In a blogpost sometime around last Halloween I mentioned that I´m too unstable to read horror fiction. You had the right to know about that personal limitation. But since then I´ve been wondering if you, as taxpayers, would be wanting me to transcend my hang-ups. Shouldn´t I be willing to endure some spiritual agony for this blog?
Deciding that the answer was yes, I recalled an intriguing review I’d read years earlier of a story by “weird tale” specialist Thomas Ligotti. It´s called “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and it appears in his collection The Shadow at the Bottom of the World. I checked it out and dug in, but alas . . .
The premise: A scholarly fellow wants to dress as a clown and attend an odd annual festival in the town of Mirocaw in some (I think) unnamed state. The reader sees right away that there’s something wrong with Mirocaw, and we learn more when the rites begin. SPOILER ALERT, I’M GOING TO GIVE AWAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT: Some of the people who take part in the festival are turning into worms. END OF SPOILER ALERT.
I shrieked inwardly as I ran from the story. I’m taking steroids, now, for an unrelated ailment, and have requested the book, again. I may or may not get back to it.
A week or so after my Ligotti attempt I reread a couple of Wendell Berry tales from That Distant Land: The Collected Stories. I wasn’t making any connection at the time, but the story “Watch with Me,” though it couldn’t be more different in tone from “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” has a similar thread. An terribly isolated man embarks on a quest and puts himself in harm’s way.
Wendell Berry’s loner is named Thacker Hample, and is nicknamed “Nightlife” due to his poor vision and incredibly thick eyeglasses. He belonged to a large family locally noted for the fact that from one generation to another not a one of them had worked quite right. As our story begins, Nightlife has fallen under one of his “spells.” He shows up at Tol Proudfoot’s farm, grabs a shotgun that’s leaning against a shed, says “Well, a damned fellow just as well shoot hisself, I reckon,” and takes off.
Tol and a group of other farmers follow Nightlife into the woods, wondering how to help him, always staying a distance behind him,. Others join them, some depart. As is often the case in a Wendell Berry story, there’s a sense of community–of an effort being made to hold a people together–that you won’t always find in other fiction, let alone in horror stories. I wept and slobbered all over my front porch as I reread the story and thought of those in my life with whom I must keep watch. Also I laughed a lot. Some funny things are said in those woods.
So if you’re in a weird-tale mood, you might try Ligotti. (High-style horror stories in a classic literary mode, in expressiveness not far from the American masters, Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Ligotti writes out of what seems an all-embracing depression, making him willing to go into wipeout areas time and again and ask a lot both of himself and his readers. His narrators seldom effect any change; they simply observe a superbly described inner state, then leave, hungover. — Kirkus Reviews)
After that experience, if you need some healing, try Berry. “Watch with Me” and other stories in That Distant Land (“The Hurt Man,” “Pray without Ceasing”) aren’t set in a rural paradise. The characters suffer all sorts of damage. But join the lost sheep Nightlife for his ramble through the woods, and when you reach the end, see if you don’t feel as though you’ve been found.