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.

Lighthearted Thoughts on Darkness and Death

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How do I sum up my philosophy? It is, in reality, more of a non-philosophy. At its root is complete agnosticism. This totalizing agnosticism is not limited to the theological. Everything for me is open to question. All answers are provisional, subject to change as new information and evidence becomes available. I cannot believe in human access to universal truths. Man is much too limited to deal in universal truths, whatever the status of such truths.

Ernest Becker wrote, in The Denial of Death, “We are gods with anuses.” The self-awareness of humans make them like gods. But this self-awareness also makes us aware of our animal nature- born dependent, we shit, piss, sweat, bleed, and, ultimately, decay. Death will inevitably eliminate this self-awareness I call myself. And I must live my life aware of it. This is the great horror – the awareness of our impending mortality. Death is like a freight train heading right for us, a train we know is coming but about which we can do nothing. Nature has designed us in such a way that we appear to be the only animals that are capable of this self-awareness of our own mortality.

John Gray’s Straw Dogs emphasizes that we are first and foremost animals, self-aware as we might be. There is no evidence that there is anything progressive in this self-awareness. Human moral progress is a myth. We know more information now than we once did. But it has done nothing to improve the human “spiritual” condition. We are driven by the same unconscious drives and emotions as our most “primitive” ancestors, the unconscious, irrational need to survive and other unconscious desires. Self-awareness is merely a tool at the disposal of the animal instincts and desires. What we call “reason” appears to simply be rationalization for what we feel.

I agree with Ligotti and Lovecraft that there is no reason to believe the universe or any part of it gives a damn about us. Existence appears to be an accident. A little adjustment here and there and nothing would have existed at all. Life is an accident. Humanity is an accident. There is no reason to think we will not go extinct, like the dinosaurs, at some point in the future. Existence is absurd, particularly human existence. In reality, all existence for a human is human existence since the mere concept of existence does not exist without humans to make it so.

That’s why Thomas Ligotti’s horror is the ultimate for me. At its best, it is truly weird, dreamlike. I experience life this way. I sometimes feel like I am witnessing an absurd play or movie. The detachment is disconcerting. Have you ever experienced derealization, where your unease takes you to the point of perceiving things as unreal, slightly off-kilter? Have you felt in your bones the ever-encroaching dark, the font of all real human horror? This dark is not supernatural. It is simply there, an aspect of the human experience of life. We all seem to carry it in us. The light-centric people seem false to us who explore the shadows, or at least incomplete. They seem to be hiding their darkness. I say, let your darkness shine forth.