The OF Blog: Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer

Thomas Ligotti is, in my not-quite-so-humble opinion, one of the greatest horror writers writing today.  Ever since I discovered him a couple of years ago, I have been a huge fan of his works.  Dark as his fictions in collections such as The Nightmare Factory and Teatro Grottesco are, what I have especially enjoyed about Ligotti's stories is his masterful use of the English language to create atmosphere and to unsettle me whenever I might have become a bit too comfortable.

But I have not read much of his work.  Since most of his collections until recently had been released in short print runs from small presses, the cost of acquiring his work can run into the hundreds of dollars for some of his rarer collections.  However, this appears to be changing, as Subterranean Press is planning on issuing new editions of several of Ligotti's collections, starting with the revised edition of his earliest collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, which was originally released in 1985 and expanded in 1989.  Apparently the Subterranean editions will be the "definitive" ones, as Ligotti has reworked elements of each individual story for this collection and this presumably will be the case for upcoming collections.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is divided into three main parts:  "Dreams for Sleepwalkers," "Dreams for Insomniacs," and "Dreams for the Dead."  Each of these sections are thematic, although there are also certain elements shared in common.  As I stated above, Ligotti's masterful prose is key to my enjoyment of his tales.  Take for instance this opening paragraph to "Alice's Last Adventure":

A long time ago, Preston Penn made up his mind to ignore the passing years and join the ranks of those who remain forever in a kind of half-world between childhood and adolescence.  He would not give up the bold satisfaction of eating insects (crispy fries are his favorite), nor that peculiar drunkenness of a child's brain, induplicable once grown-up society has set in.  The result was that Preston successfully negotiated within a few decades without ever coming within hailing distance of puberty.  In this state of arrested development, he defiantly lived through many a perverse adventure.  And he still lives in the pages of those books I wrote about him, thought I stopped writing them some years ago. (p. 37)
What strikes me most about passages such as this is this apparent sense of detachment within the prose; Ligotti is seemingly just reporting the facts about this insect-devouring Peter Pan type.  But "apparent" and "seemingly" do not equate with "true" dispassion.  Ligotti's narrators, often speaking in first-person, often have their own problems, some of them quite deep.  Again, a passage from "Alice's Last Adventure":

I remind you that I've been drinking steadily since early this afternoon.  I remind you that I'm old and no stranger to the mysteries of geriatric neuroticism.  I remind you that some part of me has written a series of children's books whose hero is a disciple of the bizarre.  I remind you what night this is and to what zones the imagination can fly on this hallowed eve.  I need not, however, remind you that this world is stranger than we know, or at least mine seems to be, especially this past year.  And I now notice that it's very strange - and, once again, untidy. (p. 53)
This sense of the bizarre intermixing with the mundane, of madness coexisting with banality, creates a slow, creeping sense of unease that horrifies not at what is revealed about the characters as much as ends up being revealed to the reader about his/her own interactions with the world.  Horror, after all, isn't all that effective if its impact hits just the characters.  Ligotti, with his meticulous approach toward crafting stories, infuses a sense of personal connection to what ends up being some very disturbing scenes.

Most of what's disturbing is nothing that can be explicitly stated; Ligotti's horror does not work as much at the visceral level as it does at the existential.  Several of his stories, including many in this collection, revolve around the breakdown of ritual and tradition, or the subversion of each.  The pillars of everyday life are shown to have cracks in them and things held in common to be "true" are questioned through the use of bizarre characters and/or situations.  The end result are stories that slowly eat at the reader's subconscious, undermining several of that reader's preconceptions.  Although Songs of a Dead Dreamer has not developed this subversiveness that is evident in Ligotti's latter works, it certainly is a fine introduction for readers curious to know more about this critically-acclaimed author.  Highly recommended.


Harry Markov said...

This is why I am so displeased with my living conditions. I am a person, who enjoyes something that is not so well known. Cultish, bizarre, dark and not that commercial. Yet, I can only indulge myself with the new fad that catches on and barely makes it to my country.

I am positive that I cannot get me a copy of this and it is clearly an author I will enjoy reading.

Paul said...

Great review Larry, I love Ligotti and his philosophical horror, there is nothing else out there like it really (except elements of Cisco, I suppose). Great to see Sub Press rereleasing this stuff, as you mentioned the price is ridiculous unless you were on the ground floor when it was first released.

Harry> The Book Depository has it, but being a US small press hardback, it isn't cheap.

Larry said...

Yeah, it's a shame that even this book would cost a quite a bit for those wishing to import it. Harry, I believe you can get his Teatro Grottesco for a much cheaper price, as that one is widely available in the US and UK markets.


I agree that there is very little like it, with, as you say, the possible exception of Cisco. Also am looking forward to his non-fiction coming out in the next month or so as well.

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