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BOOK REVIEW: Noctuary by Thomas Ligotti

REVIEW SUMMARY: A gathering of potent word-rituals


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A revised collection of Ligotti’s stories, both the old and new material probe baroque substrata of the imagination, combining concatenations of horror, gothic, and weird echoes into disturbing invocations of the calamitous and abyssal grotesqueries of the human mind.

PROS: Masterful writing and use of language; unnervingly evocative prose. The wording and pacing draw the reader deeply into the minds of the characters.
CONS: Some of the stories are formal to the point of formulaic, and this lessens their effects. Their mapping emulates Ligotti’s idea of the weird tale but at times distances the reader from the visceral and psychological depth of the text.
BOTTOM LINE: A journey through tortuous, if sometimes too methodical and mannered,  labyrinths of words and associations that are challenging in their effects on the reader’s mind.

Thomas Ligotti is one of the most precise, meticulous writers I have ever read, and he uses his gifts to enter into the tenebrous hearts and ontologies of human beings, uncovering the terrors and subtleties of the impulses that squirm within them.  His latest book Noctuary (as in, the opposite of a diary, comprised of thoughts of darkness and the night) is actually a reprint of his third collection of short fiction that was first published by Carroll & Graf in 1994. Subterranean Press has created a limited edition (already sold out) and a hardcover trade edition with a new design. The title is also for the first time available as an e-book, which seems odd to me given the style of his work. This is the sort of writing that should emerge from the printed page and creep into your mind as you clutch the covers.

The first section, “Studies in Shadow” is comprised of four stories, each focused on a lone protagonist whose fate is grimly sealed by events around him that are intensified by a mixture of choice and inevitability. Each one makes a decision that pulls their destiny closer to them and in the end destroys them, often because of some desire not connected to their fate. As the narrator of “Conversations in a Dead Language” notes: “Everything changes and always for the worst.” There are no ambiguous or mixed destinies in these tales; every element builds to the unavoidable ending of both the story and the protagonist (odd as it seems to call these victims that). Asides and baroque language are a integral part of the textual experience that Ligotti is building, and each story is near-seamless in its construction. Despite that, these stories were the least effective of the collection.

My initial response to the stories (to the book as a whole) was one of transport; Ligotti pulls you into the narrative deftly. You find the thoughts and descriptions and narrative accumulation irresistible as the stories build to their climaxes of doom. Some of these endings are more subtle than others, but you are drawn almost against your will to witness the events that lead to each character’s doom. But there are few surprises in these initial stories, and any reader of classic weird tales can see where they are going. Re-readings did not, for me, reveal much more or make the stories deeper; everything is  there on the page, it seems. That left me as a reader with little to contemplate or react to after the story was over; the experience of each story was powerful, but it left little in its wake.

The second section, entitled “Discourse on Blackness,” started off with one of the best tales of the collection, “The Tsalal.” This story departed from the first group in several important ways even as it utilized some of the same techniques and constructions. Yet, I found this story to be more powerful because one man’s doom was woven into the fabric of a larger community, and the length of the story gives the reader more time to become acquainted with the characters. The effect of these differences was that the story lingered after you read it, and I returned to it twice more and found it still powerful and chilling. The other stories in this section fall closer to the first group, although the perspective varies and the path each protagonist’s doom takes  is a little more circuitous. This added some texture to the stories that made them feel less clockwork in their progression although, again, while the first reading was quite engrossing I did not feel their effects linger in my mind.

The third section, “Notebook of the Night,” was the strangest one. The stories here are shorter, dream-like, episodic. Some of them feel tentative in their tone and exposition, and all of this was welcome. The gloom and disquiet of the other stories is still present, but these brief tales were more jarring. The narrator of “The Premature Transfiguration,” for example, turns out to be something unexpected in his role in the narrative, and  “The Mocking Mystery” is not a story per se, but a reflection on dark ideas. It was in this piece that I found the revelation that explained why some of the earlier stories did not resonate. Ligotti writes:

“For wherever mystery serves as a foundation, only ruins may be erected. There, every structure is ravaged as it rises, for beneath lie the wavering substrata and a strange life that will not share itself with any other” (p. 190).

Most of the stories in this collection are not really mysteries, and thus they do not erect ruins. Their pitch and timing and progression are all expertly measured to the point of being mannered; They are certainly weird in their appointments, but while they get under your skin initially they soon dissipate. In the last section the tales and reflections remain in your imagination, festering because there are gaps and excesses that the reader can fill in and try to encompass. The skill and control of language remain, but with less of the taut precision that powers the other sections. These are a bit more daring; the reader has more conceptual space to explore and ponder what is happening, and thus can one’s mind fall into the dark corners and sudden traps these brief episodes contain.

As I reflected on the book’s effects on me, I realized that these shorter, less controlled pieces were more powerful than the more carefully-crafted stories of the previous sections. I felt that I was being taught a lesson in writing in the first section, seeing a certain range of approaches in the second, and in the third being set free to explore the weirdness being conjured only to be unexpectedly cornered by the words. This is a book that contains some great stories and that shows us several facets of a master of weird fiction. If you want to see how a writer can command language, and also what value there is in letting the words wreck their own havoc sometimes, this is the collection to read.

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