Category Archives: Weird Fiction

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

Advance Review: WEIRD DETECTIVE #1

Weird-Detective-Dark-Horse-Comics

Fred Van Lente and Guiu Vilanova unleash some good ole Cthulhu creepiness with their new original comic series, “Weird Detective,” published by Dark Horse Comics. If you caught HBO’s first glorious season of “True Detective,” starring Matthew McConaughey as the other-worldly detective Rust Cohle, then this comic is sure to please. Much in the same spirit as that show, Van Lente’s script taps into a whole mess of weirdness going back to H.P. Lovecraft, but also including Arthur Machen, Edgar Allan Poe, and all the way up to contemporary dark fantasy writers such as Thomas Ligotti. So, I’m sure, the “weird” nod in this title goes far and wide.

I will make a few comparisons between detective Rust Cohle from the HBO show and the main character in this comic, detective Sebastian Greene. Just, keep in mind, I’m not at all implying that Van Lente is lifting from the HBO show. No, it’s more a sharing of a certain vibe. And that is done quite well here. Okay, both of these characters are outsiders big time and seem to barely function in social circles while thriving on getting their jobs done. Leave them alone to work on a case, and they’re golden. It begs the question, Why do we invest so much time socializing and not quite as much time getting stuff done? Also, if you saw the show, you’ll enjoy how Sebastian deals with being set up with a partner! No more lone wolf work at the NYPD, per new union contract. His new partner, Sana Fayez, quickly picks up that Sebastian is like from some other world. The recurring excuse is that he’s Canadian.

Van Lente Weird Detective

Where the script splits free from my comparisons is the fact that Sebastian really is from another world. If he stares at his partner to the point of making her uneasy, it’s because he’s just carefully taking notes on the humans. As far as Sana knows, the dude is creepy. Sebastian haltingly attempts to reassure her. No, it’s just that he’s Canadian, he keeps pleading. The real reason that he’s so freaky will just have to wait since the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.

Complimenting Van Lente’s script to the hilt is the artwork of Guiu Vilanova. The opening scenes, for example, draw you in right away as we follow a voice-over narrative of Sebastian trying to explain to anyone who is willing to listen that he just happens to know a lot more than any human can fully comprehend. Sorry, no offense intended, Sebastian says, but humans only have three senses, not five; while his kind have a multitude of finely tuned senses. No contest, any way you look at it. That said, when New York City falls prey to the strangest acts of violence and murder, it’s only Sebastian Greene who is capable of solving these crimes. Or the entity in possession of the former Sebastian Greene. Fact is, the former Sebastian Greene was less than remarkable. How come he’s so good at his job lately? It’s a mystery that his partner has been secretly tasked with solving. But she may end up getting too close for her own good.

Truly a great new comic by two of the best talents in the business!

“Weird Detective #1” goes on sale on June 15th. Final order cutoff for retailers is May 23rd. For more details, visit Dark Horse Comics right here.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Dark Horse Comics, H.P. Lovecraft, 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: A DARKE PHANTASTIQUE, edited by Jason V Brock

Cover Art by Samuel Araya

Cover Art by Samuel Araya

Jason V Brock provides a most invigorating and informative introduction to the anthology he has edited, “A Darke Phantastique.” Essentially, his aim is a return to basics, like Poe’s “unity of effect,” as well as achieve a finer focus on dark fantasy, horror, and magic realism. In his view, and he would certainly not be alone in this, the best horror includes, amid everyday reality, “a touch of the strange,” that dark matter which sets the wheels in motion.

Brock aspires to a more palpable dark fantasy, a fresh new look at the fantastic. Brock provides a chilling and inventive example with his own contribution, “A Darke Phantastique.” It sets the tone for the wide variety of content you’ll find here. Brock gives us a devilishly dark creation myth. We have an initial fear of the unknown that develops into something more. And, in the process, we find ourselves on a most unusual path from dark to light.

Illustration by Jason V Brock

Illustration by Jason V Brock

Leafing through, one story jumped right out at me, with its bravado mix of humor and horror, and I’m calling it this book’s mascot. That’s Ray Garton’s “Lizzard Man Dispatches.” It has a really nice slow boil. The characters are so banal and relatable that you’re quickly lulled into their world of blogging and pet reptiles. A little further in, and we can induldge in all manner of conspiracy theory. Where this leads us is a gradual acceptance of something supernatural and far beyond our control.

The book is broken down into five sections which helps give you more of sense of the book’s vision. There is “Magical Realities,” “Lost Innocence,” “Forbidden Knowledge,” “Hidden Truths,” and “Uncanny Encounters.”

William F. Nolan’s “The Last Witch” is another fine tale in the first section. It fits in quite well with the theme of magical realities as you come to find that even a witch is more than she may seem. With a touch of humor, Nolan lures us into the horror that will follow.

Don Webb’s “Lovecraft’s Pillow” is such a bittersweet ode to lost innocence. It is also a hilarious send-up to the whole horror book industry. A jaded best-selling horror author considers himself no better than a fraud. But he may find what he’s looking for when he acquires the death bed pillow of none other than H.P. Lovecraft.

Lois H. Gresh’s “Old Enough to Drink” is quite the creepy cautionary tale to forbidden knowledge. Told with such a gusto, this story blends fairy tales with vivid nightmares.

S. T. Joshi’s “You’ll Reach There in Time” confronts hidden truths in a fun story. A fractured narrative structure gradually reveals how a criminal gets what he deserves.

Tom Conoboy’s “Phoenix on the Orange River” gives us his answer to a series of uncanny encounters. It’s a kaleidoscopic journey and a protracted dance with Death. It’s the last of nearly 50 contributions in this 728-page book complete with story notes from each contributor. Conoboy’s tale is a fitting end to this remarkable collection.

Among other treats you’ll find here is “Genius,” a screenplay by Greg Bear. It’s the only screenplay in this anthology and it is quite a delight to read. Bear has made his mark in pop culture in many ways beginning as one of the five co-founders of the San Diego Comic-Con. In “Genius,” he gives us an intriguing look at characters caught up in something far bigger than themselves. And that’s the problem, this challenge is so big that it threatens to destroy them and all of humanity. This is a moving story of human connection amid very dark matter. It’s a very good example on what price is paid for genius.

And just one more, the first contribution, Paul Kane’s “Michael the Monster,” which is a glorious opener. This is an unabashed celebration of monsters. It is Halloween, and Michael, an actual boy monster, revels in the one night that he can be himself in plain sight. A time for monsters! This is a perfect way to start a book where monsters are so welcome.

And so there’s a taste of “A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things.” The book itself is a joy to hold and behold. Great care has been given to making this a pleasurable reading experience. Everything from choice of font to layout to use of illustrations guides the eye. The hardcover is a well-crafted treat. Given the book’s generous page count, it is an ideal size to leisurely pass the time with. This is a beautiful book full of deliciously scary and compelling work. I’m so glad that Jason V Brock put so much care into this collection of some of the best contemporary dark fantasy, horror, and magic realism.

The following lists the contents to the book with a link to or related to each contributor. I think the links are essential as they give you an opportunity to pause and appreciate this book some more:

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Filed under Anthologies, Bram Stoker Awards, Comics, Darke Phantastique, Edgar Allan Poe, Horror, Jason V. Brock, Weird Fiction, World Horror Con