Subterranean Press has issued two original stories by Thomas Ligotti in a special edition volume titled The Spectral Link. Ligotti is best known for a brooding, gothic style of psychological horror that avoids slashing, gore and disgusting body fluids for a deep, dark, almost spiritual sense of wrongness. He delivers that creepy sense of wrongness in both these tales.
Ligotti’s prose is masterful, as is his control of tone. Tone is not as easy to manage as people might think; very often an historical story or an epic fantasy founders for me when the author slips into modern-day diction, or a gloomy, gothic tale suddenly sprouts a sentence that reads like it came right off of Facebook. Ligotti does not make these errors. Each word, sentence and paragraph is crafted to draw you in, leading you along a downward spiral of otherness and disconnection.
Having said that, I admit that I have no idea what is going on in the first story, “Metaphysica Morum.” In it, a (presumably) severely depressed first-person narrator tells us of his strange dream adventures and his work with “Dr. O,” who may be a psychologist, or a guru, but is most likely a quack. In his dream work, the narrator has many encounters with a character he calls the Dealer. Although the narrator has ceased to try to interpret his dreams, in his most recent one, the Dealer promised him a “whole new context.” When he shares this with Dr. O, the doctor becomes nervous, even upset. When the narrator next returns to Dr. O’s office, he finds the doctor gone and must search for him in buildings in a very poor, grubby part of town.
Our narrator also shares with us that he is functionally an orphan with no connections to anyone, and no knowledge of his heritage except for the cryptic fragment of a letter. The letter is supposedly from a family member; it is incomplete. Although this is the only clue to his childhood, the narrator tells us that over a series of moves, he lost both the envelope (which had a return address) and several pages of the missive.
The letter brings a whole new tone to the story. The letter writer apparently comes from an incestuous, cannibalistic “metaphysical mutant” family that is a cross between something from Faulkner and The Hills Have Eyes. The letter reports with glee various familial transgressions and depredations upon neighbors, even a visiting anthropologist, and implies that at least one family member can draw people into his dreams.
Our narrator has seized upon “metaphysical mutant” as a category for himself. In a later dream, the Dealer tells him that while Dr. O is a fraud, he can “fix up” the narrator, that he has what the narrator needs. When he finally tracks down the elusive Dr. O, he extorts something of importance from him, something the Dealer promised, and takes it back to his one-room apartment.
The downward trajectory of the narrator is perfectly plotted (plotted, here, in the sense of a nautical chart and a course). I understand that the Dealer and Dr. O represent, maybe, two sides of the same function; and I understand the narrator’s sense of disconnection. The most intriguing thing in this very dark story is the letter that supplies information and opens up more questions. Why was the narrator abandoned by his family/tribe? Did he write the letter to himself? Is his situation genetic, psychological, or spiritual? I have no idea.
“The Small People” is also written in the first person, as a monologue, again, to a doctor. Dr. O again? Probably not, because this narrator is in an institution. The narrator explains that from an early age he was afraid of “the small people,” tiny, bland-faced, toylike beings that exist along with us. Small people move into an area and suddenly there are signs out for the larger-sized humans, saying “Watch for Smalls.” They terrify the narrator as a boy, and he gets no sympathy from his parents, who call him a “shameful little bigot.” One night he and a school friend slip away and venture into Small territory, and after an eerie experience watching the smalls building a city, the narrator discovers that there are not only smalls, but half-smalls, something even more terrifying because some of the time they look like “regular” people. The suspense in this story is built sentence by sentence; not the “what” but the how and the why. “Shameful little bigot” is the story’s refrain, as the narrator tries repeatedly to explain that his hatred springs from an elemental fear. The story ends in an outpouring of existential angst as the narrator tries to make sense of a world so cruel that it would surround him with smalls and half-smalls; he begs to know why, but there is no answer.
Okay, so, this is probably not the book to take to the beach or poolside. Or, maybe it is; maybe Ligotti’s intricately crafted darkness would be balanced by Jello-colored pool noodles and the joyful cries of children leaping into the water. When I look for words to describe my reactions to his work, I find I lean more towards “appreciate” or even “admire” rather than “like.” I don’t like how these stories made me feel, but I appreciate the technical ability and artistry behind them. Ligotti has talent, and he has also worked to master his craft. His mastery shows. If you are feeling particularly stable, then by all means check these out.