Thomas Ligotti is often described as the “best kept secret” of the horror genre, often heralded by many as the greatest living practitioner of the art. Having read Songs of a Dead Dreamer a while back, I can testify to his skill as a writer, particularly of the horror short story. What I find fascinating about him is the position he takes among “modern horror”. When one generally thinks of the genre one thinks (or thought) of authors like Stephen King, though we may be out of that “golden age” of horror. Ligotti interests me so much because, despite writing during that golden age, he feels like a direct descendent of authors like Lovecraft or Machen, with a style that can be said to be distinctly “cosmic horror”. Ligotti deals with great terrors and madness that exist under the surface of reality, a world of decay and darkness always threatening to break through.
Stephen King, as an author, works so well because he is so in tune, at any given moment, with America and what makes America tick. A book like The Stand serves as a perfect snapshot of United States as the century came to an end (impressive given that it was written in 1978, albeit with an updated complete version in 1990). The horror of King works so effectively because he first digs the hooks of reality into you. Sometimes the perfectly mundane parts of King’s writing is the most disturbing, before anything supernatural arrives – he knows exactly what lurks just behind the façade of American life.
Even when Ligotti deals with American reality it feels somehow unreal – towns feel shadowy and incomplete and cities always put on their seediest masks. Ligotti and Lovecraft have mastered the art of playing the outsider, and making the reader feel that sentiment as well. Ligotti is less interested in what might horrify a specific viewer as he is with playing with the very stuff of horror itself. His stories are as likely to feature villains as much as victims, bystanders to horror as much as by-products of it. Sometimes his works at first hew closer to reality to better emphasis the break into the darkness, while other times his tales feel like strange and stilted plays, no less disturbing for their disconnected nature. In many ways, Ligotti feels like a painter with words.
In short, he feels like a sadly forgotten branch of horror where many of the tropes set down by Lovecraft continued on. This is not to say that I dislike Stephen King – indeed, he was a formative author for me, and hopefully I can take the time to write about him here. Ligotti is more a fascinating “what could have been” in the horror genre, with the exception that we are lucky enough to have his work to read, which I highly encourage.