Leonie Rowland

This paper returns to two of Ligotti’s earlier short stories, ‘Les Fleurs’ and ‘The Chymist’, to analyse his hyperconscious narration at the level of the line. It treats hyperconsciousness as an acute or excessive awareness of the self and its location in a malignant or indifferent universe. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti argues that consciousness is ‘the parent of all horrors’.[1] By this, he means that consciousness is the source of human suffering because it exposes us to parts of reality we do not want to see. Hyperconsciousness in these stories, on the other hand, suggests a kind of rejoicing in these parts, and a drive to access the mind in its totality, at all costs.

‘Les Fleurs’ and ‘The Chymist’ were published in Songs of a Dead Dreamer. Much like the rest of Ligotti’s canon, the collection imagines a waking world that is indistinguishable from the wholesale tragedy of nightmare. However, the stories in question are laced with undertones of Vladimir Nabokov as well as the usual trappings of H. P. Lovecraft, both of whom Ligotti cites as influences.[2] As such, his highly stylised, unstable narrators are hyperbolic in their consciousness: their attention to detail, self-referential musings and subtle probing of the women they are about to seduce and kill make them ideal vessels for the excesses of horror.

In ‘Les Fleurs’, the narrator’s intense search for a partner about whom he ‘can be hopeful’ results in the obsessive seduction of Daisy, a flower seller who he wishes to expose to the ‘naked truth’ of reality.[3] When she refuses to witness it, she is murdered. In ‘The Chymist’, Simon manipulates Rosemary, a prostitute, into accepting a drug that causes her body and mind to mutate. The narrative is presented as a one-way conversation, so she is entirely filtered through his internal monologue. She too is, predictably, murdered. My paper is split into three sections: awareness of the world, awareness of the self, and the manipulation of others. Through these, I hope to give an overview of how Ligotti uses hyperconsciousness to interrogate the human condition and the frustrations of forcing unwilling bystanders to witness it.

1. Awareness of the World

In both stories, hyperconscious narration engineers a nightmarish disconnect from reality. In ‘Les Fleurs’, Daisy responds with linguistic breakdown when the narrator takes her on a romantic holiday and, unconventionally, facilitates her departure from the known world. He documents this in his diary as follows:

We plunged deeper into the dream garden. Faster, faster, faster the sounds and smells rushed by us. It was easier than I thought. At some point, with almost no effort at all, I successfully managed our full departure from known geography […] How I yearned to show her this resplendent world in full bloom and have her behold it with ensorcelled delight. She was somewhere near me in the darkness. I waited, seeing her a thousand different ways in my mind before actually gazing at the real Day.[4]

Following this, much to the narrator’s disdain, Daisy’s only response is: ‘What’s wrong with the stars, the sky?’[5] Her incomprehension implies that a departure from known geography is also a departure from conventional reality, and the inability to process her experience is signified by her lingering question, which turns the longing for ‘impressions and judgements’ eagerly anticipated by her companion back on him.[6] The narrator’s manic enthusiasm and unreliable narration also enhance this sensation of wrongness. He says, ‘I’ve never shown this to anyone,’ before concluding, ‘at least she didn’t go into hysterics, as did my old flame Clare’.[7] The suggestion of reprise, coupled with the narrator seeing Daisy ‘a thousand different ways’ creates a sense of nightmarish unreality disguised as a coincidental – and therefore natural – occurrence.[8] It is a moment of profound disconnect, caused by his inability to reveal a ‘dark paradise’ to someone who does not want to see it.[9]

In ‘The Chymist’, Simon also ‘worships’ unnatural landscapes, this time with reference to his city, which he sees ‘with an eye for necroses that others overlook’.[10] In this, and in his musings that follow, he sets his perceptions of the city apart from established norms. He says to Rosemary:

I tell you, no one worships this city as I do. Especially its witticisms of proximity, one strange thing next to another, which together add up to a greater strangeness […]. Yes, I can understand what you mean when you say you don’t notice that stuff after a while.[11]

Again, there is a sense of dreamlike nonexistence to his descriptions, and when Rosemary calls the city a pit, Simon says her ‘colloquialism doesn’t begin to describe the various dimensions of decrepitude in the local geography’, implying a layered reality that she fails to notice.[12] His following statement of, ‘Decrepitude, Ro. It has your pit in it and a lot more besides’ is symbolic of this: by disturbing her word in form and definition, he is demonstrating that his intellect, and therefore his consciousness, is superior to hers.[13] His likening of the city to a ‘pitiful corpse’ also contains the word ‘pit,’ and combined with the promise of ‘worship,’ it transforms the space into a symbolic graveyard.[14] Here, again, the natural, which is represented by the unconscious ‘corpse’, meets the unnatural, which is embodied by the manmade city. The contrasting mundanity of Rosemary’s perception, which dismisses the city as a vacant space, implies her mind has become ‘dull and complacent’ in comparison to the conscious jolts received by her companion’s.[15] In other words, Ligotti endows Simon’s perception with a capacity – and more importantly, a longing – for what philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe calls ‘a damning surplus of consciousness.[16]

2. Awareness of the Self

Throughout ‘Les Fleurs’, the narrator struggles to present himself attractively to the object of his affections. As a result, his self-consciousness is constructed as a highly negative factor as it forces him into a performance that is detrimental to himself and those around him. The story opens as follows:

Today – and I thought it would never happen again – I have met someone about whom, I think, I can be hopeful. Her name is Daisy. She works in a florist shop! The florist shop, I might add, where I paid a visit to gather some sorrowful flowers for Clare, who to the rest of the world is still a missing person.[17]

The double use of ‘thought’ and ‘think’ in the first line draws immediate attention to the narrator’s mind – but fractured syntax and erratic punctuation destabilise his voice, and his self-awareness quickly descends into parody. In an interview with E. M. Angerhuber and Thomas Wagner, Ligotti says his stories are usually told by a narrator whose consciousness is ‘out front where the reader can see and feel it’, suggesting that consciousness is tactile, visceral, the star of the show.[18] In this case, the narrator’s instability is confirmed by the purchase of ‘sorrowful flowers’ for his previous girlfriend. The personification of the flowers, combined with the implied confession of his ex-girlfriend’s murder, creates a jarring shift towards ethical apathy; ‘sorrowful’ is too hyperbolic to be genuine, and the narrator’s self-imposed distinction from ‘the rest of the world’ suggests circumstantial omniscience and intentional deceit. However, the ‘deeply shy and friendly tone of voice’ he uses to seduce Daisy is over-saturated, and the contrast between their mundane dialogue and his enthusiastic ‘inner flow of thoughts and sensations’ indicates a disconnect between the narrator’s true self and the constructed version he is presenting to his lover.[19]

On the other hand, Simon’s self-awareness is damning because it leaves him dissatisfied with life’s banalities. Instead of sinking into complacency, he uses supernatural narcotics to open his mind to ‘a tempest of transfigurations’ where transfiguration denotes a complete change of form into a more beautiful or spiritual state.[20] As such, his subjective city becomes a ‘vessel’ for the constant mutations of his mind.[21] Fittingly, the word ‘vessel’ connotes all the unresponsive hollowness of an apathetic world and also refers to the body’s ducts and canals. Simon describes his surroundings as ‘the skeleton of a dream’, conflating the body (represented by the skeleton) and the mind (represented by the dream) so that the cityscape becomes an expression of his consciousness.[22] He celebrates a ‘different city’ of ‘lines and interconnections’ because he is seeking connection himself, and when he refers to ‘the hidden framework ready at any moment to shift its structure and support a new shape’, he is foreshadowing his ultimate transfiguration of body and mind.[23] When this moment comes, he describes it similarly: ‘the original structure of the object somehow breaks down’ to make way for new shapes, just as the city rewires itself like a brain.[24] In Conspiracy, Ligotti describes the morbid mind ‘building a world of ruins out of the battered stones of [the] imagination’, suggesting that mental and physical landscapes are inseparable from one another.[25] However, in his insistence of an apathetic cosmos, Ligotti implies that Simon is also a vessel for ‘a greater power always at large’ that cares little for humanity.[26] As such, Simon’s attempt to transcend self-conscious nothingness boils down to delusions of grandeur, and his transfiguration is framed as an unspoken Faustian bargain in which he is ultimately coincidental.

3. Manipulation of Others

In true Nabokov style, Ligotti uses nicknames to signal control, obsession and the intelligence of his narrators. Just as Lolita becomes Lo, Lola, Dolly and Dolores according to the whims of Humbert Humbert, Rosemary is rarely called the same name twice. Variations include Rosie, Rosiecrantz and Rose. This manipulation of her identity emphasises Simon’s consciousness through the loss of hers; he is figuratively manhandling her into unstable shapes, and the loosening of her selfhood foregrounds its eventual dissolution. Likewise, the narrator in ‘Les Fleurs’ shortens Daisy’s name to express the intimacy of their relationship. However, his awareness of this when he says, ‘Day, as I now intimately called her’, makes the nickname seem forced and unnatural, much like the relationship proper.[27] The line ‘Day is a stranger now’ also undercuts any implications of closeness; when applied to a ‘former friend’, the name becomes an expression of memory and detachment.[28]

From here, Rosemary is literally and figuratively objectified in ‘The Chymist’ when Simon turns her ‘as still as a statue’ and says, ‘I’d better dream of someone who hasn’t anything to scream with. There, that should do it. You look strange though, like that’.[29] He has, presumably, removed her mouth. This is foreshadowed when Simon refers to Rosemary’s place of work as ‘a bordello of dummies’.[30] Dummies here has three meanings: first, it refers to dolls or manikins; second, it suggests inferior intelligence; and third, it is a pun on the word ‘dumb’, meaning the inability to speak. As such, Rosemary is the perfect metaphor for humanity as a self-conscious nothing: she is physically and mentally crippled by the revelation of a chaotic cosmos and powerless to act against it. There is a similar, if more ambiguous, moment in ‘Les Fleurs’, when Daisy visits the narrator’s apartment. He notes in his diary:

She was obviously sensitive to the absence of natural adornments in my bachelor quarters. “Night-blooming cereuses?” I asked, trying not to mean too much by this and give myself away. A mild grin appeared on her face, but it was not an issue I thought I could press at the time. Even now I press it within these scrapbook pages with great delicacy.[31]

It is unclear whether the ‘issue’ at hand is the sexual implications of night-blooming flowers, which Daisy would have to stay the night to enjoy; or if the narrator has taken issue with the ‘mild grin’ she offers in response to his flirting. The word ‘press’ is also ambiguous: in its first use, it means to forcefully put forward; but in its second, the connection with scrapbooking suggests the pressing of souvenirs, like flowers. Since the pronouns in ‘it was not an issue’ and ‘I press it within these scrapbook pages’ grammatically refer to the same thing, Ligotti implies that the narrator has pressed Daisy’s mouth into his scrapbook. This is in keeping with his other artistic ventures: when Daisy observes that the narrator’s sculpture has ‘tiny teeth’ and ‘big tongue things’, the narrator decides this comparison is ‘ingenious’ but never explains why.[32] He does, however, say that the sculpture is ‘kind of dumb’, using the same pun as Simon to denote its inability to speak.[33] This shared obsession with the dislocation of mouths stands as a metaphor for the dominating hyperconsciousness of narrators that nullify their subjects. As the narrator in ‘Les Fleurs’ says, ‘silence, of course, is their whole purpose’.[34]

To conclude, both stories see skilled communicators fail to indoctrinate others into reality as they experience it. For Simon in ‘The Chymist’, this is to facilitate the expansion of his own consciousness; just as he is a vessel for nature’s dark powers, Rosemary is a vessel for his chemical experiments. Similarly, the narrator in ‘Les Fleurs’ seeks human connection to neutralise his social and cosmic isolation – Daisy is also a vessel, this time for his cultish ideas. In both cases, hyperconsciousness is associated with superior intellect, which allows the narrators to manipulate their victims to horrific ends. Underneath it all, Simon’s lingering promise that ‘we’re like aliens to one another’ is profoundly isolating; if both stories are about attempted connection, then both reach conclusions of loneliness and cosmic indifference in spite of humanity’s best efforts.[35] As such, the horrors of ‘Les Fleurs’ and ‘The Chymist’ are born of longing for a better world, as well as the darkness of this one. To this end, Ligotti’s murderous protagonists are themselves puppets of consciousness, and ‘their resemblance to our soft shapes’ is awful but not entirely strange.[36]

[1] Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (New York: Penguin, 2010), p. 9.
[2] Matt Cardin, ‘Interview with Thomas Ligotti’, The New York Review of Science Fiction, 19.2 (2006) <http://www.teemingbrain.com/interview-with-thomas-ligotti/&gt; [accessed 3 January 2019].
[3] Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (New York: Penguin, 1986), p. 25. All further references will be to this edition.
[4] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, pp. 23-24.
[5] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 24.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 62.
[11] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 63.
[12] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 62.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 63.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Peter Wessel Zapffee, quoted in Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. 5.
[17] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 19.
[18] E. M. Angerhuber and Thomas Wagner, ‘Disillusionment Can Be Glamorous: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti’ in The Thomas Ligotti Reader, ed. by Darrell Schweitzer (Holicong: Wildside Press, 2003), pp. 53-71 (p. 58).
[19] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 19.
[20] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 71.
[21] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 60.
[22] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 69.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 71.
[25] Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. 46.
[26] Angerhuber and Wagner, p. 58.
[27] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 20.
[28] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 26.
[29] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 70.
[30] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 63.
[31] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 20.
[32] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 21.
[33] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 20.
[34] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 26.
[35] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, p. 66.
[36] Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. xx.