Future Treasures: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
Back in 1990 I bought a remaindered copy of Songs of a Dead Dreamer at a Waldenbooks in Champaign, IL. I’d never heard of the author, Thomas Ligotti, but the book sounded kind of interesting. I added it to my to-be-read pile, where it was quickly buried, and years went by before I really thought of it again.
In those intervening years, I learned the name Thomas Ligotti. So did anyone who read Weird Tales, Grue, or other horror magazines in the late 80s and early 90s. He was a singularly unique talent, and his fame quietly grew during those decades. In fact, when I launched the first issue of Black Gate in the year 2000, I had more-or-less decided not to put the names of authors on the cover, to keep the artwork clean and give the magazine a unique look, but I talked to a few other editors to get their opinion first. One of them was Darrell Schweitzer, co-editor of Weird Tales.
“We never noticed a bit of difference in sales when we put authors names on the cover,” he confided. “Unless the name was Thomas Ligotti.”
Ligotti’s first two collections were Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1985) and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991), both of which appeared first in small print-run hardcovers. Those editions — including the one I bought at Waldenbooks for three bucks — became highly prized collectors items. Both appeared in paperback, in June 1991 and October 1994, respectively. Those editions shortly went out of print, and also became became highly sought-after. In 2010 and 2011, after both volumes had been out of print for nearly two decades, Subterranean Press re-issued them with matching dust jackets. Those editions quickly sold out, and routinely command prices of $200-400 in the collectors market.
In short, if you wanted a print copy of Songs of a Dead Dreamer or Grimscribe any time in the last 20 years, you pretty much needed to be very wealthy, very lucky, or both. So you can understand why the impending release of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, an omnibus 464-page collection of both volumes in a handsome and affordable trade paperback from Penguin Classics, has generated excited buzz in horror circles.
[Click any of the images in this article for bigger versions.]
Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in a 300-copy limited edition trade paperback in 1985 by Silver Scarab Press, with an introduction by Ramsey Campbell and a cover by Harry O. Morris (above left). It contained eleven stories, and pretty much vanished without a trace.
Ligotti greatly expanded the book for the June 1990 hardcover reissue from Carroll & Graf, with a new cover by Tony Greco (above middle). This version contained 20 stories.
Here’s the jacket flap text:
Songs of a Dead Dreamer was Thomas Ligotti’s first collection of supernatural horror stories. When originally published in 1985 by Harry Morris’s Silver Scarab Press, the book was hardly noticed. In 1989, an expanded version appeared that garnered accolades from several quarters. Writing in the Washington Post, the celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Michael Swanwick extolled: ‘Put this volume on the shelf right between H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Where it belongs.’
The revisions in the present volume of Songs of a Dead Dreamer have been calculated to make its stories into enhanced incarnations of the originals. This edition is and will remain definitive.
For those already familiar with the stories in Songs of a Dead Dreamer, an invitation is extended to return to them in their ultimate state. For those new to the collection, it is submitted to engage them with some of the most extraordinary tales of their kind. In either case, this publication of Songs of a Dead Dreamer offers evidence for why Ligotti has been judged to be among the most important authors in the history of supernatural horror.
The Carroll & Graf hardcover is the one I was lucky enough to score in a remainder pile twenty years ago. Copies in good condition usually sell for around $100 online.
In March 2010, Subterranean Press released a new edition, with a cover by Aeron Alfrey (above right). This one is also out of print, and now the most expensive of the lot.
Carroll & Graf published the first and so far only paperback edition in June 1991, as part of their Masters of Horror line. (Above left, cover artist unknown.) I usually gravitate towards the paperback even when the hardcovers aren’t impossible to afford; in this case, however, it doesn’t help our budget much. Copies in good condition start at around $30 on eBay, and $90 and up at Amazon.com.
You can occasionally find autographed copies for sale, and when you do, you’ll also sometimes find handwritten comments by the author in the book — as in the above example, which contains some unusual handwritten comments by Ligotti on his first page bio:
Unknown fact: I wrote the copy below because the publisher’s version was unusably bad.
My version is usably bad.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer has been out of print in paperback for nearly a quarter century.
Grimscribe: His Lives and Works was first published in hardcover in December 1991 by Carroll & Graf (above left, cover artist unknown.) It was reprinted by Subterranean in July 2011 with a cover by Aeron Alfrey (above right).
Grimscribe was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 1992 for Best Collection, and that didn’t hurt Ligotti’s conductibility one bit.
Like Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe also had a paperback edition, this time from Jove in October 1994. Copies in good condition nowadays start at around $20 in various online outlets.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is a gorgeously overstuffed trade paperback that finally returns two classic volumes by a modern horror master to print in an affordable mass market edition. Here’s the description:
Two terrifying classics by “the best kept secret in contemporary horror fiction” (The Washington Post)
Thomas Ligotti’s debut collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and his second, Grimscribe, permanently inscribed a new name in the pantheon of horror fiction. Influenced by the strange terrors of Lovecraft and Poe and by the brutal absurdity of Kafka, Ligotti eschews cheap, gory thrills for his own brand of horror, which shocks at the deepest, existential, levels.
Ligotti’s stories take on decaying cities and lurid dreamscapes in a style ranging from rich, ornamental prose to cold, clinical detachment. His raw and experimental work lays bare the unimportance of our world and the sickening madness of the human condition. Like the greatest writers of cosmic horror, Ligotti bends reality until it cracks, opening fissures through which he invites us to gaze on the unsettling darkness of the abyss below.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe will be published by Penguin Classics on October 6, 2015. It is 464 pages, priced at $17 in trade paperback and $9.99 for the digital edition. The excellent cover is a painting by Chris Mars, “Puppeteer” (thanks to Robert Adam Gilmour for tracking that down.)
See all of our recent coverage on the best in upcoming fantasy here.
I don’t know who did the Carroll and Graf cover for Grimscribe, but the gent it portrays is none other than the notorious wizard and self-proclaimed “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.
I was fortunate enough to pick up the Carroll and Graff Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe when few had ever heard of Ligotti. The best intro to his work might be the big C&G paperback “best of” anthology, The Nightmare Factory, which is also long out of print and absolutely unobtainable. (Recently somebody used the title for a Ligotti-themed graphic novel, though.)
I first read Ligotti in a Ramsey Campbell edited anthology of “stories that scared me” – that might actually be the title. (I’m too lazy to get up and go look.) The story was “The Greater Festival of Masks” and it scared me too, but in such an oblique and obscure way that I couldn’t really say why it was frightening – which made it all the more effective and memorable, to my way of thinking. It was immediately apparent that this guy was not fooling around.
The cover is by Chris Mars.
Ligotti’s non-fiction is even more terrifying. Check out The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
Personally I find many of Ligotti’s stories more absurdist or depressing than actually terrifying. But, when Ligotti does terrify, he does it VERY well.
> I don’t know who did the Carroll and Graf cover for Grimscribe, but the gent it portrays is none other than the
> notorious wizard and self-proclaimed “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.
Ah, that’s a fascinating tidbit. It makes an effective cover, surprisingly.
> The best intro to his work might be the big C&G paperback “best of” anthology, The
> Nightmare Factory, which is also long out of print and absolutely unobtainable.
Right you are… I remember trying to track this down a decade ago, and failing. It’s a massive book (552 pages), and there are copies available at Amazon… but they’re pricey.
> The cover is by Chris Mars.
Right you are. I was able to confirm that the cover is a Chris Mars painting, “Puppeteer.”
I’m not familiar with his work, but it’s quite striking. Here’s a piece titled “Trial by Smoke.”
There’s a marvelous collection at beautiful.bizarre.net:
I have updated the article. Thanks!
> Personally I find many of Ligotti’s stories more absurdist or depressing than actually terrifying.
> But, when Ligotti does terrify, he does it VERY well.
Sounds like you or Thomas are the ones we should be looking to for a review of the latest volume. Let me know if you’re up for it!
There are 2 more horror books coming from Penguin Classics in October.
First, there is this one, which pre-dates The Exorcist
And, a Charles Beaumont collection
> There are 2 more horror books coming from Penguin Classics in October.
The Beaumont is next on my list. It looks like a terrific book.
There’s a Ray Russel collection coming soon, too(I don’t remember if it’s from Penguin or someone else.) We’re really in a renaissance for classic 20th century horror/fantasy short fiction coming back into print.
Ligotti wrote what I think is the greatest Lovecraft story ever – even better than any of HPL’s own: “The Last Feast of Harlequin.” As Count Floyd used to say on Monster Chiller Horror Theater, “Oooo, scary, kids!”
I still have my ’91 copy of SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER. The book was a revelation when I discovered it–I was instantly captivated–if not downright obssessed–by it. I remember I was living on a friend’s couch at the time, having just graduated from college and being unable to find a job in Lexington, KY. I spent whatever little cash I had on SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER, and soon after that I couldn’t pay my share of the couch-rent, so my roommates kicked me out. But that book was one of the best things that happened to me during a very difficult time.
I also still have my original copy of GRIMSCRIBE, which came out a few short years later–and my original copy of NOCTUARY.
For a long time these were the ONLY three Ligotti books. I’m so glad he’s been able to produce a few more since then–he’s not a very prolific writer, but he’s always worth waiting for.
Only two writers have every managed to terrify me with a short story: Tom Ligotti and Laird Barron.
I can remember seeing the Carroll & Graft mass market paperback of SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER at a wire rack at the check out line at a supermarket in 1992. Not the type of paperback you would associate with supermarkets.
Hmmm. I bought my copy (paperback) at a mall bookstore–a Waldenbooks clone. Treasure.
Someone correct me if I’m wrong but I think it was the one and only S.T. Joshi who pulled off this remarkable coup of bringing Ligotti to Penguin Classics- I believe Joshi serves as some type of editorial consultant for Penguin and had an equally impressive coup in bringing the immortal Clark Ashton Smith into the Penguin Classics fold as well earlier this year.
I know Joshi has been instrumental in bringing several authors, such as Lovecraft, M. R. James, Lord Dunsany, and CAS to Penguin. But I read Joshi’s blog regularly and I don’t ever remember him making mention of the Ligotti Penguin.
However, given the success in sales that Penguin has most likely had with some of the horror authors that Joshi has gotten into Penguin, at the very least Joshi has probably been instrumental, even if only indirectly, with getting Ligotti and others into Penguin print.
> There’s a Ray Russel collection coming soon, too(I don’t remember if it’s from Penguin or someone else.)
Quite right. It’s The Case Against Satan, also from Penguin Classics, on sale Oct. 13:
> Ligotti wrote what I think is the greatest Lovecraft story ever – even better than any of HPL’s own:
> “The Last Feast of Harlequin.”
!! Quite an endorsement. I’ll have to track it down!
> I still have my ’91 copy of SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER. The book was a revelation when I discovered it–I was instantly
> captivated–if not downright obssessed–by it. I remember I was living on a friend’s couch at the time, having just
> graduated from college and being unable to find a job in Lexington, KY. I spent whatever little cash I had on SONGS OF A
> DEAD DREAMER, and soon after that I couldn’t pay my share of the couch-rent, so my roommates kicked me out. But that
> book was one of the best things that happened to me during a very difficult time.
What a great tale! And talk about a life devoted to books. 🙂
Since you still have the book, you must have taken it with you when they kicked you out. I picture you on the streets of Lexington, homeless, clutching a backpack and your Thomas Ligotti paperbacks.
This is all going to make a marvelous story when you’re sixty, writing your memoirs as you life off a lifetimes of royalties.
> I can remember seeing the Carroll & Graft mass market paperback of SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER at a wire rack at the check out
> line at a supermarket in 1992. Not the type of paperback you would associate with supermarkets.
That’s where I saw my fist Star Trek paperback, in Kentville, Nova Scotia — the first paperback I can remember buying.
Supermarkets probably aren’t the ideal place to buy books, and I’m very glad I have better options today. But they sure helped me find some good stuff when I was growing up.
> I think it was the one and only S.T. Joshi who pulled off this remarkable coup of bringing Ligotti to Penguin Classics
I think you’re probably right. Joshi has edited several Penguin Classics recently:
The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by Clark Ashton Smith
The Dreams in the Witch House: And Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft
The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen
Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories by Algernon Blackwood
In the Land of Time: And Other Fantasy by Lord Dunsany
And many more. It’s almost certainly a fair bet that he’s also behind the recent surge in their horror collection catalog.
> Given the success in sales that Penguin has most likely had with some of the horror authors that Joshi has gotten into Penguin,
> at the very least Joshi has probably been instrumental, even if only indirectly, with getting Ligotti and others into Penguin print.
A good theory. I’ll have to ask Joshi the next time I run into him at a convention.
[…] weeks ago I posted an article about Thomas Ligotti’s new Penguin collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. I was quite taken with the cover art, but was unable to track down the name of the artist. In the […]