic results).
These stories are notable for how well they portray the cutthroat nature of late-stage capitalism and how well they show how the corporate world’s machinations really make them the new eldritch horrors in town.
Please note, though, that I have only read three of Ligotti’s works so far; Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe, and My Work Is Not Yet Done. If there are some other stories you think I missed, feel free to let me know in the comments. In the meantime, have a happy Halloween, boils and ghouls! Even if the pandemic means you can’t go trick-or-treating, I hope you still have a good time. In the meantime, happy reading (starts laughing maniacally).