A Consideration of Ligotti’s “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” (Part 1)

As I have shared with you all, I am a writer. And generally a writer of horror stories (though I sometimes wonder if I aim to be a writer of “horror stories” or a writer of horrific stories – perhaps more on that at a later point). Lately, I have been struggling with a story that focuses on the horror within a particular season of the year. Looking to understand better how to approach this, I decided to stop working on the story and do an analysis of a Ligotti story that also focuses on the horror of a particular season – namely autumn. The story is “The Shadow at the Bottom of the Word,” and, if you have not read it, dear reader, then I hope you will find an available copy as soon as possible and do so. In future posts, I will explore the story in more depth. Please note that I am working from the version found in The Nightmare Factory.

In “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” Ligotti takes a familiar and often haunting season and, through the use of extraordinary events, makes it into something sinister, even alive, with an ominous intent of its own. The season is fall, the season of the harvest or just after the harvest. Humanity has gotten what it wants – but what of the earth? Is the earth to be simply a giver or does it want, perhaps demand, something in return?

To summarize, this is a story about a strange version of autumn that visits a small unnamed community, affecting both people in the town and those in the countryside nearby. As this strange new season takes hold, a scarecrow becomes weirdly animated by a strange fungus-like substance growing out of the earth. This insubstantial growth cannot be cleaved by axes or other tools, nor can it be dug out of the earth, despite the community’s attempts. In the end, it is replaced by a bottomless pit that the community covers over with boards and dirt. (This could easily be read in a Freudian way as the community ‘s attempt to cover over what is emerging from the unconscious.) More and more, people’s dreams become infected with a dark presence. In addition, the autumn leaves do not lose their color but indeed seem to become internally illuminated. The ground retains its heat, and strange insect-like voices chatter from the earth. In the end, one member of the community, one with a prophetic disposition and deep connection to the spirit of the season, is called on to be the decisive actor in the story’s climax.

One reason I love this story is that it really does such a perfect job at creating a dreamlike atmosphere and linking it to the spirit of the fall. I find the use of adjectives and descriptive phraseology in the story to be unique in the way it builds this atmosphere. For example, you’ll notice the central use of the words “prodigy” and “prodigious” in describing the presence that is sensed behind the season. Most people would tend to associate the term “prodigy” with its use in a phrase like “child prodigy.” That is, a person, usually a younger one, with extraordinary skill or ability. But the prodigy found in this story is different. Here, Ligotti seems to use it in several different senses.

A prodigy can mean a marvel or a wonder. And in this story, the presence that manifests itself in the strange new season of fall the story describes is certainly a marvel. For example, the gaudy, brilliant colors of the leaves will not fade. Other marvels abound. The bottomless pit. The strange insubstantial blackness that grows up out of the earth. The animated scarecrow. Yet, beyond this we see another meaning to the word prodigy. A thing abnormal or monstrous. And in some ways, the story is a monster story.  There is no Frankenstein or werewolf. The monster is in the background, hiding behind the manifestations of the season, appearing eventually in dreams and then even in the grain of wood paneling or the bark of the trees. This shadowy thing is the main character in the story. Interestingly, an older meaning of “prodigy,” derived from its Latin root, is an omen. I have to think that Ligotti was well aware of this. It may have even inspired the prophetic character of Mr. Marble, noted in the community for his strange augural statements.

The adjective “prodigious” has similar connotations, of something that is abnormal in the extent of its size, power or some other degree. It is closely related to the concept of the sublime in nature and, in old usage, something that is a threat, that is ominous. By the simple uses of these words at key points in the story, Ligotti get’s us to stop and consider what he means in the unusual use of the terms. This use of an unusual word or phrase or an unusual use of a word or phrase that causes the reader to stop and give deeper consideration to the meaning of the sentence is a technique we see used extensively and effectively by Poe.

Another interesting feature of this story is the use of the first person plural narrator. The narrator is a “we” and an “us,” speaking not only for himself or herself but for the collective experience of the community. And the experience reported is collective. The people of this community are reported to have the same perceptions of what is going on, the same feelings, even the same dreams.

Ligotti uses some interesting devices to build the creepiness factor in the story. For example, the scarecrow. It is used in a similar way to the way Ligotti uses puppets or manikins in other stories. As the presence of the strange season begins to manifest, a scarecrow in a field becomes animated by some force. Its head nods, its feet kick like a man being hanged. And the community witnesses this in the night from the windows of their houses. The wind might be an explanation for this, except that it is clear that there is no wind, as evidenced by the stillness of the gaudily colored leaves of the trees and the corn stalks. By morning, the community discovers that some black substance has grown up out of the field, like a subterranean hand working a puppet.

One of the things I find so wondrous about the story is that  Ligotti has taken what is not only an old horror trope but a story from primitive mythology and given it new life. In essence, this is the age-old concept that the earth demands a sacrifice. But Ligotti turns it on its head by telling it from the collective first person viewpoint of the members of the community. And we, the readers, are members of that community. We’re not watching these events transpire from a distance. We are part of the events. In addition, Ligotti infuses the story with his pessimistic philosophy, of a universe and life that is malignant, of forces that are inimical to human consciousness, of something dark at the base of all existence, of the horror one encounters when one contemplates the never-ending darkness of space and the thought of individual dissolution.

Somehow the people of this community are linked to the darkness that manifests itself in the unnatural autumn and the endless hole that has appeared in the field. There is a singleness of identity between them that has always been there but only shows itself in that fateful autumn. The character of Mr. Marble, however, stands apart from the rest of the community. In fact, he is the only named character in the story. It is Mr. Marble who becomes aware of what has to be done before anyone else does. He knows a sacrifice is demanded, he stalks the town and countryside in contemplation of it, finally coming upon two innocents abroad. In the end, it becomes clear Mr. Marbles must be the enactor of the seasonal presence’ s ultimate intent, but perhaps not in a way that the rest of the community wants or expects.

In the end, the whole rootedness (pun not necessarily intended) of human existence in the earth and the products of the earth becomes a thing of horror in this story. Ligotti points us to the fact that the forces unseen and unknown that animate life on earth are also the very agents of our death, decay, and destruction. And somewhere deep inside, we all recognize this. Especially in the fall.

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Monstrous Journal

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It seems to me that life is like this. A man awakens one day from amnesiac sleep. On a table nearby he finds a journal. Inside the journal, in his own handwriting, he finds that the journal has been inscribed as belonging to him. There are several pages in it reporting things about him that he does not remember, even though they sound vaguely familiar or produce strange resonances within him. After those initial pages, the journal appears filled with blank pages. So, daily he begins to enter his experiences in the journal. To his surprise, though, on some days he awakens to find that a journal entry for that day has already been written. And everything that day happens exactly as the journal entry states. He tries to ignore these journal entries or tries to write around them, with varying degrees of success. But always, these pre-written journal entries have their due. More and more, these entries, written in his hand but of which he is certain he is not the source, begin to dominate the remaining pages of the journal, the pages that he had thought were completely blank. Still, he makes plans and notes them in his journal, definitive plans of all the things he intends to do. But more often than not a pre-written journal entry appears on the day or days for which he had made such plans, completely changing the course of things as he intended them to be arranged. He finds he really has little influence over the development of that singular text. What he writes, what he plans is subject to change in the blink of an eye. Finally, as he flips through the back of the journal, trying to reassure himself that all of the remaining dates are empty spaces, open for him to write the life he wishes, he notices the final page of the journal. It is filled in with three simple words. “Today I die.” In terror, he throws the journal into the shadows, vowing never to look at it or write in it again. But after a while, a natural and morbid curiosity overtakes him. He opens the journal. The days that have passed since last he wrote in it are all filled in. What is written reflects exactly what he has experienced. He is not the writer. He never was. And the ending is certain.

Serving Time

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Francis sits in his office at the Worker’s Compensation Bureau. He checks his clock. It is 3:00 P.M on Friday afternoon. The sun shines through stately trees and the window blinds. Shadowy lines fall across his desk, his hands, his face. He stifles another yawn and gets up to look out the window.

There is nobody on the street. He sees the windows of the other government buildings in the declining light, but the sunlight prevents him from seeing through the windows. He cannot tell who is behind those windows or whether they are looking back at him. He imagines others, like himself, who face a constant onslaught of paper.

Suddenly, his eyebrows rise. He draws a quick breath. I almost had it. The name – the unnamable name that he once named (he is sure of it) – was on the tip of his tongue. He looks around for his writing pad, believing that if he could lay his hands on it, the name would come back to him and he would write it and it would be done. But the pad is nowhere in sight.

I must have forgotten it again. Then the accusations begin. It’s not important enough to you to remember. You’ll never name it. Your writing days are over. Too much has happened. And not enough.

Francis returns to his desk and types on his keyboard. He hits “Enter.” He types in another search term, then another.  Word follows word. He tries to make links among dissimilar, often contradictory concepts. Will. Perception. Experience. Language. Consciousness. Sex. Subconscious. Labyrinth. Death. Each search starts with promise. (At times he thinks to himself, I am a searcher, a seeker.) Web pages are returned that suggest profound ideas. Yet each turns out to be incomplete. Hopeful still, he clicks on one link and then another. Soon, the monitor becomes a blur, and he forgets where he started or why.

I must relax my mind. He starts playing computer solitaire. Game after game passes without success. He sees his mistakes too late or loses concentration, letting opportunities pass without taking advantage.

When he looks up, there is more paperwork in his in-basket. The clerk sneaked in here again while I was distracted. He must stand by the door watching and waiting. Does he know what I am distracting myself with? Is he reporting it to the Director? Little snit. Wait until I catch him. From now on I stay alert.

Francis is sure that his superiors are judging him negatively. They must notice the forms and reports that always seem to pile up. When he feels the rare sense of ambition, he can move through the paperwork with great speed, scanning, marking, stamping. But the backlog always seems to grow. No one has questioned him about this, let alone reprimanded him. Francis can’t even recall the last time he spoke to a manager or director. But they are around, he tells himself. And they cannot be pleased.

An email comes through on his computer. The alert pings loudly. It is a meeting request. He gets these often. Francis considers whether there will be any repercussions if he skips the meeting. He usually rejects the request. No one questions his absence, though he is sure the Director must be aware, marking the absence in some log that will be presented to Francis at the time of judgment.

Leaning back into his chair, he bites an apple and considers his office. It is warm, though a cool wind seems to blow outside. His chair is cushioned, cozy. The fluorescent lighting is more than adequate. Pictures of his family line the black metal bookcase in front of him. I am quite lucky, he thinks. Not everyone has an office nor the privacy that goes with it. No one bothers me, beyond the sneaky clerk. Yes, I am happy, he tells himself. His closed lips form a straight line. His left eye trails off lazily to the side.

He takes a last bite of the apple and tosses it in the trash. An agitated fly crawls to the edge of the bin and buzzes around Francis’s head. He swats fruitlessly at the frightened bug. It flies to the window. Francis grabs a stack of paper and pursues it to the window. He snaps it against the glass. The paper is now blood-stained, the hairy remains of the creature mashed into the document. Francis goes to a little-used end of his desk, behind the monitor, and scrapes the remains off. The paperwork is returned to his work-pile.

Francis turns back to the window. Still, there is not a soul on the street. Looking at his clock, he sees that it is 3:00 P.M. It is always 3:00 P.M. Friday afternoon. There is something he tries to remember, but it just won’t come to him. He returns to his desk and again searches the Web.

Somewhere in Cyberspace

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Somewhere in Cyberspace someone lurks. He may be a he. He may be a she. She may be a he. She may be a she. But when it lurks, it lurks. Dark corners it inhabits. Waiting. Watching. Endlessly patient. Eternally vigilant. It wears gloom like a thick black cloak. Its breath in the cold generates a thick fog. It is watching me. I am exposed to the lurker. Willingly. It a voyeur. I an exhibitionist. We speak a silent language, tattooed in black on nightmare skies. It draws invisible pictures of me in the midnight air. More and more, these pictures capture the essence of me. And as they do, my substance begins to fade. My features begin a slow process of erasure. My countenance grows blank, I am becoming vagueness itself.

Somewhere in Cyberspace someone lurks. Fascinated by the images. Indifferent to me. Welcome.

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Morpheus Tales XXVI is now available at Smashwords, containing my story “Mrs. Flim Is Dying” and lots of other weird, disturbing stories. Do you hear the strange music? Have things all of a sudden gotten otherwise deathly quiet in your neighborhood? If so, go check it out.

Fact, Fiction or Faction – Santa Claus

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It’s the end of May, so what better time of year to talk about Santa Claus. Few people know this, but Santa Claus was originally a shaman during ancient times, the son of a Sami woman and a Germanic invader. He achieved great power through the use of psychoactive plants, a skill he learned from his mother. Neither he nor his mother were accepted by the Germanic invaders, and he was always an outcast among the newcomers. He always eyed with suspicion and anger the way the newcomers treated their children. He made himself a defender of the children. But whenever the people saw him, they drove him away. They accused him of terrible things. He lived in the remote and icy areas, where he still lives today. At times, he was thought of as a god. At others, as a man of perversions and dark activities. His knowledge of entheogens  allows his psychic presence to be transmitted far and wide. He continues to live on the edges of civilization where he can do his work with little interference. For those who encounter him, he is a source not of merry-making and joy, but of fear.