Thomas Ligotti’s short story “Alice’s Last Adventure” is one of a number of his works that display the author’s fascination with the doppelgänger, the ghostlike duplicate that plagues a deeply troubled soul, leading him or her to some shattering revelation and unavoidable doom. Many horror entertainments turn on the question of whether the protagonist’s double is a product of a tormented imagination or has a separate and malevolent existence, not unlike that of an egregore, (see also Nethescurial as an Egregore and “Egregorology” in Weird Fiction).
Classic treatments of this phenomena include Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Sand-man” (1816), and Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (1908). Also worth reading is Sigmund Freud’s important essay “The Uncanny” (1919). Freud places the doppelgänger in the context of psychoanalytical perspectives on the activities of the unconscious mind—one of the scariest places on earth. (Freud’s essay is discussed in a series of earlier posts; see also Horror Theory: Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (Par....)
Is the doppelgänger simply the repressed part of some loosely organized personality, restive and defiant, which escapes the awareness and supervision of an ego only nominally in charge? Is it a traumatic memory that becomes personified and embodied? Because it questions the nature of human identity and the integrity of the soul, the doppelgänger is one of the most terrifying of horror concepts. Who are we? Are we who we think we are?
Strictly speaking, the apparitions and related phenomena that torment the aged protagonist in Ligotti’s “Alice’s Last Adventure” do not constitute a duplicate of the narrator so much as an intrusion into her waking reality of memories, fictional characters, and odd transmutations of the people she knew earlier in her career. In her last year of life, and culminating on one lonely and anxious Halloween night, a writer of children’s books is forced to reflect on her life and her creations, in particular, an adventurous and macabre character named Preston Penn.
Preston is the young hero of a series of off-kilter adventures with titles like Preston and the Upside-Down Face, and Preston and the Ghost of the Gourd. Ligotti cleverly uses the progression of titles, which grow darker and more disturbing as the protagonist loses her grip on reality as a kind of subliminal cue to the reader that worse is coming—Preston and the Talking Grave appears a bit later in the list.
Who or what is this Preston? Ligotti suggests that it might be a representation of the author’s beloved and rascally playmate, whom she describes at one point as the “prima materia” for her fictional character. Or perhaps he is a version of her father, who shared similar personality traits with the boy. Or maybe he is the narrator herself, that is, her animus. In Jungian parlance, this is the unconscious, repressed “shadow”, the feminine aspect of personality in men, the masculine aspect of personality in women.
Or is Preston a kind of egregore, an entity given form and independent existence by the author’s imagination and focus? Whatever Preston is, Ligotti leaves the matter open for the reader to determine. He avoids the triteness of merely having Preston act like an escaped fictional character. Instead, Ligotti combines the unresolved elements of a life nearing its end into something much deeper and more disturbing.
It is no accident that the story begins on the anniversary of the death of the woman’s childhood friend, which death seems to have set into motion a series of disturbing phenomena that are chronicled in the story. Life begins to imitate art as the narrator compares incidents to those in books she’s written in the past.
In “Alice’s Last Adventure” the titular Alice is looking back on her authorial career, which ended some two decades previously. In some respects she is now a shell or automaton version of her earlier self. It was ‘the other Alice’, the younger, more child-like version of herself that wrote the Preston Penn books. Re-unification through memory with this discarded part of her being involves a nightmarish blending of memories and fictional images as she approaches her own death.
What may be suggested here is that Alice is undergoing a universal experience of dying: the psychic collapse of boundaries and compartmentalization, the dissolution of sequential time, the breeching of the wall between reality and the imagined. The jarring transitions between her recollections and her current observations—for which the narrator frequently apologizes—are a credible rendering of a mind becoming “unstuck in time”, to use Vonnegut’s phrase.
What also may be suggested here is that Alice is undergoing a universal experience of writing. “Alice’s Last Adventure” is similar in some respects to a later story of Ligotti’s, “Sideshow, and Other Stories” (2006). Both are self-conscious character studies of authors and involve doppelgänger-like manifestations. In these two works Ligotti seems to be saying that creativity in a writer is a dissociative process: the person who writes the book in not necessarily the person identified as the writer.
Or at least that the process of writing is a psychically collective process among disparate parts of the author’s personality and imagination. In this dissociative state, aspects of the writer’s personality become compartmentalized or sequestered, so that events, settings and especially characters can take on an imagined separate life of their own. Hence the writer’s oft-cited experience of fictional characters seeming to take on a life of their own, directing their own pathway through the plot of a story.
In this regard, the creation of fictional characters is analogous to the formation of an egregore, though it involves an individual mind and not those of a group or society. This may be especially case with the problematic psychology of horror writers.
In “Alice’s Last Adventure”, the subtle blurring of real, remembered and imagined events resembles the composite imagery of dreams, in which places, activities and people that share meaningfulness are condensed into a single image or setting. That intense introspection is in view here is emphasized in the frequent use of mirror imagery, superficially a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), but a device that enhances the uncanniness of the story.
In one of the most provocative lines in the story, Ligotti has Alice say, echoing her father’s praise of Carroll’s work: “To Father, the creator of Alice, as I later came to see it, was a symbol of psychic supremacy, the sterling ideal of an unstructured mind manipulating reality to its whim and gaining a kind of objective force through the minds of others.” This seems an attempt to explain the underlying nature of what is happening to Alice.
“Alice’s Last Adventure”, is one of Ligotti’s best stories because with its strong characterization, artful structure, and subtle allusions. He has put a lot into this story. There is the homage to Lewis Carroll, and a deft exploration of the dynamic between anima and animus. Most disturbing of all is its bleak reconnaissance along the border that separates the real, the imagined, and the unimagined—a border that will eventually fall for all of us.