Noctuary: A horror collection

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNoctuary by Thomas LigottiNoctuary by Thomas Ligotti

“For we are the specters of a madness that surpasses ourselves and hides in mystery. And though we search for sense throughout endless rooms, all we may find is a voice whispering from a mirror in a house that belongs to no one.”

Thomas Ligotti is a master of madness. He writes short stories in the horror vein. Subterranean Press has collected eight of them, along with twenty vignettes or “flash fiction,” not more than 750 words, in the anthology Noctuary (originally published in 1994).

Ligotti shares the horror-master dais with writers like Ramsay Clark and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft. His work is less about physical horror and more psychological; evoking dread, depression and a dislocation of the senses that leave you distrusting your own sanity. In many of his works, the most frightening moment happens off stage, and what we see are the results. Ligotti focuses on the effect of terror on his characters rather than the terror itself.

Lucien Dregler is obsessed with “The Medusa,” in the book’s first story. He believes the creature exists and that she is the soul of a millennia-old cult. He keeps clippings of events and articles that might demonstrate Medusa sightings. Is his encounter with a strange, mute woman in the basement of a used bookstore a trick? Is it imagined? Later, Lucien has another encounter which is never described, but at the end of the story he faces a fate not surprising for those who would follow a Gorgon.

“Conversation in a Dead Language” is probably the most conventional horror story in the anthology. Told over three Halloweens, it follows a reclusive mail carrier. In the first section, the last trick-or-treaters to come to his house are a sister and brother, oddly costumed as a bride and groom. He has an uncomfortable conversation with them, and it’s clear he is somehow fascinated by them both. A year passes. We discover that the mail carrier’s mother has died, and learn more about his deeply troubled childhood. When the siblings arrive, again costumed as bride and groom, he tricks them into telling him which house they live in. The third year many things have changed, and the sister comes alone to the door, garbed all in black like a witch. Throughout this story, Ligotti layers his prose like cobwebs and shadows, building up tension without directly revealing the cause. The story has a satisfactory ending, including the revelation of what happened to the brother, but it leaves the reader questioning — and looking over her shoulder.

Ligotti does not show a lot of humor in this collection, but it’s possible  — barely — that “Prodigy of Dreams” is actually a gentlemanly parody of Lovecraft and not just homage. Arthur Emerson, last of his line, is troubled by the behavior of the swans on the lake, and by the fog that drifts in around his estate. He is troubled by disturbing dreams, and his old servant Graff begins to act strangely too. Even his voice sounds different, developing a humming, whistling sound. Arthur reviews his own travel journal and comes across the account he wrote of a visit to Italy, a strange shrine he found in an alleyway, and his own impulsive act. That act, and his allegiance, will not be denied by the elder god of the shrine.

“Mrs. Rinaldi’s Angel” discusses the nature of the universe, and nightmares, as a little boy who is troubled by them is taken to the strange old woman in the neighborhood for an odd healing ritual.

“The Tsallal” introduces a “skeleton town,” Ligotti’s brilliant conceit of a certain type of town. We’ve all seen one, a town that isn’t a ghost town yet, but has stopped growing, stuck like a desiccated fly in a spider’s web. A group of people have returned to the mummified town, while in an old house a man struggles to decipher a book written by his pastor father. The climax, in an abandoned church, is chilling and Lovecraftian.

Lovecraft is evoked, again, in “A Mad Night of Atonement,” where a brilliant scientist creates a strange device, directed, apparently, by a light from the moon. I confess I have no idea what was going on here, but the imagery was intense, disturbing and intriguing.

Ligotto strikes a different tone in “The Strange Design of Master Rignolo.” Two men, Nolon and Grissul, seem to be staking out an apartment in a nameless city, but after Grissul describes an unusual encounter in the marshes, they go to visit Master Rignolo, a renowned local artist. The artist insists on accompanying them to the marsh to see things for himself, with a devastating result. Back at the stakeout, Grissul wonders why Rignolo did what he did.

“Do I really have to explain it all, Mr. Grissul?”

“I suppose not,” Mr. Grissul said very softly, looking ashamed. “He was trying to get away with something.”

In “The Voices in the Bones,” a man wanders a strange house that may be his, pursued by two mocking figures.

Noctuary is broken into three sections: Studies in Shadow; Discourse of Blackness; Notebook of the Night. This third section contains short pieces. My favorite of these was “New Faces in the City.” The city you are in, you realize, is not the one you meant to visit. There’s a sense of otherness, like jet-lag or extreme fatigue. Buildings don’t look right; then you see that many of them are just facades. This is not the terrifying part. The terrifying part is what happens after you leave.

The matter of fact voice of the hired man who narrates “The Premature Transformation” contrasts with the events. The man works for a doctor who is having a party, “this time very remote; a sprawling old house at a forest’s edge…” The partygoers experience a horrible event, and the hired man must dispose of them. He tells the doctor he got them all, although he’s not sure he did.

“The Spectral Estate” is another piece about a house of madness.

The book ends with the chilling little story, “Ten Steps to Thin Mountain.” A simple sentence like, “The train will be here soon,” should not give you goose-bumps, but with Ligotti writing it, it does.

This is a splendidly scary introduction to Thomas Ligotti’s work. Noctuary conjures up gooseflesh, shivers and nightmares, just as it should.

Originally published in 1994. Noctuary is the third volume of Thomas Ligotti’s horror stories to appear in a revised, definitive edition from Subterranean Press. The first two collections in this series, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (2010; 1986; expanded edition, 1989) and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (2011; originally published 1991), are now collector’s items. Like its predecessors,Noctuary received numerous plaudits from reviewers upon its initial appearance. According to Library Journal, Noctuary is “another colorful collection of horror stories–which spring on the unsuspecting reader the combination of supernatural characters, natural props, and ‘weird’ circumstanced.” As Booklist observed, “The most disturbing terror comes from within, springs unexpectedly from bland or half-formed memories of the past. This is the terror that Ligotti cultivates in the rich evocative tales of Noctuary–For those willing to immerse themselves in Ligotti’s world, the rewards are great.” When an interviewer asked Ligotti the derivation of the word “noctuary,” he replied that it was the nocturnal counterpart of “diary,” that is, a journal of what occurs on a nightly timetable rather than during the light of day. Echoing the tenebrous tone of the book’s name are the section titles into which Noctuary is divided–Studies in Shadow, Discourse on Blackness, Notebook of the Night. Shadow, Blackness, Night: these are substance and signification of the themes of Ligotti’s works and the signature of gloom in which they are signed. New to Noctuary are the tense pieces of the volume’s third section. Composed of nineteen dreamy entries, Notebook of the Night is a journal–or perhaps only excerpts of a greater work–of insidious exploits, delirious freaks, hymns to the void, esoteric rituals, and carnivals of the abyss. As an introduction to this and the other segments of Noctuary is “In the Night, in the Dark: A Note on the Appreciation of Weird Fiction.” Perhaps the reader will fight guidance in the words of this meditation on what separates the aberrant from the norm, the diseased from the wholesome, and the night from the day.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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