“Dr. Locrian’s Asylum” by Thomas Ligotti

[spoiler warning]

THOMAS LIGOTTI

I’m calling it: Ligotti is the best contemporary horror writer.

Sure, there’s a lot of horror I haven’t read, including some authors that are supposed to be very good.  But I’m going to just say that Ligotti is the best, because, to be frank, Ligotti is possessed with a very rare genius.  Most people write horror fiction, but Ligotti writes horror.  He evokes it, evokes the very sensation of the mind revolting at what it has encountered.  It’s a scandal that his works aren’t held up alongside the very best that contemporary American literature has produced.  It’s an abomination that his writing is so hard to get one’s hand on that I’ve only ever seen, in person, two different books by him, one of which is the one I’m reviewing.  Someone contact the Dalkey Archive or some similar entity to get Ligotti’s works republished, because he belongs on the shelf of every lover of weird fiction next to Borges and Kafka.

Okay, wait a minute, you might be saying.  Isn’t this a little extreme?  Well, maybe, and I suppose that others might differ in their opinions from me . . . but, to be frank, I’ve never heard a negative review of Ligotti’s fiction (his nonfiction book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is a different story, but that might be just because it is an unabashed defense of nihilism).  His writing is hard to discuss, because it isn’t very similar to other authors.  It’s most often called Lovecraftian, but that doesn’t quite capture it, because Lovecraft writes about the encounter between the world we know and the world of cosmic horrors, and Ligotti just writes about cosmic horrors—or, perhaps, existential horrors.  His writing is perhaps closest to a nightmare narrative, following the surrealistic logic of a sleepy horror that haunts all through the waking day after, that strange inversion of the world of known things where what we know is not true, but what we fear, the strange patterns and connections of fear, is.

Of course, this is an ideal Ligotti reaches for, and does not always achieve.  I do not mean to unduly sanctify him; some stories are much more successful than others.  At times his prose is a little unnecessarily weighty, making the story boring, and at other times he focuses too heavily on narrative.  Ligotti’s greatest skill is in introspection and description.  In fact, my favorite story in this collection, “The Red Tower”, is hardly a story at all; rather, it is a description of a place, framed like an urban legend—or the account of a horrific dream.  This may detract a little from his writing.  If I have one major complaint, it’s how depoliticized he is.  His characters and locations are often inexact because he is focused on existential conditions, but Beckett, Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, among others, have shown us that this isn’t necessary, and that the abstinence from any political content just becomes a lack in the story.  Of course, the absence is not absolute—”Teatro Grottesco” and the final story, “Purity”, point toward something else Ligotti’s writing could become.  But even with this minor complaint, I genuinely believe that Ligotti’s name will go down in the history of writing as one of the great visionaries of darkness.  Rather than holding a candle up to the dark, he snuffs out the light.

DR. LOCRIAN’S ASYLUM

“Years passed and no one in our town, no one I could name, allotted a single word to that great ruin which marred the evenness of the horizon.”  Like a dream, we are thrust into a situation already with logic but without common sense.  The town has observed the asylum and its old burial ground on the horizon for years, occasionally desiring to be done with it, but no one acts, until one day after an overnight conversation, a sort of mob is formed, and the town acts to demolish the place.

They feel that the asylum is an abomination, but “more disturbing than our own view of the asylum was the idiotic gaze that it seemed to cast back at us, and through the years certain shamefully superstitious persons actually claimed to have seen mad-eyed and immobile figures staring out from the asylum’s windows” at night.  In other words, this story begins with the usual end of the horror story, the destruction of the haunted locale.

We get a description of the asylum and of the group unmaking it, and with it is “Mr. Harkness Locrian, a thin and large-eyed old gentleman whose silence was not like that of the others,” the grandson of the director of the building.  A little time after the whole affair is completed, Locrian visits the narrator at his bookshop to pick up some of his special orders (their content unclear, but definitely unseemly).  He asks “But what has been achieved, what has really changed?”  Change is a key word in Ligotti’s works, often a sign of fear.  Ligotti apparently sees the mutability of flesh and even moreso of the world as a key component of horror, not something I would agree with, but something that makes for an interesting philosophical component of his writing.  The fact that here change would initially seem to be a positive thing is interesting, or is rather the idea Locrian is challenging, as we soon find out.

The narrator replies that all that has happened is the removal of an eyesore, but Locrian replies, “We must be walking different streets, Mr. Crane, and seeing quite different faces, hearing different voices in this town.  Tell me … did you ever hear those stories about the sanitarium?  What some people saw in its windows? … And isn’t there much the same feeling now, in this town, as there was in those stories?  Can you admit that the days and nights are much worse now than they were . . . before?”

Crane admits no such thing but it is clear he at least acknowledges the possibility.  Locrian then goes on to talk about his grandfather, the director.  Locrian explains that he “felt at home with his lunatics.”  So the assumptions of cruelty are seemingly replaced with a new narrative: the director was sympathetic, thought that the patients had wisdom, that in “the wandering words of those lunatics … the ancient mysteries were restored.”  Here we get the old problem of secularism: how to restore the sense of the sacred.  But Ligotti quickly takes the questions of Bataille and Deleuze and Foucault to an extreme, perverse praxis, and again inverts our understanding of the situation.  The director was “never a philanthropist of the mind, not a restorer of wounded psyches.  In no way did he take a therapeutic approach with the inmates at the sanitarium. … Thus, his ambition led him not to relieve his patients’ madness, but to exasperate it … putting them through a battery of hellish ordeals intended to loosen their attachment to the world of humanity and to project them further into the absolute … And somehow, in his last days, my grandfather used this same procedure on himself, reaching into spaces beyond death.”

Locrian explains that he learned all this from his father, who also explained that this was why the sanitarium must never be disturbed.  He had hoped the town would just fade away, and the asylum with it.  “How long has it been since a new building was added to all the old ones?  This place would have crumbled in time. … But when all of you took up those implements and marched toward the old ruin, I felt no desire to interfere.  You have brought it on yourselves … You know that something is very wrong in this town, that you should never have done what you did, but still you cannot draw any conclusion from what I have told you.”  Locrian seems angry, claiming that of all people Crane should understand.

Soon, things begin to appear.  “Like figures quietly emerging from the depths of memory, they struggled in the shadows and slowly became visible. … By nightfall they were distractingly conspicuous throughout the town, always framed in some high window of the structures they occupied: the rooms above the shops in the heart of the town, the highest story of the old hotel, the empty towers of civic buildings … Their forms were as softly luminous as the autumn constellations in the black sky above, their faces glowing with the same fixed expression of placid vacuity.  And the attire of these apparitions was grotesquely suited to their surroundings.  Buried many years before in antiquated clothes of a formal and funereal cut, they seemed to belong to the dying town in a manner its living members could not emulate.”

The figures cannot be seen from within the houses, “nothing was ever found … save a tenantless room which no light would illuminate and which sooner or later inspired any living occupant with a demented dread.”  The townspeople feel rejected by the town, alienated from each other—but they remember Locrian.

“It was undoubtedly in his house that the fire began which mindlessly consumed every corner of the town. … Ultimately these demons were exorcised, their windows left empty.  But only after the town had been annulled by the holocaust.”  There is nothing but the wreckage, and a single corpse—Locrian.  “But now, after the passing of so many years, it is not the ashen rubble of that town which haunts each of my hours; it is that one great ruin in whose shadow my mind has been interned.

“And if they have kept me in this room because I speak to faces that appear at my window, then let them protect this same room from violations after I am gone.  For Mr. Locrian has been true to his promise; he has told me of certain things when I was ready to hear them.  And he has other things to tell me, secrets surpassing all insanity.  Commending me to an absolute cure, he will have immured another soul within the black and boundless walls of that eternal asylum where stars dance forever like bright puppets in the silent, staring void.”

This was a very difficult story to talk about, because I didn’t want to cut anything out.  Even with how much of the text I left in, there are many little details missing which add to the sensation of horror and unreality.  Nonetheless, there is a lot going on in this discussion of insanity, knowledge, and memory, of what is meant by the idea of insanity.  Of course, it is practically kitsch to say, ‘what if the insane actually have access to a greater knowledge?’, particularly in the world after Lovecraft, but Ligotti has pushed this cliché in a new direction, taking it very seriously as an examination of the human desire for knowledge, and the fear of knowledge.  It also functions as a nice deconstruction of the trope that the old castle/asylum/house/hotel/etc must be torn down to make room for renewal.  There is no renewal here, there is only the strange void; either way, the town seems to be doomed, and all that rises from the ashes is the fears of the past reincarnated.

I think it should be clear that I recommend Ligotti.  I heavily recommend Ligotti.  The local UC library has no books by Ligotti; this is ridiculous.  We need a re-release of Ligotti, a republication of early books like Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe that run $200 a copy, something I’ll never be able to afford.  There is a work of academic criticism out on Ligotti, but it skews very heavily toward a certain type of criticism that, to be frank, I don’t think is the most productive type (although I haven’t actually read it) and we need to see more of an awareness of his work, more of an engagement with it.  Ligotti makes the reader uncomfortable, but that’s as it should be; he is the perfect complement to the contemporary fiction of writers like Paul Auster.  Reading this book is the kind of experience that, as a writer, makes me both exhilarated to see that new wonderful things can still be done with the medium, and despairing that I didn’t write it.

Tomorrow, we finish up the month of Shocktober.  And how could we end but with the forefather of horror literature, the shadow that has loomed over every book I’ve read this entire month (yes, even those written earlier, nachträglich): Edgar Allan Poe.

All quotations from The Shadow at the Bottom of the World copyright 2005 Thomas Ligotti.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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