The other day, I reread a favorite Thomas Ligotti story, one I had not looked at for several years. He is an author whose stories reward a second or even a third look with a deeper understanding of the artistry that went into their creation. Nethescurial (1991) is a relatively short work, subtle and complex, that cleverly incorporates a number of Lovecraftian motifs. It seems likely it was intended to be an homage to H.P. Lovecraft. However, the story also translates Ligotti’s own weird ethos into a format that is superficially familiar to Lovecraft enthusiasts. It is not strictly speaking an imitation or emulation as other writers have attempted; Nethescurial is very much a Ligotti story with its nightmarish coherency and recurring imagery, a kind of poisonous hybrid.
An interesting aspect is the narrator’s unsuccessful attempts to distance himself from the unfolding horror and revelation. He does this through half-hearted humor, condescension towards the source material—a letter discovered amidst unremarkable documents from the late 1800s—and a desperate effort to maintain perspective. In one episode he imagines the fateful meeting of the two characters in the story-within-a story as a kind of marionette play that is not particularly original in conception—a self-conscious critique that puts distance between himself and the unsettling implications of what he has discovered. A color—a colour—like the unidentifiable one from “out of space” keeps appearing before him, even in the very ink he is reading. He is poisoned, or perhaps infected with an understanding that he cannot escape.
Lovecraft used the device of having his scholarly narrators attempt to rationalize away disquieting details until accumulating evidence tipped the balance in the direction of panic and horror. Ligotti’s character does only a little of this rationalizing; for him there is instead a radical change of perspective and emotion. He essentially enters the nightmare after closing the distance he could not maintain as an “objective” observer.
Have you ever had a dream or nightmare that begins with you as a spectator of some weird or frightening event? Perhaps you are observing some violent or horrific event on a television screen or at a movie theatre—examples of how media technology structures even our contemporary dream life!—and suddenly you are actually in the dream, on stage, fleeing from whatever is lurking there. This seems to be the psychological mechanism underpinning Nethescurial. Passive observation shifts to active participation in the nightmare.
In Nethescurial, the unnamed narrator is reading portions of a letter written by one Bartholomew Gray, an adventurer with a secretive, cultic past. The letter depicts his fateful encounter with Dr. N—, who possesses the last unconnected fragment of an idol that Gray needs to revive an entity known throughout the ages as Nethescurial. Lovecraft enthusiasts will immediately connect this part of the story with The Call of Cthulhu (1928). However, the idol does not represent a deity or a “Great Old One” so much as an underlying principle that pervades all matter. This is where Lovecraft’s pantheon overlaps with Ligotti’s insight about the evil malevolence that informs the nature of reality.
Unlike Lovecraft’s doomed lone investigators, who must make numerous trips to the archives to assemble their troubling conclusions from a plethora of old documents, Ligotti’s narrator is psychologically and spiritually shattered after reading just one document. A series of troubling dreams follow, and the climax is a fugue state of denial driven by panic, expressed in what S.T. Joshi called “perfervid free association”. These are the sentence fragments divided by hyphens and ellipses that heighten the drama at the end of such stories as The Haunter of the Dark (1936), The Hound (1924), and the notorious collaboration, The Loved Dead (1924). The narrator’s condition at the end of Nethescurial recalls Robert Blake’s obliterated consciousness at the conclusion of The Haunter of the Dark, though there are no italicized phrases for effect; Ligotti is more restrained than Lovecraft in this regard. Both doomed protagonists are gazing out the window at the end.
Nethescurial is the name for the entity, but also the mysterious, mutagenic island where the fragment is found, as well as an unsettling metaphysical concept: an underlying primordial “malignity” that informs all matter, corrupting and shaping it, whether living or dead. The concept may remind some readers of Ubbo-Sathla (1933), Clark Ashton Smith’s hallucinogenic short story which posits the origin and eventual end of all creation in a vile, ever morphing primordial slime. This is Ligotti’s understanding—that horror is intrinsic to reality, an element in its composition and formation.
Nethescurial may also be an egregore. This is an occult term for a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes the form given it by the preconceived notions of humans sensitive enough to detect its presence, interact with it, and perhaps worship or invoke it. The egregore draws its power and shape from the imagination and the attention of those who believe in it, eventually taking on a life of its own. It is a kind of supernatural meme--potentially very dangerous.
Perhaps this is the base material from which gods, ghosts, demons and other entities are formed by the human imagination, and the source of religious sensibility. Ligotti makes the point that there are actually many islands in the world named Nethescurial, containing their own fragments, their own temples. Once formed, egregores are virtually impossible to eradicate as long as even a few believers still exist.
Lovecraft’s perception was that horrors come from beyond human experience, that cosmic fear is a product of humanity’s miniscule irrelevance in an infinite universe. Lovecraft’s characters can run from the horror, if they are not already overcome with terror. But Ligotti’s cannot, because they contain the horror within them, in which “…we live and move and have our being”—to quote the book of Acts, which offers a lighter spin on this notion. There is just nowhere to run from an egregore.
Lovecraftian quotes and imagery are skillfully woven throughout Nethescurial, and it is pleasure to uncover them here and there. For example, Ligotti writes that what his narrator is seeing out his window is “…not the shape of a great deformed crab scuttling out of the black oceans of infinity…”—an echo of the famous opening lines to Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. I am certain I have not caught all of these references, and this is another reason why re-reading Ligotti can yield a greater appreciation of his work.
Interested readers may also want to visit Marzaat/Book Talk, where there has been some recent discussion of other work by Thomas Ligotti (https://marzaat.wordpress.com/).