Thomas Ligotti – Grimscribe

 

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Note that I read this collection immediately after Songs of a Dead Dreamer since they were bundled together. It’s possible that many of the negatives come from reading 440 big pages of Ligotti prose. Then again, I survived a longer book with prose more purple and the result was a novel so fantastic, I think it’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand existence and other big ideas.

Ligotti has an odd problem with prose. Generally authors who rely on prose to deliver good fiction do it because their stories are short on content. They need an interesting frames for the story, since ordinary prose will just end up dull. Worse, some of them don’t have any events at all. DeLillo is a good example of this problem. His later work has fantastic prose that goes nowhere.

Ligotti has the potential to become a prose-centric writer, filling pages with beautiful, atmospheric words that only have aesthetic value. Yet the stories demand something else. This brand of horror is both unique and deep. Horror exists in the whole fabric of existence. Anywhere the characters look there is something frightening and hidden.

It’s still effective since it’s rooted in actual philosophy. Just like the previosu collection, these stories express the pessimistic being and what it’s like. What idiots call ‘clinical depression’ is actually seeing the darkness of the world. If you’ve been diagnosed as ‘depressed’, it’s possible your reality is closer to what Ligotti protrays here – unstable, hostile, not really caring about you and beyond your control. The idea of clinical depression is just a way for us to hide from these horrors and pretend they don’t exist.

Some will find this darkness suffocating, but he still has enough set-pieces to explore these darkness. While the running motif is hostile things unseen and generally everything being a mess, it comes in different forms. The last story breaks away from the protagonist-centric narrative and lets a collective ‘we’ to tell the story, creating a sense of suffocating horror that affects everyone. Other stories deal with abandoned places (“The Night School”) and others with forbidden information (“Nethescurial”). Diving the book into sections is a smart idea, since it shows the distinction between these stories. Since horror for Ligotti is everywhere, he has to show it in various places.

Where he fails is that the prose is too monotone. Very few stories deviate from the general mood of depression ‘n’ horror. “The Cocoons” is a short, punchy story where for a change Ligotti slips a joke or two. Taking his style to the direction of absurd and black humor, the result is quite great both as a joke and a narrative. If only he would let himself laugh a bit more. I share his pessimistic views, but nothing wrong with a few chuckles. Elsewhere “Nethescurial”‘s journal of research is a different structure and the closing stories uses the plurarl-first-person narrative that gives it a more engulfing mood.

Other than that, the prose is the same across the stories. It only changes whether the descriptions are more gothic or slightly more personal, but it’s not enough. Worse, this prose is very purple and beautiful. It becomes the center of the story and overpowers the set-pieces. That may be fine when you deal with ever-shifting realities that work like hallucinations, but without variety of tones we keep seeing the same hallucinations

I often forgot the name of the story I was reading and didn’t notice how many stories were behind me. Paragraphs blurred together into one big mess of beautiful, horrifying reality. At some point it become self-parodic not becuase it degenerated in quality but because my head was bludgeoned with this prose. You can only read sentences about how everything looked like human organs and that there are things in the shadows before you get tired. Separate the stories from the collection and I’m sure they’ll be great. Read them together and they get blurred like the reality inside them. I don’t want to think what “Last Feast” would read like if it were in the middle.

Such reliance on prose that dominates the book, suffocates everything and leaves nothing but itself means it has to be good. Else, the collection will fall apart. Thankfully it’s just as distinctive as the previous collection, if not better. In the previous collection the prose sometimes meandered to generic territory. It had a unique tone that overlayed standard prose. Here, Ligotti goes full-on dark psychedelia. Often it reads like creepy poetry and makes you wonder why he doesn’t try his hand at it, since you can craft great pieces out of here. Quotables lines are everywhere and anyone who needs lyrics for his depressed kind-of Gothic Country should find enough lines here.

In retrospect, there were many highlights and the stories are more sprawling and developed. “The Last Feast” is the best story here, mainly because its story involves more concrete material rather than hallucination-esque visions. It also dives headfirst into Ligotti’s antinatalism. “The Cocoons” offers a bit of much needed humor and is his personal attack on the profession of medicine. While it’s not an in-depth critique (unlike “The Last Feast”), its purpose was to be pulpy and punchy anyway. “The Dreaming in Nortown” is the scariest of the bunch. Most stories here feature some kind of power balance, even if the powerful side is just a supernatural force. In that story there is really no order, just following an insane man in his trip through town that eventually leads nowhere.

It’s still an excellent collection and anyone who understands horror must read this. Someday I’ll re-read it without Songs being fresh in my mind and maybe the highlights, the little details and something deeper will rise. Ligotti remains a fantastic prose stylist who understands his genre and has a unique voice. Even at his worst there is something to learn here.

3.5 shadows out of 5

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Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter

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Dunsany makes it seem so easy. When people think of fantasy, they think of bricks full of descriptions and histories of non-existent worlds. I hear often how people don’t read fantasy because they don’t want a life commitment, because it’s more like studying the history of something rather than actual stories. If Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are anything to go by, they have point.

What’s bizarre is why these type of literature is so popular and so often written. In 1924 Dunsany wrote a simple novel. In terms of difficulty, the only thing difficult about it is that sentences can be long and the language is slightly archaic. Compared to more modern fiction though, the prose flows more smoothly. The story is about a person who seeks out a magical bride and gets astonished by the Huge World Outside. Wikipedia sums up the story in one paragraph and it’s okay. Why didn’t more authors replicate this?

That’s because artists don’t just try to sell a product. They sell importance. Importance in art is important. Rappers keep those crappy Boom Bap beats because it’s important and real, and so people who hate music will keep listening to them. Tolkien’s overlong saga was important, and so every Fantasy author wants to be seen as important and pile on the words. Writing a book like Dunsany’s may be easier, but it doesn’t look as important. Too bad that importance has little to do with musical quality. Manic Street Preachers aren’t as famous as David Bowie, but “Stay Beautiful” is better than anything on Ziggy Stardust.

Writing and storytelling devices serve the themes, not the opposite. Dunsany writes simply because that’s the best way to express his ideas. This novel isn’t fantasy just because the world is invented. ‘Fantasy’ is the theme of this novel. For a generation that explored all physical frontiers, it’s quaint but the sense of wonder Dunsany explores can apply to anything life.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is about seeing something so majestic, so beautiful that we become obsessed. It’s something that we also can never capture. We will continue searching for it and never find it. It’s not just Elfland. Alveric gets party members, each with his own obsession. We’re all mad when the right thing strikes us. No one is exempt from this. Even the people of Elfland, once they see Earth become obsessed with it. Everything is a place of wonder if you look at it from a distance. The constant usage of the phrase “Fields we know” emphasizes this. These fields look ordinary to us only because we know them, and the narrator has our point of view. For Lirazel, Earth is just as wondrous.

The price of such beauty is no satisfaction. You’re either yearning for it, or don’t fit in. Alveric constantly searches. When Lirazel can be in Earth, which is wondrous for her, she can’t find her place and never feels at home. Man is torn by his lust for wonder and his need for a stable home. Notice how Alveric carries a tent on his journey – even while traveling he needs something resembling a home.

Some do try to settle down. Another way to react to these wonders is fear. Alveric’s party have their obsession, but theirs isn’t as concrete as Elfland. When they see what real wonder looks like, they want to back away to their normal lives. Alveric himself despairs a little – that’s another price of seeing wonder. Back in the village we see that settling down doesn’t work. If we don’t go seeking the world, then it’ll just finds its way to us. You can be obsessed with it on your territory or not, but you’ll react to it. Even denying it is a reaction.

All these paragraphs of analysis – and I’m sure others can go something more in-depth – for such a simple book. That’s because Dunsany’s theme come before style and story. There are no digressions, no meaningless paragraphs of exposition. A chapter involving a man with a dark coat may at first seem like a digression, but even without the revelation it’s an exploration of Dunsany’s idea. In that chapter, magical creatures themselves aren’t infallible. They can get obsessed with something and follow it to things unknown.

Dunsany’s world isn’t physical, but is aware of ‘idea space’. His descriptions are always what it feels like, rather than what actually is. Worlds in fiction never exist. Telling me how tall a spire is, doesn’t actually tell me anything. So what? When Dunsany describes palace as “can only be told of in song”, it creates an image more mythic than any other physical description. If Dunsany’s book is difficult, it’s because of how expressive his language is. Nothing is described in direct physical traits, but every description is dripping with expression and poetics. Repetition never dulls the power of these words, because “fields we know” says more about them than anything else could.

He’s one of the few authors who can go off on long descriptions. Sometimes, his descriptions drip with so much wonder and awe that it speaks for itself. He describes flowers, in the same sentence, both as ‘unwithering’ and that time never touches them. Such repetition is redundant, but in the contexts it makes sense. Elfland is so wonderous that you have to traits in it using different ways, and you still wouldn’t capture it.

The result of such expressive and non-physical language is that Elfland and the Fields We Know feel actually feel real. We don’t experience the world in numbers. The Earth may move around the sun quite fast, but we don’t feel this speed. Fiction is never about displaying facts but about the human condition, since it is, after all, products of human thought. By tapping into how things feel like rather than how they actually are, Dunsany writes like how human beings experience the world.

The book’s only flaw, which must be deliberate, is that its characters can be fairly shallow. They’re clear archetypes, symbols that exist to explore ideas rather than complex human beings. It doesn’t detract too much, since the story is simple and demands such simple characters. Still, it would be nice if Dunsany dedicated a few more paragraphs to how his characters experience the world in their unique ways. He shows us their obsessions, but not how they deal with other things in the world. The book may explore its main topic quite well, but its lack of psychology and other subjects makes its vision too narrow. Great works of fiction have their main topics, but they also tend to dispense some unrelated views. Dunsany already shows great skill, so it makes you wonder what else he has to say.

The small flaws prevent this from being an all-time great book, but everything else makes this a cornerstone of the Fantasy genre. This is the book we should namedrop constantly when we discuss Fantastical fiction. Dunsany’s prose isn’t just beautiful, but his method of ‘worldbuilding’ is more engrossing and meaningful than other famous authors. Beyond the symbolic layer, it’s also a cute romance about two lovers who can’t let the kind-of-dimensional distance between their worlds separate them. Both as a love story and an exploration of human obsession, it’s a great book.

4.5 fields we know out of 5