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The Dollcraft of Thomas Ligotti

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The towering influences of writers like Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Shelley extend well beyond the boundaries of horror and into the wider realm of literature proper, a point that has been belabored enough that I don’t need to make it again here. Less explored (and perhaps more interesting) are the occasions on which writers who are well-loved and respected outside of the cobwebbed graveyard of macabre literature have slipped through the gates of that cemetery for a midnight jaunt. My favorite example might be the short story “the Comet” by William E.B. DuBois, a brilliant writer not usually known for his ghost stories. “The Comet” can be read as many things – an early science fiction story, a sharp-eyed tale about race, class, and American society, and – with its necropolitan flair — an excellently-crafted horror tale. I think it is best understood as all and none of these, and a great example of how fluid and arbitrary the boundaries that separate so-called “genre fiction” from so-called “literature” can be.

We live in an age when the lines between genre fiction and mainstream fiction have never been blurrier, nor the contributions of genre writers more widely appreciated. Thus, I’m a little surprised that Thomas Ligotti isn’t a bigger deal than he is. The short fiction of Thomas Ligotti, after all, might be most easily compared to the writing of Franz Kafka. Ligotti constructs environments in which dread and anxiety are explored as a form of architecture – a feature as much of the environment as of the internal landscape or moral struggles of the unfortunate protagonists (take, for example, “the Glamouur,” which explores this dissociative affect directly: “How difficult to say anything precise about this mood that overcame me, because it seemed to belong to my surroundings as much as to myself.”).

In the narratives Ligotti constructs, there is usually no clear cause-and-effect, no dream of ordered life waiting to be disrupted by the boogeyman of change or chaos (and then subsequently restored to comforting order). In Ligotti’s stories, our protagonist is awakened in the middle of the night by a malign presence, or she is visited by a mysterious medical professional, or sets out in search of ritual clowns or magic pants or morbid amusements that, if we’re lucky, will be left to our febrile imaginations. But the running theme is not blessed normalcy placed temporarily (if hideously) out of joint, to be enjoyed anew once a monster is vanquished.

No, Ligotti does not deal in the rupturing of the peaceful life. In his stories, dread is inescapable, because dread is the environment in which we live. Dread is expressed in the light, which in his descriptions is ever watery and uncertain and does not behave as it should. Dread is in the shape of objects, the shadows they cast, their very four-dimensional existence as they grate against one another, never quite resolving into sense or order. Ligotti’s attention to this atmospheric wrongness so thoroughly confuses the relationship between the objects and subjects of his tales that the real question – the central question – of much of his fiction is not “how can I cope with the unreal,” as it is in much of horror and weird fiction, but rather “am I real?”

The answer, to the abiding horror of Ligotti’s unfortunate menagerie of maniacs and paranoids, is often “no,” and this dissociative break with autonomy is often represented by the use of dolls and manikins, either as metaphorical descriptors or as unsettlingly literal participants in the story. In this way, Ligotti works the fertile soil of the uncanny valley, but he’s after something deeper than just that. More than merely exploiting the unsettling “reality” of facsimile humans, Ligotti attempts to undermine our confidence – our faith – in such a distinction’s very existence. We are dolls, he writes, with delusions of humanity, of specialness, of separation from the world of objects and elevation to the world of subjects.

I hope that, at some point, Thomas Ligotti’s literary interest in dolls and manikins has extended to Matryoshka dolls – the famous Russian “nesting dolls” that sit, hollow, inside each other in a recursive cascade that (reassuringly) ends with the smallest, solid doll at the center.

Ligotti frequently constructs narratives in the style of a Matryoshka. He nests characters, narratives, and themes inside of each other. My favorite example of this technique (and, additionally, one of my favorite Ligotti stories, period) is “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story,” which is three versions of a horror story hidden inside a single story about a horror author that sits within an essay on the art of writing horror fiction. It’s quite brilliant, and unlike anything I’ve read in the way of avante garde or experimental fiction, let alone “genre” fiction.

“Notes” contains no overt references to dolls, puppets, or homunculi – making it quite unusual for Ligotti, who perhaps thought that the nesting narratives themselves were doll-like enough to satisfy him. References to dolls are scattered throughout the entirety of Ligotti’s short fiction. You’ll find at least a passing mention of a doll or puppet in almost all of his stories. Often, dolls aren’t just throwaway metaphors, used for effect, but are dangled in a more deliberate fashion — as a horrific plot device (the scarecrow in “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” or the wind-up toy displays at the beginning of “the Glamour”). In some instances, they play a ore central role still. as in the unspeakable doings of “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech” or the eponymous homunculus of “Dr. Thoss.”

There are two passages in Ligotti’s writing that, for me, exemplify both the horror inherent to the doll, manikin, or dummy as a class of object in itself, and the deftness with which Ligotti wields existential dread and meta-narrative. The first is from “Nethescurial”:

 For these actors are not so much people as they are puppets from the old shows, the ones that have told the same story for centuries, the ones that can still be very strange to us. Traipsing through the same old foggy scene, seeking the same old isolated house, the puppets in these plays always find everything new and unknown, because they have no memories to speak of and can hardly recall making these stilted motions countless times in the past. They struggle through the same gestures, repeat the same lines, although in rare moments they may feel a dim suspicion that this has all happened before. How like they are to the human race itself! This is what makes them our perfect representatives—this and the fact that they are hand carved in the image of maniacal victims who seek to share the secrets of their individual torments as their strings are manipulated by the same master.

… “how like the human race,” indeed.

The second passage is from “Dream of a Manikin,” which is perhaps the Ligotti story that best represents the whole range of his short fiction. It has so many elements that you’ll find throughout his work, all in one place: mental illness, toxic infatuation and malevolent masculinity, dissociative horror that makes one question the nature of the cosmos. The narrator does not so much break the fourth wall as break himself against it:

Suppose I allow that she was not a girl but actually a thing without a self, an unreality that, in accord with your vision of existence, dreamed it was a human being and not just a fabricated impersonation of our flesh? … And by all means forget dreams. I, for one, know I’m not a dream. I am real, Dr.——. (There, how do you like being an anonymity without foundation in this or any other universe?) So please be so kind as to acknowledge the reality of my existence.

“I’m real!” screams the figment from the pages where he is forever bottled away, a Matryoshka nested inside his narrative, with another story trapped inside him. “Other people may be dolls that dream – or dreams in the form of dolls – but I am real, I matter, I am possessed of the special characteristics that separate me from illusion, from object!”

The excellence of Thomas Ligotti’s dollcraft lies in his ability to make us ask these same questions in the lonely night – to whisper to ourselves (but are they ourselves?) “I am real. I am the one in control.

“Aren’t I?”

This post originally appeared on Salt City Sinner

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