Poppy Z. Brite‘s foreword to this collection of 45 short stories opens with a haunting entreaty: “Are you out there, Thomas Ligotti?” It’s an appropriate question to ask, given Ligotti’s invisibility in bookstores relative to other horror writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Even Brite’s own books are easier to find.
Little consolation may be found in how this is partly due to Ligotti’s works being out of print, despite their earliest publication in the 80s. Whether it is testimony to avid fans relieving bookstores of these darkest of dark fictions or to certain unfortunately publishing decisions, the result is still a gaping lack for many readers of contemporary horror.
Ligotti knows about consolations; following Brite’s foreword is “The Consolations of Horror,” an essay he wrote for this anthology, a veritable manifesto expressing his own views on horror. Even more telling is how his stories themselves demonstrate these consolations. In the face of his rejection of the clear-cut moral dilemmas and satisfying closures of mainstream horror fiction, the unrelentingly bleak nihilism that remains must surely provide some sort of comfort to the reader. Such comforts we end up begging for, because reading these works can be an overwhelmingly wrenching experience.
Ligotti also knows about gaping lacks: his stories abound with such phrases as “an empty mist through an eternal twilight” (“The Journal of J.P. Drapeau”), and “the infinite, all-penetrating vision of things in which madness is the sole substance and thereby becomes absent and meaningless for its very ubiquity and absolute meaning” (“Masquerade of a Dead Sword”). While there is the occasional beastie to be found, such as the vampires of “The Lost Art of Twilight” and the insectoid forms that liberate themselves from “The Cocoons,” the true horror here is found in the dark unknowable void of the human condition.
Ligotti is unafraid to be visceral, such as when he describes “a mutilated carcass, something of terrible rawness, a torn and flayed thing whose every laceration could be traced in crystalline sharpness” in “The Spectacles in the Drawer,” but he isn’t out to disgust you for its own sake. In fact, while the stories here epitomize the nightmarish more than any other writer I know, it is more of an atmospheric dread at work than the sudden provocation of explicit frights.
The Nightmare Factory then is an apposite title in this regard: these are indeed nightmares, stories whose peripheral glimpses into the inexorability of decay and darkness leave an exquisite aftertaste of terror. Ligotti is efficient; some stories are better than others, but every single one is a superior example of literate horror, resulting in a consistently excellent anthology.
By no means though should you assume that Ligotti simply churns out tales like an automaton working from a template. The metaphysical horror he draws his tales from may be a single fount of dreadful inspiration, but an infinite darkness holds infinite terrors, and this is what Thomas Ligotti knows best of all.