09 November 2007

Books Compared: Lullaby/My Work is Not Yet Done

Only a cynic can create horror. For behind every masterpiece of the sort
must reside a driving daemonic force that despises the human race and its
illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.

-Howard Philips Lovecraft

I think I've been mentally comparing the works of Thomas Ligotti and Chuck Palahniuk since the first time I read Haunted.* Both are cult authors with reputations as nihilists, and both write with distinctive styles and thematic concerns. 2002 turned out to be an interesting publication year for both. (Pardon the familiarity of using first names; but both have rather long surnames.) Chuck published his first foray into horror with the novel Lullaby; Thom published his longest work, a novella by the name of My Work is Not Yet Done in a collection of the same name. (I won't get into the other two, much shorter stories included in that book.)

The similarities extend beyond publication date. Both feature disaffected narrators who find themselves acquiring supernatural powers of a questionable nature, but more importantly both are intensely dark, funny and philosophical works. There's even overlapping themes, such as concerns over mortality, criticisms of modern capitalism, and some apocalyptic musings.The main contrast is the characteristic style. Chuck's minimalism is descended from Hemingway by way of Amy Hempel and Raymond Carver. It emphasizes the use of verbs over adjectives, and he prefers short sentences that mirror the way people speak. Thom's style, on the other hand, reflects the baroque and surreal influences of authors such as H.P. Lovecraft (adjectivitis!) and Bruno Schulz.

I imagine most people will find Chuck's style a little more accessible. MWINYD is actually among the lower end of the baroque for Thom, but overall I find his style more effective, especially at evoking the requisite atmosphere of a horror story, than Chuck's.

Lullaby is easily Chuck's best work, but as a work of horror fiction it has some flaws. As I've already stated, his minimalism is less effective at creating atmosphere than Thom's subtle surrealism. Horror fiction revolves around the emotion of fear and its various permutations, and Lullaby is not particularly scary.

My other criticism of Lullaby as a work of horror is Chuck's handling of the supernatural element. Supernatural elements can be tricky to handle effectively in fiction, especially horror. When handled skillfully, they serve to effectively bind the story together, giving substance to submerged or displaced issues. (i.e., the way Cthulhu embodies Lovecraft's pessimism or Dracula lurks in the shadows of Victorian sexuality) When handled poorly, they come off as plot contrivances with little rhyme or reason.

Lullaby falls somewhere in between. I liked its haunted houses and visions of sonic plague, but I thought the culling song hadn't really been though through properly and its grimoire was a little silly. MWINYD's supernatural elements, however, seemed a much more natural fit for the narrator/author's philosophy and his concern with the meaninglessness of existence.

Both books, in fact, struggle with the question of the meaningless of existence, which is approached from a perspective of profound skepticism bordering on nihilism. Though both authors are considered nihilists, there is actually a fair amount of difference with Chuck's sunny nihilism an interesting counterpoint to Thom's bleak nihilism. As Tyler Durden says in an earlier Chuck book: "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." I suspect the Frank Dominio, the protagonist of MWINYD, learns we're never free completely free to do anything and losing everything is its own reward.

As with writing styles, I think Chuck's work is probably the more accessible. Behind the bleakness and the dark humor lurks a heart in search of redemption as sincere as that of a Dr. Phil fan. Thom's philosophy is bleaker, like a shadow version of Zen, where we are only free when we lose all illusions, but to do that you must accept freedom itself as an illusion.** (Again, personal preference here leans towards Thom's more absolute darkness.) Ironically, these different outlooks reflect to an extent their literary influences; contrast Hemingway's humanism with Lovecraft's cosmicism.

* Haunted's prologue invokes the conceptual slipperiness between human beings and their simulacra (puppets, mannikins, etc.); while this concept was certainly not invented by Ligotti, he has evoked it more uniquely and effectively than any author since Bruno Schulz.

** Or to contrast two interesting quotes, one from Haunted, one from "The Nightmare Network" (the third story in MWINYD):
Chuck: "Each of us striving to be the camera behind the camera behind the camera"
Thom: "The camera pulls back on the entire universe. There is no one behind the camera."

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