Thomas Ligotti's Songs: Then and Now

Friday, July 9, 2010

Thomas Ligotti's Songs of Dead Dreamer has been well regarded since its original publication in 1986, a debut flare that fixed weird literature's eyes on Ligotti ever since. Now, a quarter century later, Subterranean Press has reissued the book after its creator passed it through a painstaking and risky revisionary process. Luckily, the effort is a success that magnificently avoids the temptation to transform old masterpieces too much, but alters them just enough to augment their quality. This final, definitive incarnation of Songs of a Dead Dreamer should be equal parts delight and relief to longtime Ligotti fans, and an instance where precision editing polishes and clarifies rather than demolishes and overhauls.

Make no mistakes: this version of Songs contains the same hapless and sardonic eccentrics, the same surreal settings, and the same grim fates as in earlier printings. The awful pillars of the nightmare universe long expressed by Thomas Ligotti remain untouched. But the bleak horror that throbs in each story is subtly adjusted to a different rhythm. The shrill voices of demons and dummies, the clicking of miracle claws, and the accursed breakdown of comfortable realities echo across the pages like never before. New wit enlivens old tales. Meanwhile, more baffling turns of phrase and events, which occasionally earned Ligotti criticism for being too inattentive to plot, have been changed, omitted, or replaced for comprehensibility.

Subterranean Press' Songs is structured in the same way as previous editions, with four sections loosely divided along theme. "Dreams for Sleepwalkers" contains four classic stories. "The Frolic" and "Les Fleurs" can both be looked at as stories of loves lost to supernaturally enhanced psychotics. The former tale (also the only Ligotti story so far to be adapted to film) sees an invasion into the mundane and secure life of a prison psychologist and his family by a mysterious inmate who enjoys violent frolicking. The latter work thrives on the eerie infatuation and jealousy of a lovestruck narrator entwined with a secret society dedicated to mystical botany. Both stories offer glimpses into uncomfortable, otherworldly realms that concentrate the strangest abuses of our own. "Alice's Last Adventure," which covers the time-warping meltdown of a mature children's writer's world, showcases Ligotti's creativity in drawing on Lewis Carroll's legacy for his own dark purposes. "Dream of a Manikin" comes unraveled in layered dreams when a psychologist suspects his wife's devious ideas about dimension-spanning selves are behind the identity confusion of a patient infesting his own life. In every case, the revisions to these tales function as gloss, often by highlighting imagery and ideas Ligotti wants the reader to digest.

In the book's next section, "The Nyctalops Trilogy" (named for the small press periodical these stories first appeared in), Ligotti's alterations are far more obvious and devastatingly effective. "The Chymist" and "Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes" are marginally changed by exceedingly subtle twists that enhance their inherent hypnotic power. Ligotti's "The Eye of the Lynx," however, has undergone more changes than any other in the collection. For years, this abstract journey into a seedy brothel has perplexed longtime readers and Ligotti newcomers alike. Fortunately, the author has not been oblivious, and he has drawn on a mature skill set to craft what is almost a completely new story. Everyone may now revel with ease in the shameful pleasure, paranoid shadows, and black hunger masquerading as lust on stage in this tale. Moreover, the dramatic revision proves that Thomas Ligotti can still be a superior storyteller, if he chooses, in a time when his attention is presently turned to non-fiction (see his newly released The Conspiracy Against the Human Race for an example of his current endeavors).

"Dreams for Insomniacs" and "Dreams for the Dead" collect nearly a dozen more cherished stories of unique terror and awe. As with the others mentioned above, each has enjoyed differing degrees of revisionary input, but none as divergent as "The Eye of the Lynx." Yet, one gets the feeling that Ligotti's editorial sonar was cranked up to full, and careful changes were made only when they served to sharpen the dark surrealist blade that gleams and cuts throughout his oeuvre. It is often a nearly indeterminable shift of phrase, or the insertion of a single word or two into a familiar passage, that adds an extra rung on a ladder to melancholy twilight. And so, the unwelcome enlightenment in "Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech" occurs amid actors and places that cannot be mistaken for anything but a great puppet show, and new descriptions by Ligotti underscore the nightmare of consciousness here. "Dr. Locrian's Asylum," whose eponymous building towers over an expired town, is fantastic and menacing in a newly subversive way, as are its haunted and haunting inhabitants. The dream-crossed structures in "The Sect of the Idiot" seem realer than before, and this enriched environment accents the Lovecraftian horrors who work their hypnotic rituals within and above these places.

Two more stories are worth mentioning for the literary sheen applied by their maker. "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror" rings with a stoic crispness previously unseen. Gone are a Professor's lighthearted remarks to his students, replaced by a blazing focus on the wisdom imparted in these uncanny discourses. "Notes on the Writing of Horror," an experimental tale-within-a-tale by Ligotti when he was playing with various styles, has also acquired a cruder and hilarious edge. The stylistic blurring between each story segment is stronger too, and helps integrate the frightful power throughout it, well before the demonic narrator is exposed.

Subterranean's Songs of a Dead Dreamer comes in both a limited signed hardcover and a trade hardcover for little difference in price. Intense demand for these revisions has already scarfed up every copy from the publisher at the time of this writing. If potential buyers move quickly, though, they will still be able to get copies of both editions for little markup via Amazon, Ebay, or Bookfinder. Songs is the first book of four planned "definitive editions" by Thomas Ligotti and Subterranean Press, and its successful launch means readers' demand may be higher still when the revised Grimscribe goes on pre-order for a 2011 release.

-Grim Blogger

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