Friday, November 20, 2015

A Dark Alchemy

Thomas Ligotti has often been compared to H.P. Lovecraft, with whom he shares some superficial commonalities.  His work is distinctive, however, and is not merely an emulation of the older master.  His relationship to Lovecraft seems similar to that of Clark Ashton Smith’s to Lord Dunsany.  The influence of the earlier author is obvious, but the elements have been entirely assimilated into the unique style of the later writer.  As in Lovecraft’s writing, Ligotti’s fiction makes extensive use of dream material as a kind of base metal, which he transmutes into a more lustrous substance, while still retaining the darker, disturbing qualities. 

Readers may be familiar with Carl Jung’s dream psychology, which proposes three stages in the transformation of dream imagery over time: the nigredo, albedo and rubedo.  Broadly speaking, the idea is that dreams progress through periods that are dark, intermediate and bright in quality, sometimes in the space of a single dream or more often across a series of dreams.  (Those of us who have spent time diligently logging our dreams and nightmares may have observed a pattern like this.)

The nigredo is the initial point in the cycle, composed of themes of decay, disintegration, dismemberment, and gloom.  Things are falling apart or being destroyed.  In the albedo phase, imagery is in flux, and objects change form and shape, shifting back and forth, becoming lighter and more illumined.  Options are being considered.  Finally, in the rubedo phase a synthesis or solution is achieved, characterized by brightness, color and energy.   

The cold and dark base metal of nightmare is transformed through an intermediate quicksilver stage to bright, warm gold.  And then back again.

Insofar as Jung’s insight applies to The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft (1995) or Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1989), one can see that neither author made it very far beyond the nigredo stage, though each may have made brief forays into the albedo or “quicksilver” phase.  In their fiction, Lovecraft and Ligotti never make it to the rubedo—bright, warm, energetic, golden—which signals integration, wholeness, even holiness.  This would imply a kind of salvation, which is impossible in their stories and worldview.

In an excerpt from his book, The Conspiracy against the Human Race (2010), Ligotti describes as “craven” any attempt by horror writers to make use of conventional religious ideas as source material for their stories.  Echoing Lovecraft’s famed materialism and atheism, he makes clear his disdain for traditional religious doctrine that might inculcate cosmic fear or presume to offer a remedy for it. Ligotti prefers nightmare alone as a source of the weird and terrifying, which source can also include the nightmarish aspects of everyday existence—anything that threatens life or sanity. 

Though horror fiction has value in helping readers somehow face the most dreadful aspects of their lives, it is not cathartic or ultimately helpful in anyway, because there is no escape.  Humanity is cursed with a predilection to seek meaningfulness, but there ultimately is no meaning or purpose in a life of struggle and eventual deterioration and death.  This grimly stoic world view is not shared by all, but readers can appreciate the integrity with which authors like Ligotti and Lovecraft allow it to inform their art.

And yet, one does not have to read very many stories by either author before encountering familiar religious motifs.  Why are there so many churches in Lovecraft’s stories?  Certainly these elements are not present to provide much hope or comfort.  If anything, Lovecraft and Ligotti are adept at using religious imagery to violate conventional expectations and so keep the focus on inescapable darkness and dismay.  When dealing with universal questions about life, death, insanity—the purpose or meaning of it all— it may be a challenge to avoid thinking along religious lines.  We are wired for this. 

That Ligotti is able to short circuit this wiring is evident in his short story The Shadow at the Bottom of the World (1991).  This is one of Ligotti’s earlier works, and introduces an understanding of human reality that pervades much of his later work.  It is not so much a story as a prose poem.  While there is a narrative of sorts, the focus is on an unfolding revelation.  The effectiveness of the text lies in its powerful and disturbing images, which Ligotti skillfully conflates with familiar religious motifs as well as ordinary objects. 

The setting is Midwestern and rural, a scene typical of some ordinary wall calendar turned to the page for October.  But the brightly colored leaves of autumn are not falling, and a wandering prophet named Mr. Marble, a type of John the Baptist, interprets these and other signs as harbingers of disaster.  The passage of autumn has been suspended; it is “Halloween Town” for the indefinite future.  Even the air has changed and become oppressive.  

The Lovecraftian influence can be seen in the “malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos…” as Lovecraft would put it.  Even more ominously, there appears at the edge of town, among the cornstalks, at the very edge of collective consciousness, a blasphemous image of Christ-as-scarecrow.  The figure has been internally defiled from the ground up by an organic upwelling of evil, a nebulous black vine that animates the figure and makes its head bob in the absence of any breeze. 

The narrator of The Shadow at the Bottom of the World is a collective “we”—here Ligotti parts ways with Lovecraft, who speaks relentlessly in the first person autobiographical “I”.  This rhetorical “we” makes the story sound like a philosophical treatise at times, or a statement of queasy suspicions about the nature of reality.  Is Ligotti speaking for all of us?
Reminiscent of Lovecraft’s classic The Call of Cthulhu (1928), the emergence of this subterranean—as opposed to submarine—horror enters into the dreams of the townspeople.  The revelation makes itself known in the midst of collective nightmare as much if not more than in its physical appearance in the corn field.  It becomes an object of terrified veneration.  As is typical in such situations, a sacrifice of some kind will be needed to restore equilibrium.  In this sacrifice all of the townspeople are somehow complicit.      

In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal back in September, Ligotti acknowledged that he had not attempted to write in any other genre but horror.  He reiterated a sense that many horror writers have, (including Lovecraft perhaps), that horror writers, because of their relentless focus on the darker and more frightful aspects of human existence, are considered lesser lights, underachievers.  Horror fiction can often seem devoid of the commonplace, omitting the warmth and breadth of human social experience.  

“Dickens trumps Poe” as Ligotti put it in the interview.  This is also a criticism of Lovecraft’s work, which is almost completely empty of women, children, pets, work, food, and many other aspects of normality.  But Ligotti is satisfied to operate within this narrow range, as are his devoted readers.  Effective horror requires a clear and obsessive focus.

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