The Spectral Link – Thomas Ligotti

Spectral LinkThe Spectral Link (2014) comprises two novelettes that represent the first new fiction from cult horror writer Thomas Ligotti in ten years, following a protracted case of writer’s block (or “existence block”, as the dust jacket puts it).

The blurb, by the way, which describes Ligotti’s output as being “as paltry as it is directionless” must surely have been penned by the writer himself? It’s this weirdly long and self-aware invective that functions as much as biography as it does synopsis, and focuses on the “abdominal crisis” (read: emergency surgery) that was the genesis of his creative second wind. The depiction of Ligotti on the surgeon’s table reminds me of this horror story by Georg Heym, and the almost-negative tone of the thing calls to mind those early editions of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory that included reprints of bad reviews as a kind of ironic marketing ploy to attract the sort of book hipsters who like the idea of reading shocking and disturbed stuff because it’s cool or anti-mainstream or whatever. With Ligotti, though, I get less the impression of smart-arsed marketing, and more a genuine feeling of discomfort with having actually published something, with having to describe it and sell it, and with the idea of existing in general, really. Which articulation of discomfort, after all, is why we read his books in the first place, I guess.

The first of the two novelettes, Metaphysica Morum, combines Ligotti’s early interest in bodyshock with his more recent concerns for emotional despair (as best captured in the exceptional “corporate horror” novella My Work is Not Yet Done). It’s about a guy “at odds with the status quo of the world” attempting to recruit his therapist, Dr O., into euthanizing him by anaesthesia. Forming the background to this is some vague dream stuff about a sinister figure called ‘The Dealer’, and a short diversion into the narrator’s disquieting family history. The prose is characteristically purple, but more theoretically dense than his usual output, calling to mind his non-fiction philosophical declaration “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” more than any of his earlier narrative writings. This, it turns out, is a double-edged sword, as the flowery philosophy of the story brilliantly articulates the narrator’s conception of humanity as wretched, of life as an “eternal nightmare” and being in the world as an “organic horror”, but it nonetheless stifles some of the atmosphere and tensions, creating a jarring and stilted reading experience as scenes are constantly interrupted by long philosophical asides. Some may argue, of course, that this is the whole point: the fracted story and constant reminders that life is awful is a narrative and structural reflection of the lived day-to-day reality of the narrator (and the writer, it seems) but I preferred Ligotti’s nihilism when it was more implicit, less preachy. This aside, however, I enjoyed the story immensely.

The second story, The Small People, is longer, but feels the more minor of the two. Perhaps this is because it’s less of an in-your-face philosophical statement. Who knows? The story is about a boy’s hate-filled campaign against the titular small people, a race of tiny itinerant humans. This is framed by a therapist’s-couch sort of conversation, as the boy, years later, describes his childhood to a doctor. The Small People is genuinely disturbing in its articulation of pure hatred, and in this way it reminds me of Michael Cisco’s The Traitor, where there’s an odd cognitive dissonance between, on the one hand, the perverse voyeurism of wanting to see how far his hatred will go and, on the other, condemning his bigotry and cruelty. There’s also an unresolved dualism going on, with the narrator simultaneously presenting as both batshit insane, and the only person with the clarity of vision to have seen and recognised the horrible truth about the world. The Small People themselves call to mind Gulliver’s Travels, but other than a playful literary reference, I can’t really parse out the significance of this. It’s a good story, and the ending especially is composed of such chillingly dark language that I was genuinely panicked for a while.

Having read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race we are, more than ever, aware of the parallels between Ligotti and his equally isolated, misanthropic, suicide-fixated characters. This equivalency between the writer’s inner life and those of his protagonists’ brings a quasi-autobiographic poise to his writing that, given the incredibly weird and distressing nature of these stories, augments the sense of horror by orders of magnitude, making him the purest horror writer writing today. As a sufferer of chronic anxieties myself, I found The Spectral Link reassuring in a you’re-not-alone kind of way. But as a human being, I also found it upsetting, cruel, and unrelenting in its darkness.

You’re never likely to find a more perfect exemplar of the old idiom that the purpose of art is to disturb the comforted, and to comfort the disturbed.

My Work Is Not Yet Done – Thomas Ligotti

I’ve written before about the protean nature of Thomas Ligotti’s horror fiction; the ways in which he seems completely at home writing in genres as diverse as Lovecraftian grotesque or the ghost story, slasher fiction, philosophical horror, vampire mythos, demonic possession etc. and etc.  He’s equally comfortable subverting and corrupting the well-established tropes of these categories as he is paying sentimental homage to their more classical incarnations.  And while his mastery over so many different genre forms is undoubtedly impressive, it’s a little too easy to accuse Ligotti of over-reliance on the anaphora of his forbearers; the once-original motifs that have since become tired and predictable through over-use, Hollywood hack and the familiarity of age.  This isn’t to say those stories in which he channels Poe or Aickman or Lovecraft or Heym are disappointing or unsuccessful, quite the contrary, but horror fiction – perhaps more so than any other genre – relies on constant innovation in order to fulfil its ostensible mandate: to provoke, shock and disturb.  Even when Ligotti is distorting classic designs, he is still nonetheless working within structures that were mastered elsewhere, by other writers.  Predictability is the greatest crime a work of horror can commit.

Thankfully, My Work is Not Yet Done signifies the point at which Ligotti steps out of the shadows of the old masters and does something we all secretly hoped he was capable of: writes a novel in a genre truly his own.  The descriptor “Corporate Horror” is perhaps a crude epithet to plaster over the title page, but it’s a useful term, and one which I’m sure will soon become a valid and commonplace part of critical vocabulary.

The novel, as this appellation suggests, is about a man who works in an office – scary stuff, right?  It’s true that the office space and the workaday routine has become common fodder for the literary mainstream – the pointlessness of it all, the existential ennui of routine and the black comedy of bureaucracy – but the office of My Work is Not Yet Done, though as mundane and ordinary as any other, is cast as a place of abject panic, despair and horror for our narrator Frank Dominio, whose prose is most poignantly characterised by his opening and oft-repeated refrain “I have always been afraid”.

The book takes great pains to describe the head-splitting flicker of florescent office tube lights, the grotesque and unearned self-confidence of those in higher management, the never-ending barrage of non-specific and pointless paperwork and the unfair and unreasonably small ways Frank’s co-workers attempt to undermine him.  The acts of selfishness and cruelty best described as “office politics” Frank knows he should ignore and rise above but which, simultaneously, seem deeply, personally, disgustingly offensive and hurtful.  Ligotti’s pitch-perfect prose oscillates between a microscopic focus on unimportant, trivial details on the one hand, and a fetishisation of the mundane, vague, unspecific blandness of it all on the other: “He was of average height and build, average weight, average age”.  The cumulative effect of this cloying and constant description is a sensation of desperate, claustrophobic loneliness, anxiety and horror as Frank trudges through his daily “maze of pain”.

I was somewhat disappointed with the second half of the novel, in which some strange force Frank terms “the great black swine” grants him the power to fulfil all of the sadistic fantasies of violent murder he harbours against his co-workers “I wanted to do things to Richard that would make the sun grow cold with horror”.  The jarring tonal shift from paranoia and solipsism to supernatural hyper-violence really irked me: it converges clumsily with the insightful social criticisms of the novel’s first half in a way that almost undermines the book’s sense of hopelessness.  I mean, the novel’s second half is well-conceived, well-structured horror with some gloriously imaginative comeuppances directed at the book’s most perversely unpleasant characters (and I especially liked Frank’s hubristic fall when he presumptuously ignores the single caveat and condition of his new supernatural gifts – powers which are otherwise in danger of being so all-encompassing and poorly defined as to be narratively uninteresting), but the whole supernatural element is just so, so unnecessary.  The book’s aesthetic identity is fully realised in its first half. The fact that Ligotti crafts such disturbing and panic-ridden horror from what is essentially a description of a man going to work is the book’s most striking achievement.  The rest is good Ligotti, but perhaps the writer’s ideas would have been better served had these two parts been kept entirely separate.

It goes against my every readerly impulse to say this, then, but when Ligotti offers the suggestion that the book’s supernatural elements have entirely rational and psychosomatic foundations, I embraced it whole-heatedly.  Given the choice, I would usually pick the more fantastical of any two feasible textual interpretations (it’s just more fun that way), but the possibility that My Work is Not Yet Done doesn’t collapse into hocus-pocus-fuelled demonic mayhem, though by far the least substantiated interpretation, is by far the most interesting reading.  The nine-to-five office space of corporate drudgery, with all its potential for loneliness, repetition, anger, desperate anxiety and claustrophobic despair is horror enough: there’s nothing more to add.