Who are we? Why are we here? And what exists beyond what we see—beyond the limits of this conscious life? These are questions that philosophers and authors of fantastic fiction have asked for centuries—from Leibniz to Schopenhauer, Machen to Lovecraft. The short stories of Thomas Ligotti, beginning with his recently republished collections Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, explore the same themes as these authors. Yet something about Ligotti is incomprehensible—some chimerical makeup that creates a singular, uncanny, and utterly haunting experience.
Several elements of Ligotti’s stories have reared their heads in pop culture many times, both before and after his first collection was published. Several of his stories are dedicated to Lovecraft, and rightly so—they embody that master’s themes of an incomprehensible universe and a questionable reality with chilling effectiveness, even sporting a few tentacled beasts of their own. His decaying landscapes, full of murky light and unnaturally angled structures, hint at the aesthetic that Tim Burton would try to embody cinematically.
Even more than these obvious (and more digestible) influences are the references to philosophy, mainly metaphysics. Through his surreal and disturbing stories, Ligotti answers difficult questions with uncomfortable certainty. By the end of their ordeals, his protagonists and narrators have no doubts that reality is an illusion. Many of them are intellectuals and scholars, seeking knowledge in dark regions of the earth; the knowledge they find upends their lives and their minds. Some are merely innocents, going about their ordinary lives when their world suddenly overturns. Regardless, few characters make it through a Ligotti story and retain their peace or comfort.
It is rarely a cosmic being that destroys their sense of reality. Although several stories do involve inter-dimensional entities, many of the tales simply find characters looking through a pair of glasses that warps their perception; or perhaps the sky clouds over with eternal twilight. Ligotti chooses mundane things as his villains, and makes them at first uncanny, then monstrous. His prose produces unnatural environments, but they are rarely alien—they are simply seen through different eyes.
That prose, too, is not so much focused on telling a story as it is exploring an environment, an idea. Ligotti’s tales read like academic papers written from the depths of hell. His highly intricate prose mimics Descartes and Nietzsche more than it does Lovecraft and Poe. Imagine if these philosophers had found answers to their quandaries of reality and perception, and those answers had revealed horrible, grotesque truths. This is where Ligotti’s genius shows through. His vision of horror is immense, and while images and visuals play a large part in his stories, their cores are found in ideas.
By nature, this style of story requires an intensely intellectual protagonist. Writing from the perspective of academics justifies the high language, but also infinitely expands the ideas. Egoism plays a massive part in Ligotti’s characters. In “Dream of a Manikin,” an arrogant psychologist pokes fun at metaphysical notions, only to succumb to them; locals tear down an abandoned psychiatric institute in “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum,” only to unleash the cosmic spirits of the inmates upon their minds; and the anthropologist of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” goes to research a phenomenon, but in the end devolves into a participant. Like Lovecraft or Blackwood, the protagonists are mostly educated males involved in academia; but unlike those authors, Ligotti incorporates those traits into the outcome of the stories. The metaphysical nightmares do not infect the protagonist’s mind for no reason—there is cause in the mind itself.
Through this, Ligotti uses concepts from classic horror stories and incorporates them more deeply into our psychology. His stories are rooted in humanity, making them all the more horrifying. There are motifs of clowns, puppets, and manikins throughout, often representing an inhuman horror that is revealed at each story’s conclusion. Ligotti understands that, no matter how cosmic and surreal his terrors become, they always stem from the human mind. Just as philosophy encourages, what person has not mused on the nature or solidity of their existence? So much of humanity’s greatest writings originate with that quandary. Ligotti’s concepts touch on possibilities that we may not want to acknowledge.
The visuals, autumnal landscapes of decay, and surreal bodily transformations make Ligotti’s tales deeply entertaining; but after the specific words have faded, the ideas remain. To read Ligotti is to question reality. It is a rich, horrific experience filled with visceral grotesqueries matched with chilling revelations that upend philosophy itself. This is horror that warps the reader’s perception of the world. In that sense it is both dangerous and essential. Anyone who has seen their environment through abnormal filters will find truth in his writings; a truth that lingers far longer than one might want.
Cover art from Penguin Random House: