Forbidden Tomes: SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER by THOMAS LIGOTTI

It’s a terrible shame that so many great genre authors active in the 70s and 80s – Ted Klein, Karl Edward Wagner, and Kathe Koja, to name a few – have gone out of print and are so difficult to find. This past year, Penguin rereleased a collection of cosmic horror stories that had beforehand been flying under the radar. These stories come from the warped, wicked, and brilliant mind of Thomas Ligotti – the first of which is called SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER.

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I couldn’t think of a more appropriate title. These stories range in setting – from mundane suburbs to decaying side streets, and even surreal dreamscapes – but all touch on a deep nihilistic brand of horror that even Lovecraft doesn’t touch. Most of Ligotti’s characters are hyper-intelligent outcasts who long for a different existence, perhaps in another dimension. Their searches bring them to horrible truths that grant them their wish in the worst possible way.

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Placed in dark Expressionistic streets and warped buildings (perhaps echoing the decay of Ligotti’s hometown Detroit), populated by grotesque humans and not-unconscious puppets, Ligotti’s stories are uncanny from the first sentence. It is hard to recognize anything within them as worldly, though many of them feature elements that must have come from our present time. This removed reality is like a Tim Burton set left to its own rot-filled devices. It is the perfect environment for the transgressive horror that presents itself: horrors of the mind that force us to question our own perceptions.

Ligotti’s writing is dense and philosophical, much more so than your average horror story. At times this style can become hard to decipher; but for the most part, it elevates the terror to a mental level that makes it impossible to shake. The nightmares within these stories stem from world-bending theories – of alternate lives, killers who absorb their victims, and madness that takes physical form. And the protagonist never escapes the evil they encounter.

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There is a true sense of madness as well, embedded in the hyper-intelligent prose – a sense that Ligotti himself has witnessed these horrors himself. He transcends the influence of Lovecraft in this way. The protagonists are not only fighting a cosmic terror from another reality; they are battling their own deteriorating minds, which become the most fearsome villain. With corporeal traits – alcoholism and insomnia being the main two – to offset their intangible mental decline, these characters become close to home. It’s easy to imagine their breakdowns as our own.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer, (Jun 1991, Thomas Ligotti, publ. Carroll & Graf, 0-88184-721-6, $4.50, x+275pp, pb, coll)

With this unique brand of cosmic horror, Ligotti’s stories present a devastating and terrifying panorama of monsters. His imagery shocks and his ideas rattle. It is unlike any horror prose I’ve encountered before, and I am thrilled that I can recognize him now; and now that I know him, I cannot forget him. Like his protagonists, Ligotti opens mental doors into ideas that may be better left unseen. But to see them is incredible.

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