On “Les Fleurs” 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.

It’s not me… it’s you.

“Les Fleurs” was first published in Summer 1981 in Dark Horizons, a magazine operated by the British Fantasy Society. It is the third story that Ligotti ever published and it is notable both for the ambition of its story-telling, and for the fact that said ambition very nearly tips it over into the realms of self-indulgent cleverness.

The cleverness is down to the fact that “Les Fleurs” is a story whose truths and ideas are cloaked behind allusion and the kind of unreliable narration that stems from holding the literary ‘camera’ so close to your subject that you struggle to see beyond the event horizon of their thoughts. It is also an exercise in empathy as, in order to understand the story, you need to understand the central character and understanding the central character means empathising with a murderous predatory cultist. 

“Les Fleurs” is a story written in a close first-person perspective. It opens with a scene in which a rather whimsical and awkward young man has a meet-cute with a woman who happens to work in a florist’s. The scene is awkward as you can feel the narrator trying to talk himself into believing that he and the young lady somehow bonded over precisely the kind of impersonal and practical questions that you might ask a florist while stood in shop buying flowers.

The narrator is excited as this fresh infatuation promises to dispel the sour taste left in his mouth by his last failed relationship. The story takes a darker turn when a detective turns up and starts asking the narrator questions about the disappearance of a co-worker. There’s a distracting number of moving parts in this set-up but it pays off beautifully when it turns out that the narrator was buying the flowers on the way to a graveyard but the person the flowers were for mysteriously does not have a grave and so the narrator decides to place the flowers on the grave of someone with a similar name but because the graveyard does not contain anyone named ‘Clare’ he is forced to settle for putting his flowers on the grave of someone named ‘Clarence’. Needless to say, Clare is both the name of the narrator’s ex and the name of the colleague who appears to have disappeared.

It is on this level that the story operates: Little allusions, clues scattered across the surface of the story and rarely acknowledged by the narrator, who seems to view himself as a charming presence with the soul of an artist.

Aside the fact that he was obviously involved in the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, the narrator’s character is also evident in the fact that he keeps inviting the florist around to his apartment at which point he will ‘accidentally’ share some of his art prompting an immediate reaction of either disgust or polite non-commitment. As in “The Frolic” we also have Lovecraftian artefact in the form of a ‘sculpture’ that seems to blend elements of the artificial and the organic as well as the living and the dead in the form of something that is evidently somewhere between a part of a flower and an enormous hairy tongue. There is also talk of a painting of the narrator’s apartment where the inside is steeped in sinister shadows while the outside burns with psychedelic horror. The florist is not impressed, but the narrator overcomes his disappointment and presses on with the courtship.

Given that every encounter between the florist and the narrator starts with the narrator ‘accidentally’ sharing part of himself with the florist only for the florist to make her excuses and leave, it is interesting that the relationship should continue at all. Nowadays, people who use online dating will often schedule a short pre-date face-to-face encounter in order to check someone’s general vibe and the vibe on the narrator is never anything less than creepy bordering on the outright threatening. The question of why the florist keeps agreeing to meet with the narrator is soon answered when the narrator announces that he has decided to take the florist on a trip to Hawaii.

The trip to Hawaii is both luridly written and an absolute masterclass of understatement as the entire scene hinges on the fact that the narrator mentions that he plies the florist with drinks adorned with flowers. He then guides the florist outside where she experiences what we can only assume is the mother of all bad trips accelerated by hypnotic suggestion:

At some point, with almost no effort at all, I successfully managed our full departure from known geography. “Day, Day,” I shouted. “We’re here. I’ve never shown this to anyone, and what torture it’s been keeping it from you. No, don’t speak. Look, look.” Oh, the thrill of bringing a romantic companion to this dark paradise. How I yearned to show her this resplendent world in full bloom and have her behold it with ensorcelled delight. She was somewhere near me in the darkness. I waited, seeing her a thousand ways in my mind before actually gazing at the real Day. I looked. “What’s wrong with the stars, the sky?” was all she said. She was trembling.

The following morning, Daisy the Florist is hung-over and struggles to make sense of anything the narrator has shown to her. In a last ditch effort to get through to her, the narrator starts working on a painting designed to trigger some memories of what she might have seen in the skies above Hawaii but this prompts nothing but polite platitudes, at which point the narrator’s opinion about the florist radically changes. Not only is she not a kindred-soul and a flower-obsessed aesthete waiting to be initiated; now she is a potential risk not only to the narrator but also to his secret brotherhood. The decision is made to get rid of the loose end and the chosen method is one of the furry tongues that inspired the creation of the sculpture at the beginning of the story. The narrator comments that the Florist could not have known what it was that inspired him to create the sculpture in the first place but there’s some degree of ambiguity as to whether the ‘sculptures’ were representations of the hideous monstrosities unleashed at the end of the story or the monstrosities themselves in some sort of dormant form.

On one level, “Les Fleurs” is an opaque mess of a story that hides all of its truths so far behind clues and allusions that it is possible to read the story and miss the point, to impact upon the surface and never piece together what it is that Ligotti is trying to show us. Given some of the baffled responses this story has elicited online, this would appear to be a fairly common complaint: Genre readers used to everything being spelled out, struggle with a story that deliberately seeks to conceal itself.

On another level, “Les Fleurs” is the story of a cultist who takes an interest in an innocent member of the public, grooms them for membership in his sinister cult, and ultimately decides to have her killed when it turns out that she was neither willing nor able to jump through the requisite number of hoops. In and of itself, this level to the story is wonderfully sinister and feels like a long-overdue exploration of the psychological forces at work in the kinds of cults that appear in the works of Lovecraft. Why would you worship Cthulhu? Why would you gather in dark places to enact sinister rituals that bring the end of the world closer? My assumption has always been that cultists were people who were trying to benefit from the power locked up in the rituals of the Mythos, but what if the motivations were simpler and more straight-forward? What if the act of worship is an end in itself? What if it’s just… kinda pretty?

As appealing and appalling as this reading of the story may be, it simply lays the foundations for a deeper and darker meaning: “Les Fleurs” is first and foremost about a man who is lonely. Scarred and somewhat embittered by the failure of his previous relationship, the narrator takes an interest in a local florist based upon the broadest strokes of their shared interests. Desperate to make some sort of human connection, the narrator shares more and more of himself and his world with the florist only to be met with absolute indifference. Is she interested in his art? No. Is she interested in his weird religious practice? No. Is she interested in him? Not without the possibility of a trip to Hawaii. The moment where the narrator gives up on the florist and allows his fellow cultist to step in and remove the security threat will be horribly familiar to anyone who has been on a series of dates and given someone the benefit of the doubt right up until the moment they say something crass, insensitive, clueless. At which point, the wave-form collapses, the potential for forward momentum disappears, and suddenly you’re just sat at a table with someone to whom you are (at best) completely indifferent. Move past the towering cleverness of the narrative techniques deployed in this story and you have something very simple, straightforward, and universal: “Les Fleurs” is a study of the moment in which you fall out of love.

One Comment

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s