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Black Static

Dark Fiction & Film BLACK STATIC ISSUE 61 OUT NOW!

My Favourite Story by Thomas Ligotti: An Essay by Peter, Age 54 and a 1/2

27th Apr, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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My favourite short story by Thomas Ligotti is “Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes”. I won’t argue that it is his finest work or the one that deals best with the themes Ligotti has made his own, but it’s a story that, for the unique prose voice in evidence and the concision of the plot, with its wealth of incidental detail and conceptual twist at the end, exemplified for me, when I first read it, all that a short story should be. It announced in no uncertain terms the presence of a new master in the field of weird fiction.

“Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes” was first published in June 1982 in Volume III, No.3 of Nyctalops, a magazine that appeared annually from Silver Scarab Press, who were later to publish Ligotti’s first short story collection. Collectively, this story and the one that preceded it in Volume III, No.2 of the magazine “The Chymist” (Ligotti’s first published story) together with “Eye of the Lynx” from Volume III, No.4, became known as The Nyctalops Trilogy. The three stories were first collected together in Songs of a Dead Dreamer (Silver Scarab Press 1986), and then reprised in a substantial Ligotti retrospective volume from 1996, The Nightmare Factory (Robinson).

Titles are important to Ligotti. His oeuvre includes both story titles that are elegantly minatory, such as “The Frolic” and “The Bungalow House”, and others that are more baroque in nature and chosen with a poet’s sensitivity for words (e.g. “Masquerade of a Dead Sword”, “The Lost Art of Twilight”, “Teatro Grottesco”), bringing to mind the work of predecessors such as Clark Ashton Smith (whose poem "Nyctalops" was probably the source for that magazine's title). “Drink to Me Only” comes from the more ornate end of the Ligotti spectrum. The title references the popular English song “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”, whose lyrics were based on Ben Jonson’s 1616 poem “To Celia”, only by replacing ‘Thine’ with ‘Labyrinthine’ Ligotti gives it an entirely different cast, emphasising even more the attraction of the eyes and our willingness to become held by the gaze of another, to surrender our autonomy. The eyes are the windows of the soul he reminds us, but the soul is a labyrinth in which we may become forever lost.

The plot of “Drink to Me Only”, unlike much of Ligotti’s later work, is strikingly simple, with carefully measured build-up to a perfect denouement. And I pause here to warn that there are spoilers ahead.

A master hypnotist has performed before an affluent audience at a country house soiree, and now stands back and watches them as they swarm round his beautiful female assistant (the somnambule) like bees to honey, reflecting on the nature of her admirers. He despises them, and the true finale of his act, the moment in which the rug is pulled out from under everyone’s feet, is waiting in the wings.

The story is told in the first person and from the perspective of the hypnotist, with a distinctive tone of voice that is rich, arrogant, decadent, all the things the protagonist claims to despise in his audience. His best ‘trick’, the transformation of the somnambule into an angel made out of gleaming light, has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon with the paying customers, who were ‘bored and just sat in their seats like a bunch of stiffs’. As part of his build up to this grand finale the hypnotist had his somnambule perform feats of memory, stand still while blanks were fired from a pistol in front of her face etc. The audience much preferred this ‘mock-death and bogus-pain stuff’, which the hypnotist regards as beneath him, and their grossness is further demonstrated by the collective preoccupation with his beautiful and scantily clad assistant, who is feted on every side. His dignity affronted, the dignity of his calling, the hypnotist pledges to give his audience a surfeit of the death stuff they admire so much, and the story’s denouement is his masterful delivery on this promise.

Hypnotism is, of course, central to the story, and this is seen in the language and imagery used throughout the narrative. In almost the first sentence we get a reference to the protagonist’s eyes, which look as if ‘I’ve tucked some strange crystallised lenses under my eyelids’. Thereafter Ligotti constantly references light and its effect on objects; the way in which the champagne that the guests are drinking sparkles; the chandelier’s ‘kaleidoscopic blaze’; bottles that do ‘interesting things with light and shadow’; the sequins of the somnambule’s costume with their ‘rampant glitter’. And there are tricks of alliteration and assonance and repetition that give the passages in which they are used a singsong feel, introduce a hypnotic lilt to the phrasing (‘time for the chime’, ‘sniff the stiff’) that transcends their ostensible triteness.

There is incidental invention as well, those throwaway ideas that don’t make a story but help to give it depth, to suggest the writer is capable of far more than appears on the page, is not showing his full hand. The hypnotist comes armed with business cards to give to the guests, but the names are all those of Italian Renaissance artists, creators with whom he identifies, though Ligotti's usage brings to mind travelling showmen, snake oil salesmen and mafia foot soldiers. The somnambule is asked to remember the dates of birth of everyone in the audience, but when instructed to recite them back ‘she forecasts a future occasion which never coincides with the birthdate she was given’. To the members of the audience it appears the trick has failed, but we readers can pick up on the sinister hint given by the hypnotist that it is dates of death which are being revealed.

At one point in the proceedings the master hypnotist spies a young boy standing on a landing and watching as the crowd cavort with the somnambule, and when he interrogates the boy the hypnotist discovers that he alone sees things as they really are, an obvious allusion to Hans Christian Anderson’s story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. In a moment of uncharacteristic mercy the hypnotist sends the boy back to his bed with orders that he will sleep through till morning no matter what happens in the house because ‘it is certainly not my intention tonight to make any child’s eyes roll the wrong way’. Nor is Anderson the only writer whose work is touched on by Ligotti. In a flashback scene the hypnotist reflects on how ‘it takes a great master to pry open a pair of post-mortem eyes’, recalling Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, another story of mortality extended beyond its natural limit through the power of mesmerism, though what for Poe constituted a great scientific experiment is in Ligotti’s story reduced to the level of a vaudeville act.

And with that we come to the final revelation of this story, one already foreshadowed by asides from the narrator and the flashback above. The hypnotist has cast a spell over the audience and bent them to his will. He has told them that his assistant will be all that they hold beautiful in a woman, and that is the vision of loveliness they see when they look at her, but the truth waiting to be revealed, when a chime rings to release them from the spell, is something entirely different. They asked for the miraculous, and their wish will be granted, though not in any way they could have anticipated, as the bell chimes and they open their eyes to find that they are dancing with a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition. It’s the showstopper moment, the reveal to top all that has gone before.

‘They will be amazed,’ Ligotti concludes. I was, and I hope you will be as well.

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