Authors: Thomas Ligotti
Tags: #Horror, #Fiction
Foreword: In the Night, in the Dark
Part One: STUDIES IN SHADOW
Conversations in a Dead Language
The Prodigy of Dreams
Mrs Rinaldi's Angel
Part Two: DISCOURSE ON BLACKNESS
Mad Night of Atonement
The Strange Design of Master Rignolo
The Voice in the Bones
Part Three: NOTEBOOK OF THE NIGHT
The Master's Eyes Shining with Secrets
Salvation by Doom
New Faces in the City
One May Be Dreaming
Death without End
The Career of Nightmares
The Demon Man
The Puppet Masters
The Spectral Estate
The Nameless Horror
Invocation to the Void
The Mocking Mystery
The Interminable Equation
The Eternal Mirage
The Order of Illusion
A Note on the Appreciation of Weird Fiction
No one needs to be told about what is weird. It is something that becomes known in the early stages of every life. With the very first nightmare or a childhood bout of fever, an initiation takes place into a universal, and at the same time very secret society. Membership in this society is renewed by a lifelong series of encounters with the weird, which may assume a variety of forms and wears many faces. Some of these forms and faces are familiar only to oneself, while others are recognized by practically everybody, whether they will admit it or not.
Weird experience is in fact so prevalent that it is taken profoundly for granted, lying unnoticed in the back rooms of a person's life and even further removed in the life of the world at large. But it is always there, waiting to be recalled in those special moments that are all its own. These moments are for the most part rather brief and relatively rare: the intense weirdness of a dream fades upon waking and is often utterly forgotten; the twisted thoughts of a delirium soon uncoil themselves upon recovery from illness; even a first-hand, wide-awake confrontation with the extraordinary may lose the shocking strangeness it initially possessed and ultimately consign itself to one of those back rooms, those waiting rooms of the weird.
So the point is clear: experience of the weird is a fundamental and inescapable fact of life. And, like all such facts, it eventually finds its way into forms of artistic expression. One of those forms has been termed, of all things, weird fiction. The stories that constitute this literary genre are repositories of the weird; they are something like those remote rooms where the dreams and deliriums and spectral encounters are kept, except that they may be visited at any time and thus make up a vast museum where the weird is on permanent display.
But does anyone need to be told what weird fiction is all about, anymore than an introduction is required to the weird itself? It is strongly possible that the answer to this question is yes. The reason for this answer is that weird fiction is not something experienced in the same way by everyone: it is not a nightmare or a fit of fever; certainly it is not a meeting in the mist with something that is not supposed to be. It is only a type of story, and a story is an echo or a transmutation of experience, while also an experience in its own right, different from any other in the way it
to someone and in the way it is felt. It seems probable, then, that the experience of weird stories can be enhanced and illuminated by focusing on their special qualities, their various forms and many faces.
For example, there is a well-known story that goes as follows:
A man awakes in the darkness and reaches over for his eyeglasses on the nightstand. The eyeglasses are placed in his hand.
This is the bare bones of so many tales that have caused readers to shiver with a sense of the weird. You might simply accept this shiver and pass on to other things; you might even try to suppress the full power of this episode if it be too vividly conceived. On the other hand, it is possible, and considered by some to be desirable, to achieve the optimal receptiveness to the incident in question, to open up to it in order to allow its complete effect and suggestiveness to take hold.
This is not a matter of deliberate effort; on the contrary, how much more difficult it is to put this scene out of one's mind, especially if such a story is read at the proper time and under proper circumstances. Then it happens that a reader's own mind is filled with the darkness of that room in which someone, anyone, awakes. Then it happens that the inside of a reader's skull becomes the shadow-draped walls of that room and the whole drama is contained in a place from which there is no escape.
Stripped-down as this tale is, it nonetheless does not lack for plot. There is the most natural of beginnings, the perfect action of the middle, and a curtain-closer of an end that drops down darkness upon darkness. There is a protagonist and an antagonist and a meeting between them which, abrupt as it is, remains crystalline in its fateful nature. No epilogue is required to settle the issue that the man has awakened to something that has been waiting for him, and for no one else, in that dark room. And the weirdness of it, looked full in the face, can be quite affecting.
Once again: A man awakes in the darkness and reaches over for his eyeglasses on the nightstand. The eyeglasses are placed in his hand.
At this point it should be recalled that there is an old identity between the words "weird" and "fate" (of which one notable modern instance is Clark Ashton Smith's "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan," the fate of the title character being one that is prophesied by a beggar and consummated by a famished monstrosity). And this old pair of synonyms insists on the resurrection of an old philosophy, even the oldest - that of fatalism.
To perceive, even if mistakenly, that all one's steps have been heading toward a prearranged appointment, to realize one has come face to face with what seems to have been waiting all along - this is the necessary framework, the supporting skeleton of the weird. Of course, fatalism, as a philosophical slant on human existence, has long since been out of fashion, eclipsed by a taste for indeterminacy and a mock-up of an "open-ended" universe. It nevertheless happens that certain ordeals in the lives of actual people may reinstate an ancient, irrational view of things. Such ordeals always strike one with their strangeness, their digression from the normal flow of events, and often provoke a universal protest: "Why me?" Be sure that this is not a question but an outcry. The person who screams it has been instilled with an astonishing suspicion that he, in fact, has been the perfect subject for a very specific "weird," a tailor-made fate, and that a prior engagement, in all its weirdness, was fulfilled at the appointed time and place.
No doubt this queer sense of destiny is an illusion. And the illusion is created by the same stuff that fleshes out the skeletal framework of the weird. This is the stuff of dreams, of fever, of unheard-of encounters; it clings to the bones of the weird and fills out its various forms and fills in its many faces. Because in order for the illusion of fate to be most deeply established, it must be connected to some matter that is out of the ordinary, something that was not considered part of the existential plan, though in retrospect cannot be seen otherwise.
After all, no weird revelation is involved when someone sees a dime on the sidewalk, picks up the coin, and pockets it. Even if this is not an everyday occurrence for a given individual, it remains without any overtones or implications of the fateful, the extraordinary. But suppose this coin has some unusual feature that, upon investigation, makes it a token of considerable wealth. Suddenly a great change, or at least the potential for change, enters into someone's life; suddenly the expected course of things threatens to veer off toward wholly unforeseen destinations.
It could seem that the coin might have been overlooked as it lay on the pavement, that its finder might easily have passed it by as others surely had done. But whoever has found this unusual object and discovers its significance soon realizes something: he has been lured into a trap and is finding it difficult to imagine that things might have been different. The former prospects of his life become distant and can now be seen to have been tentative in any case: what did he ever really know about the path his life was on before he came upon that coin? Obviously very little. But what does he know about such things now that they have taken a rather melodramatic turn? No more than he ever did, which becomes even more apparent when he eventually falls victim to a spectral numismatist who wants his rare coin returned. Then our finder-keeper comes into a terrible knowledge about the unknowable, the mysterious, the truly weird aspect of his existence - the extraordinary fact of the universe and of one's being in it. Paradoxically, it is the uncommon event that may best demonstrate the common predicament.
At the same time the weird is, to repeat, a relatively elusive, unwonted phenomenon making its appearance in the moments that upset the routine and that are most willingly forgotten. As it happens in real life, the nightmare serves primarily to impart an awareness of what it means to be awake; the unfavorable diagnosis most often merely offers a lesson in the definition of health; and the supernatural itself cannot exist without the predominant norms of nature.
In fiction, however, those periods may be prolonged in which someone is trapped in an extraordinary fate. The entrapments presented in weird fiction may go so far as to be absolute, a full illustration of what was always
in the works
and only awaited discovery. Because the end of any weird story is also quite often a definitive end for the characters involved. Thus, it only remains for the reader to appreciate a foregone conclusion, a fate that is presented, in a manner of speaking, at arm's length.
The principal effect of weird fiction is a sense of what might be called
"macabre" because of that skeleton of fate, which points its exposed finger in the direction of doom; "unreal" because of the extraordinary habiliments of that fate, a flapping garb of mystery which will never uncover its secret. The double sense of macabre unreality attains its most piercing intensity in the enigma that is at the center of every great weird story. And it is this quality that forms the focus of one's appreciation of the weird in fiction.
* * *
By definition the weird story is based on an enigma that can never be dispelled if it be true to the weird experience - which may occur entirely in an author's imagination -that serves as its only justifiable provenance. While this enigma will definitely exude an ambiance of the graveyard, it menaces as much by its unreal nature, its disorienting strangeness, as by its connections with the great world of death. Such a narrative scheme is usefully contrasted with that of the realistic "suspense" story, in which a character is threatened with a familiar, often purely physical doom. Whatever identifiable manifestations and phenomena are presented in a weird story - from traditional ghosts to the scientific nightmares of the modern age - there remains at the heart of the tale a kind of abyss from which the weird emerges and into which it cannot be pursued for purposes of analysis or resolution. Some enigmatic quality is thereby preserved in these tales of nameless and terrible unknowns. Like the finder of that "valuable" coin, the man who awakes in the night and reaches out for his eyeglasses is brought into proximity with an unknown, on this occasion in the form of a thing without a name. This is an extreme instance, perhaps the purest example, of a plot that recurs throughout the history of weird fiction.
Another, more distinguished, example of the enigmatic plot of a weird tale is that paradigm of weirdness - H. P. Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space." In this story a complex of phenomena and events is set off by an intruding force of unknown origin and nature that comes to settle itself in a dark well at the center of the narrative and from there proceeds to rule like a faceless tyrant over every mechanism of the plot. When it finally makes its exit toward the end of the story, neither the characters involved nor the reader knows anything more about this visitor than they did at the beginning. This last statement is not entirely factual: what everyone quite certainly learns about the "colour" is that contact with this apparition from the stars is an introduction to that macabre unreality that is both a commonplace of the weird and yet also an experience to which one never grows accustomed - and with which one is
Still other examples of the all-important enigma on which the great weird stories are founded could be proffered, from E. T. A. Hoffman's "The Sandman" to Ramsey Campbell's "The Scar," but the point is evident by now? what is truly weird in both literature and life only carries a minimum of flesh on its bones - enough to allow certain issues to be raised and evoke the properly gruesome response but never so much that the shredded fingers stretched out to us turn into the customary gladhand of everyday affairs.
Admittedly, the extraordinary as a shaper of one's fate -that is, one's inevitable death - is a rather ostentatious and, more often than not, vulgar device for representing human existence. However, weird fiction seeks not to place before us the routine procedures most of our kind follow on the way to the grave but to recover some of the amazement we sometimes feel, and should probably feel more often, at existence in its essential aspect. To reclaim this sense of amazement at the monumentally macabre unreality of life is to awaken to the weird - just as the man in the room awakens in the perpetual hell of his brief story, shakes off his sleep-dulled sensibility, and reaches out to that unknown thing in the darkness. Now, even without his eyeglasses, he can truly see. And perhaps, if only for that moment of artificial terror that weird fiction affords, so can the rest of us.