"Noctuary," Thomas Ligotti

Pros: Elegant, poetic, weird and macabre
Cons: Not for everyone
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 3/28/2001

Thomas Ligotti is a truly unusual author. He has a fascination with “weird fiction,” with the unknowable, the macabre. This is paired with a knack for eloquent word-poetry, intelligence and complexity, and a sense of the chillingly unusual. When I finish reading several Ligotti stories, I find that the world looks different. The colors aren’t quite right any more, or the angles, or maybe people seem a little darker, a little stranger. The world has changed.

That is how effective Ligotti can be.

Ligotti is a master of madness. He makes use of the short story format to show us things and then leave again, without ever having to truly explain them to us. He doesn’t wrap things up in a neat little package; he doesn’t tie a ribbon around them. Oftentimes you’ll be left wondering just what on earth really happened.

I have several books of Ligotti stories, and “Noctuary” is my favorite. I have often wondered why, and the answer I eventually came to is this: most of the stories in here are shorter than those in other books. The longest one is less than 40 pages, and many are only two or three pages long. As much as I love Ligotti’s writing, he’s at his best when he writes in short chunks. Otherwise I find his writing occasionally drags a little.

Ligotti starts off this book with a bit of a foreword on the concept of the “weird fiction” genre, and what it means within the context of our lives. He touches on the original links between “weird” and “fate,” and the enigma that lies at the heart of weird fiction. He’ll introduce you to the perfect, chilling two-sentence story. Then he moves on to the stories themselves. This book is broken up into three parts:

  • Studies in Shadow
  • Discourse on Blackness
  • Notebook of the Night

The first two parts each contain four longer stories. The third part is a series of short stories, most of which are only two or three pages long. My favorite Ligotti story will probably always be “Autumnal”; it’s barely more than a page, and told from the first person. You never know exactly who’s telling the tale, and you never know how much is figurative and how much is allegorical:

When all the landscape is dying, descending fragrantly to earth, we alone rise up. After light and warmth have passed from the world, when everyone stands melancholy at the graveside of nature, we alone return to keep them company. This is our season to be reborn.

Ligotti combines his words in unusual ways, matching “fragrant,” such a positive concept, with the death of the landscape. Melancholy and rebirth go hand in hand. He hands us phrases that no one but he would conceive of, that almost cannot help but elicit a slight shudder:

We witness the scene and, with what remains of our mouths, we smile.

Ligotti’s work is not for everyone. If you don’t like the weird or the macabre, you won’t enjoy his work. If you prefer your stories to be normal, with a beginning, middle and end, all wrapped up in a neat little ribbon, then this is definitely not for you. If you prefer your world to be its same, comfortable self when you close your books – don’t read a word of Ligotti. Ligotti’s style is definitely not for everyone.

But for those of us who enjoy it, it is a dread and harrowing pleasure – one that I would not in a million years give up.

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