GRIMSCRIBE His Life and Works By Thomas Ligotti Carroll & Graf. 214 pp. $18.95

THOMAS LIGOTTI is the best-kept secret in contemporary horror fiction. For nearly a decade, while lesser talents have stocked the bookracks with a relentless supply of carbon-copy chills, Ligotti has labored, unheralded and virtually unknown, to create a canon of short stories so idiosyncratic as to defy almost any description save demented. Most of this writing has appeared in obscure magazines with such appetizing names as Grue, Crypt of Cthulhu and Nyctalops, known only to aficionados of dark alternative fiction. His first book, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, was published in an edition of some 350 copies. When, almost five years after its initial appearance, this collection of stories was bravely brought to the mass market by Carroll & Graf, the critical reception was overwhelming with the delight of discovery, and for good reason: Thomas Ligotti is the best new American writer of weird fiction to appear in years.

Ligotti's long-awaited second book, Grimscribe: His Lives and Works, presents 13 new stories in the guise of a novel. Its eponymous narrator, like Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man and Clive Barker's Book of Blood, is a living library of voices -- the damned, the demonic, the dreamer, among others -- all interwoven in a compelling celebration of the first-person. It is a hypnotic narration; each story is a singular experience, yet each turns on the other, creating what Ligotti rightly calls a "wheel of terror." These are whirlpools of words, drawing the reader ever inward to that place "where the mysteries are always new and dreams never end" -- a melding of Jorge Luis Borges and Tomaso Landolfi with the pulp sensibilities of the legendary Weird Tales magazine.

The opening story, "The Last Feast of Harlequin," is archetypal Ligotti. Its unnamed narrator, a dour and deadpan academic, travels to a remote rural village to study its quaint winter festival. That these revels disguise a perverse, primeval ritual should come as no surprise. Upon entering the warped wonderlands of Thomas Ligotti, the reader realizes very quickly that this is not a fiction of escape, but of the search for a grim epiphany, the revelation of something so vital (and, more often than not, vile) that it should have been known, yet that has escaped the narrator in his pride or hope or sloth.

The story is a reinvention of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Festival," and it is that much-mythologized (and maligned) writer of weird fiction with whom Ligotti inevitably must be compared. Like Lovecraft, Ligotti weaves an oppressive web of words, working his narrator, and his readers, toward the edge of an unknowable mystery -- one of such ominous power that the mere hint of it is fatal: "This is only how it seems," Ligotti tells us, "and seeming is everything." Yet he avoids Lovecraft's excesses -- the pseudoscience and adjectival addiction that marred even the Lovecraftian classics -- and embraces a decadent undercurrent in a manner that would no doubt have caused the gentleman from Providence to blush. THE RESULT is a rare kind of horror fiction, one that draws its power not from violence or shock, monsters or mayhem, but from the pursuit of a vague discomfort, a lingering doubt. Ligotti's prose is eerily genteel, written in utter defiance (or ignorance) of the filmic influences that have rendered most contemporary horror fiction into splatterprose. Vital to his aesthetic is an insistently oneiric imagery -- not simply a landscape, but a language, of nightmare. For once it is the telling, and not the showing, that is key, the stories themselves forming baroque ruins of dread and decay:

"They could show themselves anywhere, if always briefly. Upon a cellar wall there might appear an ill-formed visage among the damp and fractured stones, a hideous impersonation of a face infiltrating the dark corners of our homes. Other faces, leprous masks, would arise within the grain of panelled walls or wooden floors, spying for a moment before sinking back into the knotty shadows, withdrawing below the surface. And there were so many nameless patterns that might spread themselves across the boards of an old fence or the side of a shed, engravings all tangled and wizened like a subterranean craze of roots and tendrils, an underworld riot of branching convolutions, gnarled ornamentations."

At his best moments, Ligotti succeeds with morbid brilliance; at others, like Lovecraft, he simply overwhelms the reader with words. Reading Grimscribe is at times daunting, at others annoying, yet always a vindication of the literate tale of terror -- a proposition that grows increasingly unthinkable in a decade that has come to think of "horror" as the realm of vampires and violence.

Admirers, new or old, of Ligotti may also want to look for the current issue of Weird Tales, the "Unique Magazine." A landmark in American letters, Weird Tales was in its heyday before the Second World War when it was home to H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and many other writers who championed a singularly American gothic. Its latest incarnation is a handsome quarterly whose winter number is devoted, appropriately, to Thomas Ligotti, featuring three of his stories and an interview. An annual subscription is $16 postpaid (Weird Tales, P.O. Box 13418, Philadelphia, PA 19101-3418).

Douglas E. Winter has written or edited many books about contemporary horror fiction and is at work on a biographical and critical study of Clive Barker.