Friday, October 28, 2011

Accounts of Some Mercilessly Brief Visits to the House of Pain: Thomas Ligotti's Gothic Tales

Although he's best known for traditional short fiction, Thomas Ligotti's writing encompasses several other forms, from long and short non-fiction to poetry to brief prose pieces of the type usually called vignettes or sketches. A few of these sketches appeared in the author's third mass-market collection, Noctuary, and several others remain uncollected, but to date, the only volume devoted entirely to them is The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales. First issued as a 1994 limited edition from Silver Salamander Press that currently goes for ridiculous prices on the secondhand market, the collection has now been reissued by Centipede Press. As these pieces are quite brief, running only a few hundred words each, and the book includes only 19 of them, The Agonizing Resurrection is not a substantial volume. Its 98 pages of small print won't take even the slowest reader more than a couple hours to get through, and the price, which works out to about $1 a page at best, will put many readers off. But those sufficiently devoted to Ligotti's work to make the investment are likely to find that the peculiar effect of these pieces, and the high production quality of the book, negates the possibility of buyer's remorse.

Despite the difference in form, I think the work of Ligotti's to which these "Gothic tales" can most readily be compared is his collection of death poems. While his longer fiction features a stylistic and structural complexity that creates an unreal, philosophically-charged atmosphere, the diction and content of the death poems and the Gothic tales is simple, almost banal. The result of that directness in works that present, just as his more elaborate ones do, a profoundly pessimistic worldview and a preoccupation with despair is irony so dark that it's almost entirely devoid of humor; the mordant chuckles that some of these tales and poems elicit have nothing to do with amusement.

The juxtaposition is heightened in the present case by the details of these stories, most of which take their inspiration from classic horror tales. An illuminating preface by Ligotti, original to the Centipede edition, establishes that these pieces begin with the idle contemplation of ways in which one might heighten the horrific or pessimistic climax of certain major works, might offer, to quote Henry James, a further turn of the screw. Many of these pre-modern classics are written in a style that, however it was regarded at the time, now seems formal or elevated; Ligotti's comically exaggerated titles, such as "One Thousand Painful Variations Performed Upon Divers Creatures Undergoing the Treatment of Dr. Moreau, Humanist" and "The Unnatural Persecution, by a Vampire, of Mr. Jacob J.," are a reflection of this distinction. The difference between the prose of the originals and that of these reimagined versions, suggesting that these further turns of the screw call for the loss even of grandeur of tone, demand a reduction to the terror of the prosaic, increases the mood of pessimism.

But it's not only tone that loses its grandeur in these gothic tales. Many of them extend the original narratives by reducing the dignity of the protagonists, literally adding insult to injury. Classic horror stories, in which darkness is a much a stylistic concern as a philosophical one, often end with moments of tragic beauty, where the aesthetic resolution outweighs the bleakness. With The Agonizing Resurrection this is negated. In "The Heart of Count Dracula, Descendant of Attila, Scourge of God," Dracula's final moment is no confrontation with vampire hunters, but a fate far more ignominious for one who, as the story points out, was in his monstrous way a great man.  Other pieces torture their heroes and heroines with that commonest of fates worse than death: life. In a tragic horror story the protagonist's existence is often so painful that death provides only an escape from it, but in pessimistic horror there can be no escape, no paying off of debts with the bad check of mortality. Victor Frankenstein's resurrection is indeed agonizing, bitterly ironic, and a monument to existential loneliness. 

Mixed in with the extensions of familiar stories are some original vignettes, including "The Scream: From 1800 to the Present," a spin on tales of ghostly vengeance. Despite the absence of source material to be deconstructed, the deflating effect of these pieces is just as powerful.  To communicate that effect I feel I must return to the language of the collection, in which the clinical clearness I've noted in other Ligotti fiction, the contemporary vocabularly and diction, and the need to summarize the classics before they can be twisted result in something with the feel of subdued mockery. The opening to a variation on Poe's "William Wilson" is typical:
William Wilson has a namesake who looks exactly like him, walks like him, and is his equal in any game of wits. They first meet at Dr Bransby's school for boys, in England. There Wilson's namesake is constantly thwarting his designs, challenging his superior status among their peers, and on the whole making things difficult for him. Hounded beyond all human endurance, William Wilson one night takes leave of the school, aborting his academic career but at least ridding himself of his obnoxious twin.
Perhaps, without the rest of that piece and the context of its fellows, that looks like unexceptional language, but I think it has a disguised satirical ruthlessness that hums throughout The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales, a curious collection whose reinventions of the classics are not jeux d'esprit but exercises in laconic pessimism. They are, like most poetry, brief, and as is the case with poetry, that brevity is a sign not of the disposable but of the carefully-crafted, of writings that demand to be reread so one can understand the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which they work. The two hours' traffic of these pages is only the beginning of the process of appreciation.

At the risk of writing a review that's longer than the book, I'll take a minute to note the gorgeous design of the new edition. From the gold-lettering-on-black spine and black slipcase to the soft-cloth covers to the new illustrations by Harry O. Morris, this slim, tall hardcover, signed by both author and illustrator, is a delight to examine and to touch, the unusual dimensions emphasizing its distinctiveness without making either reading or contemplation awkward. Whether a particular limited edition is worth its price is surely a subjective question, but as ever, Centipede Press has provided visible value for the added cost.

The added cost of its publisher price, anyway. Yes, The Agonizing Resurrection, published this month, is already out of print, and from a little rudimentary searching it seems that price inflation on the secondhand market has already begun. This is, as ever, a regrettable side effect of the small press limited edition business model, and I see no use in complaining too much about it. I do wish, though, that these pieces, and various other Ligotti odds and ends that are uncollected or impossible to acquire inexpensively, could find their way into print in an affordable format. Prices on Ligotti's mass-market books have fluctuated and are a little ridiculous, but they do tend to be available secondhand at prices that aren't horrifying even to collectors, and it would be nice for the poetry, the rest of the vignettes, and scattered stories to be likewise. Well, I can dream, can't I?


  1. Thanks for the excellent short discussions of your Halloween reading, much of it wholly outside my ken. I'm an academic, with ever less time for anything but professional reading, but I marked the season by re-reading one of my favorites, Robert Aickman. I can't recall how I found your blog, but it may have been in a search for sites referring to Aickman, so forgive my likely forgetting what I once saw if I ask whether he is to your taste. (My re-reading was "Into the Wood," in the Tartarus _Collected Strange Stories_).

  2. I am indeed an admirer of Aickman. As a matter of fact, one of the items I initially put on my Halloween reading list was "The Hospice," which along with "Into the Wood" is one of the two Aickman stories I most enjoy. I've written a few posts about various of his collections, so that may well be how you found this blog.