Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thomas Ligotti - Teatro Grottesco

For a time it was all rumors and lore, hearsay and dreams. (p. 177, Teatro Grottesco)

Teatro Grottesco is Thomas Ligotti's fifth collection, containing tales written throughout his career. Almost all of Ligotti's fiction is an attack on the same lines, a slander against just about everything in our world. Still, Ligotti is not an author content to repeat himself; his various stories approach his thematic mission in their own way. It's honestly debatable whether this is a horror collection at all, at least in the traditional sense. Monsters are almost wholly absent, and the suffering and violence present here is almost never the point of the stories and often takes place in the periphery if it's shown at all. But this is certainly a Ligotti collection, in many ways the fulfillment of the promise, the broadening of the vision, displayed in Songs of a Dead Dreamer. Teatro Grottesco is the author at the height of his powers, filling the reader with both awe and dread as the collection goes on.

Ligotti's name is rarely mentioned without Lovecraft’s also coming up in the conversation. The comparison is apt, but where Lovecraft strove to render humanity irrelevant when compared to the vastness of the cosmos and time, Ligotti seeks to attack us as individuals. Lovecraft’s ancient vistas and sunken cities are here replaced by industrial districts and offices, slums and small towns, corner cafes and backroom art exhibits. Ligotti’s work is precision targeted, built to attack and not bothering to sustain itself once its point is conveyed. The work in this collection is inimical and difficult to grasp, half-created oddities rendered seductive by flowing prose and immaculately stained atmospheres.

The opening story, Purity, perhaps best displays the almost unfinished nature of much of Ligotti’s work. The elements are all present, but they’re assembled out of order and connections are often pushed into the shadows and difficult to spot. The story seems, at first, to be about the narrator’s father and his bizarre experiments. In actuality, however, the supernatural elements of the story are merely a red herring, a tangent to absorb the reader's attention while Ligotti hits us in the back with a killing blow. Unlike many of Ligotti’s stories, the narrator is not a loner, and dialogue and relationships play a large role in the tale. Those various characters drift offstage as the story closes, leaving the tale’s meaning buried in brief pockets of exposition and a single off hand comment.

Many of the first section, Derangements, are similarly fragmentary. We are shown glimpses and images, brought into the picture when events are already well in motion but nowhere yet near ending. The Clown Puppet is one such story, a visit by the demon on strings that heralds all things in the narrator’s life. The Red Tower, too, is generally devoid of traditional structure. It is, I think, the pure essence of Ligotti’s beliefs and style. It’s a story without a single human element save for the off stage narrator, a parable for all existence written with moments of sly humor near-drowned under impersonal and inevitable imagery:

I can certainly picture a time before the existence of the factor, before any of its features blemished the featureless country that extended so gray and so desolate on every side. Dreaming upon the grayish desolation of that landscape, I also find it quite easy to imagine that there might have occurred a lapse in the monumental tedium, a spontaneous and inexplicable impulse to deviate from a dreary perfection, perhaps even an unconquerable desire to risk a move toward a tempting defectiveness. As a concession to this impulse or desire out of nowhere, as a minimal surrender, a creation took place and a structure took form where there had been nothing of its kind before. (p. 79, The Red Tower)

Sideshow and Other Stories is one of the two tales in the collection that is more mosaic than united narrative. Our protagonist, a writer temporarily unable to create, meets another writer in a café. The mainstay of the tale is five unconnected vignettes penned by the other, older writer. Where many writers go through extravagant lengths to insist mid story that the transpiring events are real, Ligotti openly takes us through flights of fancy within imaginary settings, tales told by fictional people about fictional things that lose none of their impact from their incorporeality. Ligotti's work makes its impact from its ideas, from convincing you that it is describing your reality, not from the actual nuts and bolts of its own construction.

Two of Ligotti’s "Corporate Horror" stories begin the second section, Deformations. In addition to the two stories here, I’d add The Town Manager from the first section to the list of the collection’s corporate horror; though it does not share the setting of the other two, it uses the same general techniques to establish the same feel.

The Town Manager depicts a small town where all work is assigned and directed by a Manager. As managers appear and disappear, the town disintegrates and the jobs grow bizarre, grueling, and reward-less. The disappearance of the first manager in the story is marked by the townspeople’s obsession with the Manager’s light bulb. Throughout the collection, characters fixate on either small details or seemingly insignificant objects, unable to look away while the world changes around them. The surreal imagery and disquieting oddities of the town are excellently depicted, but it’s the stories climax – the realization that there is no escape possible, and that the narrator’s town is only remarkable in how open it is in its purposeless manipulation – that cements the tale's power

My Case for Retributive Action is one of the collection’s strongest tales. The narrator is a nervous and broken individual from over the border, forced to work for the Quine Corporation to afford the medicine that he needs to keep functioning. The doctors, however, all work for the Quine corporation, as does everyone else on this side of the border (and, perhaps, on the other), and there’s no escape possible once the job is taken on. The familiar odors of cigarettes are banned in Quine’s storefront offices, while the smell of pickles permeates everything, further hammering home the senselessness of it all. Like in many of Ligotti’s stories, My Case for Retributive Action is plagued with a slippery and untrustworthy timescale, here crystallized with the “indefinite hours” that govern the schedules of Quine’s workers, those working in a workplace that (like ours?) has come to not only dominate, not only define, but become their lives.

The final corporate horror story, Our Temporary Supervisor, is one of the two stories in the collection that I found lacking. Like in the prior tale, our narrator takes what he assumes to be a temporary job with the Quine corporation, viewing the work as an unfortunate stepping stone on his way to bigger and better things (though what those bigger and better things are is as unknown to us as it is to him, a vagueness that many of Ligotti's narrator's goals seem to share). At the beginning, the corporation seems almost normal, but, as we progress, the emergence of the indefinite hours and endlessly frantic pace of the previous story emerges, and the narrator’s attempts to distance himself from the system are inconsequential in the face of its inescapable, unguided, and unnecessary productivity.

And yet, the very inevitability of the story plays against it. Deprived of even the possibility of another outcome, the monotony of ceaseless work becomes – well, monotonous. The supernatural aspect of the story, the temporary supervisor of the title that waits in a seemingly empty office as a dark ripple that may or may not have arm protrusions and head protrusions (p. 115, Our Temporary Supervisor), is an initially interesting image but ultimately feels undeveloped and never manages to instill a sense of fear or unease. In the end, Our Temporary Supervisor is somewhat interesting but wholly lacking in emotion, retreading the ground of the prior two corporate stories without making half of their impact.

The final story of the second section is In A Foreign Town, In A Foreign Land, the second of the two mosaic stories, previously published as its own collection of four stories. This is the most abstract piece of the entire collection, almost wholly devoid of actual motion or characterization, instead relying almost wholly on language and ambiance. The four interconnected stories are about a “northern border town” (the same border that was crossed in the Quine stories?) that seems to lie between death and life.

Names take on a very special significance here, as they do in many of the other stories in the collection. Especially in the first story, His Shadow Shall Rise to a Higher House, the people of the town seem to understand the world around them only through names, through attempts to quantify the unknown into the manageable and easily identifiable. Epithets abound here, characters introduced through their prior deeds without the slightest hint of what lies within them.

IAFTIAFL is about what’s beyond. Beyond the setting and the rare recurring character, the stories are united only by their mood. The stories each approach that theme in different ways and with different central characters, while just what is beyond is itself shifting. These are expository in nature, contemplation and “metaphysical lectures” drifting about a core established by vivid and bizarre imagery:

Now I could see the parade approaching. From the far end of the gray, tunnel-like street, the clown creature strolled in its loose white garments, his egg-shaped head scanning the high houses on either side. As the creature passed beneath my window it looked up at me for a moment with that same expression of bland malevolence, and then passed on. Following this figure was the formation of ragged men harnessed by ropes to a cage-like vehicle that rolled along on wooden wheels. Countless objects, many more than I saw the previous day, clattered against the bars of the cage. The grotesque inventory now included bottles of pills that rattled with the contents inside them, shining scalpels and instruments for cutting through bones, needles and syringes stuck together and hung like ornaments on a Christmas tree, and a stethoscope that had been looped about the decapitated dog's head. The wooden stakes of the caged platform wobbled to the point breaking with the additional weight of the cast-off clutter. Because there was no roof covering this cage, I could see down into it form my window. But there was nothing inside, at least for the moment. (p. 161-2, A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing]

The final section, The Damaged and the Diseased, contains more traditionally Ligotti stories, but these tales are polished to an artistic sheen, at once beautiful and terrifying. This story cycle of overlapping themes and hidden artistic societies is one of anticlimaxes. In each story, Ligotti manages to both chillingly evoke a subtle and powerful menace – a conspiracy, a monster preying on artists, a hidden master – with sufficient skill as to render those surface stories excellent on their own. And then he goes further, deconstructing everything about the tale in just such a way that, as the last visages of storytelling crumble before your eyes, you realize that your life is just as destitute, as meaningless and hopeless, as that of the cycle’s narrators.

Throughout the collection, Ligotti revels in repetition, many of his stories endlessly circling the same phrases and images, unable to escape, building to an inevitable climax like water circling a drain – though a sewage pipe might be a more fitting image. This repetition shows itself in almost every story of this section, but it’s Severeni that truly epitomizes the technique, building to a fever pitch in its final pages. The entirety of the final cycle too has a rhythm, one formed of recurring themes and personalities – if not names – and it’s one where the familiar is felt to always be lurking just out of sight, never to appear.

As I said earlier, the tales in this collection are more “complete,” presenting us with problems and characters and bringing situations to a head in a way that those of the first section and I A Foreign Town, In A Foreign Land so pointedly neglect to do. All the same, these are probably the most depressing of the Ligotti stories that I’ve read. Purity undermines the things that bind us together, but these tales eventually undermine everything that makes us who we are as our various narrators strive to better themselves, their quests (unsurprisingly) ending in a failure as crushing as it was unavoidable. The title story savages artistic aspirations; Gas Station Carnivals (my favorite of the collection) memory, our sense of self, and those around us; The Bungalow House our fundamental ability to form any meaningful relationships with the people in our lives; Severini our own person; and, finally, The Shadow, The Darkness our motivations and consciousness, our world. The stories each attack a different aspect of us, striving to leave us, in the end, forced to conclude, as the narrator of The Bungalow House does:

First, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was no one for you to know. (p. 238)

Though there is more action here than in prior sections, the stories are still primarily tales of mood and atmosphere. Up until its conclusion, The Bungalow House is a story delivered through artwork, the “Metaphyischal Lectures” fluttering on pamphlets in the northern border town of In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land the stars of the story.  Gas Station Carnivals, too, is centered on imagery, on a series of bizarre festivals in isolated gas stations, one of the many almost comically absurd images in the collection that are rendered vivid by Ligotti’s prose.
In the collection's title story, the narrator remarks: Suffering through the days and nights of an illness, especially an intestinal virus, one becomes highly conscious of certain realities, as well as highly sensitive to the functions of these realities, which otherwise are not generally subject to prolonged attention or meditation. (p. 191, Teatro Grottesco) Illnesses, both intestinal and otherwise, plague Ligotti's various narrators. The final section is rife with them, some discomfort time and time again either the symptom or cause of a worldview profoundly delusional falling away.

Earlier in the collection, other ailments play a similar role. Frequently, as the supernatural becomes more pronounced, Ligotti's narrators try and compensate by becoming more and more focused on the mundane, the mechanical. As the metaphysical visitation at the heart of The Clown Puppet builds, for instance, our viewpoint character finds himself almost hypnotized by inanities: [I] looked away from its pale and pasty clown face and its dead puppet eyes, gazing instead through the medicine-shop window and focusing on the sign in the window of the meat store across the street. Over and over I read the words BEEF-PORK-GOAT, BEEF-PORK-GOAT, filling my head with meat nonsense, which was infinitely less outrageous than the puppet nonsense which I now confronted. (p. 65, The Clown Puppet)

The Shadow, The Darkness is the capstone of the collection, one of Ligotti's longest stories, and several of its scenes are horribly powerful. The ending – an out and out plot twist, a rarity in a Ligotti story – is well done, as are many of the stories images, but the tale is let down by the verbosity of its principle character, Grossvogel. Grossvogel is, to some extent, supposed to be a rambling and unfocused man, and so his lectures are not precisely out of character, but they do grind the tale’s pace to a halt to such an extent that even the narrative ending is not enough to invigorate it. It's still certainly an interesting story, but it's not one nearly as powerful as those that preceded it.

As I said in the beginning of the review, Ligotti uses his varied work to approach similar themes in different ways. Interestingly enough, that concept doesn't only apply to broad story ideas. There are several aspects of work that the author has returned to time and time again, honing and refining them. In that vein, Teatro Grottesco is host to several interesting overlap with the author's nonfiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which was released three years after the Mythos Books edition of Teatro Grottesco. In The Shadow, The Darkness our narrator finds himself conversing with the author of a manuscript called An Investigation of the Conspiracy of the Human Race. (p. 272, The Shadow, The Darkness), and readers of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race may recognize the Bungalow House quote from a few paragraphs up (First, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was no one for you to know. (p. 238)) as an early version of its form in that later book: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know.

 Such things aren't particularly important in and of themselves, but they do show – along with the revisions that Ligotti is doing for the Subterranean Press editions of his stories – that Ligotti is an artist perpetually evolving. Still, even in the midst of an upwards trend that one can only hope will continue indefinitely, there are great places reached at which one can stop, look at what's around them, and see it for the masterpiece that it is. Teatro Grottesco is Ligotti's most mature, most focused and most polished collection. This volume is perhaps the most accomplished work of his career. If Subterranean Press does reissue Teatro Grottesco, I'm curious to see Ligotti's revisions, because, as it stands, Teatro Grottesco is the rare work that is almost pitch perfect, every word doing its part in weaving the author's insidious spell. This is Ligotti at his most assured and his most persuasive, essential reading both for the converted and the curious.

[Note: all page numbers from the Mythos Books hardcover edition.]

1 comment:

  1. A thorough review! I enjoyed Teatro immensely; the ambiguity of the stories and their loose connections makes them all the more exciting to contemplate :}