Review of Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe
Back in September I began looking for something interesting to read to get me in the mood for Halloween. I wanted something a little different from the popular vampire and zombie stories, something a bit more eldritch. I ended up stumbling across a post on a literature message board that recommended Thomas Ligotti. I’d never heard of the author, but a quick look at his Wikipedia page and I decided to give him a shot. I mean, how can I pass on someone the Washington Post called, “the best kept secret in contemporary horror fiction”?
I picked up an e-book version of Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe (2015). This is an omnibus of his two short story collections. Songs of a Dead Dreamer was his debut collection from 1986, while Grimscribe was published in 1991. I didn’t know much about the collection beforehand, other than it was described on the message board as “throwback horror”, meaning, the stories are reminiscent of horror stories from yesteryear. I enjoy older horror, stuff by Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, and Shelly, for example. I like the dark, brooding horror, the stuff that isn’t necessarily graphic. I like a slow burn, horror that’s more cosmic and ethereal.
I’m not going to delve into the nuts and bolts of these stories. I don’t necessarily care for book reviews where they tear the stories into their components and analyze what the author was trying to convey. That’s up to the individual reader, if they care that much. Me? I’m more interested in discussing what I thought about the stories, whether or not I enjoyed them and the book overall, and what I took away from my reading.
So, yeah, these stories are heavily influenced by gothic and eldritch horror. It feels as if Ligotti is channeling some of the old masters with the way he writes, the tone of his narrative, and the word choices. If there’s any doubt, one of the stories, “The Last Feast of the Harlequin”, is dedicated to Lovecraft.
Quick side note: Yes, I’m aware of Lovecraft’s racist viewpoints and the unfortunate depictions of minorities in his stories. However, I keep two things in mind when it comes to situations like this. First, I separate the artist from the art. A lot of great artists are assholes, but they can still tell a good story. I can appreciate the art and ignore the artist. Second, Lovecraft wrote during a different time, when racism was more accepted and was prevalent in society. Kind of like Tom Sawyer. I can accept the unpleasant portions of a story because I know it’s merely a time capsule. We can’t forget the past, but we can learn from it. Luckily, Ligotti avoids that influence from Lovecraft.
Now back to Ligotti. As I was noting above, the stories are very reminiscent of Poe and Lovecraft, that long, flowing prose, extravagant descriptions, and dark, brooding atmosphere. The horrors in these stories are somewhat supernatural in nature, but these aren’t your typical ghosts and ghouls. These stories focus on existential horror, creatures and boogeymen that aren’t from our plane of existence. One of the things I enjoyed was that Ligotti didn’t give explanations as to where these things came from, how they access our world, or in some cases, what they actually look like. There’s a lot left to the imagination. Ligotti sets up these dark scenarios, throws in an innocent protagonist (or not-so-innocent one), and adds an otherworldly creature. The results are fantastic.
No, there really aren’t any run of the mill monsters in here. They hide in the darkness, in the shadows, and Ligotti gives just enough description to send a chill up your spine. A few of the stories, like “The Greater Festival of Masks”, reminded me of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It takes place in an isolated town where some of the population isn’t…right. There’s a mystery around an annual festival, a dark ceremony, and ancient passageways beneath the earth. This was one of the creepier stories in the collection.
I also found it interesting that the settings for these stories are ambiguous. Countries, locations, even time periods are vague and mostly undefined. I think that added to the eeriness.
I think what I liked most about Ligotti’s stories is how he handled the weirdness. What I mean is, I like that he just drops some weird, bizarre situation in a fairly normal setting and does it in a way that I didn’t question it. I find that too often, authors feel the need to give a little too much detail. They describe their monsters down to the nitty-gritty, they let you know where they came from, their motivations, their intents. In some stories this works, but I like it when they hold some of it back. There’s a quote, maybe it was Hitchcock, about horror and scaring an audience. Basically, it was along the lines that you have to leave enough to the imagination because the viewer (or reader) will come up with something much more horrible in their own minds than you can show them on the screen (or the page).
Ligotti is definitely the heir to Lovecraftian eldritch horror. If you’re a fan of that type of fiction, I recommend you check out some of Ligotti’s work. Dark, weird, and disturbing are three words that aptly describe this collection of short stories. Give it a try if you’re up for it…and remember, the Great Old Ones are watching.