Tag Archives: Literature

The Failure of Dystopian Vision

One of the things one is stricken by when reading so-called dystopian fiction is the eerie plausibility of it all.  From Huxley’s cultural void to Orwell’s cultural beartrap to Gibson’s technological vulgar Darwinism to Golding’s Hobbesian children, and so on, etc, the bite is always intended in the idea of just how similar this all is to the everyday world, how near at hand it seems to be (indeed, it is already present in the metastasizing long apocalypse of global capitalism).  But this is precisely how dystopian fiction reveals its antithetical nature to the Utopia.  The Utopia is always a plan, a vision, the impossible dream of order.  The Utopia is always an awful place for real beings, to the point where we reach the absurdity of Gilman’s Herland and its project of obliterating the kindness of dogs.  Need we even speak of Plato, More, Sade?  We can list endlessly the flaws of Utopian vision, not in terms of formal structure but in terms of its incompatibility with lived experience; a slight familiarity with Poe should be enough to dispel our enthusiasm on reading Marcuse.  And so lived experience finds its expression in the dystopia; the dystopia is a world that shows the stresses of subjectivity in the grime of cyberspace, the mandatory cleanliness of meatspace, the absurdity that only something as shitty as the endless tedium of an office job could keep the subjects of the Wachowskis’ Matrix satisfied.  The Utopian vision that always disrupts the dystopia (although almost always crushed by the narrative) is already impossible, otherwise we would be reading a different book.

And yet this only gives us half the picture: what is forever absent is the Dystopian vision, and the corresponding utopia of everyday life.  Even the Dystopian vision of Christian Hell is insufficient, or else we would not always feel the need to be affirming that we are already in hell.  Somehow Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights always seems to present a hell that, for all its chimeric absurdism, feels more comfortably familiar than the smooth, happy bodies of paradise, so much so that one must wonder if all along one was asking the wrong question.  The right question escapes me, but perhaps it is enough to point out the dilemma–that utopian reality seems infinitely distant as long as Dystopian vision is still unalienable.

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Reading ∈ Meaning ∩ Understanding ∩ Nonengagement

I’d like to quickly elaborate on my terminology. Reading is the act in which a text is put into interaction with a mind—which is to say, a body of symbolic discourse is run through the symbolic discourse of the mind (mind here is used in an explicitly materialist sense, as an emergent property of the brain). As it is put into the mind, it takes its place in that symbolic setting, as such both being shaped by and shaping its surroundings. We can think of meaning and understanding as two poles of this process. The immigrant text, if it is to be interacted with at all (the alternative being to simply look over the text without “taking anything in” as the phrase goes, although of course you are, on an unconscious level, absorbing these symbolic patterns), must either assimilate or create a new space within the pre-existing symbolic structure. I use the term “finding meaning” or “looking for meaning” to refer to the process where a text is approached in a hostile manner, and as such is generally forced to assimilate. An apropos example would be Chomsky’s reading of Lacan, in which he cannot find content because his reading consists of looking for meaning. Lacan’s text, as a resistant text, is not available for this kind of reading. On the other hand, Chomsky reads and writes in a manner heavily available for meaning. This isn’t to denigrate that method of writing—it’s the one I’m employing right now—but it’s to point out that it is one pole of writing and it has serious limitations. The primary limitation is that it caters to the pre-existing structures of the reader’s mind. There is a second pole to the process of reading (which can be thought of as a three-pronged graph with meaning, understanding, and nonengagement or ‘skimming’ each as the opposite of the other two). Understanding is the effort to bring oneself into the text. It is in many ways difficult with texts that offer themselves up for reading, but almost necessary for any engagement (and we can think here of the marital and military readings of that word) with a text that resists reading. We speak in the language of resistance and struggle, but that is only applicable insomuch as we are trying to draw meaning from the text. When we are trying to understand the text, we are open before it as a history textbook is before a middle-schooler. We engage with the text, allowing its terminology and structure to take residence within our own mind.

reading diagram

Obviously these three processes are never excluded (so in our three-pronged graph we can think of the graphline, which represents a value of 0 to the two opposite terms, as asymptotically unapproachable) in that we can never completely ignore a text while reading it, in that we can never derive total meaning without a slight change of our own understanding (and a slight unawareness/skimming), in that we can never imbibe a text without altering it (and a slight unawareness/skimming). Nonetheless, conceptualizing them in this manner helps us to see the modes we perform while reading, and think about how we want to approach and critique a text. Current educational structures privilege reading for meaning, which has led to the notion of reading for understanding as being unnecessary, and the resistant text as being somehow morally at fault. This in turn has led to recriminations and attacks of reading for meaning as simplistic and vulgar. What often dominates, then, is a lack of reading, in which a text is passed over for a few snippets from which can be drawn meaning and for a few ideas which can create understanding. This should also not be denigrated; nonengagement is a form of engagement (absence) with the text, one characterized by the conservation of one’s own mind. In the end, we should simply think about how a text wants us to engage—what primary mode of speaking does it employ? Is it worth this response from us? Or shall we read it against this—for example, I am currently engaged in a project of trying to understand the MPAA’s guidelines for ratings, which were clearly designed for nonengagement/meaning practices. To read Lacan for meaning as Chomsky does is to read against Lacan, which would be an acceptable mode of engagement if only it were acknowledged as such. To read against meaning is to engage with poetic writing, but also it reminds us that the first encounter with mathematics is always poetic, as a Taylor Series is at first a veiled metaphor. I find that for my own endeavors, which are generally poetic, reading for understanding is necessary, but it takes a great deal of time and effort, which are serious considerations. Whichever way, all three are necessary.

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On Plain Speech and Academic Language

Often on forum discussions of political language in contemporary academia we see the same tired examples trotted out to attack contemporary academic writing.  The most common bogeymen are Alan Sokal, who will no doubt be the subject of a sometime future post, and George Orwell, specifically his views on language as put forth in the essay, “Politics and the English Language”.  I want to first address the essay on a few points, and then focus on the way it seems to be used in contemporary amateur discourse.

The main attack of the essay is an argument on the perils of circuitous and imprecise language.  To be direct, this is all kinds of bullshit.  First of all, Orwell attacks phrasing that is indirect.  He seems to fail to understand the value of the way the first half of this sentence is constructed; no doubt he would prefer to simply ‘miss’ the value, and therein throw off the whole structure of pragmatic equivocating that makes English, for me, a fun language.  Language is not just the transmission of information, it is a form of social interaction.  Awkward subordinate clauses and circumlocutions are the body language of what could otherwise be a straightforward message, and straightforward direct language is as exciting as a social interaction with no physical cues.  There’s a reason contemporary textbooks on biology and physics tend to lull one to sleep much faster than Daniel Dennett or Michio Kaku.

At another point he attacks this language for its euphemistic approach to issues like the Stalinist mass-murder, but to be frank this is also a ridiculous critique.    Orwell says,

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

But of course he is attacking a straw man here: the English professor in question most likely does not simply believe in achieving ‘good results’–by cutting off the argument there Orwell makes the person sound petty and insincere, which he then goes on to accuse the person of being.  Wow, you proved that a character you created exhibited the traits you gave him, amazing,bravo,etc.  While I wouldn’t defend the Stalinist murders, I acknowledge that there is an argument to be made in their defense, and it doesn’t derive from the issue of good results so much as the fact that, for a Stalinist, those results constitute the eventual achievement of a Utopian society.  This becomes a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”–at least for one who genuinely believes in the potential of Stalinism to achieve Utopia, which I think few now do.  What Orwell has done is to obfuscate by directness: by stating the thing simply, he strips it of the context that gives it meaning.  Also, he makes the assumption that the reader is too stupid to figure out that the phrase “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition” is a cover for killing, which may have been true at the time of writing (I wasn’t there, couldn’t say) but definitely doesn’t apply to a contemporary society that is used to drawing truth from complex situations–complexities that characterize the world we live in.

Complexities that characterize the world we live in dictate language.  That is what is at stake here.  After his listing of six rules, Orwell says “I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  That’s great and all but it’s also impossible.  Once again, I acknowledge that the 1946 timestamp on this document puts it a good twenty years before Derrida and his friends started making trouble, but they were hardly the first to observe how the ambiguities of language and life interrupt the art of “expressing and not … concealing” in communication.  As I mentioned in the above example, a short, quick expression can be just as obfuscatory as a long circuitous one.  But the long circuitous one makes the reader aware that they are being confronted with complex ambiguities, whereas the short direct speech does not–it puts the reader at ease, and thus can be more misleading simply by implying the existence of non-misleading speech.  Again I will draw on one of my favorite pieces of writing, Melville’s “Benito Cereno”.  The language is full of that ‘not un-‘ construction that Orwell mocks, as well as other complex and circuitous phrasing, precisely because of its ability to create a fog over meaning, to show the fog that is always present.  The denouement is presented as a plain legal document which should be robbed of such confusion, but which is not because its context is already polluted by confusion.  The actual story of “Benito Cereno” does not lie in the text, it lies outside of the text, only implied by it.  (Likewise with Moby-Dick and a number of Melville’s other works–he was one of the great predecessors of postmodernity, and surpassed most of its own writers in expressing its ideas.)  By contrast one can think of the ‘plain speech’ of Ronald Reagan or John McCain.  The discourse of the GOP has largely been defined in recent years by a return to plain speech, a move away from ‘elitist’ college language, and it is precisely this plain speech which is misleading.  Reagan at one point, upon hearing about isoprene monomers naturally produced by plants which contribute to troposphere ozone immediately jumped to the conclusion and statement that trees pollute more than people.  There are ways this could be seen as true, but those simplistic ways are completely false to the nature of reality, a reality which is more complex than can be portrayed in plain speech.

So we return to the old forum debates over contemporary academia.  People in academia toss around terms like ‘reification’, ‘post-structuralist’, ‘jouissance‘, ‘biopower’, and ‘ideological state apparatus’.  First of all, these don’t even precisely violate Orwell’s rules, since in many cases there is no better word to replace them.  The people who often attack this language as degrading the practice of English fail to realize that this is a specialized vocabulary, a jargon of philosophy of literature the same way that ‘RNA-transcriptase’ is a much easier term to describe a certain protein than a name in ‘plain speech’.  The reason this bothers people is because a lot of people don’t think literature needs a jargon–it comes back to that old hard science/soft science/liberal arts hierarchy that believes that something like studying literature is below the need of a specialized speech.  But more importantly, a specialized speech is important with political philosophy because it confuses the reader.  It stops the reader, disrupts the flow of thought while reading, and therefore confronts the reader with his or her own lack of knowledge about what is being said.  It thereby forces the reader to examine the work critically.  I would argue that those who get frustrated at the language have made a key error: they’re examining the presentation of the ideas critically but without making any effort towards reconciliation.  They stand on their shore of meaning and mock what they see happening without the effort to complete the bridge.  Granted, not all bridges need to be completed, and one must show discretion in where one is willing to put mental effort.  But if no attempt is made to understand the text on its own terms, then meaning really has been lost, and obfuscation is complete.  The worst English writing is not complex and confusing, it is the English writing that the reader can glide over without ever going outside their own perspective.

As a final case study, let’s look at a sentence that, according to ever-reliable wikipedia, Judith Butler won a ‘bad writing’ award for:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of course, this could be rendered into plain speech.

When people stopped thinking about capital as doing the same thing everywhere and started paying attention to how it did similar things in different ways at different times and places it made us think about how time is important in how things are being done and meant that people agreed less with the philosopher (Althusser) who said things all happen in about the same way and instead were able to think about how the place-and-time-dependent things-happening-ness means we can thing about all things happening as being made of little things always happening.

Yes, it’s a crude mockery, but no more so than that often held out against academic language, and I think it demonstrates the point I’m trying to make: words mean things that you don’t know.  They always do, unless you just wrote those words, and even then they still usually do.  We need to always approach language critically.  But tied into that approach is the way that words can direct our thinking to certain thought patterns.  What’s missing here is how a word like ‘hegemony’ conjures up for the right reader a whole lineage of Gramsci and Situationist perspective on capital, how ‘totality’ resurrects Lukacs and the discussions of the Frankfurt school–in a way, any specialized sentence can be unpacked like a line of Milton.  That is what ‘plain speech’ advocates are promoting: a true death of culture, a homogenized world where language would mean the same thing to everyone, as if that were even possible.  It is, indeed, the dream of a certain type of America, and even a certain type of England–but that dream belongs to the past, with all the corpses it was built on.  If we want a language of the future that will help us avoid mass graves we need a language that makes us constantly uncomfortable, constantly aware of the ambiguities and frustrations of existence, that will avoid the soothing lie of plain speech.

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Shocktober: Awards and Final Thoughts


Since I spent so much time judging the various authors I read this month I figured I should give some awards.  These awards are based solely on my first impressions of the book I read, although some perspective on the author from other sources necessarily shows up uninvited.  I’ve decided to exempt Edgar Allan Poe, since (1) it was by far the largest body of material that I read, and (2) his writing is so imminent to all writing in the horror genre it really wouldn’t be fair or possible to compare him with the others.  I have allowed authors to win multiple awards because, hey, if you’re the best you’re the best.

Now, without further ado, the awards:

CREEPIEST: The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti
Another name for this category might be ‘Most Unheimlich‘.  Ligotti undoubtedly captures that alien otherness of dreams, that unsettling sensation that gets under your skin and inside your skull and grows there like some unbidden mold.  I’m pretty inured to the effects of horror after years of exposure, but the night after I read this book I had nightmares about it.  Particularly notable was “The Red Tower”…

SCARIEST:  Collected Stories, by M.R. James
The scary is the opposite of the creepy; it’s the face that jumps out at you from the dark.  I chose James on the basis of the fact that more than any other author, his writing had me looking up at darkened windows while I was reading.  Honorable mentions here are Daphne du Maurier and Clark Ashton Smith, particularly Smith’s story “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”…

MOST HORRIFYING:  By Bizarre Hands, by Joe R. Lansdale
Sometimes horror isn’t out to focus on fear or dread; sometimes it wants disgust and revulsion.  An off-maligned element of the genre, it’s also vitally important.  Lansdale makes us aware of the truly disgusting, both in our culture and in our own selves.  Honorable mentions here are Poppy Z. Brite and Clive Barker; it’s clear that this is the domain of the ‘splatterpunk’ subgenre.  Also worth checking out are King and, in particular, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Martyrdom”…

MOST WELL-WRITTEN:  The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti
There was a wide range of writing skills on display this month, but it was pretty clear that a few authors were a cut above the rest.  Elizabeth Gaskell, Joyce Carol Oates, Ambrose Bierce, Italo Calvino, and Daphne du Maurier were all a great pleasure to read, but Ligotti pulls ahead by writing in a manner that is both incredibly talented and perfectly fused to the concept of horror.  That said, in this genre there’s also a place for purple prose, and there are some fantastic examples from Clark Ashton Smith and Poppy Z. Brite, particularly Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves”…

FUNNIEST:  Beasts and Super-Beasts, by Saki
This was a surprise for me.  I hadn’t planned this category, but after all the readings it seemed clear to me that it was needed.  There is a place in horror for a special kind of comedy, comedy that makes us aware of our mortality and bestiality, and Saki does this with a subtle touch.  Also notable here are Ambrose Bierce and Italo Calvino, particularly his titular “Numbers in the Dark”…

WORST:  Scared Stiff, by Ramsey Campbell
I enjoyed a lot of the readings this month, but there were a few that horrified me in the wrong way, and among these the worst was Campbell’s clumsy efforts to combine eroticism and horror.  Cardboard characters, tired, sexist clichés, and uninspired writing made this collection a pain to slog through.  Although Chambers’ The King in Yellow was in some ways more poorly written, it at least captured my interest, as did other pulpy authors like Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, and Clive Barker.  A runner-up here is Neil Gaiman, since about half the stories in the collection are atrociously bad; but on the flip side, half are acceptable or even quite good.

MOST UNEXPECTED:  Gothic Tales, by Elizabeth Gaskell
I hadn’t read many of these authors before, but for many of them I had expectations, which were generally fulfilled.  Sure, Ligotti was amazing, but I had suspicion that he would be, which was why I put him at the end of the month.  Gaskell, though, was nothing more than a name that had popped up on a number of lists and therefore a book I had bought, and I was honestly expecting a sort of lesser Dickens or Henry James, a writer perhaps of competent but bland ghost stories.  And while I must admit that the actual horror elements of her writing are none too impressive, the writing itself shocked me with its quality.  This book has singlehandedly ignited in me an interest in social realist fiction, which I had always before thought tedious.  To talk about the honorable mentions here would take a while since each was unexpected for different reasons, but Poppy Z. Brite, Ambrose Bierce, and Daphne du Maurier stand out, particularly her story “Monte Verité”…


Well, this was a lot of reading for one month, that’s for sure.  It’s always difficult to gauge how long it will take to read something, as it depends on number of pages, typography, book size, font size, and, most of all, the writer’s style.  Still, I did manage to get all the reading done by the assigned days, and to put up a review on every weekday, so that’s something.

This was really my first time doing a concerted reading of short stories, since I tend to prefer reading novels.  It was an interesting experience.  The short story is maybe not the best format for speed reading; often after finishing one I have to take a little break before starting the next in order to clear out all the impressions in my head.  These stories also vary incredibly widely in terms of length, from a single page to well over a hundred; a few of these could have been published as independent novellas.  One thing I noticed is that variation in style didn’t seem to be so much a product of size as of authorial decision, which to me seems to put the lie to the whole idea of distinguishing cleanly between, say, flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels.  There were a lot of first-person narratives, and these were more likely to lapse into ruminations on the state of existence, or particularly on the nature of fear.  I have read a tremendous number of ruminations on the experience of fear and I’m not sure they would have taught me anything had I not already experienced it plenty in life; as such, what I mainly learned about was the effort to write about fear, and the way that people try to talk about trauma.

One thing that surprised me is that I did not get sick of horror stories.  I was fairly certain, going into the month, that by the end of it I would be begging to not read another horror story for a long time, but actually I’m just excited, and looking forward to in the future reading more of certain authors, especially Ligotti, and to reading some of the new authors I’ve heard about but haven’t had a chance to read yet.

I don’t know how much my understanding of horror as a genre has grown; it’s hard to gauge something like that.  Still, I am definitely more aware of what’s going on in horror literature, and how it makes itself distinct from horror film.  There are definite trends and traditions apart from what happens in film, and hopefully these will continue to grow, with authors like Thomas Ligotti opening up the possibilities of the literary medium.

And that’s it, the end of Shocktober!  It’s been a long and difficult trip, but I suppose I’ll do something reasonable now, like not trying to read a book a day for a whole month, right?

Well, that might be hard, since the reading I’ve got lined up for November looks like this:

Still, I won’t be writing a nightly review, thank God.  This was an experiment in blogging, and I think I should consider it a pseudo-success, since I didn’t get to spend as much time with each analysis as I wanted to.  At some point in the future, I’m probably going to take a day to go back and read through / edit all of these posts, because I know some typos, errors, and stupid statements crept in there.  On the other hand, I learned a lot about horror, got to read a lot of great stories (and a few bad ones), and hopefully helped people to discover some new authors for themselves.

Starting next week, I’m planning on having an article out every week, usually on Friday nights.  They might be reviews like you’ve seen so far, or opinion pieces, or writing experiments, or just about anything.  I guarantee that they’ll be better thought-out and better edited than this month has been.

Copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

[spoiler warning]

I’m going to do something a little different this time; I’m not going to review a story.  Criticism on Poe more in-depth and well thought-out than I can provide here and now abounds, and it better serves my purposes to ruminate on the experience of reading, after so much horror, the totality of Poe’s writings (well, that I hadn’t already read).


What can I say about Poe?  Popular consciousness has a tendency to boil down the history of literature into a few key names—Homer, Shakespeare, etc—and Poe seems to be one of those names that have survived this process.  While plenty of other important names in the genre—E.T.A. Hoffmann, M.R. James, Arthur Machen—seem to be relatively unknown, pretty much anyone off the street has heard of Poe, and has probably read some key stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”  He has therefore taken on the position of being the sort of originator of the horror genre, although that’s really a ridiculous idea, since it had its predecessors in the gothic and Romantic literature of the early 1800s, which itself takes classical inspiration—but, on the other hand, something is to be said for the degree to which Poe, as a figure, isolates this horror, makes it a focus unto itself.

Except that in reading the complete works of Poe, that’s not really the impression that I get.  Sure, he has a tendency to focus on the macabre in various form, but he also has a tendency towards social satire, mystery stories, and early science fiction (of a rather tedious sort, in my opinion).  Not only that, but his horror is widely varied, from narratives of insanity like “The Tell-Tale Heart” to the supernatural bizarre like “The Masque of the Red Death” to the speculative like “MS. Found in a Bottle.”  I would like to hazard a suggestion that this image of Poe we’ve been given is something of a construction, a way of trying to pin down to a certain person what was in fact a widespread movement.  Why, look at some of the fiction that appeared from other authors around the same time—before or after—that Poe was writing: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel” by Coleridge; the Elizabeth Gaskell stories we looked at earlier; likewise, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s works; “The Vampyre” by John Polidori; the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Purcell Papers by Sheridan Le Fanu.  There was a general trend of the gothic and the grotesque in fiction, although most of it does trend toward a certain sort of romanticism that Poe leaves behind, and perhaps this is what we can finally credit him with.

Although plenty of Poe’s writings, especially his poetry, does trend towards romanticism, there’s a vulgar cruelty in a few of his works, generally those that have become well-known, strong enough to affect even readers today.  This isn’t an insult to Poe; rather, it seems to me to be something severely lacking from the majority of these other works (with the exception of the Marquis de Sade, who was quite comfortable with it, but who never had the sort of popular acceptance Poe received).  Indeed, it’s this cruelty that helps tie Poe’s name to Baudelaire, so that so often a dark soul in the literature of the late 1800s can be identified by the volume of Poe and the copy of Les Fleurs du Mal lying open on their desk.  And it ties into the mythology of Poe, the man who mysteriously ended up dying in a gutter in Baltimore at the age of 40, probably from depression and alcoholism.

Of course, one of the strongest impulses for mythologizing Poe is the desire for a beginning, particularly for an American beginning.  Alongside Hawthorne, Melville, and, a little earlier, Washington Irving, Poe represents the origin of the dark side of American literature.  While Whitman was finding himself in the experience of all reality, Poe finds something similar, but it is an experience of revulsion and mania.  Poe writes of horrifying events, but almost always that is secondary; it is primarily of the self, of the experience of consciousness, that he writes, and in some stories, like “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Premature Burial,” that takes such a center stage that it’s hard to imagine really considering these as being the ‘short stories’ Poe is supposedly a master of.  Not to say they’re not good writing—many of them are wonderful—but they seem to be more a model for current developments of postmodern fiction than most of the horror short stories I’ve been reading, which seem to be derived from cut-and-dried ghost stories like “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Gaskell.  Poe’s satirical writing in particular seems reminiscent of contemporary humor in its abuse of the ludicrous; some stories put me in the mind of early Peter Jackson films, or the grotesque erotic comedy of Shintaro Kago.  So Poe, as this initial American writer of dark experience—of the dark mind—finds his place at the head of the American horror tradition, even as he seems to be in many ways more engaged with literary developments in France and England.  We mythologize him as an original figure of American literary history, ignoring the fact that his writing is littered with untranslated French, Latin, Greek, etc.

It seems, now, impossible to just read Poe; he is too historicized, too bound into our understanding of what and how we read.  Still, an attempt to strip away this perspective finds someone uninterested in narrative, that all-controlling god of twentieth-century literature.  Proof enough of this should be apparent to anyone who has read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a wonderful story I shouldn’t like to spoil here, but that has profoundly postmodern tendencies.  I see Poe not alongside figures like Richard Matheson and Stephen King, but alongside Algernon Blackwood (for his interest in the characteristics of mental excitation), Paul Auster, Thomas Ligotti—those for whom horror is not a subject matter but an existential condition to be plumbed by writing.  It is unfortunate that this is the part of his writing that has been neglected by so many supposed imitators, because coming to what seems to me to be a crisis of genre fiction—narrative is all used up, and there’s little more to explore in terms of transgression—I can only hope that writers (and readers) will rekindle the curiosity about the human condition that has been lying dormant all this time.  Poe explores the ridiculousness of our world, the revulsion in it, obsession, fear, torment, grief, guilt, disgust, terror, absurdity, longing, mystification, revelation, horror—  Poe explores a huge topography of human experiences throughout his work, and this is primarily where the interest in it, for me, lies.  “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is not about solving a specific mystery; it is about the idea of solving mysteries, hence the long introduction.  “The Premature Burial” is about the idea of fear.  “The Cask of Amontillado” is about vengeful mania.  “The Spectacles” is about judging other.  “X-ing a Paragraph” is about egoism.  “The Raven” is about mourning.  These aren’t moral stories or allegories—Poe reportedly hated such techniques (although I quite enjoy them, in the right hands)—but are instead explorations of what it means to be human.  Horror can offer us this exploration just as easily as any other writing, and easier sometimes, because it necessarily strips away a great deal of cultural baggage.  Like a medical student cutting open the corpse and applying the galvanic charge only to discover the body coming back to life, horror exposes to us the gruesome elements of life and revivifies it.  Even the most absurd, most outlandish horror—if it can affect us, then it has touched on something inside us, helped to make us aware of that thing.  For its ability to open up new moments of existence, horror is a vital part of the exploration of the human condition, a vital and necessary part of this grand beast known as Literature.

And lastly, do I recommend Poe?  Is this really a necessary question?  Whether or not he is the father of horror fiction, Poe’s writings have survived the years due to their skill.  Poe is a great writer, and like all great writers he should be read and reread, discussed, disagreed with, lauded, and finally passed on to further readers—and so, now, I pass him on to you.

Poe’s writings can be found just about anywhere, for any price.  I read most of this in the large Doubleday collection pictured, but some of it in an Oxford World’s Classics edition I had purchased for a class, and others on my phone (including the entirety of Pym) with the aid of a very handy complete works of Poe app that I believe is still available for free.  For uncertain readers, I recommend starting with the more well-known writings and moving on to other works, although you would do well to check out some of his often skipped-over satirical writings as well.


Copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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“Dr. Locrian’s Asylum” by Thomas Ligotti

[spoiler warning]


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.


“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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“The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith

[spoiler warning]


All over this book (and various places on the internet) it’s advertised that Clark Ashton Smith was one of the Big Three contributors to Weird Tales, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.  Specifically, there was a short period from 1930 to 1936 when these three constituted to primary material of weird fiction.  You already know what I think of Robert E. Howard, and I think that my admiration for Lovecraft, and his particular ability to blend a nihilistic view of man’s relation to the cosmos (or more precisely, the reverse) with the furniture of gothic fiction, has been made apparent.  So how does the third member of the trifecta measure up?


First of all, he’s not an imitator of Howard or Lovecraft.  Although all these authors have influence on each other, as should be expected, Smith is definitely carving out his own territory.  And where is that territory?  Well, it seems to fit comfortably between Lovecraft, Howard, and a third writer I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about called Lord Dunsany.  Ever since I first read him, I’ve felt that Lord Dunsany is one of those authors who have been tragically neglected by the popular consciousness.  Sure, he’s well-known among the fantasy crowd, but in my opinion he’s the kind of writer people should be reading and talking about all the time—I honestly find his work much more interesting than Lewis Carroll, and much, much more interesting than C.S. Lewis.  Writing fantasy at the turn of the century, his works feel their heritage in Romantic poetry in that they continually seem to be trying to evoke, or even create, new worlds.  For those very familiar with Lovecraft, his early work, and anything in what is sometimes referred to as his ‘Dream Cycle’, is heavily influenced by Dunsany.  Dunsany’s impressionistic, surreal evocations of the unknown have had a tremendous influence on fantasy as a genre, continually serving, alongside Carroll, as a sort of counterpoint to the rigidly constructed worlds of Tolkien, his many imitators, and the many RPGs based off of these.

It’s important to talk about Dunsany before talking about Smith, because it is Dunsany’s way of painting fantasy that Smith often brings to the table.  Reading through his collection is a sort of exhilarating time travel; one minute one may be at an abbey in France in the late middle ages, and the next in Oakland in the early 1900s, or in ancient times coexistent with Robert E. Howard’s Conan, or in the distant future, on “Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.”  Yes, the prose is purple, but it is the prose of evocative dream poetry, and it works as such.  The reason some purple prose (Barker, for example) bothers me is that it’s out of place in the universe the writer is trying to create, usually a gritty one that would be better served by a more minimalist or psychological approach.  Clark Ashton Smith, who was better known during his lifetime as a poet, writes his descriptive passages like prose poems.

But there’s one thing that distinctly separates Clark Ashton Smith from Dunsany and other fantasy writers, and that’s the horror element.  Smith writes horror fantasy, often with a healthy balance between the two, but when he emphasizes the horror he does a fantastic job of it.  There are some moments from several of his stories—”The Return of the Sorcerer”, “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”, “The Isle of the Torturers”—that will stick in my mind forever, moments just as horrifying as the worst visions conjured up by Lovecraft.  Even when he doesn’t explicitly evoke horror in this manner, there are elements of horror in his fiction; tales with happy endings often involve monstrosity, manipulation, necromancers, and death.  They tend to have ambiguous endings, happy for some characters and not for others.  They are, in short, much more complex and nuanced than a great deal of the other pulp—Howard, Chambers, etc—that I’ve read.

There’s one more point I’d like to make before we get to the story.  Feminist readings have been haunting a lot of these reviews, as they must necessarily do of pretty much anything relating to the horrible, which tends, for better or worse, to gravitate to issues of gender, sex, and bodies.  As before, I’ll say that I have not performed close readings of these texts, but in my initial reaction, I’m impressed with how Smith approaches the issue of sexuality.  Sure, these stories are almost exclusively written from the male perspective with women sometimes not even appearing, but they show an awareness of and an engagement with the lives of women that I haven’t seen in other texts from this period and genre.  Stories like “The Monster of the Prophecy” and “The Enchantress of Sylaire” play off of old stereotypical stories about women, deconstructing certain assumptions.  Other stories are willing to treat the pain caused to women as equal to the pain caused to men, a very rare thing in pulp.  Sure, some uncomfortable tropes pop up, but these stories seem light-decades ahead of the simplistic views on sexuality offered by writers like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and they have an awareness of women completely lacking from Lovecraft’s grim world.  The very suggestion, popping up in several places, that there may be individual happiness or even salvation in a dark and ultimately doomed world opens up vast heterotopic possibilities that hopefully someone has explored more in depth—or if not, that I may return to in the future, as Smith’s fiction certainly warrants deeper reading than I am prepared to give here.

Now with all that said, onto a quick summary of a story that will relate very little to any of these things.  Why this one then?  Because there’s quite a few I don’t want to give away the ending to, and I feel this is sufficiently good to convey Smith’s skill.


First of all, the story starts out with this: “My name is Pharpetron”.  I know it’s juvenile, but I couldn’t help laughing at this name.  The purpose is to tell us that we’re now in the times of ancient Greece, but when spoken aloud (as I sometimes do when reading) this name is just hilarious.

That aside, Pharpetron is studying under the aged necromancer Avyctes.  “For six years, I have dwelt apart with the aged master, forgetting youth and its wonted desires in the study of arcanic things.”  We get a lush description of the mansion and the history of Avyctes, enough to evidence that he is a skilled summoner and a master of darkness.  “But Avyctes thirsted for a darker knowledge, a deeper empery; and into his hands, in the third year of my novitiate, there came the mirror-bright tablet of the lost serpent-people.”  The tablet was found in the sand the morning after a great storm.  Made of “some nameless metal, like never-rusting iron, but heavier” the triangular tablet is covered in uninterpretable marks.

Knowing nothing of the tablet’s history or purpose, it becomes an object of frustration for Avyctes over the months.  “At last, by the use of a chance formula, in idle experiment, he summoned up the dime, tenuous ghost of a sorcerer from prehistoric years [which wouldn’t be nearly as long if this is really ancient Greece, but anyway]; and the ghost, in a thin whisper of uncouth, forgotten speech, informed us that the letters on the tablet were those of a language of the serpent-men, whose primordial continent had sunk aeons before the lifting of Hyperborea from the ooze.”  Unable to summon the ghosts of serpent-people, Avyctes instead sends the prehistoric ghost further into the past, and finally conjures it back and thus learns the secret of the language, and therefore that the tablet is the formula for an evocation.

Avyctes is certain he can master whatever he summons, and soon they perform the ritual.  At the end, “Avyctes uttered a single word whose sense was obscure to us; and Oigos [their resurrected undead servant], being animated by sorcery and subject to our will, repeated the word after a given interval, in tones that were hollow as a tomb-born echo; and I in my turn also repeated it.”  But after the ritual is complete, nothing happens or arrives, and they deem the summoning a failure.  They give up, and as time goes by they forget about it.

Then, one day walking “I saw the blue shadow of Avyctes and my own shadow on the marble; and between them, an adumbration that was not wrought by any of the cedars.”  The strangely-colored shadow seems to be following Avyctes, and, as time goes by, closing in on him.  Finally, Pharpetron informs Avyctes of the shadow and Avyctes says,

“This thing is a mystery beyond my lore; but never, in all the practice of my art, has any shadow come to me unbidden.  And since all others of our evocations have found answer ere this, I must deem that the shadow is a veritable entity, or the sign of an entity, that has come in belated response to the formula of the serpent-sorcerers.”

They try to communicate with or command the shadow, but nothing works.  Avyctes is not even able to keep the shadow at bay with a barrier that should repel everything.  “Now, on the face of Avyctes, horror had graven new wrinkles; and his brow was beaded with a deathly sweat.  For he knew, even as I, that this was a thing beyond all laws, and foreboding naught but disaster and evil.  And he cried to me in a shaken voice, and said:

“‘I have no knowledge of this thing nor its intention toward me and no power to stay its progress.  Go forth and leave me now; for I would not that any man should witness the defeat of my sorcery and the doom that may follow thereupon.  Also, it were well to depart while there is time, lest you too should become the quarry of the shadow and be compelled to share its menace.'”

Pharpetron follows his command, but as he leaves he sees “that the alien umbrage, creeping like a noisome blotch on the floor, had touched the shadow of Avyctes.  And at that moment the master shrieked aloud like one in nightmare; and his face was no longer the face of Avyctes but was contorted and convulsed like that of some helpless madman who wrestles with an unseen incubus.”  Pharpetron flees but finds that he cannot escape; as he nears the edge of the terrace it lengthens before him, keeping him trapped with unknown magic.  So he returns to the house.  “And climbing the white stairs in the low, level beams of the crag-caught moon, I saw a figure that awaited me in the portals.  And I knew by the trailing robe of sea-purple, but by no other token, that the figure was Acyvtes.  For the face was no longer in its entirety the face of a man, but was become a loathly fluid amalgam of human features with a  thing not to be identified on earth.  The transfiguration was ghastlier than death or the changes of decay; and the face was already hued with the nameless, corrupt, and purulent color of the strange shadow, and had taken on, in respect to its outlines, a partial likeness to the squat profile of the shadow.  The hands of the figure were not those of any terrene being; and the shape beneath the robe had lengthened with a nauseous undulant pliancy; and the face and fingers seemed to drip in the moonlight with a deliquescent corruption.  And the pursuing umbrage, like a thickly flowing blight, had corroded and distorted the very shadow of Avyctes, which was now double in a manner not to be narrated here.”

The thing grabs hold of Pharpetron and leads him to Oigos, the resurrected mummy who had assisted in the ritual.  By the lamp-light Pharpetron can see that the shadow of Oigos is followed by a shadow like the one that had followed Avyctes, “and so I knew that the horror had come to Oigos in turn, and would wreak itself upon the dead even as on the living.  For the foul, anonymous thing that we had called in our presumption could manifest itself to mortal ken in no other way than this.”  It is now a day later, and Pharpetron sees that there is a shadow following his own.  The monstrous forms of Avyctes and Oigos watch him, waiting.  He has taken the tablet and thrown it into the sea.  “And now I must make an end, and enclose this writing in the sealed cylinder of orichalchum, and fling it forth to drift upon the wave.  For the space between my shadow and the shadow of the horror is straitened momentarily . . . and the space is no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen.”

Obviously, Smith’s prose relies on an unnecessarily vast vocabulary, not unlike Lovecraft.  But this doesn’t detract from the story for me; Smith is himself involved in an evocation, and the world he brings forward with his writing is distinctly alien but nonetheless terrifying.  Many of these tales are familiar stories—indeed, this, the mad scientist/wizard story, is one of the oldest and most familiar archetypes in horror—but they feel fresh in Smith’s hand because of his focus on creating a new world.  I don’t know the historical accuracy of a lot of Smith’s period pieces, although I have suspicions that they range far away from truth, but they work well to create a sense of transhistorical horror, of dark forces looming beyond the known world through all of time.  As you can probably guess, I’m going to give a big recommendation for Clark Ashton Smith, for fans of both fantasy and horror.  His writing might be too pulpy and too verbose for some, but if you can enjoy or look past that his ideas are often quite intelligent and interesting, particular his concern for the subjugated figures in history—women in some cases, but also the undead servants used as slaves by many of the necromancers in various stories.  The book I’m reading in particular is The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith.  The selection of stories is great, but it could have done with some more editing; there are several typos and errors, the most obvious being that the header for “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” reads “Vaunts” instead of “Vaults”.  Still, it’s hard to get hold of any Smith volumes right now—I  could only get this one by buying it off Amazon, despite searching several well-stocked used bookstores for years—so I’m grateful for this effort to make Smith available in print again.

As a final side note, Clark Ashton Smith also happens to be just about the most well-known author to come out of Auburn, California, my hometown.  I didn’t actually find this out until now, living away from Auburn, but it’s bizarre to see my little town popping up in the pages of a book, particularly one spanning such wide vistas of history as this.

Tomorrow we take a look at a modern master of nightmares, Thomas Ligotti.

All quotations from The Return of the Sorcerer by Clark Ashton Smith copyright Prime Books 2009.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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