My instructions were to follow a sequence of absurdly simple acts and to keep the operation secret. First, I was to make my way into the assigned environment; second, I would depart in the most natural manner, undetected if possible, though that part was not essential. Such was the basic framework of the dream. Nevertheless, my sense was that the orders I was carrying out would have repercussions in a far greater scheme. While feelings of this kind often inhere in night visions, their quality on this occasion seemed of a nature surpassing anything I had previously experienced in the world of sleep. ("Metaphysica Morum", p. 11)
It has been several years since Thomas Ligotti has received a new collection of stories. Although his latest, The Spectral Link, contains only two, "Metaphysica Morum" and "The Small People," it is a strong collection, as each tale, when unpacked, contains as much within them as many larger story collections. Those who have read Ligotti's previous work will find certain themes being revisited here, but there is evidence that the shift from physical manifestations of horror to a more metaphysical, almost existential, sort of estrangement that was most evident in his 2010 non-fiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
"Metaphysica Morum" begins with a narrator reflecting on a past action. Or is it a dream? Despite the statement in the middle of the opening paragraph, there is enough fluidity here that talking about dreams as a sort of fictional state of non-being would risk distorting the tale, yet the import of what transpires is perhaps a bit too much for mere "reality." One of the more striking elements of this story is its use of the ordinary to upend conceptions of the everyday. The narrator enters into a sort of showroom, with a "Dealer" who is nearly twice the narrator's height, offering to show the narrator what he seems to be seeking, saying, "If I understand you correctly, sir, you are in the market for an all-new context." (p. 12)
Within this too-real dream-reality, the story proceeds to a discussion of "metaphysical mutants," those who see beyond the frills and trappings of mundane existence, peering into the horribleness that lies beyond. This concept has been treated by Ligotti before, particularly in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but here in this story, it takes on new contextual layers, as the story shifts through levels of conceptual reality to arrive at this chilling point:
Those who contest demoralization as the inexorable way of universal deliverance have failed to see what is before them. They have lagged behind in the evolutionary ideal of our species. That ideal is a beneficial mutation. If nothing else, the demoralized are fortuitous mutants. From the day that marked our kind's awakening to life, such mutants have borne the common task of attaining for the world its true status and to announce its arrival in a time to come. Now it has fallen to demoralized mutants to enunciate their closed-off future. (p. 43)
The second story, "The Small People," contains more explicitly grotesque imagery, especially in the description of the eponymous small people:
I noticed that even if they weren't moving very fast, they did seem to be moving as fast as they could, as if they were hurrying to get somewhere. Their arms and legs shifted around in the manner of prosthetic limbs, making them look almost crippled, though not crippled so that you felt sorry for them, I should say, but maimed in a way that made you want to keep your distance, af if they could infect you with some dreadful condition. (p. 66)
This story, like the one before it, works on several levels. On one, it is a confession of a man to an unseen doctor. On another, it is a profession of all that we humans do not grasp, especially our futile attempts to conceptualize what is "real." As the patient/narrator attempts to gauge what constitutes these grotesque small people, he sees within this a metaphor of sorts, an allegory for our own existences. Who is the more real, humans or the small people? Who possesses substance? And just what might be "the spectral link" between the two? Ligotti does not provide answers to these questions as much as he forces us to consider whether or not we are ever going to be ready to accept just what those answers about life, the universe, and everything just might be. That sort of conceptual estrangement is much more chilling and horrifying than mere physical mutilations or psychological torture could ever hope to obtain.