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.
Die into them, you simple soul, you silly dolling.
I am reminded of one of my all time favourite films: The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke. The film revolves around an extraordinarily uptight and emotionally controlled woman who may in fact be one of the kinkiest people in the Western hemisphere.
The character is ostensibly asexual but spends her time hanging around sex shops, sniffing the semen-encrusted tissues that spill from the bins of the porn booths. She has a list of transgressive fantasies as long as your arm but she is completely alienated from her base desires. It’s not just that she hides them behind a facade of aggressive, puritanical authoritarianism, it’s that she refuses to allow herself to even acknowledge her nature as a sexual being.
This ‘Une Chatte en Hiver‘ scenario continues until she starts giving lessons to a handsome young man who becomes obsessed with her. At one point, he happens upon a literal shopping list of the piano teacher’s secret desires and, with a shrug of his shoulders, agrees to help make them a reality.
The film ends with the piano teacher spiralling into madness and self-harm as she is unable to deal with the destruction of the boundary between her sexual self and the person she is in the world. By satisfying all of her desires, the student has not only revealed the teacher’s identity; he has pierced it too. This piercing of the identity is one of the great horrors of the modern age.
It is often said the the human ego has suffered three great wounds since the onset of Modernity: The first was learning that we were not the literal centre of the universe. The second was learning that we are but beasts, a deformed species of primate. The third was learning that, far from being sovereign shards of divine grace, our minds are nothing but by-products of weird psycho-physical processes operating beyong the event horizon of our limited perceptions.
Look back at classic 1940s cinematic noir and the ‘women’ s film’ genre that shared some overlapping thematic concern with questions of identity and selfhood. If you do you will find a culture struggling to deal with the idea that our greatest desires might be not only unconscious but radically at odds with the persona that we have spent our adult lives cobbling together. Think of films like Double Indemnity where people destroy themselves for lovers they tire of immediately, or films like Sunset Boulevard where men writhe and buck at the realisation that what they really want is to be the kept fancy-boy of a rich old woman.
This idea that we are fundamentally alienated from ourselves explains to continued salience of Freudian psychology in cultural circles: The Old Bastard might have been fundamentally wrong about how the brain functions but he had us bang to rights when he diagnosed the existence of a tension between who we are, and how we want to appear.
This tension also goes someway towards explaining the continuing success of sites like Twitter and our enduring, self-destructive addiction to the psychodramas they allow. Indeed, most people acknowledge that sites like Twitter are about the curated self and the presentation of an idealised version of one’s identity. Instagram is famously all about performing success, cuteness, and fuckability but that is just one form of idealised identity. Other places and platforms allow you to play the role of the successful serial entrepreneur, the engineering genius, or the young, impoverished, but morally-righteous non-binary.
We love these platforms because they allow us to perform our chosen selves in full view of a global audience. We dance in full knowledge that the Sword of Damocles hangs over our heads; the bigger the following, the more outrageous the behaviour, the greater the risk that the wrong person will get annoyed and bust out the receipts: Oh you claim to be an ally but fifteen years ago you made a joke about someone being a big fat queer! Oh you claim to be a female author but are you not in fact a man whose attempt to identify as a woman is nothing more than a scam and a hoax? Oh you claim to be a naive but morally-righteous young enby but are you not in fact a middle-aged afab who works for a weapons manufacturer?
Social media may be a venue for the presentation of the curated self, but posting is pure, uncut death drive. The yearning for destruction, and self-obliteration manifests as aggression when turned outwards, this is why we spend our days rejoicing in the piercing of other identities. We obliterate others while knowing (and hoping) that we will be next up on the chopping block. The greatest fear yields the greatest pleasure.
“Dream of a Manikin” is a story about the dissolution of the Self. The cheat code is right there in the title: Ligotti writes not about a ‘mannequin’ but a ‘Manikin’, a word that gestures both towards the connections and similarities of kinship, but also towards the deliberate, diminutive exhibitionism of the bikini.
I mentioned Freudianism and old noir films as the set-up for this story feels like a nod to the golden age of psychological thrillers: Like Sturgeon’s wonderful Some of your Blood, the story presents itself as correspondence between two psychiatrists. The narrator is writing to a colleague to thank them for a referral and to fill them in on what their examination of a patient revealed.
The patient is referred to as Ms. Locher and she speaks about not only a recurring dream, but a recurring dream in which the person she is in the dream has a dream of her own. A dream she refuses to acknowledge as belonging to her.
It’s interesting to read a Ligotti dream story after reading so many Lovecraft dream stories as the two authors use dreams in very different ways: Lovecraft used dreams as a source of imagery that would then be placed in the sense-making context of a narrative story. Ligotti’s dream is full of striking images but what really shines through is the haziness of the dreamscape. These are not venues for the unfolding of coherent narratives, they are spaces that characters are dragged through by a silken thread. Images and thoughts loom up out of the cognitive haze, but the images the journey presents do not make immediate sense. They strike an emotional chord, but only because they seem to by-pass the sense-making parts of our brains.
The dream finds Ms Locher working as a department store dummy wrangler, except the mannequins she dresses seem to be alive. Or if not alive then at least imbued with a form of aliveness that seems, similar to that ascribed to Ms. Locher herself.
The story’s Inception-style ontology raises interesting questions about the limits of Ms. Locher’s dreams: If Ms. Locher dreams of herself working in a shop, why would the dreams of the shop assistant not belong to Ms. Locher? If they do not belong to her, then who do they belong to?
Once you start asking questions about the limits of Ms. Locher’s identity, it is, hard to stop: The story is about a dream, inside a dream, inside a delusion, inside a letter, inside a broader unknown psychological context. The figure of the psychiatrist implies a firm barrier between patient and doctor, but why would we trust the barriers erected by the narrator and not the ones erected by Ms. Locher? Think back to the figure of the piano teacher in the film by Michael Haneke, think back to the identities we perform on social media: What is real? What barriers have we created to distance one persona from another?
The psychiatrist claims to be writing to a colleague but the letter is peppered with terms of endearment and endless recitation of weird theories professed by the unnamed and unseen psychiatrist to whom the narrator appears to be writing. As the story moves forward, the boundaries between personas start to dissolve: First the barrier between Ms Locher and the shop assistant, and then the barrier between patient and doctor as the off-screen psychiatrist begins leading the narrator through a series of traps designed to pierce their identity and reveal not only their secrets, but also the differences between the characters.
This raises questions as to how many characters actually appear in this story: Is it three with an additional dream persona, or is it two? Is it maybe just one? To me, the terms of endearment scattered throughout the story speak to a sense of longing. The narrator does not object to the head games played by their colleague, they welcome them… They greet them with a sense of inevitability.
Rather than revealing hidden truths, the unlocking of Ms. Locher (hoho) leads us further and further into the world of dreams. The more personas are broken down, the harder it becomes to keep track of voices, characters, or selves. Sous les paves la plage… Beneath the self, there is, only sludge. Personas are all we have. The glossy-eyed toys are inhuman but at least they look like people… What are we? Where do we start? Where do we end?
“Dream of a Manikin” is more of a land of dreams than anything in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. It’s power lies in the fact that, unlike Lovecraft, Ligotti does not seem phased by the prospect of a pierced identity, of selves shattered by uncomfortable truths, of the ugliness getting out.
One of the big failures of Lovecraft’s thinking is that while he lived in absolute existential terror of the truth getting out and his identity being pierced, he could not account for the urge to prod, to probe, and to dwell on the artificiality of one’s assumed persona. Stories like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family” are all about the horror of a pierced identity but they cannot account for the Death Drive, the urge to pick away at the threads of the Self. Ligotti’s story is filled with a sense of erotic yearning for destruction: In the way that the narrator refers to the psychiatrist and the lustful appraisals that are draped over Ms. Locher. Pull me apart My Darling… My Love… Cut, cut, cut me up and fuck, fuck, fuck me up.