On “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of Thomas Ligotti which I will slowly be working my way through.

A bit of housekeeping before I talk about the story: When I decided to start working my way through Lovecraft’s fiction in chronological, I was able to do so because all of Lovecraft’s fiction is available in the public domain and because a load of nerds had already done the work of determining which stories was written when. This was simply not an option for me when it came to writing about Ligotti.

Ligotti first started getting published in the early 1980s and his work is nowhere near the public domain. This poses two distinct sets of problems: Firstly, despite being a canonical horror author, Ligotti’s works have a nasty habit of dropping out of print and even when they’re brought back into print, it is often under the auspices of small presses that seldom print more than a thousand copies. This means that physically getting hold of Ligotti’s work is not always as easy as you’d think. Secondly, while Ligotti has a devoted fan-base and his personal website dates from the era when the internet was still about people with similar interests coming together to share resources, there simply has not been time for obsessive nerds to do the kind of sorting-and-ordering work that has already been done for writers like Lovecraft.

As a result of these two practical considerations, I’m going to proceed by working through books and collections in rough order of publication. When stuff becomes too hard or too expensive to get hold of, I will skip it and hopefully circle back around once I am able to gain access to it. This will make it a lot harder for me to attend to the development of ideas and mentality in the way I have been doing for Lovecraft, but it seems appropriate that I adopt a different set of methods anyway seeing as Ligotti is still very much alive.

Despite being the first story I’m going to cover, “The Frolic” is arguably one of Ligotti’s better known works in that it has both been adapted for the screen and referenced in a number of other works. The story first appeared in the March 1983 edition of Fantasy Tales (a magazine edited by David Sutton and Stephen Jones) before being re-printed in Ligotti’s first collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1986 by Silver Scarab Press before being re-published in 1989 by Carroll and Graf who took the opportunity to revise and expand the stories to what is now considered to be their correct, author-preferred form. It would be interesting to know what exactly changed between the two editions but the Silver Scarab Press version of the book is now insanely expensive and nobody appears to have done the work of cataloguing the changes. The Carroll and Graf edition of the book also formed the basis for the Penguin Classics single volume edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, which is the edition that I happen to own.

“The Frolic” is set in the town of Nolgate, where Dr. David Munck, his wife Leslie, and daughter Norleen are living in what appears to be a state of bourgeois bliss. They live in a large house on a quiet street where David sits reading the papers while his wife busies herself by cooking and preparing drinks. It’s all very nice, it’s all very repressed, and you can almost hear the rustling of the crinoline as Leslie bustles around her idyllic little home.

I say that all of this “appears” to be a state of bourgeois bliss as Ligotti sets to work undermining the implied happiness with these tiny, lethal details. For example, we know that Nolgate is peaceful and quiet but we also know that it is home to the state prison. Ligotti’s methods are made even more clear when he talks about how the Muncks’ daughter Norleen is supposed to be upstairs asleep but she could be secretly watching TV… she could be in a state of… “violation”.

Ligotti’s use of the word “violation” is as shocking as it is brilliant: It doesn’t so much stick in the mind as hang in the air, casting an ugly shadow on everything else that happens in the story. It’s a word that not only shifts the tone but also colours every word that comes after it. The unpleasantness conjured by that single word immediately starts to radiate out through the story as it becomes clear that the Muncks’ home-life is anything but blissful.

We quickly learn that Leslie is bored living in a small town and she desperately wants to return to the city. We also know that the couple argue so frequently that Leslie has to make a conscious effort not to slip back into old patterns of argument but then starts to count coup on every subtle burn and dig she gets in without eliciting a response from her husband. Meanwhile, David lets slip that his ugly mood nearly ruined Norleen’s birthday party and soon the quiet of the street and house takes in a more sinister air: This is not a place that is quiet because it’s peaceful, it’s a place that’s quiet because nobody dares open their mouth for fear that they might accidentally re-ignite any of the smouldering argument-remnants the litter the couple’s emotional life.

After deciding to get deliberately drunk, David mentions that he is thinking of quitting his job as the prison psychologist (this is another hand-grenade that Ligotti lobs into the centre of his own story as the suggested bourgeois bliss of the story’s opening paragraphs encouraged me to think of Munck as a small-town doctor rather than a mental health professional who works with violent offenders). The problem is that David has lost faith in his capacity to make a difference: His clients are either unthinkingly violent thugs or sinister psychopathic madmen like John Doe, a man who continuously changes both accent and pattern of speech in an effort to undermine and mock the doctor’s efforts to understand him.

Leslie is delighted when David announces his decision to quit his job at the prison and she pulls out an object she had bought in the prison shop. The object is a glazed sculpture of a child’s face frozen in ecstatic bliss. David instantly recognises not only the object but also the man who made it.

The Penguin collected edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe comes with a typically underwhelming foreword by Jeff Vandermeer in which he makes a somewhat eye-roll inducing comment about Ligotti’s relationship with Lovecraft:

“H.P. Lovecraft is a self-admitted early influence on Ligotti’s work. However, in a kind of metaphysical horror story of its own, Ligotti early on subsumed Lovecraft and left his dry husk behind”.

One thing that has become clear to me after all of these years thinking and writing about literature is that the ability to produce literature to a professional standard in no way entails an ability to talk about one’s own work. Similarly, the ability to write about one’s own work in no way entails the ability to talk about literature in general. Literary skill, self-insight, and critical acumen are all subtly different skillsets and while one could make the case for Vandermeer possessing the first cluster of skills, his claim to the second and third cluster are somewhat tenuous.

In fairness to Vandermeer, I think this comment is a reflection of the fact that the Penguin collection was produced in 2015 at a time when SFF culture was going through one of many orgies of self-righteous clout-chasing and serious attempts were then being made to purge Lovecraft from the genre canon. Despite there being no less than three Penguin Classic collections of Lovecraft stories, Vandermeer evidently felt obliged to not just distance Ligotti from Lovecraft’s racism but also to distance him from Lovecraft in general by claiming that Howie was an early influence on Ligotti who took what he wanted from Lovecraft before moving on.

Firstly, this was in the foreword to an anthology of Ligotti’s first two collections. While Ligotti did write and see publication before the appearance of Songs of a Dead Dreamer, “The Frolic” was published when Ligotti was 30 years old so saying that Lovecraft was an early influence on Ligotti simply means that he was an influence on the stories that appear in this collection. Secondly, I’m not sure what literary influence involves beyond engaging with someone’s work, subsuming it into your own creative processes and then leaving it behind as your voice matures.

Perhaps Vandermeer meant to say that Ligotti was not of those horror writers who cheerfully submit their work to Lovecraft pastiche anthologies, at which point one should probably point to the fact that Ligotti’s work has appeared quite recently in such conspicuously Lovecraft-themed anthologies as Joshi’s A Mountain Walked (2015) and The Red Brain (2017). Vandermeer may have wanted to separate himself from Lovecraft by signalling that he would never write a typically underwhelming foreword for an author whose work was obviously in dialogue with Lovecraft but his attempts to speak on Ligotti’s behalf ring hollow the second Ligotti starts to write about the sculpture of the child’s head.

One of the recurring motifs of Lovecraft’s fiction is the way that inorganic objects trigger both organic and psychological change. Think of the statue of Cthulhu in “The Call of Cthulhu”, the monolith in “Dagon”, the metallic cylinders  in “The Whisperer in the Darkness” and the way that the scientists in “At the Mountains of Madness” comes across fossilised remains that come alive when defrosted and you’ll see what I’m driving at: There’s a class of entities in Lovecraft’s fiction that induces horror by deliberately blurring the boundaries between the organic and the inorganic as well as the living  and the dead. The sculpture of the child’s face is just this kind of Lovecraftian entity as Ligotti writes about it not in terms of its material characteristics but rather its psychological accuracy and the physical effort that went into John Doe’s production of the object in the first place. This is not some mere sculpture, it was something that was fondled, squeezed, and sweated over. Its beatific face not only a grim mockery of the hollow ritualised happiness performed by the Muncks at the beginning of the story,  but a gesture towards the implied orgasmic bliss visited by John Doe upon the children he abducts and murders.

“The Frolic” also feels distinctly Lovecraftian in the section where Ligotti talks about how John Doe conducts his murders by entering a dream-like state. Ligotti even refers to John Doe’s mental state as a “dreamland”:

“There’s actually quite a poetic geography to his interior dreamland as he describes it. He talked about a place that sounded like a cosmos of crooked houses and littered alleys, a slum among the stars. Which may be his distorted rendering of a life spent growing up in a shabby neighbourhood – an attempt on his part to recast the traumatic memories of his childhood into a realm that cross-breeds a mean-street reality with a fantasy world of his imagination, a phantasmagoric mingling of heaven and hell.”

This places John Doe in the grand tradition of escapist dreamers I mentioned in my recent piece on Lovecraft’s “Celephaïs”: Lovecraft’s dreamers tend to be miserable fuck-ups who enter the dreamlands only to discover that, even in dreams, they escape their existential mediocrity. Ligotti’s dreamers, on the other hand, enter the dreamlands in order to fuck and dismember children. Their dreams are so powerful that they have a real-world bodycount.

The rest of the story shows that Vandermeer was at least right to suggest that Ligotti subsumed the lessons of Lovecraft into his own voice as David’s description of Doe’s use of the dreamlands leads directly to the implosion of the Muncks’ own escapist fantasy. They wake from a dream of bourgeois bliss when they realise that someone has left a window open upstairs, and where did Norleen get hold of that toy deer she’s been dragging around with her?

“The Frolic” is an amazing piece of fiction and it is genuinely shocking that it appears to have been only the third short story that Ligotti managed to get published. While the ideas may be little more than a slick psychological darkening of old Lovecraftian saws, the craftsmanship that goes into the use of language and the way that Ligotti builds tension and horror through the final third of the story is simply awe-inspiring. Having spent a long time crawling through Lovecraft’s earlier and lesser known stories, it really is a pleasure to rediscover how much ground short fiction can cover when it is both well-conceived and artfully written.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s