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.
I’ve been good. I just got old, that’s all.
NB: Before I start writing about this piece, I think it is worth pointing out that I have finally stumbled upon a resource that claims to place all of Ligotti’s writings in chronological order. It is also a resource that I use semi-frequently and I am stunned that I did not think to check it sooner. It would appear that “Frolic” and “Les Fleurs” are indeed among the first stories that Ligotti had published but they are actually the fifth and third story to appear rather than one of the first and the second. I will go back and amend the pieces I wrote in light of this information and in future I will (for the sake of simplicity) go by the order they appear in their respective collections.
The reason I stumbled across this error is that “Alice’s Last Adventure” is a staggeringly complex and nuanced piece of writing and I struggled to believe that it was the third piece that Ligotti ever had published. Turns out I was right… this was, in fact, the thirteenth piece of fiction by Ligotti to see the light of day. It is believed to have been written in 1985 but it first appeared in the original release of Songs of a Dead Dreamer in 1986.
“Alice’s Last Adventure” is written in a tight first-person perspective centred upon the titular Alice, a world-famous children’s author whose creativity has long-since dried up, leaving her an isolated, drunken recluse who seldom sets foot outside her home except to give an annual reading at her local library.
Right from the get-go, Alice’s voice rings out with absolute clarity: She is wealthy, she is difficult, she is imperiously judgemental, and utterly in hock to a set of weird neuroses and mental tics that have been left to run riot by decades of self-imposed isolation.
The action begins a year before the ‘present’ of the story after Alice is moved to cancel her annual public reading by the death of the man who inspired the creation of her most famous literary creation. The story opens with a brief description of the man and this description serves to highlight not only Alice’s neuroses but also the thematic focus of the story as the man in question grew up in a state of (deliberately) arrested emotional development that saw him push back the psychological complexities and responsibility of adulthood until much later in his life. In other words, this is a story about aging, arrested development, and the differences between a real, mortal person, and the immortal idealised form they assume when they are taken as the inspiration for a fictional character.
As Alice travels to her home-town, she pauses to comment on the fact that her father named her after Lewis Carroll’s Alice. This doting father would read the Alice stories to Alice over and over again, forever hinting at the hidden truths contained within these stories. Carroll’s Alice was, of course, based upon a real person named Alice Liddell and so you have the idea of an idealised and free-floating ‘Alice’ that is inspired by a real-life person and then imposed upon another real-life person by a doting father who desperately wants an Alice of his own. This second real-life Alice then grows up forever being compared to the fictional Alice. This sense of dissociation gets even more complicated when Alice starts reflecting on how she was a different person back in the days when she did all of her writing. She is one Alice, but the Alice who wrote the successful book is another person who, despite being real at the time, is now nothing more than a fiction, a memory, a ghost in the machine.
When Alice arrives in her home town, she is assaulted by wave after wave of duplicates and doubles. The chubby children who come in pairs, the chubby adults who approach her at the funeral, and the old man in the ice-cream shop who appears to be the exact same old man who ran the shop when Alice was a child.
Alice then arrives at the church and immediately confronted by the family of her childhood friend who leap to the conclusion that she must be some long-lost relative from Boston and rather than correcting them, Alice is content to play the role in order to join the funeral and pay her respects to her childhood friend. Upon seeing the corpse, Alice is absolutely disgusted by the reality of what her friend became: Gone is the preternaturally youthful presence, replaced by a bloated adult corpse:
The Mosquito-faced child I once knew was now repulsively saggy, swollen-up and puffy-lipped like some unidentifiable corpse the cops might find in a river. Patently, he had overfed himself at the turgid banquet of life, lethargically pushing away from the table just prior to explosion. The thing before me was a portrait of all that was defunct, used up – the ultimate adult. (But perhaps in death, I consoled myself, his child self was even now ripping off the false face of the overgrown-up before me).
One of Alice’s defining characteristics is that she is obsessed with the past: Everything is related back to a book written decades previously or a story that happened a lifetime ago. When she returns to her hometown, she is so wedded to the past that she is literally incapable of recognising any changes that might have taken place there. However, despite being mired in nostalgia, Alice seems to have no real affection for her past or the people it once contained. It is telling that when she attends the funeral of the man who inspired her to write dozens of books, she feels no grief… only intense anger and disgust. The above quoted passage is about Alice’s horror at the realisation that her literary ideal is rooted in a real-life human being who lived, made choices, and died without her consent.
One of the really interesting things about the ‘fictional Alice’ that floats over the lives of both Alice Liddell and the Alice of this story is that fictional Alice remained a little girl while Alice Liddell lived to be in her eighties. The fact that Alice sees her childhood friend and feels only anger and disgust at the fact that he dared to eat from the “banquet of life” feels like an echo of the way that Alice Liddell must surely have spent her life being compared to the fictional Alice. Maybe Alice’s anger and disgust at her friend having grown up is an expression of fear at the realisation that she too will die and she too will be thought of as the dull, real-world counterpart of a fictional ideal: A perfect, beautiful, intelligent, resourceful little girl who never did anything as vulgar as growing up to be a mean old drunk who lives all alone in a great big house.
When Alice leaves the funeral, she retreats to a luxury hotel where she starts drinking and decides to have a one-night stand. When she wakes up in the morning, she stumbles into the bathroom and stares into the mirror only to be confronted with a waxy, corpse-like face: Yet another Alice. This vision turns out to be the start of a series of strange phenomena that stretch from the day of the funeral all the way to the following year when Alice is preparing to give another reading at her local library.
This Alice is much frailer and more confused than the Alice who took herself off to a funeral. People treat her like an old lady; they condescend to her and offer them their arms to lean on. Alice starts her reading only to immediately start dissociating from the moment: She loses track of the audience, she confuses the audience with some Halloween-themed lighting, and notices a little girl dressed as a cat who gets frantically scared during the reading only to be seen playing quite happily once the lights come up. Alice latches onto this child and stares at her: The child wears a mask, the child has intense emotions, the child removes the mask, and the child’s emotions disappear. Why can’t Alice remove her mask? Why don’t her strange fears go away? Maybe the real sin here is getting old… children seem to be able to wear all the masks they want, they soak up and dispense new identities while the old become weighted down by them.
Now aware that something is not right, Alice tries to approach the phenomenon in a rational manner by providing a list of what she refers to as “exhibits”; strange occurrences that prove that something is going on. The problem is that Alice is already confused and the exhibits don’t really make sense, and even if they did, they would all bleed into each other. Why is the moon convening? Why does the booze taste inside out? What are the shadows swarming all over the face reflected back at Alice in the window? Tellingly, the shadows seem to be consuming the face, leading us to the final exhibit:
But there’s nothing under that old mask; no child’s face there, Preston. It is you isn’t it? I’ve never heard your laughter, except in my mind. Yet that’s exactly how I imagined it would sound. Or has my imagination given you, too, a hand-me-down inherited laugh?
When Alice attended the funeral of the childhood friend that inspired the creation of Preston, her most famous literary creation, she consoled herself with the idea that death might liberate the real Preston from the fake overgrown-up mask he was wearing in the coffin. As in “The Frolic”, Ligotti chooses his words with absolute care and deadly accuracy: Alice did not genuinely believe that the real Preston had been liberated by death, she rather forced that idea into her brain in order to make herself feel better, in order to ward off the realisation that she too was coming to the end of her life and that, just like Preston, she had been overshadowed by the other Alices. As a child, she was over-shadowed by the literary Alice that her father wished to raise and, as an old woman, she was over-shadowed by the figure of Alice the legendary author. By the end of her life, Alice could no more relate to the woman she was when she wrote the books than she could the child who appeared in the works of Lewis Carroll. The problem is that if Alice is neither the Alice who appeared in the books, nor the Alice who wrote the books, then which Alice was she? Where was the real Alice? Was there ever a real Alice?
“Alice’s Last Adventure” is a story about death, memory, identity, and the way that life ends with the complete unravelling of the bullshit that we tell about ourselves as well as the bullshit that others would force upon us. Death is the end of all narratives, story cannot survive the death of the brain, and because we are the stories that we tell about ourselves, we cannot survive the stories that are told about us nor outpace the more interesting stories that overshadow our lives. This story is absolutely stunning… I have nothing more to say about it.