In considering Ligotti’s artistry in “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” it’s well worth the time to linger on the first paragraph. In it, Ligotti provides the theme and sets the whole tone for the story to come. We see displayed here the linguistic precision that enables Ligotti to paint a picture of an abstract concept, a “presence” that, as I mentioned in my last post, is the main character – the monster – of this story.
The paragraph opens with a very surreal concept – the concept of a season having an intent – a “feverish intent.” Ligotti then establishes the “us,” the first-person plural narrator that will tell this story. The “us” includes both the people of the town and those who live outside the town. We are also introduced to the oddly-named Mr. Marble, who travels between town and country. He is a strange man of prophecy, who can read the signs of the seasons, but who the “us” had largely ignored until the autumn described in the story.
As we read further in the paragraph, we find Ligotti using the mundane to deftly begin the shift to strangeness. He uses the typical fall calendar picture, something most often looked on as an object of beauty, to highlight dormancy, death, and the ill-intent that the narrator suggests always lurks behind the season. Much like the season itself, inanimate things depicted in the autumn photograph are also given a sort of will or intent, as with the leaves “frolicking” on the edge of the calendar picture, as if playing a malicious game of hide and seek. The narrator describes a “sky of empty light,” showing how Ligotti can even use brightness and light to convey emptiness, bleakness. The picture, though beautiful in appearance, suggests an abysmal presence we always sense, even if we ignore it – a presence “that usually holds itself in abeyance.”
I suspect that in using words like “abeyance” and “prodigious,” Ligotti is using a technique Poe used, whereby an unusual or multi-textured word is used to make the reader stop and give deeper consideration to what is being said. For example, the original meaning of abeyance is from the Anglo-French – meaning a gaping after or reaching towards. We find that the dark, abysmal presence has, up to now, not only been in abeyance in the sense that it was suspended for the time being but also in the sense that the presence is at this point reaching or gaping out towards the community.
This paragraph highlights the importance of precision of language to achieve a dream-like effect, something Ligotti has said is so important to his writing process. For example, he could have said something as mundane as “…something that usually hides itself…” or “something that is usually hidden…” But instead he says “…something that usually holds itself in abeyance…” Through precise use of language, Ligotti points out to us “presences” (intuited experiences, vague sensations) that are usually hidden but that we sense nonetheless. What lurks behind all of our pretty pictures? What is it we sense but don’t talk about?
The narrator goes on to tell us that the presence “has gone into crisis.” The inanimate, the merely abstract and conceptual, is anthropomorphized. How truly strange for an indefinable presence, barely sensed in our pretty pictures of autumn, to go into crisis. And, once again, here “crisis” is a loaded word, denoting all at once:
-a turning point
-a condition of instability or danger that causes a critical change
-a dramatic change of emotions or circumstances in a person’s (or an anthropomorphized concept’s or object’s) life
-the point in a grave disease at which a significant change occurs, leading either to recovery or death
-the point in a play or story at which hostile elements are most tensely opposed to each other
Note also that one interpretation of the original Greek word from which the word “crisis” is derived is “a judgment.” We will see that there is, in fact, a judgment involved in the story about the community around this town.
As with so many of his stories, Ligotti uses dreams and what is experienced in them to invoke the strange in this paragraph. But here he doubles down on the strange by making the dream experience a collective dream experience in which a group of people all hear the same “small shadowy voices calling out.” Later, these small shadowy voices will be linked to a sound almost (but not quite) like a multitude of insects buzzing.
As the paragraph progresses, Ligotti concretizes the abstract concept of a season possessing an intent by using descriptions that invoke multiple senses. He starts with the sense of sight, pointing out what we see in the picture to accompany that fall month in the calendar and how we sense something else. Further on in the paragraph, he describes the various trees’ “intemperate display” of “hysteric brilliance.” He also uses the sense of sound, referring to the “small, shadowy voices” afflicting the dreams of the first-person plural narrator. Next, he uses the sense of smell, describing the scent in the air “as of sweet wine turning to vinegar.” Even the sense of touch is invoked in describing “the stars of chill nights” and the “ground that would not turn cold.” It’s a technique much used by Poe to achieve his “single effect.” In Ligotti’s able hands, each sensual description manages to convey the wrongness that hides in the season. Brittle cornstalks. Empty light. Fiery leafage frolicking. (Based on its usage here and in his story “The Frolic,” Ligotti seems to find sinister connotations in the word “frolic.”) Small shadowy voices. Bitter scents. A hysteric brilliance flourished by the trees. Intemperate displays put on by the various trees and sunflowers. Crooked roadside fences. Chill nights. Note also the use of adjectives and adverbs that are strangely juxtaposed to the nouns and verbs they modify. “…hysteric brilliance…” Stars that “…grow delirious…” and “take on the tints of an earthly inflammation.”
By paragraph’s end, we are finally given something that seems to return us to the mundane – a simple scarecrow. Except, we are told, the anthropomorphized scarecrow “has been left to watch over ground” that has been harvested but does not turn cold. It is becoming clear that something is wrong. The presence and its crisis are beginning to manifest.