A number of key elements and motifs repeat themselves throughout Ligotti’s fiction. There is an emphasis on the theatrical and performative, with stories featuring ventriloquist dummies, festivals, music recitals, cinemas, clowns, and masquerades. Often, those who take part in these events or practices are using them to conceal a darker truth, the performance acting as a façade for malicious entities, whether human or supernatural. Ligotti never reveals the origin of his horrors, leaving much unexplained or ambiguous. This furthers the sense of unease he creates, because there is nothing to pin down as the source of fear, and nothing that can be done to stop it.
Some readers might find his approach off-putting, especially his use of language, which does verge on the excessively verbose. For me, though, it added to the effect. I found that the slower reading pace forced me to think in greater detail about what was happening, which in turn made me appreciate it a lot more. I did have to take a few breaks from the book, because after a while it got a bit much, but I always returned to it afresh and ready to carry on reading.
Ligotti is a very self-aware writer, in some cases writing outright metafiction (as in ‘Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story’ and ‘Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror’). These also show that he has a sense of humour, which comes across in his use of irony, though there’s nothing here I’d call ‘funny’. What really comes across is the sense that this is someone who thinks deeply about his craft, and knows what he’s doing.
What Ligotti brings to the horror genre is a unique style and a willingness to probe a type of darkness I’ve never seen anywhere else. What he lacks in accessibility, he makes up for in intellectual rigour and sureness of touch. This is horror that straddles the boundaries of literary fiction, as evidenced by his publication in the Penguin Classics range. While overall I preferred Songs of a Dead Dreamer to Grimscribe, there is much in both collections that I enjoyed and admired. It was a perfect Halloween read.
Review by Charlie Alcock