I have a story— ostensibly an essay, or a fever-dream paper on the philosophy of film, perhaps a weird horrific tale about film and reality?— included in Jon Padgett and Matt Cardin’s Vastarien: A Literary Journal which is due to be released soon. I’m humbled to have been involved in the project in my small manner, as the editors and contributors are top notch, and Thomas Ligotti has been such a profound source of inspiration for decades.
I first read Ligotti in 1986, picking up a copy of the Silver Scarab edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer at a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon (I believe the bookstore was located within the 5th Street Market, where I also purchased all of my Lovecraft editions with the Michael Whelan covers). I was fascinated by “Drink to Me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes” and “The Chymist”, but sold the book a few years later in one of my many property purges. I held only a lingering memory of the author until I “rediscovered” him when stumbling across a copy of Grimscribe at a Crown Books around ’91 or thereabouts.
With this in mind, I remembered a very short story I wrote back in 1987 when I was all of 17-years old. It’s an unapologetic pastiche, and sloppily mirrors the plot of “The Chymist” as unashamedly as a teenager obsessed with a newly discovered literary genius can emulate. I love weird Russian folklore, and puppets and dolls have always been sources of numinous awe and dread since I was a kid, so this early example of my writing fell into place pretty succinctly. I must have polished it here and there over the years, but it’s essentially a window into 17-year old me. The story is called “Petrushka”, and here it is in all its clumsy sincerity.
Please forgive my manners Miss Elisabeth; I am more than happy to offer you my time. You’re from the university of ________? Yes, of course, the Cottage Hollow Community College. I hope I’m sufficient fodder for your essay. And you’re writing about local artists, correct? Their inspirations and such? Interesting. I’m flattered you’re even aware of my work. Am I to assume that I have garnered something of a reputation in my small town? Ah yes, harmless old men rarely attract much attention outside their neighborhood save through their eccentricities. Heh, you are more than welcome to laugh at that dear. You have a lovely voice Miss Elisabeth. The children do call me Papa Carlo, but only from the safety of the sidewalk. No offense taken at all dorogoy. No, no, my memory has been whittled away by the years but I do remember our phone conversation. My time is yours.
I see that you are well prepared for my narrative: the notebook and pen are satisfactory, the camera and recording device are unnecessary. I am old and photograph rather poorly. And my voice! I have listened to myself for far too many years. No need to record and preserve me forever. The machines stay inactive please.
Hm? Indeed, those bright-eyed mannequins discarded in the hall are an example of my craft. But that is why you’re here Miss Elisabeth—what muse inspired my Theater and all that pretentious rot. Do make yourself comfortable. Are we ready dorogaya moya?
I was an only child. My parents emigrated from Krasnaya Lyaga when I was a babe. My mother left us shortly after arriving. My father never spoke of mat’ so I can’t describe her in any detail. He was a master carpenter yet had trouble finding consistent work in his adopted country. He drank too much and drifted away over the years so that by an early age I was fully independent. I assume he drank himself to death though I know few details: the police knocked on my door one morning and announced that they’d found his body in an abandoned storehouse notorious for addicts and criminal activity. I was simply required to finish some paperwork, there were no clues to decipher, no coroner’s report, no funeral arrangements, just the announcement and then my life continuing unaffected. I was all of 14. I am indebted to my father’s vocation as it was the root from which my craft bloomed.
As early as I can remember I was fascinated by puppetry and the ventriloquist’s art. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a street performer’s bizarre demonstration. He appeared to be homeless, a tall man wrapped in gray rags so only his eyes and the top of his disheveled head was visible. His tangled hair was wetted down in an attempt at grooming, water obtained from what I assumed was the stagnant pool in the fountain behind him. He had a small wooden box propped up on a footstool, a sackcloth curtain obscuring its contents. The performer remained silent the whole time. A small crowd gathered-—some I imagine as curious about the performer as they were the mysterious box.
The performer then pulled the sackcloth curtain open. Inside, nestled on a pile of rags, was a woman’s head.
The head was crudely hacked from a slab of wood and garishly painted to resemble a young woman’s features. The head wore a cloche hat perched tightly on a wavy black wig, the hair lying loosely on her cranium. I remember being frightfully anxious that after the performance had started the wooden head responded in a high pitched tremulous voice to the audience’s queries. I feared she’d dislodge the ill fitting wig and hat.
This curious ventriloquist act was made all the more memorable when the head projected its voice from behind the box rather than from its face, and in one instance, when the audience held their collective breaths in awe, the mouth of a babe cradled in the arms of its mother! Near the end of the presentation the man made the head appear outside the box, peeking over the back, the wig and cloche hat wobbling comically while she continued to reply to the audience. Then, in one grand gesture of incomprehensibility it peeked out from the folds of the performer’s filthy clothes.
Then the head slipped back into the box where the curtain was closed and it ceased talking, like a parrot in a covered cage. At this the crowd assumed the display was over; they dropped a few coins onto the derelict’s outstretched hand and slowly went about their business. I was fully taken in by the man’s glamour.
The experience changed me.
I was determined to become a master puppeteer. This was my newfound passion. I studied theater and mime diligently. I applied the carpentry skills I learned from my father and took to carving puppets and marionettes. I started my career with simple Buratino and Malvina performances. They were a fitting introduction to my craft: the performances were entertaining, the violence shocking, the skits amused my friends who were also my test audience. And those grotesque puppet faces! Nightmarish yet beautiful to me as a boy. They were oddly compelling with their petite features, blue hair and malignant grins. At this point I knew that I wanted to shape the world through storytelling.
Tea? A splendid blend Elisabeth, a bit peppery yet I hope you’ll approve.
I eventually graduated from the clownish designs favored by ventriloquists to finely detailed pieces influenced by Rodin and the obscure, some say obscene, creations of Barabas Gillulim. I whittled and carved life-sized actors and trained myself to manipulate their every gesture as accurately as possible. I adapted plays and wrote original works in which my puppets could perform. I produced The Revenger’s Tragedy, La Ronde—I also experimented with my own works. Forgive an old man his pride but I was particularly pleased with my dramas Ignis Mori and The Count of Chorazin.
My marionettes appeared cunningly human, so much so that some critics thought my performers were thespians in wooden costumes or clockwork automatons like those used to play chess in 18th century parlors! I lost the only manuscripts of my plays to hungry mice many years ago; my head is too empty to rewrite any of them. Oh no, I no longer perform; my skills are limited to carving facsimiles in only the most clumsily crude forms.
As for inspiration, well, mine came from the love of my dear wife Camille. In the early days we were mawkishly romantic, often surprising each other with gifts of books, art, perfumes and dolls. She died long ago, but I still have some pieces of hers as a memento of our years together. Her doll collection was vast. I’m particularly fond of this one, please feel free to hold her, she’s still perfumed with cinnamon and jasmine. After her death, well, my ability to carve puppets faded with my mental decline. My hands withered into parchment and could no longer do fine detail. Allow an old man his self pity when I confess my appearance filled me with disgust. I don’t know how long I waited in this place; I despise the monotony of timepieces and the dust on the window sill is an inadequate measure of time. More tea? Still comfortable milaya moya?
Camille was my ultimate inspiration; everything creative came from her. She would patiently dissect plot subtleties and critique character developments in my writing. Her voice would stimulate a poignant colloquy, her mannerisms an entire plot line. She sewed closets full of costumes for our troupe. We dressed most of the performers in fashions of her taste, trained them to emulate her gestures, body language, poise. All of my female marionettes were modeled on her. I replicated her bright green eyes for the puppets eyes; I even captured the flecks of sea-green in her left eye. I molded her teeth and replicated her dentition in porcelain for all of the mannequin’s palates.
But here the story changes dragotsennaya. Though we performed in several of the more avant-garde and subversive art houses in the city, the performances still degenerated over time. There’s a limit to the nuances a marionette can convey; only a sentient actor can capture the varieties of expression as well as the subtleties of emotional conviction. Like all else, Camille’s stimulus eventually faded. Oh make no mistake, I loved her as much as I ever did, I simply was not as motivated by her company as I once was. No playwright, poet, or philosopher offered anything comparable to the visions my wife once aroused in me. But like all else, my beloved muse grew tired and old. When she died I lost any remaining vestige of motivation. I tried dear, I truly did. I continued to make my puppets but their insides always came out different from Camille’s, their eyes weren’t as aware. You wrinkle your young face in such concern Elisabeth—is it the appearance of my teeth that finds fault?
Many years ago, a few short months after my Camille’s death, I sat in this very room carving and polishing the face of my latest creation, another failed attempt in the wake of her death. I thought I heard my wife’s voice echoing faintly from the hall you arrived through. A hint of her voice, like the suggestion of a familiar scent. I hobbled creakily to the door, pressed my ear against it, straining for another whisper. I thought I heard movement. I stood trembling, fear preventing me from turning the knob. I opened the door.
And what do you think I discovered in that hall? I’m afraid you may find it difficult to speak. Please allow me to wipe that tea from your chin.
I am content in celebrating those rare memories and moments of clarity that dance on the stages of this facsimile of life. I know there is no Puppetmaster that directing existence, no guide to this apathetic universe where all performers are ultimately stringless. I’ve come to accept that moment ages ago when I opened the door, a cold breeze blew the cloying scent of cinnamon and jasmine through the empty hall.
Oh do please cease convulsing my dear Elisabeth; you’ll dislodge the hat. And now my breathless kukla, are you ready to perform?