Grimscribe: His Lives and Works
by Thomas Ligotti
Cover Artist: Aeron Alfrey
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596064096
Date: 29 July 2011
Grimscribe is the latest of a series of collections from acclaimed horror writer Thomas Ligotti that Subterranean Press has been bringing back into print in limited editions. It is Ligotti's second collection, and collects thirteen of his chilling and distinctive brand of horror story. Ligotti's style is reminiscent of the old weird tales masters H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, matching these luminaries in his lush prose and masterful evocation of cosmic dread. Ligotti's brand of horror is philosophical and metaphysical in nature, but the dread his approach inspires is anything but academic in nature. Ligotti evokes the angst and pessimism of our darkest sleepless nights, and spins it into paranoid masterpieces of bleak imagery.
The traditional horror story takes place in some inaccessible and foreboding locale, such as the classic haunted house or dark forest, placing the supernatural as something out of the ordinary and remote. Ligotti's stories are set in similar locations, but for him these are not the homes' of the horrors he describes. Instead, the settings for his stories are only the places where his protagonists achieve their epiphanies, realizing that the evils they confront are literally omnipresent. For Ligotti, it is the mundane world that is haunted and evil, full of terrible significance, and only our ignorance conceals this from us. Thus, in the best Lovecraftian tradition, it is ignorance that preserves our ability to carry on our everyday lives. This makes Ligotti's brand of horror less cathartic and more unsettling than any traditional monster story, where the creature can be exorcised or defeated. There are no victories over evil in Ligotti's stories; at best, evil is temporarily evaded.
Ligotti's debt to Lovecraft is obvious, and "The Last Feast of Harlequin" has been called the best homage to Lovecraft every written. From my limited experience, this seems like a fair assessment. However, it is important to note that Ligotti's style is his own, and is no pastiche of Lovecraft or of anyone. Furthermore, his stories rarely feature alien gods or bizarre cults, which are often thought of as the hallmarks of Lovecraftian fiction (despite appearing in only a few of Lovecrafts own stories). Instead, the similarity has to do with the lush descriptive prose, the somewhat intellectual and distant nature of his protagonists, and, most of all, in his overall mood of dark fatalism. For Ligotti, as for Lovecraft, the universe is fundamentally mysterious, incomprehensible, and indifferent to humanity. Our everyday conception of reality is a thin covering beneath which all is dark and mutable. It's not a cheery image, but it is a rare and powerful one.
The prose is dense, although not nearly as florid or archaic as Lovecraft's. It reminds me most of Lovecraft's contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith, in its poetic overtones. Readers who dislike a prose style that draws attention to itself may be turned away, but they will be missing out on an beautiful writing style.
The only criticism of the collection that I have is that the stories are all quite similar in style and mood. This means that the collection is best not read straight through, since the small range means that some of the later stories feel a bit overly familiar. This is a collection that it is better to dip into a bit at a time, savoring Ligotti's distinctive take on horror. That one caveats aside, this is an incredible collection.
Fans of Lovecraft, or of the horror short story in general, owe it to themselves to check out Ligotti's work, and Subterranean Press is doing us a great service in bringing it back into print.