The Grimscribe’s Puppets: Stories Inspired by Thomas Ligotti

Cover of The Grimscribe's PuppetsIf you’ve read some of my previous posts, you may know that I am a big fan of Thomas Ligotti. So, I was super excited to hear about The Grimscribe’s Puppets, a collection of Ligotti themed stories edited by Joe S. Pulver. I was definitely not disappointed by this book and highly recommend it!

As indicated by the title, the theme of this collection has to do with puppetry — manipulations both real and existential — and this theme is approached from a variety of perspectives. The stories here are often from the point of view of the puppet or the puppet-master, but many times this aspect is explored at the larger, more terrifying level, such as who is out there and how are they controlling me? The collection has a well-selected mix of this overall idea presented in ways that are a tribute to both Ligotti’s themes and his atmospheric settings.

My favorite in what I might call the “puppet viewpoint” category was Cody Goodfellow’s “The Man Who Escaped This Story,” in which a man discusses various dreams, or fugue states, with his psychiatrist where he seems to be just a player in a drama put on by some force greater than himself. This idea of being captive to the whims of an unknowable godlike creature and used for their amusement over and over again is unsettling and will stick with me. In “Furnace” by Livia Llewellyn, a young girl watches her town slowly eaten away by forces that she cannot understand, and it is only slowly that she comes to the realization of the role that she plays in a slow destruction of the world. Daniel Mills explores religious fervor with a twist in “The Lord Came at Twilight,” when a dangerous “revival” consisting of dark beliefs sweeps through a town. In “Diamond Dust” by Michael Griffin, a man slowly makes connections between strange occurrences and the odd art his girlfriend has been creating. And, Paul G. Tremblay’s “Where We All Will Be” explores the viewpoint of a single, clear-headed observer during a mass infiltration of human minds.

A few authors look at the topic from the viewpoint of the puppet-master, and the most clear-cut of these would be Jon Padgett’s “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” which provides some basic, and more advanced, how-to in puppet mastery. However, sometimes the role of puppet and puppet-master can dovetail, something that the puppet maker in Simon Strantzas “By Invisible Hands” comes to realize first-hand. And, Jeffrey Thomas’s “The Prosthesis” explores a situation in which the puppet created may have been a job done just a little too well.

I really enjoy some of the more grotesque elements of Ligotti, where we see characters that are either not quite human or so corrupted as to be verging on less than human. Two of the stories in this collection do this exceptionally well. Both involve female characters who struggle to survive, and who each somehow become both prey and predator. Kaaron Warren’s moth girl in “The Human Moth” has a hard time satisfying her basic needs, while Allyson Bird’s protagonist in “Gailestis” attempts to work out some more traditional methods for survival, but things don’t quite turn out as expected.

There are also some stories in which we see the familiar post-industrial landscapes from Ligotti’s work. Darrell Schweitzer’s protagonist in “No Signal” struggles to reach those he loves even as he watches his world change and fade. A young girl in Nicole Cushing’s “The Company Town” is uprooted by her father and moved to a strange new town where it seems that her future existence will be paid for on the installment plan. And, in “The Holiness of Desolation” Robert M. Price gives us the viewpoint of a man making his way through a strange, dystopian world where the end of humanity may be contained within the written word.

Possibly one of Ligotti’s most powerful areas of writing is that which combines a character’s alienation with loss of self, or someone close, in some existential or physical manner. My absolute favorite of these stories was the haunting contribution by Eddie M. Angerhuber,”The Blue Star,” in which a man takes us through his annual visit to a strange city where he lost his love to an alien force years ago. I also really enjoyed Gemma Files contribution, “Oubliette,” which used a variety of formats — diary entries, IMs,  emails, etc. — to tell the story of a suicide survivor haunted by cult member ghosts with a mission. John Langan’s “Into the Darkness, Fearlessly” puts a new twist on the idea of getting lost in a text, and Richard Gavin’s “After the Final” explores the inner workings of a fanatical and delusioned mind.

Some of these stories have some very dark, existential implications, such as “The Secrets of the Universe” by Michael Cisco, which relates a discussion on life, the universe, and everything between master and victim. “The Xenambulist: A Fable in Four Acts” by Robin Spriggs examines an increasingly strange and out of control world, one that the protagonist will not escape from. And, in “Eyes Exchange Bank,” by Scott Nicolay, a man on the verge of a breakdown over loss of love and a stagnant dissertation comes to the realization that there are darker things out there to fear. There are many dark things to fear in this book, many shadows. Michael Kelly’s character in “Pieces of Blackness” is haunted by a shadow from the past that won’t forgive or forget, and in “Basement Angels” Joel Lane’s character finds that his shadow is a much more important part of him than he ever realized.

The Grimscribe’s Puppets won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Edited Anthology for good reason. Joe S. Pulver has selected some excellent authors and put together a significant contribution to the genre, which is packed full of stories that will challenge your assumptions and haunt you for years to come. Be sure not to miss this one!

American Elsewhere: Flirting with the Weird

Cover of American ElsewhereI read several reviews for Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere and became increasingly intrigued because none of them could seem to explain what exactly this book was about. After reading it, I see the problem — it really doesn’t quite fit into any particular mold, something that Bennett has mentioned himself in a few interviews. That being said, the book is one that sucked me in immediately and which I had a hard time putting down.

The first chapter pulls you into a kidnapping in progress. A man is forcibly taken from his home, driven out to the woods, and then left there — with a small rabbit skull on his chest. The skull then proceeds to kill(?) him. From there, the book just gets weirder.

The protagonist of the story is Mona Bright, whose father has just died. She has been mostly estranged from him since the suicide of her mother, but comes back to see to his final arrangements. He has left her an awesome car (which she was expecting) and a deed to a house her mother owned (which she had no idea about) in a strange town called Wink. The town of Wink is a mixture of Los Alamos and Stepford — a former haunt of brainy scientists gone all Pleasantville after the lab shut down. As soon as Mona gets there, she realizes that something isn’t right. From her odd encounter with the motel manager, to the even weirder lady in the town records office, she becomes more and more entangled in the town and the mysterious history of the mother that she never really knew.

The reason that the reviews I read of this book didn’t tell much about it is because you just can’t without giving away the fun of the surprises that Bennett has in store around every corner. Just when you think you know what’s going on, you are reminded that you really have no idea what is going on. The story weaves mystery and oddball characters with atmosphere in a manner that is reminiscent of Twin Peaks, and the underlying secrets that Mona uncovers are something different altogether. Bennett can go from a feeling of almost normality to one of eerie darkness in a flash. Some characters are just too dark and weird to even comprehend. For example:

“There is a man standing in the exact center of the garage. He is very tall, and he stands motionless with his arms stiff at his sides. He wears a filthy blue canvas suit, streaked with mud in a thousand places, and sewn onto the surface of this suit are dozens and dozens of tiny wooden rabbit heads, all with huge staring eyes and long, tapered ears. On his face he wears a wooden helmet – or perhaps it is a tribal mask – whose crude, chiseled features suggest the blank, terrified face of a rabbit, complete with curving, badly carved ears. Where its eyes should be are two long rectangular holes. Somewhere behind these, presumably, are the eyes of the mask’s wearer, yet only darkness can be seen.”

Why rabbit heads, Bennett? (I kept thinking of Anya on Buffy who was scared of rabbits.) The answer is actually in there for the reader, and I appreciated that Bennett didn’t spoon-feed it to us, but rather let us puzzle it out on our own. This book is a smart and interesting synthesis of a variety of genres, and it was a fun read. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out some more of Bennett’s work!