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.
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.