In Seattle this weekend. There’s something about people lining up outside “the original” Starbucks that vaguely reminds me of Nyarlathoptep.
I recently finished Mark Samuels’ A Pilgrim Stranger. It is an excellently-paced story, as well as an enjoyable satire. Samuels’ novel examines the disparity between a more traditional approach to life and the largely-unquestioned assumptions of modernity. I loved the way it pokes fun at what we have become and are becoming. The characters are fully formed, especially the fascinating character of Alfredo Salgado.
The novel begins in 1981. Salgado is a very intelligent and no-nonsense young teenager who has been raised by his aunt as a devout traditionalist Catholic. He is not, however, by any means brainwashed for he brings his own precocious intellect to his traditionalist beliefs. As a result, he refuses to unquestioningly accept the assumptions of the modern world around him. Years later, we find Salgado interacting under very strange circumstances with a world that has proceeded along the accelerating path of “progress”. The novel highlights the contradictions inherent in many of the assumptions we hold dear.
A Pilgrim Stranger begins slowly (appropriately so) and gradually picks up pace. It ends on an unsentimentally touching note that demonstrates the power of grace. Samuels’ novel effortlessly held my attention from beginning to end. At over 300 pages, it looked on the longish side at first. But it was presented in such an engaging way that I read through it very quickly. Samuels skill with plot and character are very much on display here. If you’re anything like me, you may recognize yourself or others you know in his characters. I could not recommend the book more, whether one is Catholic or not, religious or not.
In darkened corners beyond the reach of fading daylight shadows circulate like eddies in a muddy river. Within the structure of that darkness, the varieties of shading and the obscure movements signal darker meanings. The shadows become tattooed with strange markings, spelling out cryptic words. Messages from an alien world. If I listen carefully, I can even hear faint voices, the same ones that inundate my sleep.
By night, a black miasma of chatter suffuses the entire cosmos. It roils across all that is, like some semiotic vapor cloud. My sleep is deep but troubled. Voices call to me, conjuring dark dreams of cold, empty space and the shadows of people who cannot be touched. Esoteric symbols dance in the night spelling out secrets. Secrets perhaps that were not meant to be shared. Sometimes, so deep is my slumber that I seem to be buried, unable to move, entombed somewhere.
At any moment, day or night, families, countries, entire worlds of corpses surround me, speaking revelations in sodden whispers from mouths filled with rot and worms. No one else seems to notice. It is only I who pay them heed. I have become their instrument, a prophet screaming at a deaf world.
It may very well be that all things are a language, that things exist not simply as the individual phenomena in themselves that we simplistically assume them to be, but as complete and complex systems of symbols and codes. I cannot prove such a proposition. But there are three things I know to be languages. Darkness. Sleep. Death. These are the languages of Catatonia.
Catatonia. Realm of inverted thoughts, pervasive symbols, and animate dreams. A place of darkness, yes, but a living darkness. The Down Lands, it is called. Down, far down, beyond vision and sound. Submerged in a place beneath thought. An upside-down land whose stars shine from the void within rather than from the emptiness of space. Where the arrow of time points not in one direction but in every direction, like the spinning dial of a child’s game.
Catatonia. Lover of corpses. Birthplace of worms.
How I found it, I cannot say. Some attribute it to my drinking habits. They claim my brain is run through with wormholes. Dipsomaniac madness, they say. Catatonia, a mere delusion. But no one can deny the reality of the languages of Catatonia. They have heard me speaking them. And when I do, I spy them invoking the protection of their counterfeit gods. Things shift when I speak in these tongues. Stars begin to liquefy. Darkness moves. A rumble can be heard from someplace very deep, deep within the earth, below the crust, below the mantle, at the very core of this world. People avoid me. Children are called home and shades are drawn, no matter what time of day. They may deny it, but it is so. I speak the forbidden languages of Catatonia. This is my greatest proof of its existence.
The languages of Catatonia? They are linguistic isolates. Solitary. Pre-rational. Spontaneous. Composed of secret words and entropic alphabets that take their shapes from the creeping marks of decay – organic, radioactive, existential. The gradual move toward dissolution found in all things. Catatonia itself is a place whose physical structure is built on arcane syntaxes and irrational grammars.
The languages of Catatonia exist in spoken form as inchoate murmurings approximating…what? The soft sound of slime mold advancing. The unintelligible utterings of someone asleep, disturbed, dreaming. The noise of dirt settling over a rotting casket. In Catatonia, no sounds could be more natural, more pleasing to the ear. Everything speaks. Every doorway, every stairway and landing, every cloud, everything that crawls or swims, every inhalation and exhalation has meaning. And the trilingual nature of Catatonia, rather than producing a confusing babel, creates a sort of dark three-part harmony that suggests a requiem for all the other worlds, worlds that are destined to perish. Like ours. But no one aside from me will bother to listen.
I began to recognize and to work in the languages of Catatonia just before she sought to leave me. She will remain nameless. The ordinary languages of this world are not fit to contain her name. No earthly alphabets or vocalizations do that name justice. I have translated her, and from my translation you may think you know her. But only in the languages of Catatonia is her memory truly written.
Long evenings I spent in solitude prior to her attempted departure. She complained my seclusion was pushing her away, had made life with me impossible. The poor creature could not understand how critical solitude was to deeper insight. The most productive hours of my life were spent in the deep silence of my study. Listening. Watching the shadows. Waiting for the signs intuition told me must be coming. Yes, I insisted on quiet. Yes, I insisted that the lights be kept low. These were prerequisites to my recall of the Catatonian language of Darkness. They say once you learn a language, you never forget it. And each winter night my memory grew stronger. Catatonia became more real. And so did the language of Darkness.
I spent the daylight hours in fevered writing. Awakening before sunrise, I began committing abstruse signs and symbols to paper as best I could with ordinary pen and ink. The memory of Darkness I etched upon sheets of the finest bond paper, white as bleached bone. Often would she awake to find me hovering over her, reading messages in her raven hair, discerning literature in the dark holes of her sleep-dimmed eyes. Her eyes would widen then, the black of her pupils expanding, deepening, spelling out yet more sublime tales.
“What are you doing?” she would ask.
Slowly emerging from my reverie, I would answer, “Reading you.”
She was unnerved, no doubt. She was not privy to the great semiotic structure to be found in the dark of a loved one’s tresses or the fathomless depths of the eyes. Catatonia was a strange land to her. Remote as far Tartary or the Antipodes. No doubt, Catatonia’s ways were foreign to her, as they initially were to me. But I had the gift of a growing recognition of the language of Darkness, and this gave me an insight into that remote place that was not available to anyone else. It distanced me from others, her in particular.
Always an amateur scribbler of prose and poetry, my creative production exploded. With a new medium to work in, I built unimaginable worlds from the very lightlessness that inhabited the corners, the closets, the underneath of furniture in our house. If only she knew the dedications to her I wrote in twilight and the gloom of the forests that surrounded us, she would have willingly given me her all, as I would her. For black was no longer merely the color of the ink on the page or the complexion of the woods at night. It was itself a great language, a system, a structure, a relationship of part to part that allowed the deepest expressions I had ever known. But this she could not understand. All she saw was my obsession with the shadows and the night.
She begged me to come back to myself, to return once again to the man I had been. But having recalled Catatonia, it would have been impossible to un-remember. And, even if I could, I did not want to. For I was learning secrets no one else knew in languages strange and phantasmal.
As my studies in Darkness progressed, things changed around us. Morning became merely a paler version of the fulsome nights. The morning star rose into the sky at a peculiar declination and shined dimly through an atmosphere darkened. Even as spring drew near, a permanent gloom settled over our home that no sun could pierce, no day could conquer. With the arrival of warmer weather, the dingy snow melted. Stagnant pools filled with mosquito larvae, wriggling and tumbling like straight-jacketed psychotics.
One morning that spring, as the light struggled unsuccessfully to exert its rule, she packed her things and prepared to leave. Desperate, I addressed her in the dark language of Catatonia. I scrawled unearthly poems across the sooty sky. I sought to demonstrate to her my devotion, not only in this world but in that strange land beyond. She screamed, then collapsed into deep unconsciousness.
Perhaps the gloomy language of Catatonia had reached farther down than I knew. Something had persuaded her not to leave. With Darkness, I had conjured sleep. And in the language of Sleep, we could finally truly communicate. I laid her on black velvet bedding and caressed her as she slept, generating poems, legends, treatises. Written in her slumber were secret histories. Of me and her. Of Catatonia and of all the worlds that it had generated. I whispered the newly rediscovered language of Sleep in her ear, and she scrawled in her movements upon our bed her responses. Negation. The emptying of all things and all people. The experience of the void around which Catatonia revolves endlessly.
After a while, she began to moan and shout incoherently in her sleep. She was trying to speak to the world in the lost language of Sleep. I laid down next to her. For weeks we screamed through the nights and days in the language of Sleep, wasting in our bed without food or hydration. But no one seemed to hear, even though the vibrations shook the very foundations of the houses and rippled the vernal pools.
There were signs for any who cared to look. A dank humidity set in over the region in which we lived, and the mosquito infestation became particularly heavy that year. Many mosquitoes were found to be carrying unusual tropical diseases. Various sleeping sicknesses became very prominent. And while such diseases were usually most dangerous to young children, the elderly, and the infirm, the particular strains prevalent that season seemed most virulent in young couples. The effect was most unusual, for the afflicted writhed continuously in their beds and uttered sounds that were described as wasted, ghastly, almost deathly. Their caretakers were afflicted with the most dreadful dreams and awoke to the smell of swamp gasses and the sound of something burbling as in sediment-thick water.
Nonetheless, no one paid us any heed. When they found us, we were emaciated, drenched in sweat and bodily discharges. Only the most strenuous efforts by the emergency technicians revived me. My eyes opened on theirs with odium, for they had disturbed the deep revelations my love and I were dispatching to the world. But even as I was being called back into wakefulness, I realized that her words had become unrecognizable, no longer in the language of Sleep. Above the foul smell of this world and the soiled sheets beneath us, a different smell emanated from nearby, a sepulchral perfume. My beloved was dead.
Rage filled my heart. My love had been sacrificed for this world, to give it a precious gift, the slumbering language of Catatonia. But this world had refused to hear. Its willful ignorance killed her. As I lapsed into unconsciousness, once again I began calling out falteringly to the world. Not in the language of Sleep, the language it would not recognize. No. I spoke in crude form another language that was beginning to come back to me, like a long-forgotten legend. I spoke words in the language my love had spoken as she departed, the language that must compel attention, no matter who the speaker or where it is spoken. I spoke Death.
Into late summer, the cadavers filled the morgues throughout my own and the adjoining districts. Young couples were taken away by the score. I was not given the gift of joining them. The doctors took extraordinary measures to “save” me, and I was dragged back into this lifeless life.
Fall came early that year. By mid-September, the leaves were almost all turned, tinted in deep oranges, reds, and purples. A strange malty scent hung heavy in the air, as of something fermenting. Cold winds blew down from the north and the trees were mostly bare by early October. Bitter frosts attacked whatever plant life was left. And after a summer of death gaining easy access through broken-screened windows and the inevitable lure of the sun, people seemed eager to take shelter. Doors tightly sealed. Gathered around stoves. Pretending not to hear the howling outside.
A full recollection of the language of Death did not return to me instantaneously. It required extraordinary attention and the most taxing effort. Grubs buried themselves deeper in the soil, seeking decay, and words came slowly back to me. The grit and sand of a worm’s gullet processed rotted vegetation, and strange phrases started to become familiar to me once again. The feathers of a dead crow rustled in the wind, and I began to find fluency. And though I had spoken Death in such a crude way after the passing of my beloved, now my use of that most delicate language became more subtle, more refined. In summer death had moved over the land. By fall Death spoke to its inhabitants. And I was its voice. Now was the trinity of Catatonia’s languages revealed to this world. Now did the fullness of Catatonia, which my love had given her life to reveal, manifest itself to my countrymen. They still would not hear, of course, but they could no longer ignore the signs.
In Catatonia, Death is the essence of beauty. Soft and expressive, like the feel and smell of autumn leaf litter. And yet, it is a language particularly suited to that strange world. Its lilting nature does not translate well to this place. It takes a finely attuned ear to pick it up, and the people of this world are essentially tone deaf when it comes to the music of the language of Death. Of course, in this world it speaks in a way unlike it does in Catatonia. In a way that imprints new meaning on the face of this senselessly spinning sphere. In a way that tinges all the sounds of our busy-ness, our machinery, our buzzing electrical instruments, our endless chatter bouncing back and forth, up into space and down again, with the reminder that no one, no thing is immortal. Except Catatonia.
With my love now departed, I had to find new ways to express myself in the sacred, the once lost languages of Catatonia. New mediums had to be explored. Sleepless nights I spent in the disease-ridden whore houses of the city. Not for bodily pleasure, but to generate verse in the language of Death. In syphilitic embraces, I called out to the world. And in its own way the world answered. Strange influenzas swept across the land. A plague of gravely malformed newborns filled the maternity wards. A mysterious phenomenon caused fish to die en masse and float to the surfaces of lakes and rivers. This was followed by a sudden freeze that left the remains trapped in the ice.
The language of Death, esoteric though it may be, speaks with power. But the people of this world are a slow crowd. They have trouble hearing it in the gusting winds that rattle their houses at night or seeing its inscription in the carcass of a dog by the side of the road. Do they ever wonder why the lifeless bitch smiles? She hears the beautiful, melodic tones of the language of Death. The grave itself is the diva of Death, forever singing the sweetest aria. If only one would put ear to earth, one could hear it in the cemeteries and church-yards. Or in the charnel houses and crematoria, if one would press his head to the wall.
I have dared to speak the languages of Catatonia here in this place. I have dared to write them across the skies and in the fresh earth of graves. I have dared to spell them out in the dark corners of bordellos. I have sensed them in the secret dreams of restless nymphomaniacs who cry out for the lover who will never come, who claw at themselves in the unconscious hope of a vision of Catatonia, the unknown land, the home they have never seen but only felt between their legs and in the heaving breast of an almost passionate moment. I have spoken in the secret modulations of voice, the mysterious inflections that makes of mere darkness, mere sleep, mere death, whole languages. I have written Catatonia’s esoteric signs in poetry of strange rhythms and impossible meters to signal to this world that faraway land’s existence. But all people do is turn away in fear and denial. And keep dying.
Winter is near now. The snow has begun to fall. I think it will not stop. This winter will be our last. This world will be made still, as it should be. Perhaps then, it will recognize the writing on the walls of the world, the calligraphic graffiti that calls all to come home to fair Catatonia. Perhaps then, it will hear the voices that speak Darkness, Sleep, and Death, like prayers to a god who is more than god. Who is lover. Perhaps then I shall see her again and again our hearts, our thoughts, our writings, and our words will be one.
But not now. Now, birds fall from the trees and litter the yards and alleyways. Now, children beg at street corners, reaching out with disfigured hands, crying through warped mouths. Now, people leave their dead outside to freeze and be covered by snow, unable to make for them a proper grave. Now, the days grow darker, the streets grow emptier, the nights ever colder.
Today I had an opportunity to retrace the steps of Robert Blake whose demise was thoroughly reported by Lovecraft in “The Haunter of the Dark.” Much like Blake, I wandered up and down unknown streets ascending Federal Hill in Providence, certain I had lost my way. The neighborhood had changed somewhat since Lovecraft’s reportage. Yes, the population is mostly Italian or Italian ascent. But there were several exemplars of Latin cuisine. I even passed an Arabic restaurant, though whether the proprietor or any of the staff was mad, I could not say. I feared I would not reach my destination, but then in the distance I saw a dark tower. Now the authorities (and by this I mean the internet) will tell you that the dark-towered old church is no longer there, that it has been torn down and replaced with a little park. But I found this not to be true. The old church is still there for those with a discerning eye. Difficult to see in the bright sun of daytime, yet casting a shadow nonetheless. And the books, “the black, forbidden things which most sane people have never even heard of, or have heard of only in furtive, timorous whispers,” yes they are still there. Written in some strange invisible ink on stone. The Haunter remains. I fear tonight he will sweep down Federal Hill to find me. I will stay in well-lighted places.
Alan Watts wrote a famous book called “The Wisdom of Insecurity.” But what about the arrogance of certainty? What of those who know with a faith-based certainty that what they believe is right? I’m not just talking about religious folk here. Today, some of the most obnoxious practitioners of faith-based certainty don’t even believe in a god or gods. Yet their certainty in their beliefs is just as irrational as the followers of that old time religion. I think John Gray has them figured out.
Please forgive me. I have, of late, been visiting distant lands. Most recently, I have been traversing the lands of Borgesia, filled as it is with hexagons and endless volumes. Prior to that, I have been in the nymphetical lands of Nabokovia, which, as you can imagine, look a lot like the good ol’ US of A. And please remember, as always, I am a frequent visitor to Ligottiania. So dark and always on the borders. I promise to report back to you soon. But please, understand, I am in pursuit of the Crimson Hexagon. Upon finding it, I will certainly relay to all of my faithful followers the full compendium and the perfect cypher.
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.