Posts Tagged ‘nihilism’

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.

Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon

November 20, 2012 1 comment

Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2012) is the third and concluding volume in the Concrete Grove Trilogy and represents a genuine triumph of the imagination to capture some quite profound ideas in what’s ostensibly a supernatural horror story. While I was growing up into my present role as cynical old man, I developed a slightly more than passing interest in Jean Paul Satre and his ideas about existential phenomenology. He attempts to focus interest on the existence experienced by human beings rather than on the context of the world in which humans live. In other words, Satre was interested in the “human condition”, essentially seeing the world as indifferent to the lifestyle choices made by each individual. This is perhaps best caught in his foremost book, Being and Nothingness. He proposes that there are two different types of reality. The first is what we might call “identity”. It emerges from our consciousness and enables us to establish self-awareness and, perhaps more importantly, to understand the existence of “nothing”, i.e. we define the limits of ourselves by comparing ourselves to the world. The second allows the creation of the formation of transcendent moral principles that could apply to everyone in comparable situations.

Gary McMahon packed and ready go go in search of the nothingness


So let’s say we live in a small urban area called Concrete Grove. By way of defining our individual identity, we learn about the place and the others who live there. If we come into the area one day expecting to meet Harry Rose but find he has died, this creates an absence. Indeed, we could talk of this absence as haunting us. This is not merely a psychological reaction. This is also a physical reality. There is literally nothing in the spaces he used to occupy. But it takes a human mind to comprehend that absence and give it meaning. Let’s change from death to something different but equally destructive. Suppose four young girls are taken from this area. This is like an earthquake. It changes the human landscape through the sudden loss of four individuals in inexplicable circumstances. Those who are involved are changed. The parents, relatives and close friends are devastated. At an intermediate level, the police officers like Craig Royle who devote their time and energy are defined by the scale of their efforts and commitment. They are judged by their failure to find the girls. Even those not directly involved like Harry Rose are caught up in the moment and its aftermath.


One of the characteristics that we say represents the higher aspects of our intelligence is the ability to frame meaningful questions. When we ask what happened to the girls (or to others who have disappeared at other times and other places), we hope for positive answers, but also accept we may never know. To that extent, we float in a state of uncertainty, between what we know and do not know, between something and nothing. In such a position, we have freedom of choice. Ignoring the social constraints of the law or conventions, we have the physical ability to do whatever we want (ignoring the thought of whatever consequences may follow). So Marc may decide to sleep with Abby even though he has been warned not to, or Erik may kill even though he knows it is morally and legally wrong. Such spontaneous expressions of freedom are what defines each individual as human with a consciousness of his or her own existence. Yet beyond us lies nothing (or something we do not yet understand).


Marc Price is in Concrete Grove to investigate what may have been a supernatural event some years ago. His identity and the fact he was haunted proves pivotal. He finds Harry Rose, an old man, prepared to talk with him about the local myths and legends. Yet before he can get to the real heart of local mysteries, Harry dies. Except that death opens a literal and metaphorical door in the attic to the house the old man occupied. He also finds himself drawn to Abby, the mother of one of the four girls who disappeared. This displeases the father of the missing girl, Erik Best, who pays him a visit and leaves him in no doubt of the dire consequences if he should repeat this adventure. Meanwhile DS Royle is still investigating the strangeness of his patch. He’s never completely abandoned the idea of finding the girls and stays in touch with all the families. When the first of the uncanny scarecrows appears, he finds his world growing rapidly more frightening. The results of this combination of circumstances are wonderfully spooky in their own right, but gain must greater resonance because of what has gone before in The Concrete Grove and Silent Voices. There have probably been better supernatural horror books written. If I put my mind to it, I could come up with a list of contenders. But that would rather miss the point. These reviews are written in the heat of the moment. They express my feelings in a stream of consciousness and, for now, Beyond Here Lies Nothing is the best for a long time. In no small way, this is because of the first two volumes. Seeing the whole now creates a sense of wonder. Put aside all my opening thoughts about Satre and nothingness. Forget my musings in the earlier reviews on the relationship between dreams and reality. A climactic conclusion is no good unless it follows a credible build-up. As a coherent plot spread over three volumes, this is in a class of its own. If you want to see beyond the superficial words on the page, there’s real philosophical weight available on the relationship between existentialism and nihilism. Otherwise just wait to see what Captain Clickety is aiming for and whether, through the sacrifices we make, there can ever be a real balance between the something and the nothing.


For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Reaping the Dark
Silent Voices.


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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