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The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti

April 24, 2014 1 comment

the spectral link thomas ligotti

It’s a rather spooky experience, having read all the early works by Thomas Ligotti, to come back to him twenty years later to discover I’d hardly missed anything. While he was never what you might call prolific, he used to be moderately consistent. But, some ten or so years ago, he was affected by a form of writer’s block and has only just been spurred back into life. Actually, that’s a more literal sentence than you might imagine. In 2012, he was suddenly hospitalised and the near-death experience has sparked a resumption of the writing. So it comes to pass that I am holding a slim volume from Subterranean Press titled The Spectral Link. It contains two new stories from the master. That makes it something of an event in the horror community.

“Metaphysica Morum” sits comfortably in the class we might loosely call existential horror. Our protagonist is facing a form of psychological crisis. It’s not simply a matter of alienation or that he finds the world has grown meaningless. Either or both would suggest nihilist thinking. Rather there’s something about the way he perceives the world, both in his waking state and in dreams, that he finds profoundly depressing and unsettling. He seeks psychological help and, apart from having someone to talk with, he’s guided into meditation and relaxation therapy. In a not wholly professional way, his therapist assumes responsibility for organising our protagonist’s life. Before this meeting, our protagonist had not been sufficiently involved in the world to seek work or find any means of support for an independent lifestyle. The therapist places him in part-time work and provides a roof over his head. Although this offers the opportunity for more stability in his life, the lure of suicide grows stronger. Perhaps the expected trajectory for this story would be despair and the acceptance of death as hope is lost, but matters change when he receives a rather strange letter from someone who may be a member of his family. Ignoring whether the usual law of cause and effect applies, there’s also a change in the nature of his dreams. When he mentions the dream to his therapist, it triggers some alarm. The development of the plot then veers off into unexpected territory and arrives at a rather pleasing moment of unresolved ambiguity.

Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti

“The Small People” also deals with the nature of existence and considers both how we perceive the world and what may constitute a bigoted attitude towards one group of beings. Let’s for a moment assume this is an allegory about the effect of immigration. To those established in a place, the arrival of new people, perhaps of a smaller stature and not speaking the same language, might be viewed as threatening. Perhaps when they come, the original occupiers of the land feel uncomfortable and withdraw, leaving the newcomers to throw up whatever shelters they can using the materials to hand. It would all look chaotic, lacking the sophistication of the original township. Think about shanty towns or slums suddenly changing the urban landscape, creating blight, causing a loss in property values in neighbouring areas. Of course this is not something to be talked about openly, because to denigrate the immigrants would be to betray your bigotry. Discriminating against them would be illegal in some legal systems. But there does come a point when some feel they can’t retreat any further, when they have to take a stand on one of the issues they consider a moral imperative, e.g. mixed marriages between the original inhabitants and the newcomers. Yes, without getting too obsessed about the overall problem, focusing on just one issue might get results. And just think, all this could be a horror story not in any sense related to real-world problems. Allegories are like that. They enable us to think about socially difficult issues without treading on too many toes. . . You see that’s a part of the problem. Just how many toes do these newcomers have? The answer to the question actually asked in this story is typical of the paranoid thinking that afflicts some individuals who see other people as somehow different.

It’s a testament to Ligotti’s skill as an author that he makes two stories go a long way. This slim volume may be less than one-hundred pages in length but it packs a big punch both as an intellectual exercise and as horror for, when the chips are down, what can be more frightening than the product of an intelligent mind?

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Thief or Suri by Fuminori Nakamura

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment

The Thief or Suri by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates (Soho Press, 2012), is a book describing the life of a pickpocket in Tokyo. Going back in Japanese history, the kinchakukiri of the late Togugawa period were such skillful pickpockets, they were seen as comparable to modern magicians and, when caught, were valuable enough to avoid punishment. They were usually forced into service as police spies. Today, there’s comparatively little property-related crime. Apart from the locks on the doors into the average home, there are no real security measures once inside. This reflects the fact that there’s often little to steal apart from loose cash. Burglary is usually the province of gangs that focus on the homes of the wealthy. The more successful pickpockets work in teams and target the obviously rich. A smaller number of more skillful thieves work independently, striking out on their own for freedom. There’s a pervasive fear that lives are meaningless. Japan has a traditional culture imposing tight social organisation on all aspects of life. Working for a gang traps members into a hierarchical organisation with strict rules. This is more stifling than life outside.

Nishimura, our thief as hero, has little real motivation to succeed in life. Although he derives pleasure and satisfaction from being able to steal more or less at will, he lives a relatively impoverished life without any interest in the material possessions the stolen money could buy. In fact, he returns the wallets and credit cards, keeping some of the money, giving the rest away. The satisfaction comes when touching other people’s property. It’s an act denying ownership. Fingers are trespassing into the clothing or bags of others as forbidden physical zones. He’s secretly rebelling against society’s value system. Passive, he floats through life without a rudder to steer him in a positive direction. Although he harks back to a previous sexual relationship, there’s no current female companion. This leaves him lonely and socially dysfunctional. For a while he teams with Ishikawa who’s equally skillful. Working together, they are unbeatable. They are not really friends, but there’s a bond between them. Occasionally Tachibana watches them, but he’s not allowed to work with them. Through Ishikawa our thief meets Kizaki. He’s a violent career criminal. Against his better judgement, he and the other two join the gang for a single home invasion. After it passes off successfully, Ishikawa “disappears” and our thief runs away from Tokyo.

When he returns, he helps a woman and her son in a rather disorganised way. In due course, he sleeps with the woman but it’s relatively meaningless except he sees something of himself in the boy and vaguely tries to prevent him from drifting into a life of crime. Then Kizaki finds him. Curious, he asks Kizaki why the three were recruited. He admits that, had the police become interested, he would have killed them and framed them as the burglars, summing up their lives in a few simple sentences, “Because you guys have no family. Because you’re all alone in the world and even if you’d died there wouldn’t have been a single person who cared. It would have taken the [police] ages to ID you.” Kizaki now tells our thief he will kill the woman and her son if he refuses to work for him. So fate comes into play. It would have been better if he’d stayed lonely. As it is, Kizaki proposes to act like the Fates of classical mythology and to direct the thief’s life. In a critique of Nishimura’s life, he says the main failure was only to embrace suffering. There had been no joy in the man’s life. It’s the blend that makes life interesting and offers positive incentives. So our thief is given three tasks with the promise of more to come. The negative incentive is that his success will save three lives. Like one of the kinchakukiri, he’s forced into service by a monster.

This is a fascinating read. Although it’s set in Japan, there’s a universality about the themes of alienation, anomie and nihilism. Although Japan is a more structured society than the majority of Western countries, we can understand individuals who feel they no longer relate to the values and needs of those around them or who think their lives are meaningless. Often, such people are violent. Others simply act as if everything they want to do is permitted. Whether the results are merely socially aberrant or, perhaps, sexually deviant, they reject the idea of conformity. Who’s to say what happens to Nishimura is not happening to career criminals in our own cities. Overall, The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura is an excellent, fast-paced thriller which says something interesting about the risks if people live outside the prevailing cultural norms.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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