Thomas Ligotti’s debut collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and his second, Grimscribe, permanently inscribed a new name in the pantheon of horror fiction. Influenced by the strange terrors of Lovecraft and Poe and by the brutal absurdity of Kafka, Ligotti eschews cheap, gory thrills for his own brand of horror, which shocks at the deepest, existential, levels.
Ligotti’s stories take on decaying cities and lurid dreamscapes in a style ranging from rich, ornamental prose to cold, clinical detachment. His raw and experimental work lays bare the unimportance of our world and the sickening madness of the human condition. Like the greatest writers of cosmic horror, Ligotti bends reality until it cracks, opening fissures through which he invites us to gaze on the unsettling darkness of the abyss below.
For more than sixty-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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About the Author
Jeff VanderMeer is the author of the New York Times–bestselling Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance). He is a three-time World Fantasy Award winner.
Read an Excerpt
Over the past thirty years, Thomas Ligotti has produced an extraordinary body of work in the short story form—evidenced herein by his first two collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1985) and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991). Songs was first published by Harry O. Morris’s Silver Scarab Press in a three-hundred-copy edition with cover art and illustrations by Morris and an introduction by Ramsey Campbell. The book received its due acclaim after a wider release in 1989, but the first edition remains a jewel within our book collection. I remember leafing through it and feeling as if I were looking at an artifact that had slipped through from another universe. Grimscribe was, at the time of publication, seen by some as a typical second book, as if Ligotti had taken a step back in quality. Over time, however, readers and critics have recognized that the collection is, if anything, richer, more focused, and more mature than Songs.
Where within the fictional cosmos do Ligotti’s stories exist? The same fixed, timeless position as those of Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka.* Like that of Poe and Kafka, his fiction is transformative by virtue of the author’s unique way of seeing the world and because it is innovative in ways both visible (formal experimentation) and invisible (stealth experiments that reveal their presence only by how they affect the reader). Unlike with Poe’s fiction, this quality in Ligotti’s work cannot be emulated in any meaningful way and ferociously resists commodification by the marketplace. Unlike in Kafka’s stories, Ligotti’s prose is too uncomfortably visceral and (although deeply absurdist at times) too hostile to a certain kind of playfulness to enter into the traditional canon. But in all three cases, a unique voice at the right distance from its subject matter prevents the work from becoming dated. A deliberate lack of specificity follows from the author’s natural preoccupations. Unnamed narrators and nameless towns, for example, allow for a corresponding vagueness of either character or setting that, perversely, creates the necessary anchor for even a reader a century from now, traveling beneath strange stars, to be held in thrall.
Perhaps these qualities also reflect that although Ligotti came out of the weird and uncanny genres, he was always passing through those regions. Recalling the horror scene in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, I remember that it was marked by a certain conservativism and a general devotion to naturalism. In its most extreme manifestations, this worship of pragmatic causality became the hyperrealism of subgenres devoted to depicting explicit violence and sex. Set against such trends were a handful of unique voices, including writers like Kathe Koja, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Poppy Z. Brite, and Clive Barker, who at times added elements of the surreal, Decadent, New Gothic, or genuinely transgressive body horror.
Did Ligotti come out of this community? Not really. His work, sui generis, just happened to be published in those environs during that time period. To suggest otherwise would be like saying there is huge significance to the neighborhood in which a physicist lives when he has a eureka moment due to research at his laboratory. In this sense Ligotti is allied with iconoclasts like Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, the aforementioned Kafka, Alfred Kubin, and, to some extent, the great Bruno Schulz. Indeed, brilliant one-off texts like Sakutaro¯ Hagiwara’s dreamlike “The Town of Cats” (1935) and Eric Basso’s preternaturally Proustian “The Beak Doctor” (1977) seem oddly Ligotti-esque even if they are not direct influences—precisely because, like Ligotti’s work, they exist in a unique space between horror and the surreal, between the visceral and the philosophical. It is a special place, found on no map, where the supernatural resists being labeled and every attempt at naming leaves the formal inquest flummoxed as to whether a particular shadow or reflection was part of the natural or unnatural worlds.
In Ligotti’s work, the supernatural exists in support of ideas that serve as a sharp interrogation of the way we live, evoking comparisons to literary realists as different as John Cheever and Shirley Jackson. That may seem an audacious idea, but if we pluck Ligotti from the clutches of weird fiction, we find that his universality exists at an unexpected level—not because weird fiction doesn’t deal with complex issues and ideas, but because the weird fiction context places the emphasis squarely on the uncanny, obliterating our ability to see anything else. Ligotti’s fiction, temporarily unhooked from the weird, is best understood as a continuing interrogation of the legitimacy of our modern lives. He is exploring the underbelly of modernity—personal and societal. His interest is in the blight beneath, whether it occurs solely in the mind or is expressed through actions. For this reason, the films of David Lynch and the fiction of Thomas Ligotti sometimes speak to each other in interesting ways.
Ligotti launches into this exploration, this kind of Blue Velvet approach, from the very first story collected in Songs, “The Frolic.” The banal start of this story set in the suburbs could be the beginning of the average New Yorker tale—and if Ligotti had wanted to he could have reinforced the truth of the surface of modern life; he could have written a story of a husband and wife at odds, with the husband’s work serving merely to add fuel to their arguments. Instead, Ligotti serves notice that he’s interested in subversion: the window of the rational is smashed to bits by the irrational. One might even make the case that the window is smashed by the fears of the husband, which in a strange way become a kind of perverted wish.
One of Ligotti’s first forays into formal experimentation, “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story,” seems like the metafictional version of a smashed window at first, but accretes viscosity and layers of realism as the tale progresses. As in Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Leonardo,” Ligotti tells the reader that he is assembling certain fictional elements to convey his story . . . and then, like Nabokov, proceeds to make the reader forget a story is being read, the “fictive dream” closing around with a cocoonlike sense of claustrophobia. At the same time, “Notes on the Writing of Horror” mercilessly sends up certain approaches to supernatural fiction—it is caustically funny; funny with a sneer and a giggle. It gets under the skin in part because, miraculously, it earns the sneering. As a kind of veiled statement of intent from Ligotti, the story is a fierce, uncompromising work, and a proverbial high-wire act on the page. I can only imagine it as a cuckoo’s egg laid in the nest of the horror field as it existed at the time.
These kinds of subversions continue in a more gentle fashion with stories like “Alice’s Last Adventure,” in which Ligotti uses a smidgeon of Lewis Carroll to send up the “twee fey” of both Edward Gorey and Gahan Wilson. The element of play is found not in the appropriation of childhood grotesqueries, but in the voice of the elderly author juxtaposed with a series of unnerving encounters. Once the window is broken, not only can things come through, but you can get out. Except, what is there to get out to? A plausible interpretation of the story could be that it is about the irrationality and contradictions of aging. A tweak here or there and this interpretation would be the surface of the story, not just part of the subtext.
In the same vein, Grimscribe’s major story “The Last Feast of Harlequin” creates its greatest effects as much through the mundane as through the uncanny. An anthropologist visits the town of Mirocaw out of curiosity about a pageantry festival that includes clowns. In a perfect deadpan tone that allows the author a tightrope walk between the absurd and the horrific, the metaphysical and the visceral, the anthropologist comes to realize he has made an irrevocable mistake. Much of the pleasure here comes from the narrator providing the reader with information previously left out and inquiries into clown activities that are often drily humorous. (Indeed, Ligotti has always been a very funny writer, a quality easier to enjoy once you become acclimated to his supernatural elements.)
But the story also expands on Ligotti’s interest in a kind of middle-class experience, or ordinary life, that is disrupted by the extraordinary, which puts a lie not only to the narrators’ view of their own selves but also to the idea that the ordinary is mundane, that the surface is also the subtext. In part, Ligotti here comments on modernity through the idea of ritual, and how ritual pervades our lives in both ordinary and outré circumstances. Ritual is a kind of mask that holds in check what happens in our most secret lives. Other stories in Grimscribe use objects as talismans to explore these same undercurrents, whether the eyeglasses of “The Spectacles in the Drawer,” the “madness of things” in the house in “Flowers of the Abyss,” or the idol/manuscript in “Nethescurial.”
When we encounter ritual enacted in a grotesque fashion (that to some extent ridicules our own repetitions) we may at first try to reconcile it with our own preordained patterns; thus the absurd element of politeness or reasonableness sometimes expressed in true-life extreme situations. But if instead we recoil, run shrieking, might it be not only because what we see is macabre but because, for a moment, we recognize that this strangeness partakes of the same wellspring as our own regimented lives? That our (unthinking) rituals are only attempts not to succumb to what is going on beneath the surface, within our minds, with regard to the intolerability of life (i.e., eventual death)?
• • •
I must confess I am loath to discuss other favorites among these stories. Each has at some point appeared sharp and pale out of the murky darkness, had its moment, and then receded from my sight again, such is the impressionistic flavor of these particular stories. “Ethereal” is a terribly overused and imprecise word to describe weird fiction, but it’s still the best description of how Ligotti’s fiction exists in the moment of individual sentences on the page. Every time you read these stories, not only do you reimagine them, but they seem to change shape and substance through some power rising from behind the words. These are not uncanny effects—they’re merely another manifestation of the universal in Ligotti’s fiction.
With Songs and Grimscribe, Ligotti burst fully formed onto the literary scene. Had just these two collections been published, Ligotti would still be hailed as a writer of the first rank. What occurs later in his career is not so much a maturing and a leaving aside of earlier work as an interesting shift of attention: from the general preoccupations with what lies beneath modernity, often expressed through Everyman and Man of No Qualities characters, to a specific focus on the modern workplace in such long stories as My Work Is Not Yet Done. Turning the gaze of weird fiction toward the modern work environment—pushing past the blatant emptiness of the cubicle world to truths ever more horrific, subtle, and darkly hilarious—is just a natural extension of Ligotti’s initial explorations in Songs and Grimscribe.
In writing about these more existential explorations, I don’t mean to suggest that the supernatural in Ligotti’s fiction is not convincing, terrifying, and cathartic in its own right. It is all of those things, and for another writer that might be the extent of our fascination, and quite enough for most readers. But the reason Ligotti lingers in our imaginations, why his work is so relevant to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is that so much else exists beneath the surface. Whether you are just now encountering Ligotti’s fiction or rereading it, I envy you this chance to encounter the work of one of our greatest dark imaginations.
DREAMS FOR SLEEPWALKERS
In a beautiful home in a beautiful part of town—the town of Nolgate, site of the state prison—Dr. Munck examined the evening newspaper while his young wife lounged on a sofa nearby, lazily flipping through the colorful parade of a fashion magazine. Their daughter Norleen was upstairs asleep, or perhaps she was illicitly enjoying an after-hours session with the new television she’d received on her birthday the week before. If so, her violation went undetected by her parents in the living room, where all was quiet. The neighborhood outside the house was quiet, too, as it was day and night. All of Nolgate was quiet, for it was not a place with much of a nightlife, save perhaps at the bar where the prison’s correctional officers congregated. Such persistent quiet made the doctor’s wife fidgety with her existence in a locale that seemed light-years from the nearest metropolis. But thus far Leslie did not complain of the lethargy of their lives. She knew her husband was quite dedicated to his new professional duties in this new place. Perhaps tonight, though, he would exhibit more of those symptoms of disenchantment with his work that she had been meticulously observing in him of late.
“How did it go today, David?” she asked, her radiant eyes peeking over the magazine cover, where another pair of eyes radiated a glossy gaze. “You were pretty quiet at dinner.”
“It went about the same,” said Dr. Munck without lowering the small-town newspaper to look at his wife.
“Does that mean you don’t want to talk about it?”
He folded the newspaper backwards and his upper body appeared. “That’s how it sounded, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it certainly did. Are you okay?” Leslie asked, laying aside the magazine on the coffee table and offering her complete attention.
“Severely doubting, that’s how I am.” He said this with a kind of far-off reflectiveness. Leslie now saw a chance to delve a little deeper.
“Anything particularly doubtful?”
“Only everything,” he answered.
“Shall I make us drinks?”
“That would be much appreciated.”
Leslie walked to another part of the living room and from a large cabinet pulled out some bottles and some glasses. From the kitchen she brought out a supply of ice cubes in a brown plastic bucket. The sounds of drink-making were the only intrusion upon the living room’s plush quiet. The drapes were drawn on all windows except the one in the corner where an Aphrodite sculpture posed. Beyond that window was a deserted streetlighted street and a piece of moon above the opulent leafage of spring trees.
“Here you go. A little drinky for my hard-working darling,” she said, handing him a glass that was very thick at its base and tapered almost undetectably toward its rim.
“Thanks, I really needed one of these.”
“Why? Problems at the hospital?”
“I wish you’d stop calling it a hospital. It’s a prison, as you well know.”
“Yes, of course.”
“You could say the word prison once in a while.”
“All right, then. How’s things at the prison, dear? Boss on your case? Inmates acting up?” Leslie checked herself before things spiraled into an argument. She took a deep gulp from her drink and calmed herself. “I’m sorry about the snideness, David.”
“No, I deserved it. I’m projecting my anger onto you. I think you’ve known for some time what I can’t bring myself to admit.”
“Which is?” Leslie prompted.
“Which is that maybe it was not the wisest decision to move here and take this saintly mission upon my psychologist’s shoulders.”
Her husband’s remark indicated an even more acute mood of demoralization than Leslie had hoped for. But somehow his words did not cheer her the way she thought they would. She could distantly hear the moving van pulling up to the house, but the sound was no longer as pleasing as it once was.
“You said you wanted to do something more than treat urban neuroses. Something more meaningful, more challenging.”
“What I wanted, masochistically, was a thankless job, an impossible one. And I got it.”
“Is it really that bad?” Leslie inquired, not quite believing she asked the question with such encouraging skepticism about the actual severity of the situation. She congratulated herself for placing David’s self-esteem above her own desire for a change of venue, important as she felt this was.
“I’m afraid it is that bad. When I first visited the prison’s psychiatric unit and met the other doctors, I swore I wouldn’t become as hopelessly cynical as they were. Things would be different with me. I overestimated myself by a wide margin, though. Today one of the orderlies was beaten up again by two of the prisoners, excuse me, ‘patients.’ Last week it was Dr. Valdman. That’s why I was so edgy on Norleen’s birthday. So far I’ve been lucky. All they do is spit at me. Well, they can all rot in that hellhole as far as I’m concerned.”
David felt his own words lingering atmospherically in the room, tainting the serenity of the house. Until then their home had been an insular haven beyond the contamination of the prison, an imposing structure outside the town limits. Now its psychic imposition transcended the limits of physical distance. Inner distance constricted, and David sensed the massive prison walls shadowing the cozy neighborhood outside.
“Do you know why I was late tonight?” he asked his wife.
“Because I had an overlong chat with a fellow who hasn’t got a name yet.”
“The one you told me about who won’t tell anyone where he’s from or what his real name is?”
“That’s him. He’s the standout example of the pernicious monstrosity of that place. A real beauty, that guy. One for the books. Absolute madness paired with a sharp cunning. Because of his cute little name game, he was classified as unsuitable for the general prison population and thus we in the psychiatric section ended up with him. According to him, though, he has plenty of names, no less than a thousand, none of which he’s condescended to speak in anyone’s presence. It’s hard to imagine that he has a name like everyone else. And we’re stuck with him, no name and all.”
“Do you call him that, ‘no name’?”
“Maybe we should, but no, we don’t.”
“So what do you call him, then?”
“Well, he was convicted as John Doe, and since then everyone refers to him as that. They’ve yet to uncover any official documentation on him. It’s as if he just dropped out of nowhere. His fingerprints don’t match any record of previous convictions. He was picked up in a stolen car parked in front of an elementary school. An observant neighbor reported him as a suspicious character frequently seen in the area. Everyone was on the alert, I guess, after the first few disappearances from the school, and the police were watching him just as he was walking a new victim to his car. That’s when they made the arrest. But his version of the story is a little different. He says he was fully aware of his pursuers and expected, even wanted, to be caught, convicted, and put in a penitentiary.”
“Why? Who knows? When you ask a psychopath to explain himself, it only becomes more confusing. And John Doe is chaos itself.”
“What do you mean?” asked Leslie. Her husband emitted a short burst of laughter and then fell silent, as if scouring his mind for the right words.
“Okay, here’s a little scene from an interview I had with him today. I asked him if he knew why he was in prison.”
“‘For frolicking,’ he said.
“‘What does that mean?’ I asked.
“His reply was: ‘Mean, mean, mean. You’re a meany, that’s what you are.’
“That childish ranting somehow sounded to me as if he were mimicking his victims. I’d really had enough right then but foolishly continued the interview.
“‘Do you know why you can’t leave here?’ I calmly asked with a poor variant of my original inquiry.
“‘Who says I can’t? I’ll just go when I want to. But I don’t want to go yet.’
“‘Why not?’ I naturally questioned.
“‘I just got here,’ he said. ‘Thought I’d take a holiday. Frolicking the way I do can be exhausting sometimes. I want to be in with all the others. Quite a rousing atmosphere, I expect. When can I go with them, when can I?’
“Can you believe that? It would be cruel, though, to put him in general population, not to say he doesn’t deserve such cruelty. The average inmate doesn’t look favorably on Doe’s kind of crime. They see it as reflecting badly on them, being that they’re just your garden variety armed robbers, murderers, and whatnot. Everyone needs to feel they’re better than someone else. There’s really no predicting what would happen if we put him in there and the others found out what he was convicted for.”
“So he has to stay in the psychiatric unit for the rest of his term?” asked Leslie.
“He doesn’t think so. Being interred in a maximum security correctional facility is his idea of a holiday, remember? He thinks he can leave whenever he wants.”
“And can he?” asked Leslie with a firm absence of facetiousness in her voice. This had always been one of her weightiest fears about living in a prison town—that not far from their own backyard there was a horde of fiends plotting to escape through what she envisioned as rather papery walls. To raise a child in such surroundings was the prime objection she had to her husband’s work.
“I told you before, Leslie, there have been very few successful escapes from that prison. If an inmate does get beyond the walls, his first impulse is always one of practical self-preservation. So he tries to get as far away as possible from this town, which is probably the safest place to be in the event of an escape. Anyway, most escapees are apprehended within hours after they’ve broken out.”
“What about a prisoner like John Doe? Does he have a sense of ‘practical self-preservation,’ or would he rather just hang around and do what he does somewhere that’s conveniently located?”
“Prisoners like that don’t escape in the normal course of things. They just bounce off the walls but not over them. You know what I mean?”
Leslie said she understood, but this did not in the least lessen the potency of her fears, which found their source in an imaginary prison in an imaginary town, one where anything could happen as long as it approached the hideous. Morbidity had never been her strong suit, and she loathed its intrusion on her character. And for all his ready reassurance about the able security of the prison, David also seemed to be profoundly uneasy. He was sitting very still now, holding his drink between his knees and appearing to listen for something.
“What’s wrong, David?” asked Leslie.
“I thought I heard . . . a sound.”
“A sound like what?”
“Can’t describe it exactly. A faraway noise.”
He stood up and looked around, as if to see whether the sound had left some tell-tale clue in the surrounding stillness of the house, perhaps a smeary sonic print somewhere.
“I’m going to check on Norleen,” he said, setting his glass down on the table beside his chair. He then walked across the living room, up the three segments of the stairway, and down the upstairs hall. Peeping into his daughter’s room, he saw her tiny figure resting comfortably, a sleepy embrace wrapped about the form of a stuffed Bambi. She still occasionally slept with an inanimate companion, even though she was getting a little old for this. But her psychologist father was careful not to question her right to this childish comfort. Before leaving the room, Dr. Munck lowered the window which was partially open on that warm spring evening.
When he returned to the living room, he delivered the wonderfully routine message that Norleen was peacefully asleep. In a gesture containing faint overtones of celebratory relief, Leslie made them two fresh drinks, after which she said:
“David, you said you had an ‘overlong chat’ with that John Doe. Not that I’m morbidly curious or anything, but did you ever get him to reveal anything about himself? Anything at all?”
“Oh, sure,” Dr. Munck replied, rolling an ice cube around in his mouth. His voice was now more relaxed.
“You could say he told me everything about himself, but all of it was nonsense—the blathering of a maniac. I asked him in a casually interested sort of way where he was from.”
“‘No place,’ he replied like a psychotic simpleton.
“‘No place?’ I probed.
“‘Yes, precisely, Herr Doktor. I’m not some snob who puts on airs and pretends to emanate from some high-flown patch of geography. Ge-og-ra-phy. That’s a funny word. I like all the languages you have.’
“‘Where were you born?’ I asked in another brilliant alternate form of the question.
“‘Which time do you mean, you meany?’ he said back to me, and so forth. I could go on with this dialogue—”
“You do a pretty good John Doe imitation, I must say.”
“Thank you, but I couldn’t keep it up for very long. It wouldn’t be easy to imitate all his different voices, accents, and degrees of articulacy. He may be something akin to a multiple personality, I’m not sure. I’d have to go over the tapes of my interviews with him to see if any patterns of coherency turn up, possibly something the detectives could use to establish who this guy really is. The tragic part is that knowing Doe’s legal identity is a formality at this point, just tying up loose ends. His victims are dead, and they died horribly. That’s all that counts now. Sure, he was somebody’s baby boy at one time. But I can’t pretend to care anymore about biographical details—the name on his birth certificate, where he grew up, what made him the way he is. I’m no aesthete of pathology. It’s never been my ambition to study mental disease without effecting some improvement. So why should I waste my time trying to help someone like John Doe, who doesn’t live in the same world as we do, psychologically speaking. I used to believe in rehabilitation, not a purely punitive approach to criminal behavior. But those people, those things at the prison are only an ugly stain on our world. The hell with them. Just plow them all under for fertilizer, I say.” Dr. Munck then drained his glass until the ice cubes rattled.
“Want another?” Leslie asked with a smooth therapeutic tone to her voice.
David smiled now, his illiberal outburst having purged him somewhat of his ire. “Let’s get drunk and fool around, shall we?”
Leslie collected her husband’s glass for a refill. Now there was reason to celebrate, she thought. David was not giving up his work from a sense of ineffectual failure but from anger, an anger that was melting into indifference. Now everything would be as it had been before; they could leave the prison town and move back home. In fact, they could move anywhere they liked, maybe take a long vacation first, treat Norleen to some sunny place. Leslie thought of all these things as she made two more drinks in the quiet of that beautiful room. This quiet was no longer an indication of soundless stagnancy but a delicious, lulling prelude to the promising days to come. The indistinct happiness of the future glowed inside her along with the alcohol; she was gravid with pleasant prophecies. Perhaps the time was now right to have another child, a little brother or sister for Norleen. But that could wait just a while longer . . . a lifetime of possibilities lay ahead. An amiable genie seemed to be on standby. They had only to make their wishes, and their bidding would be done.
Before returning with the drinks, Leslie went in the kitchen. She had something she wanted to give her husband, and this seemed the perfect time to do it. A little token to show David that though his job had proved a sad waste of his worthy effort, she had supported his work in her own way. With a drink in each hand, she held under her left elbow the small box she had got from the kitchen.
“What’s that?” asked David, taking his drink.
“Just a little something for the art lover in you. I bought it at that little shop where they sell things the inmates at the prison make. Some of it is quality merchandise—belts, jewelry, ashtrays, you know.”
“I know,” said David, his voice at a distance from Leslie’s enthusiasm. “I didn’t think anyone actually bought that stuff.”
“Well, I did. I thought it would help to support those prisoners who are doing something creative, instead of . . . well, instead of destructive things.”
“Creativity isn’t always an index of niceness, Leslie,” David warned his wife.
“Wait’ll you see it before passing judgment,” she said, opening the flap of the box. “There—isn’t that nice work?” She set the piece on the coffee table.
Dr. Munck now plunged into that depth of sobriety which can only be reached by falling from a prior alcoholic height. He looked at the object. Of course he had seen it before, watched it being tenderly molded and caressed by creative hands, until he sickened and could watch no more. It was the head of a young boy, a lovely piece discovered in gray formless clay and glazed in blue. The work radiated an extraordinary and intense beauty, the subject’s face expressing a kind of ecstatic serenity, the convoluted simplicity of a visionary’s gaze.
“Well, what do you think of it?” asked Leslie.
David looked at his wife and said solemnly: “Please put it back in the box. And then get rid of it.”
“Get rid of it? Why?”
“Why? Because I know which of the inmates did this work. He was very proud of it, and I even forced a grudging compliment for the craftsmanship of the thing. But then he told me the source of his model. That expression of sky-blue peacefulness wasn’t on the boy’s face when they found him lying in a field about six months ago.”
“No, David,” said Leslie as a premature denial of what she was expecting her husband to reveal.
“This was his most recent—and according to him most memorable—‘frolic.’”
“Oh my God,” Leslie murmured softly, placing her right hand to her forehead. Then with both hands she gently placed the boy of blue back in his box. “I’ll return it to the shop,” she said quietly.
“Do it soon, Leslie. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be residing at this address.”
In the moody silence that followed, Leslie briefly mused upon the now openly expressed departure from the town of Nolgate, their escape. Then she said: “David, did he actually talk about the things he did? I mean about—”
“I know what you mean. Yes, he did,” answered Dr. Munck with a professional gravity.
“Poor David,” Leslie said, lovingly sympathetic now that machinations were no longer required to achieve her ends.
“Actually, it wasn’t that much of an ordeal, strange to say. The conversation we had could even be called stimulating in a clinical sense. He described his ‘frolicking’ in a highly imaginative manner that was rather engrossing. The strange beauty of this thing in the box here—disturbing as it is—somewhat parallels the language he used when talking about those poor kids. At times I couldn’t help being fascinated, though maybe I was shielding my true feelings with a psychologist’s detachment. Sometimes you just have to keep some distance between yourself and reality, even if it means becoming a little less human.
“Anyway, nothing he said was sickeningly graphic in the way you might imagine. When told me about his ‘most memorable frolic,’ it was with a powerful sense of wonder and nostalgia, shocking as that sounds to me now. He seemed to feel a kind of homesickness, though his ‘home’ is a ramshackle ruin of his decayed mind. His psychosis has evidently bred an atrocious fairyland which exists in a powerful way for him. And despite the demented grandeur of his thousand names, he actually sees himself as only a minor figure in this world—a mediocre courtier in a broken-down kingdom of miracles and horrors. This modesty is very interesting when you consider the egotistical magnificence that a lot of psychopaths would attribute to themselves given a limitless imaginary orbit where they could play any imaginary role. But not John Doe. He’s a comparatively lazy demi-demon from a Neverland where dizzy chaos is the norm, a state of affairs on which he gluttonously thrives. Which is as good a description as any of the metaphysical economy of a psychotic’s universe.
“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 neighborhood—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 is where he does his ‘frolicking’ with what he calls his ‘awestruck company.’ The place where he took his victims might possibly have been an abandoned building, or even an accommodating sewer. I say this based on his repeated mentioning of ‘the jolly river of refuse’ and ‘the jagged heaps in shadows,’ which could certainly be mad transmutations of a literal wasteland, some grubby and secluded environment that his mind turned into a funhouse of bizarre marvels. Less fathomable are his memories of a moonlit corridor where mirrors scream and laugh, dark peaks of some kind that won’t remain still, a stairway that’s ‘broken’ in a very strange way, though this last one fits in with the background of a dilapidated slum. There is always a paradoxical blend of forsaken topographies and shining sanctuaries in his mind, almost a self-hypnotic—” Dr. Munck caught himself before continuing in this vein of reluctant admiration.
“But despite all these dreamy back-drops in Doe’s imagination, the mundane evidence of his frolics still points to crimes of a very familiar, down-to-earth type. Run-of-the-mill atrocities, if one can speak of the deeds he committed as such. Doe denies there was anything pedestrian about his mayhem. He says he just made the evidence look that way for the dull masses, that what he really means by ‘frolicking’ is a type of activity quite different from, even opposed to, the crimes for which he was convicted. This term probably has some private associations rooted in his past.”
Dr. Munck paused and rattled around the ice cubes in his empty glass. Leslie seemed to have drifted into herself while he was speaking. She had lit a cigarette and was now leaning on the arm of the sofa with her legs up on its cushions, so that her knees pointed at her husband.
“You should really quit smoking someday,” he said.
Leslie lowered her eyes like a child mildly chastised. “I promise that as soon as we move—I’ll quit. Is that a deal?”
“Deal,” said David. “And I have another proposal for you. First let me tell you that I’ve definitely decided to give notice of my resignation.”
“Isn’t that a little soon?” asked Leslie, hoping it wasn’t.
“Believe me, no one will be surprised. I don’t think anyone will even care. Anyway, my proposal is that tomorrow we take Norleen and rent a place up north for a few days or so. We could go horseback riding. Remember how she loved it last summer? What do you say?”
“That sounds nice,” Leslie agreed with a ripple of enthusiasm. “Very nice, in fact.”
“And on the way back we can drop off Norleen at your parents’. She can stay there while we take care of the business of moving out of this house, maybe find an apartment temporarily. I don’t think they’ll mind having her for a week or so, do you?”
“No, of course not, they’ll love it. But what’s the great rush? Norleen’s still in school, you know. Maybe we should wait till she gets out. It’s just a month away.”
David sat in silence for a moment, apparently ordering his thoughts.
“What’s wrong?” asked Leslie with just a slight quiver of anxiety in her voice.
“Nothing is actually wrong, nothing at all. But—”
“Well, it has to do with the prison. I know I sounded very smug in telling you how safe we are from that place, and I still maintain that we are. But this John Doe character I’ve told you about is very strange, as I’m sure you’ve gathered. He’s positively a child-murdering psychopath . . . and then again. I really don’t know what to say that would make any sense.”
Leslie quizzed her husband with her eyes. “I thought you said that inmates like him just bounce off the walls, not—”
“Yes, much of the time he’s like that. But sometimes . . .”
“What are you trying to say, David?” asked Leslie, who was becoming infected by the uneasiness her husband was trying to hide.
“It’s something that Doe said when I was talking with him today. Nothing really definite. But I’d feel infinitely more comfortable about the whole thing if Norleen stayed with your parents until we can organize ourselves.”
Leslie lit another cigarette. “Tell me what he said that bothers you so much,” she said firmly. “I should know, too.”
“When I tell you, you’ll probably just think I’m a little crazy myself. You didn’t talk to him, though, and I did. The mannerisms of his speech, or rather the many different mannerisms. The shifting expressions on that lean face. Much of the time I talked to him I had the feeling he was playing at some game that was beyond me, though I’m sure it just seemed that way. This is a common tactic of the psychopath—messing with the doctor. It gives them a sense of power.”
“Tell me what he said,” Leslie insisted.
“All right, I’ll tell you. I think it would be a mistake, though, to read too much into it. But toward the end of the interview today, when we were talking about those kids, he said something I didn’t like at all. He enunciated his words in one of his affected accents, Scottish this time with a little German flavor thrown in. What he said, and I’m reciting it verbatim, was this: ‘You wouldn’t be havin’ a misbehavin’ laddie nor a little colleen of your own, now would you, Professor von Munck?’ Then he grinned at me silently.
“Now I’m sure he was deliberately trying to upset me. Nothing more than that.”
“But what he said, David: ‘nor a little colleen.’”
“Grammatically, of course, it should have been ‘or’ not ‘nor,’ but I’m sure it wasn’t anything except a case of bad grammar.”
“You didn’t mention anything about Norleen, did you?”
“Of course I didn’t. That’s not exactly the kind of thing I would talk about with these people.”
“Then why did he say it like that?”
“I have no idea. He possesses a very weird sort of cleverness, speaking much of the time with vague suggestions and subtle jokes. He could have heard things about me from someone on the staff, I suppose. Then again, it might be just an innocent coincidence.” He looked to his wife for comment.
“You’re probably right,” Leslie agreed with an ambivalent eagerness to believe in this conclusion. “All the same, I think I understand why you want Norleen to stay with my parents. Not that anything might happen—”
“Not at all. There’s no reason to think anything would happen. No doubt this is a case of the doctor being out-psyched by his patient, but I don’t really care anymore. Any reasonable person would be a little spooked after spending day after day in the pandemonium and often physical danger of that place. The murderers, the rapists, the dregs of the dregs. It’s impossible to lead a normal family life while working under those conditions. You saw how I was on Norleen’s birthday.”
“I know. Not the best neighborhood in which to bring up a child.”
David nodded slowly. “When I went to check on her a little while ago, I felt, I don’t know, vulnerable in some way. She was hugging one of those stuffed security blankets of hers.” He took a sip of his drink. “It was a new one, I noticed. Did you buy it when you were out shopping today?”
Leslie gazed blankly. “The only thing I bought was that,” she said, pointing at the box on the coffee table. “What ‘new one’ do you mean?”
“The stuffed Bambi. Maybe she had it before and I just never noticed it,” he said, partially dismissing the issue.
“Well, if she had it before, it didn’t come from me,” Leslie said quite resolutely.
“I don’t remember her having it when I put her to bed,” said Leslie.
“Well, she had it when I looked in on her after hearing . . .”
David paused. From the expression on his face, he seemed to be contemplating a thousand thoughts at once, as if he were engaged in some frantic, rummaging search within every cell of his brain.
“What’s the matter, David?” Leslie asked, her voice weakening.
“I’m not sure exactly. It’s as if I know something and don’t know it at the same time.”
But Dr. Munck was beginning to know. With his left hand he covered the back of his neck, warming it. Was there a draft coming from another part of the house? Theirs was not the kind of place to be drafty, not a broken-down, hole-in-the-wall hovel where the wind gets in through ancient attic boards and warped window-frames. There actually was quite a wind blowing now; he could hear it hunting around outside and could see the restless trees through the window behind the Aphrodite sculpture. The goddess posed languidly with her flawless head leaning back, her blind eyes contemplating the ceiling and beyond. But beyond the ceiling? Beyond the hollow snoozing of the wind, cold and dead? And the draft?
“David, do you feel a draft?” asked his wife.
“Yes,” he replied as if some sobering thought had just come to mind. “Yes,” he repeated as he rose out of his chair and walked across the living room, ever hurrying as he approached the stairway, leaped up its three segments, and ran down the second-floor hall. “Norleen, Norleen,” he chanted before reaching the half-closed door of her room. He could feel the breeze coming from there.
He knew and did not know.
He groped for the light switch. It was low, the height of a child. He turned on the light. The child was gone. Across the room the window was wide open, the white translucent curtains flapping upwards on the invading wind. Alone on the bed was the stuffed animal, torn, its soft entrails littering the mattress. Now stuffed inside, blooming out like a flower, was a crumpled piece of paper. And Dr. Munck could discern within the folds of that page a fragment of the prison’s letterhead. But the note was not a typed message of official business: the handwriting varied from a neat italic script to a child’s scrawl. He desperately stared at the words for what seemed a timeless interval without comprehending their message. Then, finally, the meaning of the note sank heavily in.
Dr. Monk, read the note from inside the animal, We leave this behind in your capable hands, for in the black-foaming gutters and back alley of paradise, in the dank windowless gloom of some intergalactic cellar, in the hollow pearly whorls found in sewerlike seas, in starless cities of insanity, and in their slums . . . my awestruck little deer and I have gone frolicking. See you anon. Jonathan Doe.
“David?” he heard his wife’s voice inquire from the bottom of the stairs. “Is everything all right?”
Then the beautiful house was no longer quiet, for there rang a bright freezing scream of laughter, the perfect sound to accompany a passing anecdote of some obscure hell.
April 17th. Flowers sent out in the early a.m.
May 1st. Today—and I thought it would never happen again—I have met someone about whom, I think, I can be hopeful. Her name is Daisy. She works in a florist shop! The florist shop, I might add, where I paid a visit to gather some sorrowful flowers for Clare, who to the rest of the world is still a missing person. At first, of course, Daisy was politely reserved when I asked about some lilting blossoms for a loved one’s memorial. I soon cured her, however, of this detached manner. In my deeply shy and friendly tone of voice I asked about some of the other flowers in the shop, ones having no overtones of loss. She was quite glad to take me on a tour of the shop’s iridescent inventory. I confessed to knowing next to nothing about commercial plants and things, and remarked on her enthusiasm for her work, hoping all the while that at least part of her animation was inspired by me. “Oh, I love working with flowers,” she said. “I think they’re real interesting.” Then she asked if I was aware that there were plants having flowers which opened only at night, and that certain types of violets bloomed only in darkness underground. My inner flow of thoughts and sensations suddenly quickened. Though I had already sensed she was a girl of special imagination, this was the first hint I received of just how special it was. I judged my efforts to know her better would not be wasted, as they have been with others. “That is real interesting about those flowers,” I said, smiling a hothouse warm smile. There was a pause which I filled in with my name. She then told me hers. “Now what kind of flowers would you like?” she asked. I staidly requested an arrangement suitable for the grave of a departed grandmother. Before leaving the shop I told Daisy I might need to stop by again to satisfy some future floral needs. She seemed to have no objection to this. With the vegetation nestled in my arm I songfully walked out of the store. I then proceeded directly to Chapel Gardens cemetery. For a while I sincerely made an effort to find a headstone that might by coincidence display my lost one’s name. And any dates would just have to do. I thought she deserved this much at least. As events transpired, however, the recipient of my commemorative bouquet had to be someone named Clarence.
May 16th. Day, as I now intimately called her, visited my apartment for the first time and fell in love with its quaint refurbishments. “I adore well-preserved old places,” she said. It seemed to me she really did. I thought she would. She remarked what decorative wonders a few plants would do for my ancient rooms. She was obviously sensitive to the absence of natural adornments in my bachelor quarters. “Night-blooming cereuses?” I asked, trying not to mean too much by this and give myself away. A mild grin appeared on her face, but it was not an issue I thought I could press at the time. Even now I press it within these scrapbook pages with great delicacy.
Day wandered about the apartment for a while. I watched her as I would some exotic animal—a sleek ocelot perhaps. Then suddenly I realized I had regrettably overlooked something. She looked it over. The object was positioned on a low table before a high window and between its voluminous curtains. It seemed so vulgarly prominent to me then, especially since I hadn’t intended to let her see anything of this sort so early in our relationship. “What is this?” she asked, her voice expressing a kind of outraged curiosity bordering on plain outrage. “It’s just a sculpture. I told you I do things like that. It’s not very good. Kind of dumb.” She examined the piece more closely. “Watch that,” I warned. She let out a little “Ow.” “Is it supposed to be some type of cactus?” she inquired. For a moment she seemed to take a genuine interest in that obscure objet d’art. “It has tiny teeth,” she observed, “on these big tongue things.” They do look like tongues; I’d never thought of that. Rather ingenious comparison, considering. I hoped her imagination had found fertile ground in which to grow, but instead she revealed a moribund disgust. “You might have better luck passing it off as an animal than a plant, or a sculpture of a plant, or whatever. It’s got a velvety kind of fur and looks like it might crawl away.” I felt like crawling away myself at that point. I asked her, as a quasi-botanist, if there were not plants resembling birds and other animal life. This was my feeble attempt to exculpate my creation from any charges of unnaturalness. It’s strange how you’re sometimes forced to assume an unsympathetic view of yourself through borrowed eyes. Finally I mixed some drinks and we went on to other things. I put on some music.
Soon afterward, though, the bland harmony of the music was undermined by an unfortunate dissonance. That detective (Briceberg, I think) arrived for an encore of his interrogation re: The Clare Affair. Fortunately I was able to keep him and his questions out in the hallway the entire time. We reviewed the previous dialogue we’d had. I reiterated to him that Clare was just someone I worked with and with whom I was professionally friendly. It appears that some of my co-workers, unidentified, suspected that Clare and I were romantically involved. “Office gossip,” I countered, knowing she was one girl who knew how to keep certain secrets, even if she could not be trusted with others. Sorry, I said, I had no idea where she could have disappeared to. I did manage to subversively hint, however, that I would not be surprised if in a sudden flight of neurotic despair she had impulsively relocated to some land of her heart’s desire. I myself had despaired to find that within Clare’s dark and promisingly moody borders lay a disappointing dreamland of white picket fences and flower-printed curtains. No, I didn’t tell that to the detective. Besides, I further contended, it was well known in the office that Clare had begun dating someone approximately seven to ten days (my personal estimation of the term of her disloyalty) before her disappearance. So why bother me? This, I found out, was the reason: he had also been informed, he told me, of my belonging to a certain offbeat organization. I replied there was nothing offbeat in serious philosophical study. Furthermore, I was an artist, as he well knew, and, as anybody knows, artistic personalities have a perfectly natural tendency toward such things. I thought he would understand if I put it that way. He did. The man appeared satisfied with my every statement. Indeed, he seemed overly eager to dismiss me as a person of interest in the case, no doubt trying to create a false sense of security on my part and lead me to make an unwitting admission to the foulest kind of play. “Was that about the girl where you work who disappeared?” Daisy asked me afterward. “Mm-hm,” I noised. I was brooding and silent for a while, hoping she would attribute this to my inward lament for that strange girl at the office and not to the lamentably imperfect evening we’d had. “Maybe I’d better go,” she said, and then did. There was not much of our date left to salvage anyway. After she abandoned me I got very drunk on a liqueur tasting of flowers from open fields, or so it seemed. I also took this opportunity to reread a story about some men who visit the white waste regions of a polar wonderland. I don’t expect to dream tonight, having already sated myself with this arctic fantasy. Brotherhood of Paradise offbeat indeed!
September 21st. Day came up to the cool, clean offices of G. R. Glacy, the advertising firm for which I worked, to meet me for lunch. I showed her my cubicle of commercial artistry, and drew her attention to my latest project. “Oh, that’s lovely,” she said when I pointed out the drawing of a nymph with flowers in her freshly shampooed hair. “That’s really nice.” That “nice” remark almost spoiled my day. I asked her to look closely at the flowers mingling in the locks of the mythical being. It was barely noticeable that one of the flower stems was growing out of, or perhaps into, the creature’s head. Day didn’t seem to appreciate the craftiness of my craft very much. And I thought we were making such progress along “offbeat” paths. (Damn that Briceberg!) Perhaps I should wait until we return from our trip before showing her any of the paintings I have hidden at my home. I want her to be prepared. Everything is all prepared for our vacation at least. Day finally found someone to take care of her cat.
October 10th. Good-bye diary. See you when I get back.
November 1st. After a period of ruminative silence on the subject, I will now set down a brief chapter from Day’s and my tropical sojourn. I’m not sure whether the events to be delineated represent an impasse or a turning point in the course of our relationship. Perhaps there is some point that I have completely failed to get. As yet, I am still in the dark. I’ve been here before with Clare and had hoped that my escapist interlude with Day would be definitive, or close to it, and not filled with dubiety. Nevertheless, I still feel that the episode to follow deserves documentation.
A Hawaiian paradise at midnight. Actually we were just gazing upon the beachside luxuriance from our hotel veranda. Day was tipsy from consuming several drinks that wore flowers on their foamy heads. I was in a condition similar to hers. A few moments of heady silence passed, punctuated by an occasional sigh from Day. We heard the flapping of invisible wings whipping the warm air in darkness. We listened closely to the sounds of black orchids growing, even if there were none. (“Mmmm,” hummed Day.) We were ripe for a whim. I had one, not knowing yet if I could pull it off. “Can you smell the mysterious cereus?” I said, placing one hand on her far shoulder and dramatically passing the other in a horizontal arc before the jungle beyond. “Can you?” I hypnotically repeated. “I can,” said a game Day. “But can we find them, Day, and watch them open in the moonlight?” “We can, we can,” she chanted giddily. We could. Suddenly the smooth-skinned leaves of the night garden were brushing against our smooth-skinned selves. Day paused to touch a flower that was orange or red but smelled of a deep violet. I encouraged her to press on across the flower-bedded earth. We plunged deeper into the dream garden. Faster, faster, faster the sounds and smells rushed by us. It was easier than I thought. 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.
At breakfast the next morning I subtly probed her for impressions and judgments of the night before. But she was badly hung over and had only a chaotic recall of what she had experienced. Well, at least she didn’t go into hysterics, as did my old flame Clare.
Since our return I have been working on a painting entitled “Sanctum Obscurum.” Though I have done this kind of work many times before, I am including in this one elements that I hope will stir Day’s memory and precipitate a conscious recollection of not only a certain night in the islands but of all the subtle and not so subtle messages I have tried to communicate to her. I only pray she will understand.
November 14th. Stars of disaster! Earthly, not unearthly, asters are what Day’s heart craves. She is too much a lover of natural flora to be anything else. I know this now. I showed her the painting, and even imagined she was excited about seeing it. But I think she was just waiting to see what kind of fool I would make of myself. She sat on the sofa, scraping her lower lip with a nervous forefinger. Opposite her I let a velvet cloth drop. She looked up as if there had been a startling noise. I was not wholly satisfied with the painting myself, but this exhibition was designed to serve an extra-aesthetic purpose. I searched her eyes for a reflection of understanding, a ripple of empathetic insight. “Well?” I asked, the necessity of the word tolling doom. Her gaze told me all I needed to know, and the fatal clarity of the message was reminiscent of another girl I once knew. She gave me a second chance, looking at the picture with a theatrical scrutiny.
The picture itself? An interior done up very much like my own apartment—a refuge crowding about a window of a disproportionate breadth, so as to direct the viewer’s sight telescopically outward. Beyond the window is a vista wholly alien to terrestrial nature and perhaps to all that we deem human. Outside is a gorgeous kingdom of glittering colors and velvety jungle-shapes, a realm of contorted rainbows and twisted auroras. Hyper-radiant hues are calmed by the glass, so that their strange intensity does not threaten the chromatic integrity of the world within. Some stars, colored from the most spectral part of the spectrum, blossom in the high darkness. The outer world glistens in stellar light and is mirrored by gleams from within each labyrinthine form. And upon the window’s surface is the watery reflection of a lone figure gazing out at this otherworldly paradise.
“Of course, it’s very good,” she observed. “Very realistic.”
Not at all, Daisy Day. Not realistic in either manner or matter.
Some uncomfortable moments later Day told me she had a prior engagement and was running late. It seemed she had made girl plans with a girlfriend of hers to do some girly things girls do when they get together with others of their kind. I said I understood, and I did. There is no doubt in my mind of the gender of Day’s companion this night, and perhaps other nights I did not know about. But it was for a different reason that I was distressed to see her go. Something that I could read in her every move and expression, something I have seen before, gave away her suspicions about me and my private life. Of course, she already knew about the meetings I attend and all such things. I’ve even paraphrased and abridged for her the discussion which goes on at these gatherings, always obscuring their real meaning in progressively more transparent guises, hoping one day to show her the naked truth. Like Clare, however, Day has prematurely learned too much of the truth about me and the others. And I fear she may decide to relay her inside information to the wrong people. The dogged Detective Briceberg, for instance.
November 16th. Tonight we held an emergency meeting, our assembly in crisis. The others feel there’s a problem, and of course I know they’re right. Ever since I met my latest love I could sense their growing uneasiness, which was their prerogative. Now, however, all has changed; my romantic misjudgment has seen to that. They expressed absolute horror that an outsider should know so much. I feel it myself. Day is a stranger now, and I wonder what her loquacious self might disclose about her former friend, not to mention his present ones. A marvelous arcana is threatened with exposure. The inconspicuousness we need for our lives could be lost, and with it would go the keys to a strange kingdom.
We’ve confronted these situations before. I’m not the only one to have jeopardized our secrecy. We, of course, have no secrets from each other. They know everything about me, and I about them. They knew every step of the way the progress of my relationship with Daisy. Some of them even predicted the outcome. And though I thought I was right in taking the chance that they were wrong, I must now defer to their prophecy. Those lonely souls, mes frères! “Do you want us to see it through?” they asked in so many words. I consented, finally, in a score of ambiguous, half-hesitant ways. Then they sent me back to my unflowered sanctum.
I’ll never again get involved in another situation of this kind, I promised myself, even though I’ve made this resolution before. I stared at the razory dentes of my furry sculpture for a perilously long while. What that poor girl saw as tongue-like floral appendages were silent: the preservation of such silence, of course, is their whole purpose. I remember that Daisy once jokingly asked me on what I modeled my art.
To Eden with me you will not leave
To live in a cottage of crazy, crooked eaves.
In your own happy home you take care these nights;
When you let your little cat in, please turn on the lights!
Something scurries behind and finds a cozy place to stare,
Something sent to you from paradise, with serpents to spare:
Tongues flowering; they leap out laughing, lapping. Disappear!
I do this to pass the hours. Only to pass the hours.
November 17th. 12:00 a.m. Flowers.
ALICE’S LAST ADVENTURE
“Preston, stop laughing. They ate the whole backyard. They ate your mother’s favorite flowers! It’s not funny, Preston.”
“Aaaaa heh-heh-heh-heh-heh. Aaaaa heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.”
—PRESTON AND THE STARVING SHADOWS
A long time ago, Preston Penn made up his mind to ignore the passing years and join the ranks of those who remain forever in a kind of half-world between childhood and adolescence. He would not give up the bold satisfaction of eating insects (crispy flies are his favorite), nor that peculiar drunkenness of a child’s brain, induplicable once grown-up sobriety has set in. The result was that Preston successfully negotiated quite a few decades without ever coming within hailing distance of puberty. In this state of arrested development, he defiantly lived through many a perverse adventure. And he still lives in the pages of those books I wrote about him, though I stopped writing them some years ago.
Did he have a prototype? I should say so. One doesn’t just invent a character like Preston using only the pitiful powers of imagination. He was very much a concoction of reality, later adapted for my popular series of children’s books. Preston’s status in both reality and imagination has always held a great fascination for me. In the past year, however, this issue has especially demanded my attention, not without some personal annoyance and even anxiety. Then again, perhaps I’m getting senile.
My age is no secret, since it can be looked up in a number of literary reference sources. Over twenty years ago, when the last Preston book appeared (Preston and the Upside-Down Face), one reviewer rather snootily referred to me as the “‘Grande Damned’ of a particular sort of children’s literature.” What sort you can imagine if you don’t otherwise know, if you didn’t grow up—or not grow up, as it were—reading Preston’s adventures with the Dead Mask, the Starving Shadows, or the Lonely Mirror.
Even as a little girl, I knew I wanted to be an author; and I also knew just the kind of tales I would tell. Let someone else give preadolescents their literary introductions to life and love, guiding them through those volatile years when anything might go wrong and landing them safely on the shores of incipient maturity. That was never my destiny. Instead, I would write about a puckish little character based on a real-life childhood playmate of mine whose deeds of mischief were legend throughout the small town where I was born and raised. As Preston Penn, my erstwhile chum could throw off the shackles of material existence and explore the mysteries of an upside-down, inside-out, faintly sinister, and always askew universe. The embodiment of topsy-turvydom, Preston gained a reputation as a champion of misbehavior and an adventurer who looked beneath the surface of everyday things—pools of rainwater, tarnished mirrors, moonlit windows—to discover a stunning sortilege, usually with the purpose of stunning in turn his perennial foe: the dictatorial world of adulthood. A conjurer of stylish nightmares, he gave his grown-up adversaries fits and sleepless nights. No dilettante of the extraordinary, but its personification. Such is the spiritual biography of Preston Penn.
But to give credit where credit is due, it was my father, just as much as Preston’s original, who provided the spark for the stories I’ve written. To put it briefly, Father had the blood of a child coursing through his big adult body, flooding with fancy the overly sophisticated brain of Foxborough College’s associate professor of philosophy. Typical of his character was a love for the books of Lewis Carroll, and thus the genesis of my name. When I was old enough to understand such things, my mother told me that while she was pregnant my father willed me into a little Alice. That sounded like something he would say.
I remember one occasion when Father was reading Through the Looking-Glass to me for the umpteenth time. Suddenly he stopped, closed the book, and said to me, as if in deep confidence, that there was more in the Alice books than anyone knew. But that he knew, and someday would tell me. To Father, the creator of Alice, as I later came to see it, was a symbol of psychic supremacy, the sterling ideal of an unstrictured mind manipulating reality to its whim and gaining a kind of objective force through the minds of others. And it was very important to Father that I share “The Master’s” books in the same spirit.
“See, honey,” he would say while rereading Through the Looking-Glass to me, “see how smart little Alice right away notices that the room on the other side of the mirror is not as ‘tidy’ as the one she just came from. Not as tidy,” he repeated with professorial emphasis but chuckling like a child, a strange little laugh that I inherited from him. “Not tidy. We know what that means, don’t we?” I would look up at him and nod with all the solemnity that my six, seven, eight years could muster.
And I did know what that meant. I felt intimations of a thousand misshapen marvels—of things going haywire in curious ways, of the edge of the world where an endless ribbon of road continued into space by itself, of a universe handed over to new gods.
Father’s imagination seemed to work nonstop. Squinting at my roundish child’s countenance—saying, “Ooooh, look how she shines so bright!”—he called me “Little Moon Face.”
“You’re a little moon face,” I playfully talked back.
“No, you are,” he would say.
We’d continued this back and forth until both of us burst out laughing. When I got older, my features became more angular, an involuntary betrayal of my father’s conception of his little Alice. I suppose it was a blessing that he did not live to see me succumb to the despoilments of time, saved from this heartbreak by a sudden explosion in his brain while he was giving a lecture at the college. So Father never had the chance to tell me what it was that he knew about the Alice books that nobody else did.
But perhaps he would have perceived that my maturation was only skin deep, that I just superficially picked up the conventional behaviors of an aging soul (nervous breakdown, divorce, remarriage, alcoholism, widowhood, stoic tolerance of a second-rate reality) without destroying the Alice he loved. She must have been kept alive, or so I would like to think, because it was she who wrote all those books about her soulmate Preston, even if she has not written one for many years now. Oh, those years, those years.
So much for the past.
At present I would like to deal with just a single year, the one ending today—about an hour from now, judging by the clock that just chimed eleven p.m. from the shadows on the other side of this study. During the past three hundred and sixty-five days I have noticed, sometimes just barely, an accumulation of curiouser and curiouser episodes in my life. A lack of tidiness, one might say, which may be partly due to the fact that I’ve been drinking rather heavily again.
Some of the previously mentioned episodes are so elusive and insubstantial that it would be a real chore to talk about them, except perhaps in terms of the moods they leave behind like fingerprints, and which I’ve learned to read like divinatory signs. My task will be less taxing if I confine myself for the most part to the grosser incidents I have to recount, thereby making it easier to give them a modicum of the sense and structure I could use just now. A tidying up as it were—neat as a pin, straight and sure as the green lines on the yellow page before me.
I should start by identifying tonight as that immovable feast which Preston always devotedly observed, celebrating it most intensely in Preston and the Ghost of the Gourd (even if time has almost run out on this holiday, according to the clock ticking at my back; though from the look of things, the hands seem stuck on the hour I reported a couple of paragraphs ago. Perhaps I misjudged it before.). For some years I’ve made an appearance at the local suburban library on this night to give a reading from one of my books as the main event of an annual Hallowe’en fest. Tonight I managed to show up once again for the reading, even if I hesitate to say everything went as usual. Last year, however, I did not make it at all to the costume party. This brings me to what I think is the first in a year-long series of disruptions unknown to a biography previously marked by nothing more than episodes of conventional chaos. My apologies for taking two steps backward before one step forward. As an old hand at storytelling, I realize this is always a risky approach when bidding for a reader’s attention. But here goes.
It was one year ago today that I cancelled my reading at the library to attend an out-of-town funeral of someone from my past. This was none other than that sprite of special genius whose exploits served as the prima materia for my Preston Penn books. The excursion was one of pure nostalgia, however, for I hadn’t actually seen this person since my twelfth birthday party. It was soon afterward that my father died, and my mother and I moved out of our house in North Sable, Mass. (see Childhood Homes of Children’s Authors for a photo of the old two-story frame job), heading for the big city and away from sad reminders. A local teacher who knew of my work, and its beginnings in North S, sent me a newspaper clipping from the Sable Sentinel which reported the demise of my former playmate and even adverted to his secondhand literary fame.
I arrived in town very quietly and was immediately overwhelmed by the lack of change in the place, as if it had existed all those years in a state of suspended animation and had been only recently reanimated for my benefit. It almost seemed that I might run into my old neighbors, schoolmates, and even Mr. So and So who ran the ice-cream shop, which I was amazed to see still in operation. On the other side of the window, a big man with a walrus mustache was digging ice cream from large cardboard cylinders, while two chubby kids pressed their bellies against the counter. The man hadn’t changed the least bit over the years. He looked up and saw me staring into the shop, and there really seemed to be a twinkle of recognition in his puffy eyes. But that was impossible. He could have never perceived behind my ancient mask the child’s face he once knew, even if he had been Mr. So and So and not his look-alike (son? grandson?). There we were: two complete strangers gawking at each other, both of us actors performing together on the same stage but playing out different dramas. It brought to mind one of my early books, Preston and the Two-Faced Clock, wherein time goes by so fast that it stands still.
I shook off the black comedy of errors at the ice-cream shop and proceeded to my destination, only to find that another farce of mistaken identity awaited me there. For a few moments I paused and looked up at the words on the lintel atop the double doors of that cold colonial building: G. V. Ness and Sons, Funeral Directors. Talk about time going by so fast that it stands still, or seems to. During the years I’d lived in North Sable, I had entered this establishment only once (“Good-bye, Daddy”). But such places always seem familiar, having that perfectly vacant, neutral atmosphere common to all funeral homes, the same in my hometown as in the suburb outside New York (“Good riddance, Hubby”) where I’m now secluded.
I strolled into the proper room unnoticed, another anonymous mourner who was a bit shy about approaching the casket. Though I drew a couple of small-town stares, the elderly, elegant author from the big city did not stand out as much as she thought she would. But with or without distinction, it remained my intention to introduce myself to the widow as a childhood friend of her deceased husband. This intention, however, was shot all to hell by two ox-like men who rose from their seats on either side of the grieving lady and lumbered my way. For some reason I panicked.
“You must be Dad’s Cousin Winnie from Boston. The family’s heard so much about you over the years,” they said.
I smiled widely and gulped deeply, which must have looked like a nod of affirmation to them. In any case, they led me over to “Mom” and introduced me under my inadvertent pseudonym to the red-eyed, half-delirious old woman. (Why, I wonder, did I allow this goof to go on?)
“Nice to finally meet you, and thank you for the lovely card you sent,” she said, sniffing loudly and working on her eyes with a grotesquely soiled handkerchief. “I’m Elsie.”
Elsie Chester, I thought immediately, though I wasn’t entirely sure that this was the same person who was rumored to have sold kisses and other things to the boys at North Sable Elementary. So he had married her, whaddaya know? Possibly they had to get married, I speculated cattily. At least one of her sons looked of sufficient age to have been the consequence of teenage impatience. Oh, well. So much for Preston’s vow to wed no one less than the Queen of Nightmares.
But even greater disappointments awaited my notice. After chatting emptily with the widow for a few more moments, I excused myself to pay my respects at the coffinside of the deceased. Until then I’d deliberately averted my gaze from that flower-crazed area at the front of the room, where a shiny, pearl-grey casket held its occupant in much the same position as the “Traveling Tomb” racer he’d once constructed. This part of the mortuary ritual never fails to make me think about those corpse-viewing sessions to which children in the nineteenth century were subjected in order to acquaint them with their own mortality. At my age this was unnecessary, so allow me to skip quickly over this scene with a few tragic and inevitable words . . .
Bald and blemished, that was rather expected. Totally unfamiliar, that wasn’t. The mosquito-faced child I once knew was now repulsively bloated and 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.)
After paying homage to the remains of a memory, I slipped out of the room with a stealth my Preston would have been proud of. I’d left behind an envelope with a modest contribution to the widow’s fund. I had half a mind to send a batch of gaping black orchids to the funeral home with a note signed by Laetitia Simpson, Preston’s dwarfish girlfriend. But this was something that the other Alice would have done—the one who wrote those creepy books.
As for me, I got into my car and drove out of town to the nearest fine hotel, where I found a nice suite—spoils of a successful literary career—and a bar. And as it turned out, this overnight layover must take us down another side road (or back road, if you like) of my narrative. Please stand by.
A late-afternoon crowd had settled into the hotel’s cocktail lounge, relieving me of the necessity of drinking in solitude. After a couple of Scotches on the rocks, I noticed a young man looking my way from across the room. At least he appeared young from a distance. Emboldened by booze, I walked over to sit at his table. And with every step I took he seemed to gain a few years. He was now only relatively young—from an old dowager’s point of view, that is. His name was Hank De Vere, and he worked for a distributor of gardening tools and other such products. But let’s not pretend to care about the details. Later we had dinner together, after which I invited him to my suite.
It was the next morning, by the way, that inaugurated that year-long succession of experiences which I’m methodically trying to sort out with a few select examples. Half step forward coming up: pawn to king three.
I awoke in the darkness specific to hotel bedrooms, abnormally heavy curtains masking the morning light. Immediately it became apparent that I was alone. My new acquaintance seemed to have a more developed sense of tact and timing than I had given him credit for. At least I thought so at first. But then I looked through the open doorway into the other room, where I could see a convex mirror in a wood frame on the wall.
The bulging eye of the mirror surveyed the entirety of the next room, and I noticed that something was moving around in the reflecting glass. A tiny, misshapen figure seemed to be gyring about, leaping and twirling in a madcap way that should have been audible to me. But it wasn’t.
I called out a name I barely remembered from the night before. There came no answer from the next room, but the movement in the mirror stopped, and the tiny figure (whatever it was) disappeared. Very cautiously I got up from the bed, robed myself, and peeked around the corner of the doorway like a curious child on Christmas morning. A strange combination of relief and confusion arose in me when I saw that there was no one else in the suite.
I approached the mirror, perhaps to search its surface for the little something that might have caused the illusion. My memory is vague on this point, since at the time I was a bit hung over. But I can recall with spectacular vividness what I finally saw after gazing into the mirror for a few moments. Suddenly the sphered glass before me became clouded with a mysterious fog, from the depths of which appeared the waxy face of a corpse. It was the visage of that old cadaver I’d seen at the funeral home, now with eyes wide open and staring into mine. Or so it seemed for a moment before I put on my glasses. And when I did all I saw was only my own face . . . a corpselike kisser if ever there was one. Preston and the Looking-Glass Ghoul, I thought, feeling almost inspired to take up my pen once more.
And this inspiration was again aroused a short while later when I was checking out at the front desk. As the clerk was fiddling with my bill, I happened to look out of a nearby window, beyond which two chubby children were romping on the hotel lawn. After a few seconds the kids caught me watching them. They stopped and stared back at their audience, standing perfectly still, side by side. Then they stuck out their tongues at me before running away. (And how much they looked like the odious Hatley twins featured in Preston and the Talking Grave.) The room took a little spin that only I seemed to notice, while others went calmly about their business. Possibly this experience can be ascribed to my failure to employ any post-debauch remedies that morning. The old nerves were somewhat shot, and my stomach was giving me no peace. Still, I’ve remained in pretty fair health over the years, and I drove back home without further incident.
That was a year ago. Now get ready for one giant step forward: the old queen is now in play.
In the succeeding twelve months I have noted a number of similar happenings, though they occurred with varying degrees of clarity. Most of them approached the fleeting nature of déjà-vu phenomena. A few could be pegged as self-manufactured, while others lacked a definite source. I might see a phrase or the fragment of an image that would make my heart flip over (not a healthy thing at my age), while my mind searched for some correspondence that triggered this powerful sense of familiarity: the sound of a delayed echo with oblique origins. I delved into dreams, half-conscious perceptions, and the distortions of memory, but all that remained was a chain of occurrences with links as weak as smoke rings.
But today, as pumpkins leer from porches and pillow-case ghosts swing on tree branches, this tenuous haunting has gained a more substantial consistency. It started this morning and continued throughout the day with increasingly more defined and evocative manifestations. Again, my hope is that I may tidy up my psyche by documenting these episodes, beginning with one that now seems a prefiguration of those to come. Lucid exposition is what’s needed. Thus:
Place: the bathroom. Time: a little after eight a.m.
The water was running for my morning wash-up, cascading into the tub a bit noisily for my sensitive ears. The night before, I suffered from an advanced case of insomnia, which even extra doses of my beloved Guardsman’s Reserve Stock did not help. I was very glad to see a sunny autumn morning come and rescue me. My bathroom mirror, however, would not let me forget the sleepless night I’d spent, and I combed and creamed myself without noticeable improvement. Chessie was with me, lying atop the toilet tank and scrutinizing the waters of the bowl below. She was actually staring very hard and deliberately at something.
“What is it, Chessie?” I asked with the patronizing voice of a pet owner. Her tail had a life of its own; she stood up and hissed, then yowled in that horribly demonic falsetto of threatened felines. Finally she dashed out of the bathroom, relinquishing her ground for the first time since she was a kitten.
I had been loitering at the other side of the room, a groggy bystander to an unexpected incident. With a large plastic hairbrush gripped in my left hand, I investigated. I gazed down into the same waters. And though at first they seemed clear enough, something soon appeared from within its porcelain burrow. However, it retreated too soon back into the plumbing for me to say what it was. All that remained was a squiggly imprint on my memory. But I could not bring it into mental focus. It was as if I saw the thing and did not see it at the same time. Even so, whatever it may have been engendered a flurry of impressions within me, as of a confused nightmare that leaves behind only a pang of horror upon its dreamer. I wouldn’t even bring up this installment in my story if I didn’t think it related to another that occurred later on.
This afternoon I began preparing myself for the reading I was to give at the library, the preparation being mostly alcoholic. I’ve never looked forward to this annual ordeal and only put up with it out of a sense of duty, vanity, and other less comprehensible motives. Maybe this is why I welcomed the excuse to skip it last year. And I wanted to skip it this year, too, if only I could have come up with a reason satisfactory to the others involved—and, more importantly, to myself. Wouldn’t want to disappoint the children, would I? Of course not, though heaven only knows why. Children have made me nervous ever since I stopped being one of them. Perhaps this is why I never had any of my own—adopted any, that is—for the doctors told me long ago that I’m about as fertile as the seas of the moon.
The other Alice is the one who’s really comfortable with kids and kiddish things. How else could she have written Preston and the Laughing This or Preston and the Twitching That? So when it comes time to do this reading every year, I try to put her onstage as much as possible, something that’s becoming more difficult with the passing years. Oddly enough, it’s my grown-up’s weakness for spirits that allows me to do this most effectively. With each sip of Scotch that passed my lips today I felt more at ease.
The sun was going down in a pumpkin-colored blaze when I arrived at the little one-story library. Some costumed kids were hanging around outside: a werewolf, a black cat with a long curling tail, an extraterrestrial with fewer fingers than humans and more eyes. Coming up the walk was Tinkerbell escorted by a pirate. In spite of myself, I couldn’t help smiling at the whole scene. For the first time in quite a while, this pageant of masqueraders brought back memories of my own childhood when my father took me trick-or-treating. (His love of this night was easily as avid as Preston’s.) Having gotten into the spirit of this eve, I was feeling quite confident as I entered the library and confronted a flock of youngsters. But the spell was maliciously broken when some smart aleck called out from the crowd, shouting: “Hey, lookit the mask she’s wearing.” After that I propelled myself down several linoleum hallways in search of a friendly adult face.
Finally I passed the open door of a tidy little room where a group of ladies and the head librarian, Mr. Grosz, were sipping coffee. Mr. Grosz said how nice it was to see me again and introduced me to the moms who were helping out with the party.
“My William’s read all your books,” said a full-figured Mrs. Harley. “I just can’t keep him away from them.” Not for lack of trying, I thought, judging by the quietly infuriated tone of her voice. My only reply was a dignified smile.
Mr. Grosz offered me some coffee but I declined: bad for the stomach. Then he wickedly suggested that, as it was starting to get dark outside, the time seemed right for the festivities to begin. My reading was to inaugurate the evening’s fun, a good spooky story “to get everyone in the mood.” First, though, I needed to get myself in the mood, and pardoned myself to use the ladies’ room, where I could refortify my fluttering nerves from a flask I had stowed away in my purse. As a strange and embarrassing social gesture, Mr. Grosz offered to wait right outside the lavatory until I finished.
“I’m quite ready now, Mr. Grosz,” I said, glaring down at the little man from atop an unelderly pair of high heels. He cleared his throat, and I almost thought he was going to extend a crooked arm for me to take. But instead he merely stretched it out to indicate, in a stock gentlemanly manner, the way to go. I think he might even have bowed.
He led me back down the hallway toward the children’s section of the library, where I assumed my reading would take place as it always had in the past. However, we walked right by this area, which was dark and empty, and proceeded down a flight of stairs leading to the library’s basement. “Our new facility,” bragged Mr. Grosz. “Converted one of the storage rooms into a small auditorium of sorts.” We were now facing a large metal door painted an institutional shade of green. It looked for all the world as if it might lead into the back ward of a madhouse. I could hear screaming on the other side, which sounded to me like the cries of bedlamites rather than the clamor of rambunctious kids. “Which one will it be tonight?” asked Mr. Grosz while staring at my left hand. “Preston and the Starving Shadows,” I answered, showing him the book I was holding. He smiled and confided that it was one of his favorites. Then he opened the door for me, pushing its weight with both hands, and we entered what chamber of horrors I knew not.
What People are Saying About This
“Songs of a Dead Dreamer is full of inexplicable and alarming delights. . . . Put this volume on the shelf right between H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Where it belongs.” —The Washington Post
“Thomas Ligotti has had one of the most quietly extraordinary careers in the history of horror fiction. He is a dense, witty, and enormously inventive writer.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer