Thursday, December 31, 2015

Talismanic Terrors in Lovecraft and Ligotti

Amulets, statuettes, rings, skulls, stones and similar items—are a commonplace in horror and fantasy fiction, as well as some forms of still vibrant religion.  Imbued with magical and miraculous forces, talismans are able to help users subvert natural law, communicate with mysterious entities, and revive connections with an irrational and awe-filled past.  These objects of formidable power come from times and places unaffected by the tiresomeness of materialistic science—a so-called “enlightened” view that would evaporate their dark energies and replace them with mere gadgets needing batteries.

It is of course through tangible means that we can come to any understanding of the intangible, the incomprehensible, and the unspeakable.  Perhaps the current enthusiasm for talismanic objects and procedures in our society is traceable in part to Roman Catholic “sacramentals” like holy water, incense, and the relics of saints, among other paraphernalia.  At least one occultist has noted that among the Christian denominations, the Catholic Church alone has preserved its magical heritage in the beauty and sensuality of its rituals.

Etymologically, the word talisman is associated with root words in French, Arabic and Greek that have to do with consecration or initiation into religious mysteries.  Depending on circumstances, a wide variety of objects can become talismanic, either serving as protection against evil forces or as a way to garner and focus positive energies to accomplish some end.  At one end of the continuum is the familiar crucifix, historically effective against vampires, demons and witches, though its efficacy is now sadly in doubt.  At the other end is the rabbit’s foot or some variation, useful in securing good luck in some venture.  It seems important that a talisman be handed down—historical and familial connections amplify the talisman’s power—and that it undergo some sort of manufacture or alteration.  That is, it must be made, and somehow designated as empowered.

Despite his avowed materialism, H.P. Lovecraft made extensive use of talismanic objects in his horror fiction.  A jade amulet pilfered from a desecrated grave brings grisly doom to several characters in The Hound (1924).  In The Temple (1925) the crew of a German submarine succumb to the powers emanating from an ivory figurine of a youth’s head.  A crucifix comes in handy when subduing the evil witch Kezia Mason in The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933).  Finally, there is the famous “shining trapezohedron” that summons an avatar of Nyarlathotep in The Haunter of the Dark (1936).  Lovecraft enthusiasts can probably identify additional examples.

Lovecraft was certainly not alone in using talismans as plot devices.  Robert E. Howard also makes frequent use of various occult paraphernalia, some of them reappearing in stories from different fictional time periods.  For example, there is the ring in the shape of “a scaly snake coiled three times, with its tail in its mouth and yellow jewels for eyes”.  It causes severe marital discord for a modern day couple in the 1934 story The Haunter of the Ring.  But it is likely the same ring used by the enslaved Stygian sorcerer, “Thoth-amon of the Ring” to vanquish his captors millennia ago, in the 1932 Conan story The Phoenix on the Sword.  (See also With Friends Like These… and King Conan and Job Satisfaction.)

Lovecraft and Howard make fairly conventional use of talismans as instruments of vengeance, protection, or invocation of dark powers.  It is interesting, at least to me, to compare their use of these items and that of a contemporary master of horror, Thomas Ligotti.  Such objects are not uncommon in his fiction, but seem to serve a different purpose, and have a different effect.  Like Lovecraft, Ligotti is a materialist, even a nihilist in the view of some critics, and unlikely to abide traditional supernatural assumptions about magical amulets, rings, statuary and the like.  In this regard he is more honest and consistent than Lovecraft was in his work.

In Lovecraft’s The Temple, a talisman appears in the form of a finely wrought ivory figure of the head of a boy.  It has the same effect as Coleridge’s dead albatross, and brings with it a series of disasters and madness to the submarine crew and its captain, culminating in the discovery of an ancient undersea temple.  In Ligotti’s chilling The Frolic (1985), a similar figure appears, fashioned of blue ceramic, but in a completely different context.  The figure is created by the inmate of a nearby prison, and the wife of the prison psychologist has inadvertently purchased it for him, thinking the doctor will appreciate its artistic merit. 

This object has no intrinsic power like a conventional talisman, but it does connect the principle characters with the increasing awareness of an approaching nightmare.  In a sense, Ligotti’s talisman is an example of the Jungian notion of synchronicity—an a-causal but meaningful coincidence.  Its appearance is also a prelude to a terrifying, archetypal horror for parents of young children.  Interested readers may want to look at how Ligotti uses the word “thousand” in The Frolic, as well as the dream-like pun or play on words involving the daughter’s name and a quotation from the psychopath—very clever and very unsettling.   

More elaborate use of a talismanic device can be found in a later story by Ligotti, The Medusa (1994).  A rose-colored stone appears in four different locations throughout the story, including the last scene, in which the protagonist finally encounters the titular entity he is seeking.  The stone does not cause the lead character’s demise, but its repetitive and insistent appearance links the episodes of his nightmare and his weird fate together.  Yet by itself, the stone is incidental and easily overlooked. 

In the forward to Noctuary (1994) his third collection of short stories, Ligotti suggests that fatalism—the sense that personalized doom is foreordained—is the “necessary framework” of weird fiction.  This seems to be the underlying mechanism of stories like The Frolic and The Medusa.  (From a Calvinist perspective, this can be seen as a subcategory of predestination.)  The curious objects that appear in Ligotti’s stories cannot be used actively to summon or protect, as in Lovecraft or Howard above, but have become passive signposts signaling a fateful horror’s proximity.  You and it are going to meet, no matter what.

The Frolic is one of Ligotti’s earlier stories, published in his first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986).  The story already contains much of the technique and style that make his later work so effective and memorable.  It is worthwhile to read a Ligotti story twice, first to appreciate its effect, and again to appreciate how this effect was achieved.  Ligotti makes skillful use of repetition and echoing of imagery or parts of imagery throughout the text, a kind of subliminal telegraphing of impending doom.  The reader may experience a growing uneasiness and not know why, even as his or her unconscious is already connecting the dots. 


  1. Excellent essay, making some fascinating observations. It's wonderful to see commentary on Thomas Ligotti, who is for me the greatest horror writer of all time. I adore Lovecraft, but E'ch-Pi-El wrote some few stories that were rather awful. Ligotti, to my mind, has never written a bad story.

  2. Thank you for the encouraging comments. I would have to agree with you. Though I aim to become more familiar with Ligotti's work, everything I have seen so far has been innovative and effective.


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