Category Archives: Dark Fantasy

Review: ‘Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe’ by Thomas Ligotti

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

The manipulating of elements in a story is always crucial, especially in a work invested in raising a level of suspense. Thomas Ligotti knows this like the back of his hand. Ligotti, as horror stylist of the first rank, knows what to deliver to a contemporary audience. We think, at times, that we can easily step in and write horror stories ourselves. Ligotti invites you to try. Like Lovecraft, and others, he provides notes on the art of horror. In the end, you settle in and read a Ligotti story, then another, and you come to realize that the man is devilishly good at what might, at first, seem like such familiar ground.

Take, for instance, “The Frolic,” the first story in this Ligotti collection by Penguin Random House. “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” came out last year and brings together some of Ligotti’s best work. The publication coincided nicely with HBO’s Ligotti-tinged first season of “True Detective.” Now, in “The Frolic,” we have a neatly-pressed family who have just moved into the neighborhood. The father is a well-regarded psychologist who has taken a position at the nearby prison. He is married to a charming woman and they have an equally charming young daughter. The only problem seems to be that one of the convicts that our main character treats is highly psychotic and is fixated on him. There is every reason to believe that this fiend is safely locked away but there is also reason to believe he is capable of anything. Everything pivots upon the introduction into the family’s home of an intricately sculpted bust of a boy’s head.

Thomas Ligotti Penguin Random House

Time and again, Ligotti lures us in. Consider “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum.” In this story, we deal with the penultimate horror trope: the haunted house on the hill. But the devil is in the details. These are not mere ghosts, if that is what they are, and these entities aren’t satisfied with just a perch from where to sit and observe. Ligotti keeps the reader off balance by supplying bread crumbs of information until we’re so deep in we cannot turn away. Consider “The Last Feast of Harlequin” about Mirocaw, a little town meant to go unnoticed. However, its winter festival is so unusual that it catches the attention of a persistent academic. Mirocaw has no choice but to gradually reveal itself.

Ligotti’s distinctive use of language is a mixture of ornate/contemporary. This highly theatrical style would fall apart with a lesser talent. But just the right curious turn of phrase and enigmatic description can engage the reader. You can pause, at random, and find a compelling passage spiked with the Ligotti sytle:

“The tone of voice in which he posed this question was both sardonic and morose, carrying undesirable connotations that echoed in all the remote places where truth had been shut up and abandoned like a howling imbecile. Nonetheless, I held to the lie.”

There’s been a march away from the sort of traditional gothic horror of H.P. Lovecraft for many decades now. But, in the right hands, the sinister and the macabre can indeed thrive amid the foggy moors in the spirit of Poe. Dark fantasy is at the mercy of Ligotti as he can satirize it and embrace it at will.

“Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” is a 464-page paperback published by Penguin Random House. Find more details right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Dark Fantasy, H.P. Lovecraft, Horror, Penguin Random House, Thomas Ligotti, Weird Fiction

DVD Review: TRUE DETECTIVE, Season One

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson

Nic Pizzolatto, the showrunner for HBO’s “True Detective,” deserves credit for creating and writing a genuinely entertaining show. There was a certain amount of controversy over Pizzolatto borrowing from other writers, notably cult favorite Thomas Ligotti. At this point, that literary baggage is part of the show. This is not what Nic Pizzolatto would prefer given his backtracking on any connection to Thomas Ligotti to where you wonder if he’d like to claim to have never heard of Ligotti. At first, he readily acknowledged the Ligotti influence. Later, he disavowed it.

But Pizzolatto did more than know about Thomas Ligotti. Pizzolatto enbued one of his main characters, the otherworldly Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) with a Ligottian charm and turn of phrase. The Rust Cohle character says: “I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat … Force a life into this thresher.” While Thomas Ligotti, in “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race,” refers to people being “stolen from nonexistence,” and says “we are meat.” I’ll tell you something, it all works on this show but you really have to thank Matthew McConaughey’s stellar performance for sealing the deal.

Anyway, at this point, Ligotti is as much as part of the first season of “True Detective” as Matthew McConaughey is a part of the first season of “True Detective.” There is no other way. To be honest, it was the best, and only, way that I got through my binge-viewing of all eight episodes. I kept looking forward to what else Pizzolatto would do with his Tarantino-like borrowing from various sources. If he’s going to do it, then he needs to own it, so to speak, and not backtrack. That said, this pastiche technique is intriguing. What may be less intriguing is how much this series resembles any other police procedural. Pizzolatto does save us from something too obvious by giving us a couple of quirky leads in this decidedly character-driven drama. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are the dream team and they do not disappoint. I especially like how Harrelson’s character Marty Hart, a no-nonsense detective, is not going to put up with another of his partner’s nihilistic soliloquies. Marty tells Rust to just button it.

Much of our story is about these two guys and their nearly twenty years together, off and on. There’s a very long off period but highly unusual circumstances bring them together. No doubt about it, this is both a credible mystery and thriller. And it makes for quite a compelling study of two men’s struggles to exist on their own terms with dignity and purpose. Marty Hart seems like the simple straight shooter but he is just as vulnerable to go completely off the rails as Rust Cohle who seems to be the one with only a weak link to reality. That proves to not be the case at all as Rust is far more capable than given credit for. But no one ever said that life is fair, certainly not Rust Cohle. Part of what drives Cohle and Hart is to seek out a little fairness. It is one of the oldest stories ever told and this is a good one.

I happened to get Season Two of this series by mistake. I knew when it started out with Colin Farrell driving his nerdy son to school, that I’d taken a wrong turn. That is the thing with this show, each new season is a whole new story. Apparently, Season Two left fans cold. And it looks like this quirky series will not be moving forward much longer. Rumor has it that Season Three has been cancelled. And so I come full circle with the Ligotti connection. Had Pizzolatto chosen not to distance himself from his use of Ligotti that could have led this show down some interesting paths. It would have been roads less travelled sharing in the true spirit of the dark world of Thomas Ligotti. For more of Ligotti, all one need do now is go to the source and read Ligotti along with other masters of weird fiction.

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Filed under Dark Fantasy, HBO, Nic Pizzolatto, Television, Thomas Ligotti, Weird Fiction

Review: DISORDERS OF MAGNITUDE by Jason V Brock

Frankenstein reads. Art by Henry Chamberlain

Frankenstein reads. Art by Henry Chamberlain

First, you need to know how cool this book is. Imagine your favorite late night college radio show. And the deejay is Jason V Brock, the author of this book, “Disorders of Magnitude.” You rely upon Jason to provide insights and intriguing facts as he connects the dots. Good, so far? Well, it gets even better. We’re talking about a multitude of connections, some from on high and some from on low. It’s not easy to categorize it all but Brock manages to collect a lot of essential wisdom and in a very accessible presentation. The college radio analogy is fitting since “Disorders of Magnitude” falls under an academic book category. It is right at home as part of a college course. But it is also the perfect companion for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of where we are today in terms of the entertainment we consume, particularly dark fantasy.

Divided into six parts, with a wide scope of offerings within, the intent is to give order to what might seem at first, like an ooey gooey disorder. How do you reconcile great literature alongside B-movies? In fact, there’s a certain frenetic energy running throughout as Brock maintains a sense of urgency to his prose. And, of course, the numerous chapters here invite picking subjects at random to dive into, with each concise chapter running a few pages. One excellent point of entry is Chapter 14 in Part Three which discusses the formation and evolution of The Group, the science fiction writers in Los Angeles during the ’50s and ’60s that would go on to create work in novels, film, and television, including the iconic and culturally significant, “The Twilight Zone,” television series. This one article alone proves to be an exemplary example of the book as a whole as it navigates through various eras and aspects of culture and entertainment.

“In the beginning is the dream,” states Brock in reference to The Group. They begin, like any band of pioneers, with “the crazy notion that they are somehow different–that they can leave a permanent mark on society, make a difference in the world.” It is this bravado and deep yearning that sustains men like Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and many others. They look up to two men who lead the way: Ray Bradbury, who is already established; and the firebrand Charles Beaumont destined upon his own unique path. And we keep coming back to The Group as Brock revels in chronicling their lives and provides here many interviews with the key figures on the scene.

Heading back from whence we came, Brock sets the stage with the opening article. “Frankenstein” was published anonymously in 1818 and, with that, the monster of horror and science fiction was unequivocally unleashed. Brock is great with setting up a mood to a time and place. He describes in detail the utterly strange weather conditions that, in no small way, gave rise to “Frankenstein” and other melancholic and moody art and writing. This all came about from a volcano in Indonesia. Its eruption in 1815, the largest ever witnessed in recorded human history, sent plumes of volcanic ash into the skies above around the globe for over a year forever altering life, and artistic sensibility, down below.

We steadily move to another chapter and other great writers in the gothic tradition: Poe, Stevenson, Stoker. Then we jump to another chapter and the next wave exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft and his evocation of the “fear of the unknown.” And after that, we take a significant turn with a chapter devoted to Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008). Like the activities of The Group, Ackerman figures heavily in Brock’s studies of pop culture. And it only stands to reason given Ackerman’s pivotal role in the scheme of things that, you must keep in mind, touches upon virtually every aspect of pop culture as we know it today: movies, games, television, comics, music, novels, the internet, and our own precious sensibilities.

Ackerman is, indeed, another circle of influence too large to hold in just one chapter and he, like other persons and movements, overlaps into other chapters. Ackerman did quite a lot in his day, including work as a literary agent to some of the greatest writers in science fiction. Taking it all into a whole, you can say that his main achievement was to assign value to, archive, and make accessible the very things so many held dear: the horror movies of childhood; the dazzling science fiction of yesteryear; the growing world of fandom as we’ve come to know it today. It was Ackerman’s comprehensive and energetic role in legitimizing a myriad of elements that contributed to a more egalitarian view on culture in general.

In a very real sense, Brock has taken on the mantle of Forry Ackerman. It is that heartfelt dedication to the things he loves that you will find in this collection of his writings.

“Disorders of Magnitude” is a 336-page hardcover, priced at $80.00, and published by Rowman & Littlefield. You find it here, here, and here. Visit Jason V Brock here.

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Filed under Comics, Dark Fantasy, fantasy, Forrest J Ackerman, Gothic, Horror, Jason V. Brock, pop culture, science fiction, Supernatural