Thursday, July 28, 2011

Seeking Decay: The Febrile Voices of Thomas Ligotti's Grimscribe

"The Last Feast of Harlequin," the first story in Thomas Ligotti's Grimscribe, is perhaps the author's best-known work, and certainly the most reprinted.  Dedicated to the memory of H. P. Lovecraft, the story has been called "perhaps the very best homage to Lovecraft ever written" by scholar S. T. Joshi.  I must admit that despite my admiration for the story's elegant structure, I've never been a great fan of "The Last Feast of Harlequin."  It seems to me to lack the strength of voice that makes both Lovecraft and Ligotti compelling.  In fact, I might argue that, in terms of the morbid intensity that continues to make him a controversial figure, the later stories of this collection are more clearly Lovecraftian, though the narrative techniques involved are quite different.   

Grimscribe is in fact a collection characterized by remarkable thematic unity.  Its characters are, like Lovecraft's, seekers after forbidden knowledge.  But in most cases this knowledge won't be found in ancient texts or isolated ruined cities, and it's less concerned with squamous creatures than with unseen, unnamed powers and forces that reveal the terrible, meaningless unity beneath the surface of ordinary life.  The settings may be classical-- rural communities, medieval towns-- or contemporary-- urban neighborhoods, movie theaters-- but all are subject to the imposition of Ligotti's special brand of decay, a merging and melting that, for all its philosophical underpinnings, retains a visceral terror.  A fictional introduction sets the tone:
There is a grand lapse of memory that may be the only thing to save us from ultimate horror. Perhaps they know the truth who preach the passing of one life into another, vowing that between a certain death and a certain birth there is an interval in which an old name is forgotten before a new one is learned. And to remember the name of a former life is to begin the backward slide into that great blackness in which all names have their source, becoming incarnate in a succession of bodies like numberless verses of an infinite scripture...
I know his voice when I hear it speak, because it is always speaking of terrible secrets. It speaks of the most grotesque mysteries and encounters, sometimes with despair, sometimes with delight, and sometimes with a spitit not possible to define. What crime or curse has kept him turning upon this same wheel of terror, spinning out his tales which always tell of the strangeness and horror of things? When will he make an end to his telling?
The thirteen first-person stories that follow include some of Ligotti's finest.  "Nethescurial" begins on terms recognizably traditional and Lovecraftian, with an obscure cult and its dark god, but evolves (as Matt Cardin has observed in an illuminating essay) through several narrative layers into something more modern and subtly disturbing.  "The Cocoons" darkly satirizes the in/ability of the medical profession to succor those doomed to confront everyday life as a bleak impossibility.  And "The Night School" is one of the best examples of Ligotti's capacity (on which I've previously commented) to capture the feel of nightmare in a satisfying narrative.  The lessons of the newly-returned Instructor Carniero demonstrate Ligotti's capacity to infuse the scientific edge of Lovecraft's vision with a more surreal terror:
Although I cannot claim that these often complex diagrams were not directly related to our studies, there were always extraneous elements within them which I never bothered to transcribe into my own notes for the class. They were a strange array of abstract symbols, frequently geometric figures altered in some way: various polygons with asymmetrical sides, trapezoids whose sides did not meet, semicircles with double or triple slashes across them, and many other examples of a deformed or corrupted scientific notation. These signs appeared to be primitive in essence, more relevant to magic than mathematics. The instructor marked them in an extremely rapid hand upon the blackboard, as if they were the words of his natural language. In most cases they formed a border around a familiar diagram allied to chemistry or physics, enclosing it and sometimes, it seemed, transforming its sense. Once a student questioned him regarding what seemed his apparently superfluous embellishment of these diagrams. Why did Instructor Carniero subject us to these bewildering symbols? "Because," he answered, "a true instructor must share everything, no matter how terrible or lurid it might be."
The school building itself has suffered alterations that are emblematic of the feverishly-twisted environments of Ligotti's fiction.
As I proceeded across the grounds of the school, I noticed certain changes in my surroundings.  The trees nearer to the school looked different from those in the encompassing area.  These were so much thinner, emaciated and twisted like broken bones that had never healed properly.  And their bark seemed to be peeling away in soft layers, because it was not only fallen leaves I trudged through on my way to the school building, but also something like dark rags, strips of decomposed material.  Even the clouds upon which the moon cast its glow were thin or rotted, unraveled by some process of degeneration in the highest atmosphere of the school grounds.  There was also a scent of corruption, an exhausting fragrance really-- like the mulchy rot of autumn or early spring-- that I thought was emerging from the earth as I disturbed the strange litter strewn over it.  This odor became more pungent as I approached the yellowish light of the school, and strongest as I finally reached the old building itself.
Such images of nature decayed and mutated lend Grimscribe its edge of physical as well as philosophical disquiet.  This blending reaches its most subtle and powerful expression in "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," the collection's final story, which captures the essence of autumn while transforming it into a sinister invasion from which the collective voice of a town's citizens may not escape unscathed.

Grimscribe, like all Ligotti's early collections, was for a long time out of print, and has recently been reissued in a revised, definitive edition by Subterranean Press.  However, even that new version is down to low stock and the publisher and will soon demand inflated prices.  Readers curious about the author's work would do well to acquire this handsome version of one of his best books sooner rather than later.

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