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Horror and Dollcraft: Thomas Ligotti, Eugene Thacker, and Stephen Graham Jones


Blessed are those with a voice. If dolls could speak, no doubt they would scream, “I didn’t want to be human!”

– Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

The oldest undisputed depiction of a human being is the so-called Venus of Hohle Fels, which was crafted between 33,000 and 40,000 years ago. The zoomorphic, lion-headed Löwenmensch figurine is even older, being between 35,000 and 40,000 years old. Dolls – which is to say, human figures carved as toys rather than objects of veneration – date to at least the 21st century BCE, with examples scattered throughout the world’s ancient archeological sites. For practically as long as our species has biologically been human, we have crafted self-representations: replications of the human form in wood, stone, mammoth tusk, and every other medium available to us.

No author explores the human tendency to craft homunculi better than Thomas Ligotti. His short stories are a master class in surreal, atmospheric wrongness, literary horror more in the spirit of Franz Kafka than Dean Koontz. Ligotti’s tales take place in a reality that is fundamentally hostile to humanity and ultimately unknowable; an existence that is itself a horror, rather than a neutral state disrupted by horror. Throughout Ligotti’s fiction, dolls and puppets are a primary leitmotif. (For more on this, see my post “The Dollcraft of Thomas Ligotti”). It is thus not surprising that Ligotti’s nonfiction work of philosophy, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, also plays with these themes.

As Ligotti writes in Conspiracy:

Whether we are sovereign or enslaved in our being, what of it? Our species would still look to the future and see no need to abdicate its puppet dance of replication in a puppet universe where the strings pull themselves. What a laugh that we would do anything else, or could do anything else. … Human puppets could not conceive of themselves as being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakable sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation.

Ligotti’s perspective can be described as existential nihilism, or as philosopher Eugene Thacker has charmingly labeled it, Cosmic Pessimism. Indeed, Thacker explores horror fiction as an expression of philosophy in his masterful In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy (Volume 1), in which he asks: “What if ‘horror’ has less to do with a fear of death, and more to do with the dread of life?” In Dust, Ligotti is name-checked as a craftsman of cosmic horror in the same pantheon as H.P. Lovecraft. In an article for Mute Magazine, Thacker writes: “One of the ideas that best characterizes Ligotti’s brand of pessimism is that of the puppet. A leitmotif in much of his work, the puppet is for Ligotti the exemplar of concept-horror, an uncanny manifestation of the life-like that seems to blatantly contradict what we think we know about the world.”

This use of the puppet, doll, or mannequin as a stand-in for the confrontation between consciousness and non-human reality is a theme in plenty of modern horror. From blockbusters like Child’s Play and Annabelle to the cult classic Puppet Master franchise (a personal favorite), there is no shortage of media about scary dolls. Ligotti’s work, however, provides a much deeper, much darker perspective on the subject than the usual fare. This is also true of Stephen Graham Jones’ 2020 novel Night of the Mannequins.

Without spoiling anything about Mannequins, it’s safe to say that it is a novel that explicitly uses the titular plastic homunculus as “an uncanny manifestation of the life-like that seems to blatantly contradict what we think we know about the world.” In one passage from Mannequins, Jones writes:

If—if this prank wasn’t working, then . . . then nothing held, right? Nothing was real. Everything was cut loose and falling just wherever, it didn’t matter because rules didn’t count anymore.

There’s not one half of one tenth of a sliver of a chance that [my friends] wouldn’t have called me crazy from grief, suffering from survivor’s guilt, acting out via conspiracy theories, engaging in magical thinking, maybe even showing the front edge of a psychotic break with reality, a break due to, I don’t know, to our failed prank, and how it had fundamentally upset the nature of what I’d been foolishly calling reality, the one, you know, where mannequins don’t get up, walk around.

Jones takes his story in a much different direction that Ligotti might have, one that will be more familiar to fans of slasher fiction and psychological thrillers than Ligotti’s prose, which can at times seem entirely (and delightfully) alien. If Ligotti’s prose unsettles because it is the inhuman attempting to communicate with the human, Night of the Mannequins frightens readers because it offers a narrative of a human trying on the inhuman like a smiling, dead-eyed mask. Where Ligotti paints his nightmares in an impressionistic and surreal style, Jones has an ear for dialogue and frames his story around characters that are believable, even likable.

With a track record of tens of thousands of centuries, humanity’s obsession with physical self-representation – dolls, mannequins, puppets – is deeply rooted, and one that is still being interpreted and reinterpreted in fresh ways. Night of the Mannequins is a worthy contribution to this tradition, and signals that Jones is an author to keep an eye on.

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