I picked up this little graphic novel of horrors on a whim while browsing at the Hawthorne Powell’s. It was on sale for $8, and the cover had the look of an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series–not to mention I’m always on the lookout for new graphic novels to read. This particular one is a collection of short stories adapted from the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who is apparently well-known in certain circles. The collaboration sounded like an excellent idea, but even just as something atmospheric and spooky for fall, The Nightmare Factory feels somehow hollow and lacking.
Though he did not write the script adaptations, Ligotti himself introduces every story, an editorial choice that I’m still not sure was the best idea. While it is always fascinating to read an author comment on his/her own work, the first time I read a story, I like to experience it for myself. I like to hunt for details in the images and the text, let the story speak for itself. Placing a really authoritative introduction not at the beginning of the collection but at the beginning of each story makes it difficult to allow yourself that first, exploratory reading. As I read the stories in Nightmare, I had Ligotti’s voice in my head, telling me exactly what to look for, what he believed was important. It completely oversimplified the works and sometimes even entirely gave away the plot twists which are supposed to create the sense of horror in the first place. He introduces the opening tale, “The Last Feast of the Harlequin,” by explaining how every element of the tale was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. This made it impossible to read the story as anything but a Lovecraft imitation and cheapened a story that otherwise could have stood on its own (it’s one thing to wear your influences on your sleeve and another just to imitate them.).
On the whole, I did not find his commentary insightful enough to merit it coloring my first reading of the stories. In his introduction to “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum,” he waxes poetic on his decision to write a story about insanity. The choice to write a horror story about an asylum is hardly new, and the justification that the “insane” are somehow closer to the supernatural because of their shoddy grip on reality just doesn’t feel like a fresh take on a horror standard. The story itself is creepy and well-told enough not to feel cliche, but the introduction lends it a heavy, dated feeling.
The artwork, on the other hand, is quite lovely and well-suited to the subject matter. In “Dream of a Mannikin,” Ben Templesmith creates collages of sketchy figures, lushly colored backgrounds, and text, evoking a dream-like world. It reminds me a little of Dave McKean’s Sandman work, which also works to capture a world in which the fine line between fantasy and reality has been blurred. Michael Gaydos’ rich watercolor figures in “Teatro Grottesco” are suitably ominous, and have a strange coldness about them.
I don’t know if I would have appreciated this volume more if I were more familiar with Ligotti’s work. The stories clearly had to be edited to fit their new format, and images, not properly used, can have a difficult time replicating language’s ability to be delightfully ambiguous. Here I found a group of stories that felt conclusive without actually concluding anything. In other words, I think they intended to be more open-ended than they felt. I wanted to feel creeped out, but with Ligotti’s poor analysis of his own work whispering in my ears as I read and the brevity of every story, I just felt underwhelmed. Furthermore, though Ligotti understands that he is working in a great tradition, the tradition of Poe, Lovecraft, etc., I’m not sure he’s doing anything interesting with this tradition. Maybe reading the stories in their original form would reveal an entirely new depth, but it simply didn’t come through in these versions of the stories. Everything felt like standard horror fare: the world as a stage with a cruel director, people being turned into dolls, Gnostic cults. I was left wondering what made Ligotti a cult figure; how is he different from his predecessors his fans so proudly cite?
I did enjoy the collection of stories overall, but it was ultimately pretty forgettable. The art was atmospheric, but not groundbreaking, and the stories felt watered-down and flat, as if the editors had completely gutted them. If the publisher’s intent was to draw new readers into Ligotti’s work, I’m not sure this collection was the best way to do it. But then, as a fan of Gaiman’s work, I love seeing his short stories in graphic novel form, so perhaps Ligotti’s fans are the same.