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Songs Of A Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti

01/05/2011. Contributed by Richard Palmer

Buy Songs Of A Dead Dreamer in the USA - or Buy Songs Of A Dead Dreamer in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 282 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-296-2.

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The Subterranean Press edition of Thomas Ligotti’s ‘Songs Of A Dead Dreamer’ is a revised edition of a well received, but unfortunately largely ignored, horror collection published in 1985 – the jacket blurb notes that this is intended to be and remain the definitive edition.

Ligotti has produced a set of supernatural horror tales which are well likened to Edgar Allen Poe and especially, HP Lovecraft. As it happens, although over the years I have read quite a number of Lovecraft’s tales, I’ve always found his writing to be more interesting than it is enjoyable. This is no bad thing and he certainly created suitably dark fiction and oppressive atmospheres but I never really loved his writing. What I do appreciate, though, is his influence on horror and SF/F. I enjoyed Ligotti’s own take on Lovecraftian horror. The first thing that is noted from reading this collection is Ligotti’s masterful use of English. His prose demonstrates his feel for language. At no point is his description laboured or does his dialogue feel unrealistic. This is bearing in mind the philosophical bent of much of his writing. Admittedly, this could be a result of the opportunity to revise the material, but I hadn’t read the original work to confirm this.

The stories, as noted, are horror. This isn’t, however, horror in the sense of slasher fiction or gory. Rather, it is psychological. The tales in here are designed to unnerve the reader rather than disgust them. The title, ‘Songs Of A Dead Dreamer’ is an apt one. The stories are hallucinatory and seldom seem rooted in any recognisable reality. Ligotti divides the collection into three sections: ‘Dreams For Sleepwalkers’, ‘Dreams For Insomniacs’ and Dreams For The Dead’. These sections alone give the reader an indication as to the kind of material that one can find within.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is a hugely witty meta-fictional tale presenting a ‘how-to’ construct various types of horror stories. ‘Notes On The Writing Of Horror’ presents quite a simple story about a pair of magical and dangerous trousers and demonstrates how a writer might create different styles of story. I realise that this is probably not quite to everyone’s taste and describing it like this makes it sound perhaps a little dull or even that it’s an unwanted peep behind the curtain. However, Ligotti has a good turn of phrase and really clearly understands language. A pleasure.

There are some other, um, pleasures to be had from this book. It opens with quite a disturbing tale of a psychiatrist at a local facility for the criminally insane. Initially keen to do his bit, he finds that one patient in particular disturbing. A rational man, he tries to explain to his wife precisely why he is safe. He finds himself, having spent a lot of time with the man, and being aware of his crimes, speaking in an extremely illiberal way about him. These mundane aspects of the tale contrast with the growing realisation – certainly for the reader – that the man’s crimes were not perhaps as we had initially thought. The uneasiness in the conversation with his wife is always apparent in this tale. A good start.

Though certainly based on unusual crimes, this first tale is based in the realistic. It is this that gives it some of its power. It’s also testament to Ligotti as a writer that he does not treat the subject of this tale in an exploitative or distasteful way. If you are looking for more traditional horror fare, however, he does include a rather nice tale featuring vampires. There is also another set at the end of all.

There are no happy endings to be had here, but one would imagine that’s not why you’re here. These, I’m given to understand, are amongst Ligotti’s earliest published works. There is certainly rawness to the tales, if they are exceptionally accomplished. It also seems to be the case that he continued to improve. If this is the case I am looking forward to future work. This collection was certainly an excellent introduction to his work for me. I’m looking forward to reading more by Ligotti.

Not for everybody, but if you like your horror dark and disturbing, you’ll love this.

Richard Palmer

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