Liminal Terror and Collective Identity
in Thomas Ligotti's "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World"
by Matt Cardin

But I wanted to witness what could never be
I wanted to see what could not be seen --
The moment of consummate disaster
When puppets turn to face the puppetmaster.
Thomas Ligotti, "I Have a Special Plan for This World"

Thomas Ligotti has long been known for the extreme darkness of his philosophical vision, and for the power his stories possess to imprint this darkness upon the reader's own outlook and mood. In this paper I shall examine this darkness as it relates to Ligotti's story "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," which can be found in his collection Grimscribe: His Lives and Works, as well as in his omnibus collection titled The Nightmare Factory. Specifically, I shall examine the ways in which the story uses the motifs of liminal terror and collective identity to achieve the acme of philosophical nightmarishness that has come to be recognized as the hallmark of Ligotti's fictional oeuvre.1)

"The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" relates the story of an unspecified rural town which experiences an unnatural prolongation of the autumn season one year. The sights, sounds, and smells of autumn ripen to an almost unbearable pitch, until one night the town's residents see a scarecrow begin to move in a grotesque fashion in a farmer's field on the edge of town. They gather the next day to examine the scarecrow, and when they attack it and remove its outer garments, they discover not the expected wooden frame but "something black and twisted into the form of a man, something that seemed to have come up from the earth and grown over the wooden planks like a dark fungus, consuming the structure" (Ligotti, Grimscribe 222). In a vague communal panic, they dig deep into the earth to find the base of the stalk, but no matter how far they dig, they cannot find its end. By the next day the stalk has disappeared ("It's gone back," says the farmer who owns the field. "Gone into the earth like something hiding in its shell" (224)), and in its place there is now a wide and seemingly bottomless pit. The overripe autumn season continues to linger over the following days and weeks until eventually the townspeople's dreams are affected. "In sleep," they say,

we were consumed by the feverish life of the earth, cast among a ripe, fairly rotting world of strange growth and transformation. We took a place within a darkly flourishing landscape where even the air was ripened into ruddy hues and everything wore the wrinkled grimace of decay, the mottled complexion of old flesh. The face of the land itself was knotted with so many other faces, ones that were corrupted by vile impulses. Grotesque expressions were molding themselves into the darkish grooves of ancient bark and the whorls of withered leaf; pulpy, misshapen features peered out of damp furrows; and the crisp skin of stalks and dead seeds split into a multitude of crooked smiles. All was a freakish mask painted with russet, rashy colors -- colors that bled with a virulent intensity, so rich and vibrant that things trembled with their own ripeness. But despite this gross palpability, there remained something spectral at the heart of these dreams. It moved in shadow, a presence that was in the world of solid forms but not of it. Nor did it belong to any other world that could be named, unless it was to that realm which is suggested to us by an autumn night when fields lay ragged in moonlight and some wild spirit has entered into things, a great aberration sprouting forth from a chasm of moist and fertile shadows, a hollow-eyed howling malignity rising to present itself to the cold emptiness of space and the pale gaze of the moon. (225-6)

Things come to a head one night when two strangers, a woman and a small boy, arrive in town unexpectedly and begin to walk the streets. The townspeople watch from their windows as one of their own named Mr. Marble goes out to meet them. Mr. Marble is an old eccentric, well known to everyone, who all along has seemed to understand much more about what is happening than the other townspeople are able to grasp. He is a blade sharpener by trade, an "old visionary who sharpened knives and axes and curving scythes" (227), and the spell of the season seems to have overtaken him with an especially virulent intensity. On the night of the visitors' arrival, he reappears from an unexplained absence and begins to stalk the streets with a blade in his hand: "Possessed by the ecstasies of a dark festival, he moved in a trance, bearing in his hand that great ceremonial knife whose keen edge flashed a thousand glittering dreams" (228). The townspeople watch in anticipation as he approaches the visitors to perform the rightful sacrifice that will culminate the energies of this aberrant season. But his hand trembles; he is unable to do it, and the woman and the boy flee. The next morning the townspeople find him facedown in the farmer's field, dead of a self-inflicted wound from his own blade. His blood appears to be of the same substance that grew up from the ground and into the scarecrow, and they take the body and throw it into the pit.

From the outset, "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" abounds in details that invite the reader to analyze the story in terms of the motif of liminality. By this term I refer to the idea, so familiar to poststructuralist critics, of a state or category that does not conform to the rigidly defined distinctions of conventional thinking, but instead falls somehow "between" the lines of generally accepted categories. The term "liminal" itself is borrowed from the discipline of anthropology, where many investigators have used it to refer to the status of tribal members during the period of their initiation into full adulthood. Such people are regularly viewed as neither adults nor children for the duration of the initiation ceremony, and as such they "elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space" (Turner 95). In a word, they are liminal entities.
The significance of this idea for the current paper can be found in the fact that encounters with liminal phenomena almost always produce a sense of strangeness, uncomfortableness, or uncanniness. This reaction accounts for the fact, noted by structuralist theorist Edmund Leach, that "whenever we make category distinctions within a unified is the boundaries that matter; we concentrate our attention on the differences, not the similarities, and this makes us feel that the markers of such boundaries are of special value, 'sacred', 'taboo'" (Leach 35). This is so, simply because an encounter with something that falls on the interstices of one's conceptual and cultural "world" tends to remind one of the fact that virtual mountains of phenomena have been, and are being, excluded from one's field of vision by the classificatory grid itself. One realizes that reality itself is much bigger and stranger and more unbounded than one usually perceives it to be, and thus the validity of the grid is called into question. Sociologist Peter Berger argues that "the socially constructed world is, above all, an ordering of experience. A meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals" (Berger 19). Berger further argues that nomization is every society's most important function. To be separated from the nomizing influence of society, he says, is to be in danger of experiencing a sense of meaninglessness, which in his view is "the nightmare par excellence, in which the individual is submerged in a world of disorder, senselessness and madness. Reality and identity are malignantly transformed into meaningless figures of horror. To be in society is to be 'sane' precisely in the sense of being shielded from the ultimate 'insanity' of such anomic terror" (22).
The question at hand, of course, is whether such an experience of anomic terror (which for the purposes of this paper shall be equated with liminal terror) is possible without being separated from a societal nomos. Is it possible that hints of this terror may filter into the daylight world of nomic reality through the interstices of the classificatory grid (which in structural terms would be explained as a system of binary opposites) that define the world's parameters? Is it possible that literature might serve one such venue for the experience of liminal terror? Literary critic Scott Carpenter points out that the use of literary techniques which emphasize the fuzzy boundaries between our conceptual categories -- that is, techniques which emphasize the limen, the threshold between the categories -- "traditionally excite[s] the fear and fascination of readers. Thus the intersection of such opposites as living/dead gives rise to ghost stories (phantoms being both animate and inanimate), the blending of human and inhuman gives birth to such figures as Frankenstein's monster, and the intermingling of past and present becomes the stuff of science fiction." He continues with the sociological observation that "Historically, elements corresponding to the logic of both/and are regarded by society as exceptional, scandalous, and even monstrous. Often efforts are made to repress or at least to neutralize these representations of 'in-between-ness'" (Carpenter 60).
Quite clearly, the experience of liminal terror can indeed be generated by literature, and this brings us back to Ligotti's "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World." As mentioned above, the story seems almost to invite the reader to analyze it in terms of its use of the motif of liminality, and this gives us a clue about the ways in which the story will attempt to affect its readers. Consider, for example, the second sentence of the first paragraph, in which the narrator says that the strange mood of the prolonged autumnal season was evident to everyone, "whether we happened to live in town or somewhere outside its limits" (Ligotti, Grimscribe 219). The liminality of the space between town and countryside is a common theme in some anthropological literature. This is a slippery space: where exactly does town become country? When you find yourself on the outskirts of a town, how can you know for sure whether you are located inside or outside its limit? Immediately, Ligotti has called attention to this liminal space, and has thus begun to invest the story with a mood of liminal terror. The same issue is brought out even more clearly in the next sentence: "(And traveling between town and countryside was Mr. Marble, who had been studying the seasonal signs far longer and in greater depth than we, disclosing prophecies that no one would credit at the time.)" (219) The liminal space that was referred to only obliquely in the previous sentence is now made explicit. Notice that Mr. Marble's liminal status -- he travels "between town and countryside" -- is reinforced by the fact that the sentence is enclosed in parentheses. In a way, it can be said that we put mental "parentheses" around all liminal phenomena by relegating them to the periphery of our attention, and so the sentence in which we first meet Mr. Marble has the double effect of situating him in liminal space both in content and in form. This interpretation gains added weight from the fact that the second mention of him in the story, two paragraphs later, is also parenthetical: "But everything upon that land seemed unwilling to support our hunger for revelation, and our congregation was lost in fidgeting bemusement. (With the exception, of course, of Mr. Marble, whose eyes, we recall, were gleaming with illuminations he could not offer us in any words we would understand.)" (221)
In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator describes a field that lies "adjacent to the edge of town," providing yet another invocation of the liminal space between town and countryside (220). The strange nocturnal dance of the scarecrow represents yet another instance of liminality. What is it about scarecrows that seems so strange to so many people? Why do scarecrows sometimes appear as prominent figures in weird literature and horror movies? One reason may be that scarecrows are effigies of the human form, and as such they call attention to another basic category distinction, the distinction between human and not-human. (At this point the reader is referred to Ligotti's longtime fascination with dolls and dummies.) On a subconscious level, scarecrows seem to resist being neatly categorized as either completely human (since they are not alive) or completely non-human (since they are vaguely man-shaped), and so they provoke a peculiar emotional reaction, namely, the experience of liminal terror. When a scarecrow is portrayed as standing alone in a field on a breezeless night, and then beginning to kick its legs as it raises its face to the moonlit sky, one may easily imagine the heightening of the effect that results.
On the morning after the nocturnal dance of the scarecrow, when the townspeople arrive at the farmer's field, things seem rather dreamy and murky. It almost seems as if the people are unable to fully wake up: "The sky had hidden itself behind a leaden vault of clouds, depriving us of the crucial element of pure sunlight which we needed to fully burn off the misty dreams of the past night" (221). This passage highlights yet another basic category distinction: the line between waking reality and dreaming reality. In the famous words of the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu, "Are you a man who dreamed you were a butterfly, or are you now a butterfly dreaming that you are a man?" Strictly speaking, in subjective experience it is impossible to answer this question either way with complete confidence. Equally impossible is the attempt to remember the precise moment when one crosses over from wakefulness into sleep, or vice versa. The very fact that our lives are divided into two realms of consciousness whose fuzzy boundaries make them anything but discrete provides fertile ground for the experience of liminal terror.2) In "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," this truth is exploited by the inability of the narrator to fully wake up on the morning following the scarecrow's dance. Henceforth, the very narration itself can be viewed as taking place in the liminal space between waking and dreaming, and the fact that the story is narrated in the first person means that the reader experiences his or her own reading self as being located in the same space. There is a symmetry in the story's use of liminal periods of time. As with sleep and waking, so with night and day: when exactly does one become the other? Twilight and dawn can both be seen as liminal periods. Significantly, the attack of the townspeople on the scarecrow occurs at twilight, and when they gather back at the field the next morning, it is at the precise moment when "the frigid aurora of dawn appeared over the distant woods" (224).
Near the story's midpoint, the literary cues encouraging us to interpret the story in terms of the experience of liminal terror begin to increase in scope. When the townspeople begin to have their vivid dreams of "a ripe, fairly rotting world of strange growth and transformation," they are beginning to see the dissolution of all their conceptual and perceptual categories. When the visions from their dreams -- the faces and figures visible on walls, the overripe colors of the leaves, etc. -- begin to make their appearance in waking reality itself, it is apparent that the "other world" glimpsed in liminal spaces is on the verge of breaking through and overrunning the daylight world of conceptual categories. The concluding sentence of this section explicitly describes a liminal presence, an unknown and unknowable something that exists not in the categories of our world (or any other) but between them, and is thus worth quoting again:

It moved in shadow, a presence that was in the world of solid forms but not of it. Nor did it belong to any other world that could be named, unless it was that realm which is suggested to us by an autumn night when fields lay ragged in moonlight and some wild spirit has entered into things, a great aberration sprouting forth from a chasm of moist and fertile shadows, a hollow-eyed howling malignity rising to present itself to the cold emptiness of space and the pale gaze of the moon. (225-6)

This is the closest the story gets to describing the nature of the reality which seems to be pressing in upon the daylight "world of solid forms," and the reality so described would seem to correspond in every respect to Berger's description of anomic reality as "a world of disorder, senselessness, and madness" in which "reality and identity are malignantly transformed into meaningless figures of horror" (Berger 22).
More than any other single element, the fact that the story is set in an extended autumn season serves to invest it with a sense of liminal strangeness and terror. During the spring and summer, the world is alive. During the winter it is dead. During autumn it is both, and neither. Of course, the boundaries between all seasons are indistinct, but with autumn the sense of strangeness seems to be particularly pronounced. It is no accident that Halloween, the holiday devoted to acknowledging and celebrating the dark side of life, occurs during this season. Ligotti himself speculates about this quintessential mood of autumn in the opening paragraph of the story when he describes the common thread winding its way through all the autumn scenes pictured on all the calendars in the homes of the townspeople:

On the calendars which hung in so many of our homes, the monthly photograph illustrated the spirit of the numbered days below it: sheaves of cornstalks standing brownish and brittle in a newly harvested field, a narrow house and wide barn in the background, a sky of empty light above, and fiery leafage frolicking about the edges of the scene. But something dark, something abysmal always finds its way into the bland beauty of such pictures, something that usually holds itself in abeyance, some entwining presence that we always know is there. (Ligotti, Grimscribe 219)

This "entwining presence" is none other than the liminal strangeness that seems to be more palpable during the autumn months than at any other time of the year. In the very next sentence, the narrator announces this autumn weirdness as the very subject of the story: "And it was exactly this presence that had gone into crisis...."3) The liminal strangeness of autumn is also accented in this story by the fact that for some reason, autumn won't end. Winter will not come. The temporal setting becomes more and more strange, more and more liminal, as the leaves that should have fallen long ago remain on the trees, and as the field that should have frozen long ago remains warm. As mentioned above, autumn is already a liminal season. The end of autumn is even more so, and Ligotti prolongs this end until the story seems to take place in a time that nobody has ever known before, a time that is familiar and yet unfamiliar, beautiful yet hideous, flourishing yet decaying. Above all, it is a time that is thoroughly terrifying in its liminality.

This investigation of the liminal motif in "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" does not deliver its full reward until we consider it in light of the second motif I have chosen to emphasize, which is the motif of collective identity. We can see at a glance that the story is told in the first person plural. The pronoun I does not appear a single time. Instead, the townspeople seem to narrate the story with a single voice (all emphases in the following quotes are mine): "The field allowed full view of itself from so many of our windows" (220). "Soft lights shone through curtained windows along the length of each street, where our trim wooden homes seemed as small as dollhouses beneath the dark rustling depths of the season" (224). "Our speculations were brief and useless" (224). "It was not long after this troubling episode that our dreams, which formerly had been the merest shadows and glimpses, swelled into full phase" (225). "But the truth is that we wanted something to happen to them -- we wanted to see them silenced. Such was our desire" (229). This narrative voice, while relatively rare, is hardly unheard of in the annals of literature, but in this particular story it is unusually important, and we will find that a careful consideration of it will elicit some significant points.
For instance, consider for a moment the first person plural narrative voice in light of the concept of liminal terror as developed in the paper up to this point. Viewed this way, we immediately begin to sense the strangeness of the voice. In concrete reality we never experience a communal voice either objectively or subjectively (the claims of Freudian psychoanalytic theory about repression etc. notwithstanding). In fact, in concrete reality we never experience such a thing as a group. Consider, for example, the idea of "fruit." You can't hold "fruit" in your hand. "Fruit" is a category, a conceptual grouping that is useful for purposes of classification and recognition, but that in truth has no concrete referent. In existential reality you can only hold a specific fruit, e.g. an apple or a banana. The same is true of human groupings. There is no such existential entity as a group, e.g. a town. There is real land, there are real houses and streets and street lamps, there are real individual people, but the grouping of these separate entities into the collective entity known as a "town" is a conceptual exercise, and this leads us to view the first person plural narrative voice as something extremely peculiar, something that tends to inspire feelings of liminal terror and strangeness. The collective narrator of "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" can exist only in mental space. Even if a thousand people were to read the story aloud in unison, they would still amount to nothing more than a thousand separate voices. At no point could we say that a true collective voice had emerged from the group reading. Ligotti's use of the collective narrator immediately creates an aura of otherworldly strangeness; as we read the story we are placed inside the mind of an entity that is at once entirely familiar (the population of a town) and yet entirely strange (the collective voice of a town).
Having established this point, it becomes most interesting and revealing to note the use of the third person to refer to characters in the story, because such instances serve to sharpen the boundaries of the collective narrator's identity. There are only five people in the story who are referred to in the third person: Mr. Marble, the farmer who owns the field containing the scarecrow, the anonymous townsperson who says "Maybe there'll be some change in the spring" (although this person may still be considered to exist within the boundaries of the collective narrator), and the woman and child who arrive in town unexpectedly. Whenever someone is referred to in the third person, he or she is thereby placed outside the boundary of the "we" who are telling the story. The logic behind these instances seems to make sense. The farmer owns the field from which the black stalk erupts, and the collective narrator wants to distance him/her/itself from the strange manifestation. The farmer is excluded from the boundary of the narrator's collective identity simply by virtue of the fact that he is too closely associated with something the narrator fears. The person who speaks of a possible change in the spring may still be considered a member of the group; perhaps "someone said" may be taken as implying "one of us said." The mother and son are complete outsiders; their very alienness to the narrator seems to bring out the narrator's greatest fear: "Our fear was what they might have known, what they must certainly have discovered, about us" (229, Ligotti's emphasis).
But these instances are all overshadowed by the extended treatment of Mr. Marble, who possesses by far the strongest individual identity of any character in the story. He is always referred to in the third person, and interestingly, his notable individuality seems to be bound up somehow with the fact of his liminal positioning. He is notable because he travels "between town and countryside" both physically and in his thoughts. His deep knowledge makes him opaque: his "eyes, we recall, were gleaming with illuminations he could not offer us in any words we would understand." He is able to "read in the leaves" the activities of that strange liminal presence that is forcing its way into the light. The fact that he sharpens blades for a living only serves to reinforce his individuality and his liminal status: blades cut, blades separate, just as the sharpness of Mr. Marble's mind slices through, and perhaps widens, the lines or cracks in the world through which the liminal presence is emerging. Importantly, he is the only character in the story to be given a separate name, and the name "Marble" itself suggests the streaking or mottling of separate colors (read: separate conceptual categories) that would occur if the liminal were transposed with the conceptual or the nomic.
Ironically -- or perhaps all too expectedly -- Mr. Marble's individuality, his ability to see and think on his own apart from the crowd, renders him especially susceptible to invasion and domination by the invading presence. His mental acuity fades as he is drawn farther and farther into the thrall of the dark presence, until eventually he is entirely under its control, much in the manner of the scarecrow which was invaded by the "thick dark stalk which rose out of the earth and reached into the effigy like a hand into a puppet" (222). Before being taken over by the presence, Mr. Marble unwittingly states his own doom as a cryptic prophecy: "Doesn't have arms, but it knows how to use them. Doesn't have a face, but it knows where to find one" (227). When the strangers arrive in town on the night when the gathering eruption is obviously coming to a head, the liminal has become central. After having been referred to twice in parentheses, after having spent so much time "traveling between town and countryside," Mr. Marble is now at the center of the town and the center of events. In the mind of the collective narrator, by all rights Mr. Marble should kill the visitors. This is the end toward which the entire upsurge of energy has been leading. The proper sacrifice will signal the completion of the strange mutation. The energy has reached a peak and must be discharged.
But at this point the story reveals an even deeper layer, a layer that further complicates the issue of collective identity vs. individual identity, and that promises to bear fruit in our ongoing investigation of the story's use of liminal terror. Even though Mr. Marble's "outsideness," his liminality and individuality, are responsible for opening him up to control by the invading presence, they also endow him with the freedom to choose. When he chooses not to complete the sacrifice, and instead to vent the gathering energy on himself, the true heart of the narrator's identity is revealed by the fact that they want the sacrifice to be completed. They want the outsiders to be killed because "only then would we be sure that they could not tell what they knew ....Our fear was what they might have known, what they must certainly have discovered, about us."
Which one has truly surrendered self-control to the invading dark presence, Mr. Marble or the narrator? Mr. Marble can still resist. The townspeople cannot, because -- and here is the awaited reward -- they realize that the nightmarish reality attempting to break through into their daylit world is none other than their own deepest self. The dark thing is the root of their own collective identity. It is they who have been controlled by the black stalk rising up into the scarecrow "like a hand into a puppet." The very fact that they have been speaking in a collective voice, which, as noted above, can occur only in a liminal space, shows that the dark root has been behind their thoughts and actions all along. Their horror is self horror. They do not want to become self-conscious, to recognize and know the horrible thing which they are.

Although "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" was originally published in issue number sixteen of the small press horror magazine Fear, we can deepen our understanding of its secrets by viewing it as being organically related to Ligotti's second collection of short stories, titled Grimscribe: His Lives and Works, in which it is the final piece. This allows us to relate it back to the framing device introduced at the beginning of the book, where in the introduction the stories in the collection are framed as tales told by a metaphysical entity who has no name, but who for the purposes of the book has decided to call itself Grimscribe. It is also said that his name is the name of everyone, and that "he keeps his name secret, his many names. He hides each one from all the others, so that they will not become lost among themselves. Protecting his life from all his lives, from the memory of so many lives, he hides behind the mask of anonymity" (Ligotti, Grimscribe ix). This could just as well be taken as describing the narrator of "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," a story which is appropriately the only entry in the final section of the book titled "The Voice of Our [i.e. Grimscribe's] Name" (other sections being titled "The Voice of the Damned," "The Voice of the Demon," "The Voice of the Dreamer," and "The Voice of the Child"). Considered in light of Grimscribe as a whole, this story may be understood as being narrated by Grimscribe itself in the first person, standing out at last from behind the mask of the other characters in whose guises it has appeared (all the stories in Grimscribe are told in the first person). If Grimscribe is indeed the name of everyone, then the near transposition of worlds in "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" represents the near loss of all sanity and identity. The collective identity of the town brings about the horror, because such collectivity is already the beginning of that "backward slide," as Grimscribe calls it, "into that great blackness in which all names [i.e. identities] have their source" (ix).
The narrator's (Grimscribe's) fear of what the visitors might have discovered about it may arise at least in part from the fact that the discovery of the townspeople's secret is also the discovery of the visitors' secret. That is, the madness passes itself on through the recognition of one's own secret self in another. Grimscribe's careful self-deception almost comes unraveled in a horrible birth of self-awareness. When Grimscribe/the townspeople drop Mr. Marble's body into the bottomless pit, its/their motives are obscure. On the one hand, they are still horrified by the black substance that has replaced Mr. Marble's blood, and this shows that they are still horrified at the possible discovery of their own identity. On the other hand, they envy and hate Mr. Marble because he represents the individuality which eludes them. The key to understanding their action lies in the recognition that in a perverse way, they/Grimscribe wanted their own destruction to be complete. The murder of the outsiders would have killed the spread of the townspeople's self-knowledge, but it would also have signaled the successful conquest of the daylight world by the darkness, and thus brought an end (albeit not a pleasant one) to their, and Grimscribe's, torturous charade. Grimscribe would have met the darkness and discovered it to be his own self, and there would have been no one left to say or do or know or suffer or fear or be anything. But since the rightful sacrifice was aborted, Grimscribe must continue the charade, and conscious beings must continue to suffer the ambivalence of simultaneously fearing and longing for ultimate self-knowledge, until at last, in the words of Ligotti's prose poem "Primordial Loathing," "that perfect lid of darkness falls over this world once more" (Ligotti, Noctuary 179).

Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
Carpenter, Scott. Reading Lesson: An Introduction to Theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000.
Leach, Edmund. Culture and Communication: The Logic by Which Symbols are Connected. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.
Ligotti, Thomas. Grimscribe: His Live and Works. New York: Jove Books, 1994.
_____. Noctuary. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
Paul, R.F. and Keith Schurholz. "Triangulating the Daemon: an Interview with Thomas Ligotti." Esoterra #8 (Winter/Spring 1999): 14-21.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.

1) For a comprehensive overview of Ligotti's career in horror fiction, the interested reader is referred to the author's essay "Thomas Ligotti's Career of Nightmares," which can be found at the Terror Tales website ( and at the German website "The Art of Grimscribe" (
2) Cf. Berger, pp. 42-3: "It would be erroneous to think of these situations [in which the reality of everyday life is put into question] as being rare. On the contrary, every individual passes through such a situation every twenty hours or so -- in the experience of sleep and, very importantly, in the transition stages between sleep and wakefulness. In the world of dreams the reality of everyday life is definitely left behind. In the transition stages of falling asleep and waking up again the contours of everyday reality are, at the least, less firm than in the state of fully awake consciousness. The reality of everyday life, therefore, is continuously surrounded by a penumbra of vastly different realities. These, to be sure, are segregated in consciousness as having a special cognitive status (in the consciousness of modern man, a lesser one) and thus generally prevented from massively threatening the primary reality of fully awake existence. Even then, however, the 'dikes' of everyday reality are not always impermeable to the invasion of those other realities that insinuate themselves into consciousness during sleep. There are always the 'nightmares' that continue to haunt in the daytime -- specifically, with the 'nightmarish' thought that daytime reality may not be what it purports to be, that behind it lurks a totally different reality that may have as much validity, that indeed world and self may ultimately be something quite different from what they are defined to be by the society in which one lives one's daytime existence..."
3) As one might guess from his deeply emotional description of the season, autumn is Ligotti's favorite time of year, and "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" is his favorite among his own works for precisely this reason. "Autumn has always held a special magic for me," he has said, "and I tried to put as much of that feeling as I could into this story" (Paul & Schurholz 20).

© Matt Cardin
this essay appeared first on the "Thomas Ligotti Online" website (
Courtesy by Matt Cardin.
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