Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bouquets of Doom

Thomas Ligotti’s “Les Fleurs” is a brief but effective riff on the diary-of-a-madman format often seen in horror fiction.  The story originally appeared in the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986).  Within just the first five sentences Ligotti masterfully encapsulates the maniac’s obsessions and his modus operandi—a grim version of “say it with flowers”.  Though there are victims—at least 2—and plenty of ominous foreshadowing, their peculiar fate is really a backdrop to what is essentially a psychological character study.  A timeline of just under six months, neatly bracketed by almost identical journal entries at the beginning and the end, documents one cycle of the narrator’s fateful interactions with the lonely and the trusting.  The story is a marvel of economy and focus.

The nightmarish elements of the story are more subtle and restrained in “Les Fleurs” than in later work by Ligotti.  There is even an occasional bit of offhand humor that seems to amplify the more horrific aspects.  The narrator has a practice of laying flowers on the graves of people who share the same name as his victims—there are evidently no remains of them left to entomb—but he is unsuccessful doing this for his latest victim. He is reduced to leaving the commemorative bouquet at the headstone of “someone named Clarence.” 

Lovecraft fans will appreciate the reference to a Shoggoth-like sculpture that is somehow connected with the disappearance of the narrator’s victims.

“Watch that”, I warned.  She let out a little “Ow”.  “Is it supposed to be some type of cactus?” she inquired.

Though he denies it, the narrator is an artist who strives for realism in his work—just like Pickman—and apparently paints from life.  There is also an intriguing conceptualization of the narrator’s mind: it is not one unified personality but a secret paranoid assembly that seeks to restrain his incautious romantic ventures.  (“Those lonely souls, mes frères!”)  Most disturbing line:  “The inconspicuousness we need for our lives could be lost, and with it would go the keys to a strange kingdom.”  There is a lot going on in this short, effective piece.

“Les Fleurs” recalls Charles Baudelaire’s classic book of French poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).  The occasional French phrase in Ligotti’s text, and the fact that the narrator is an aesthete like Baudelaire perhaps makes Ligotti’s story some sort of homage.  Was the famous poet and essayist a model or inspiration for Ligotti’s narrator?

Over the years I have read excerpts from Les Fleurs du Mal, dropped here and there like lilting, spent blossoms into books of psychology, philosophy, and horror—but never the work in its entirety.  One of my more adventurous high school English teachers had us peruse one selection from Baudelaire, which I recall was a little “off”, even unwholesome, especially compared to the breezier and brighter examples of poetry we are typically encouraged to read. 

Baudelaire’s poetry, now that I am becoming more familiar with it, has an alluring toxicity, something you might consume if you were dared to do so.  Les Fleurs du Mal is remarkably dark and morbid—of a piece with the mood of Poe or Lovecraft, though less self-restrained or self-conscious.  The earthiness is appealing; in fact, several of his poems dwell on matters beneath the earth:

Wherever the soil is rich and full of snails
I want to dig myself a nice deep grave—
deep enough to stretch out these tired old bones
and sleep in peace, like a shark in the cradling wave.

What little I know about Baudelaire suggests he is in a line of similarly dark and cynical writers, impatient with conventional pieties, authors like Poe, Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Smith, Burroughs, and Ligotti.  They were all seduced by the dark side—or perhaps they saw the bright side all too clearly.  H.P. Lovecraft, in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) has this comment about Baudelaire and the 19th century traditions from which he came:

Later on we see the stream divide, producing strange poets and fantaisistes of the symbolic and decadent schools whose dark interests really centre more in abnormalities of human thought and instinct than in the actual supernatural, and subtle story-tellers whose thrills are quite directly derived from night-black wells of cosmic unreality.  Of the former class of “artists in sin” the illustrious poet Baudelaire, influenced vastly by Poe, is the supreme type…

From a Calvinist perspective, these gentlemen are adept at depicting the total depravity and hopelessness of humanity, yet will not concede to any possibility of deliverance of transcendence.  Whether or not one agrees with them, their courage and integrity on these matters is admirable.  As Baudelaire charmingly puts it in his opening comments in Les Fleurs du Mal (“To the Reader”):

If rape and arson, poison and the knife
have not yet stitched their ludicrous designs
onto the banal buckram of our fates,
it is because our souls lack enterprise!

Charles Baudelaire was not only an accomplished poet and essayist, but an astute critic in mid-nineteenth century Paris.  For example, a section of Les Fleurs du Mal that was later appended to the original book describes his perception of efforts to modernize Parisian streets and architecture:

Old Paris is gone (no human heart
Changes half so fast as a city’s face)

And only in my mind’s eye can I see
The junk laid out to glitter in the booths
Among the weeds and splintered capitals,
Blocks of marble blackened by the mud;

There used to be a poultry-market here…

Baudelaire’s lifestyle was similar to that of Edgar Allan Poe, whose work he translated into French in the 1850s and 1860s.  Though brilliant, both authors were reliably decadent, avant-garde, drug addled wastrels—but their work was enormously influential.  Not surprisingly, Baudelaire was once prosecuted as “an insult to public decency” for some of the poems in Les Fleurs du Mal, and suspected by some to be an advocate of Satanism, though this seems a misperception. 

Like a number of the afore-mentioned authors—Poe and Lovecraft come to mind—Baudelaire struggled with limited finances, ill health, and inconsistent productivity as a writer.  There are interesting similarities of temperament and family relationship between Baudelaire and Lovecraft, and their work achieved renown and influence only after their untimely deaths.  

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