"Songs of a Dead Dreamer," Thomas Ligotti

Pros: Subtle; extremely unusual; strong voice; lyrical
Cons: A little slow in places; not for everyone
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

First published 11/10/2000

Thomas Ligotti is one of my favorite authors. Some say that his style is much like Lovecraft’s, but I believe that he has a voice all his own. Ligotti writes horror. Not horror with lots of blood and gore; not stereotypical horror fare of serial killers, vampires, werewolves, and witches. Even when he does touch on “standard” topics, they come to life in unusual and fundamentally odd ways. Ligotti writes a sort of text-poetry, a magic of words and images, shadows and light, madness and clarity.

But the old masks, false souls, will find something to remember, and perhaps they will speak of those days when they are alone behind doors that do not open, or in the darkness at the summit of stairways leading nowhere.

The Bones of a Book

“Songs of a Dead Dreamer” is a 1989 collection of Ligotti short stories. Ligotti has a relatively small but very dedicated fan base; there aren’t all that many books of his stories out there, and they can be difficult to find.

Some Ligotti stories approach “mundane” topics in unusual and terrifying ways. Others approach bizarre and unusual topics. Ligotti’s work mystifies and terrifies. He doesn’t spell everything out. He leaves questions unanswered and oddities unexplained and he does it well. I never feel as though I’ve been left missing anything. One of the themes you’ll see repeated throughout many of Ligotti’s stories is that of puppets. Puppets as people, people as puppets. Light and shadow also play large parts. Ligotti has a very definite style, and once you come to know it, it’s difficult to not recognize it.

But leaning against one wall of this other room, directly below the sliding panel, would be some long wooden sticks; and mounted at the ends of these sticks would be horrible little puppets.

Essay in Fiction

Some of these pieces are not entirely fiction. You’ll find pieces in here on the art of writing horror, but they’ll send no less of a shiver down your spine than the actual stories themselves. There’s even one piece that’s an essay on writing horror and a story, both in one (“Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story”). In this piece we follow the character of Nathan and the various versions of his life as might befit a horror story.

By means of supernatural horror we may evade, momentarily, the horrific reprisals of affirmation.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell what is essay and what is story, as Ligotti blurs the line beyond recognition. Ligotti speaks in analogy and metaphor, image and verse. Most of his stories are told in the first person, a style that many people either love or hate.

The Story of Horror

Even the titles of stories may present some idea of the odd pleasures that await within this book:

  • The Frolic
  • Dream of a Mannikin
  • Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes
  • The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise
  • The Lost Art of Twilight
  • Masquerade of a Dead Sword
  • The Greater Festival of Masks

…and more. Stories of hypnotists, asylums, and family gatherings, the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

Some may find this book slow, or too wordy; Ligotti is certainly not for everyone. But if you enjoy unusual, thrilling, subtle, lyrical, dark stories, then please give him a try. His is a voice worth hearing.

And in darkness we open our eyes, briefly, and in darkness we close them.

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