Written by: James Keen
“He showed them the way into the nightmare, but he could not show them the way out…” – ‘Teatro Grottesco’.
Surely any writer in whatever genre he or she is writing in aspires to develop and hone their own unique literary ‘voice’, their own use of prose and storytelling technique appropriated to not only relate a tale but to do it in such a way that it is almost instantly recognizable to the adroit reader. Authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King all share something of a kinship, in that their works are redolent of their signature mode of expression; they’re familiar because they are identifiable in their creative methodology. Thomas Ligotti is such a writer, and unfortunately he appears to be one who has largely ‘slipped through the cracks’ when it comes to wide recognition. His literary ‘voice’ is similarly unique, but his popularity has, it could be argued, been marginalised by his relentlessly grim subject matter, an aspect of his fiction this reviewer will address later.
‘Teatro Grottesco’ is another collection of short fiction and it’s another sublime cornucopia of tales that are typified by a sense of dread and anxiety. The first story here, ‘Purity’ sets the tone for what is to follow, a solemn and unsettling vignette focused on a family that are near constantly moving from house to house due to the nature of the father’s bizarre experiments in rented basements, introducing a theme that echoes throughout many of the stories to follow, that of the cyclical nature of nonsense. “Nothing that drives anybody makes any sense, if you haven’t noticed that by now,” one character notes and it’s this notion that informs many of Ligotti’s characters motivations. ‘The Town Manager’ is centered around a municipality that exists in a state of chaotic flux, where the citizens are beholden to the god-like commands of a mysterious individual guiding them without challenge for fear of immolation or worse. “Change was the very essence of our lives” our narrator informs us. Moving from this disturbingly whimsical story Ligotti delineates a harrowing sequence of other glimpses into his thematically sinister and disquieting literary landscape. ‘The Red Tower’ is chock full of references to a factory that produces “a line of quite morbid, quite wonderfully disgusting novelty goods” that are so repulsively creative they resonate in the mind long after you’ve finishing reading. A group of stories highlight an eccentrically-envisioned town whose inhabitants and story cogency that owe much to that of fever dream logic. ‘Gas Station Carnivals’ is particularly alarming in its effectiveness to disorient and leave the reader with imagery that is quietly horrifying.
If there’s a unifying sensation to be gleaned from nearly all of the tales here, it’s that of mounting dread. Ligotti is not, it appears, interested in shocking the reader, more in drawing you into scenarios that are nightmarishly surreal and profoundly unsettling. His use of language however is, at times, somewhat bloated and overly intricate; indeed there’s a line in the closing tale, ‘Severini’ where our narrator recants the following slightly damning criticism of a particular character, that Ligotti the writer could himself be accused of, “our minds were numbed by all the verbal build-up that had led to this moment of unveiling”. There is a definite tendency on the author’s part to stray into overly verbose and tediously exact diction at times that has the effect of over emphasizing his narrative intent and makes for a wearying reading experience.
Ligotti has often been compared to Lovecraft, not in the sense that the author is utilizing any of the cosmic-horror mythos popularized by the New England born fantasist, but in his creation of his own curiously realized literary universe. If anything this author has much more in common with Poe and Franz Kafka in his prose style and the storytelling manner in which he explores his own ‘pet’ concepts. There’s a marked sense of dislocation in Ligotti’s settings; you never get a sense of exactly what time period we’re dealing with here. There are references to such things as tape recorders, trams and telephones but other than these recognizable aspects of twentieth century technology there is no real ‘marker’ for where and when his stories are set and this adds to the dream-like nature of the fictional output here.
This reviewer would not recommend diving in and reading this collection of the ‘deliriously preposterous’ cover to cover as it’s akin at times to willfully indulging in a somewhat masochistic compulsion to immerse oneself in imagery and concepts that are nightmarishly executed. There’s a marked lack of humor in the texts that doesn’t help either in assuaging the queasy sensation while reading that you’re on a carnival ride that refuses to stop; and while the initial thrill is certainly exhilarating there does come a time when you really do need to get off and “get your bearings” as one character remarks in the story ‘My Case For Retributive Action’.
Ligotti is a deviously creative talent and deserves a much wider audience, if only to dispel the horror community’s widely held contention that he is one of the genre’s best kept secrets.
Pick it up right here.