Books

5 Thomas Ligotti Stories that Deserve an Adaptation

One of the most exciting discoveries in last year’s crop of short films was In a Foreign Town, the 10-minute Thomas Ligotti adaptation by director Michael Shlain. This was only the second time that a Ligotti story had been put to film, and the short did a fine job of translating the Detroit writer’s unique vision of horror to the screen, all without compromising or watering down its existential bleakness. Based on the performance of In a Foreign Town, Shlain’s studio is setting its sights higher for a follow-up: if things go according to plan, an anthology series of Ligotti adaptations may be coming to TV in the near future. 

If nothing else, the timing would be apt. The genres of weird and cosmic horror have experienced something of a renaissance recently, with works like Lovecraft Country and The Lighthouse preparing audiences to accept something altogether stranger. As well, the world of Ligotti’s fiction contains plenty of material to fuel an anthology, teeming with sinister puppets, macabre nightmare-cities, and vast unseen forces around the periphery of human experience. In anticipation of such a series here are five Ligotti stories that would work particularly well for the big screen:

The Last Feast of Harlequin

Written as an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, “The Last Feast of Harlequin” is one of Ligotti’s most popular stories, and a fitting way of introducing his dark world to new audiences. First debuted on the cover of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1990, its main character is a university anthropologist, intrigued by rumors of a festival of masked clowns in the nearby town of Mirocaw. In the course of his investigations, things get out of hand (as they often do), and the anthropologist winds up in a cavern deep below the town, where he discovers what really lurks behind the revelers’ masks. Not only does the story have a straightforward, plot-heavy approach that lends it well to a screen adaptation, but its central monsters are among the most iconic in Ligotti’s pantheon, rivaling Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and the Deep Ones for sheer memorability. It also introduces many of Ligotti’s most important themes, including a fascination with decaying and neglected towns, strange rituals, and carnivals, that pervades his work. For all these reasons, it would be a strong contender for an opening episode. 

Our Temporary Supervisor

If Ligotti’s early work is heavily influenced by Lovecraft, his later “Corporate Horror” stories have more in common with the surreal nightmares of Franz Kafka. One of the most important of these, “Our Temporary Supervisor,” deals with the fundamentally awful experience of having a boss, something most people can relate to. Its narrator works for the monolithic Quine Organization, where the familiar Mr. Frowley is suddenly called away and replaced by an interim supervisor – one who arrives mysteriously in the early morning, and doesn’t seem to be entirely human. Uniquely, one of the most unsettling scenes takes place only in silhouettes on the frosted windows of the new supervisor’s office, presenting a real opportunity for visual flair and unconventional storytelling. As a whole, “Our Temporary Supervisor” follows a logic of less-is-more, hinting at its inner mysteries rather than stating them outright. It’s also one of Ligotti’s most overtly political stories, steeped in the doom and discontent that surrounds modern capitalism, where mega-corporations seek to control and exploit every aspect of life. As such, it has an immediate relevance to the issues of today’s world. Hints towards this story can be found in the background of In a Foreign Town, where several medicine bottles bear a Quine logo, so its adaptation at some point seems likely. 

Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes

Part of the “Nyctalops Trilogy” that helped to make Ligotti’s name in the early 1980s, “Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes” is among his most visual stories, playing with concepts of beauty and ugliness in highly disturbing ways. The narrative follows a stage hypnotist and his glamorous assistant, as they charm the guests at a late-night dinner party one by one – until eventually they reach someone who sees through the illusion, to the grotesque secrets beneath. Showing off Ligotti’s underrated sense of humor, “Drink to Me Only…” has a twist ending worthy of The Twilight Zone at the height of its powers, culminating in what amounts to a gleefully sick joke. It also contains a meta-commentary on the role of entertainment in the modern world, and the audience’s constant demand for newer and more fantastical sights. The emphasis on mesmerism and illusion forms a great opportunity for any team of visual effects or makeup artists, and would be a true spectacle in the right hands. (The story has, for that matter, already been recorded as an episode of the Pseudopod podcast, which gives some idea of what a filmed version might be like.)

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Crampton

“Crampton” began its life in the TV medium, pitched as a script for the original run of The X-Files in 1998. Co-written with Brandon Trenz, the episode was rejected unseen by the showrunners, but was later published as a standalone book with its references to Agents Scully and Mulder removed. With a few minor tweaks, it could also make a fine episode in a Ligotti anthology. Its mystery plot is a compelling one, beginning with the assassination of an FBI agent by a figure dressed in a magician’s black suit and tails – a man who wields a prop gun with a “BANG!” flag, and collapses into a heap of mannequin parts when captured. The strangeness only escalates from there, and “Crampton” contains some of Ligotti’s most chilling moments, as the Illusion of Empire magic company peels back the tricks behind all reality. Since it already exists in script form, this would be an easy tale to adapt, and has the potential to become an unforgettable masterpiece of cosmic pessimism.  

Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech

Here, Ligotti takes his longstanding obsession with puppets, dolls, and other not-quite-human entities to new heights, crafting one of the finest examples of the trope in all horror. The titular Mr. Veech is a troubled man, who turns to his reclusive friend Dr. Voke to solve the issues of his romantic life – only to be horrified by his methods, which involve acts of puppet-mastery violating all the laws of nature. Like with “Our Temporary Supervisor,” hints towards “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech” already exist within Michael Shlain’s filmmaking, with their names inscribed on a tattered circus poster in one shot of In a Foreign Town. Their invocation opens up all sorts of possibilities for the more abstract and metaphorical side of Ligotti’s horror, which ponders questions about the nature of human minds and wills – and whether all of us are not puppets in one way or another. 

Honorable Mention: The Frolic

“The Frolic” was the first Ligotti story to be adapted, released straight to DVD in a limited edition in 2010. In the process, it proved to the world that Ligotti was not, as many had thought, unfilmable. Considering its age and small budget, this early attempt holds up surprisingly well today, with Maury Sterling’s performance as the malevolent prisoner John Doe standing out as particularly memorable. And yet, like any good horror story, it contains room for fresh takes and interpretations on the original material. In due time – perhaps in a second season, if there were to be one – it would be fascinating to let another director have a stab at “The Frolic,” and see what new insight results.

Are you a fan of Ligotti’s work? Which stories would you adapt? Which are the most compelling. Let me know in the comments below. Perhaps your pick might end up on the big screen someday.