I’ve mentioned this one before. It’s one of my more popular reviews, so I might as well reproduce it in whole.
A retro review from November 21, 2008.
Review: Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti, 2007.
Impressed enough by the Ligotti work I’ve seen in anthologies devoted to following up on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, I bought this anthology.
Is Ligotti a Lovecraftian writer? Well, based on this collection – and I have no idea how representative it is – yes and no. There are no explicit Lovecraftian allusions in this collection – no references to the forbidden books, nightmare locations, and mysterious entities created by Lovecraft and those adding to the Mythos. Yet, the pre-eminent, most important aspect of Lovecraft’s work, “cosmic horror”, the “infinite terror and dreariness” of existence, as one story here puts it, is shared by Ligotti.
Yet, that horror is expressed in vaguer and more general terms than in Lovecraft. In one of his stories, the horrific revelation is one of man’s hidden evolutionary past, miscegenation in a family’s past, the existence of alien races. The revelation at the end of a Ligotti story is rarely so specific.
And their prose differs. The scientific references in a Lovecraft story are not here. The technological trappings of a Lovecraft story frequently link it to its time of composition. Ligotti’s stories are noticeably lacking in any specific technological reference. An “audiotape” is the most time specific reference there is. Otherwise, they could be set almost anytime during the 20th century. Ligotti’s prose reminded me more of Lovecraft’s idol, Poe, than Lovecraft. Always told in the first person, they frequently deal with odd psychological states and fixations. The notion of the alternate self, the doppelganger as pioneered by Poe in his “William Wilson”, also shows up a lot.
In fact, if one wanted to be snarky, you could say Ligotti was a writer of bloated prose, stories almost always told in the same way, ending usually with some horrible revelation of malevolent, vague cosmic forces, a recycler of the images of dilapidated buildings and towns, abandoned factories, clowns and puppets, and intestinal viruses. In short, Ligotti’s not a storyteller telling many tales in many ways, but a writer obsessively telling the same story the same way.
Yet, when that story is worth telling and told well, that sort of writer is also called an artist. And, by that definition, Ligotti is an artist.
What might seem, on a quick reading, bloated prose with frequent repetition of the same phrases and the same details of event and character, is not exactly poetry but it is incantory, akin to the repetition often found in writing for children. But here, rather than a child, it is adults introduced to a world of horrible wonder, the world of “the icy bleakness of things”. The use of those recurring images is varied enough not to bore – though I can see some readers perhaps wanting to ration themselves an occasional Ligotti story rather than gulping them down all at once. And Ligotti is consistently, even more than Lovecraft, a writer of weird, not horror, fiction. The rewards of each are different.
Ligotti groups his 13 stories into three sections – Derangements, Deformations, and the Damaged and Diseased. These classifications are a bit too general to provide a sense of the collection.
Two of Ligotti’s best stories deal with the world of work. In “The Town Manager”, we are told of the mysterious disappearances of a town’s unelected, unrequested town managers, each of which institute reforms which hasten the town’s decay. “Our Temporary Supervisor” has the narrator in a meaningless job detailing how a new employee, in collusion with a new, horribly undefined and unseen supervisor, transforms a factory job into virtually round the clock enslavement via social pressure. While it is tempting to see these stories as commentaries on politics and capitalism, I think Ligotti has just set his existential horror in a more recognizable, specific setting.
The Quine Corporation is the force behind the latter story and is also mentioned in “My Case for Retributive Action”. The title brings to mind the opening of Poe’s “The Casque of Amontillado” and the plot Kafka’s “Metamorphoses”. The story seems to share the same vague setting, near the border of an unnamed country, with “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land”. In this collection of four first person accounts obliquely gazing the horror encroaching on a town, Lovecraft fans may strain to see echoes of the master’s “The Festival” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.
The technique of multiple accounts in one story also shows up, as an artist’s vignettes rather than recollections of characters, in “Sideshow, and Other Stories”. It is an interesting story of trying to compare our world to an unknown order which may or may not exist, but compounded ambiguities make it a failure. Also, in the failed category, is “The Clown Puppet”. The titular figure and his attached strings are a metaphor for unseen forces. But the image is too common, and the plot not very compelling.
“Purity” is another strong story. Rather than demolishing a vague and general notion of existence and replacing it with some general, nihilistic notion of cosmic reality, this story attacks the universal human anchors and consolations of country, faith, and family. The child narrator’s father is up to something creepy in the basement – but Ligotti neatly surprises us with what that horror is and then throws in another hint about what the rest of the family has been up to. “The Red Tower” is the most Poe like story in its prose which recounts the odd appearance, history, and function of an abandoned factory. “Teatro Grottesco” has a writer seeking out a mysterious cabal that strips artists of their creative impulses and powers. Like so many stories in this collection, its narrator ultimately embraces the maleovelent forces that are revealed. This is also the first of four stories in the collection’s last section that feature physical distress, specifically gastrointestinal distress, as a revelatory ordeal. “Gas Station Carnivals” is all right as a story but is mostly interesting for the delusional details of the title attraction. “The Bungalow Horror” combines a Poe-like doppelganger with “Teatro Grottesco”‘s notion of destroyed artist. It is also something of a rumination of what people get out of writers like Lovecraft and Ligotti – and how the art serves its creators. “Severini” is the most physical story and the story whose images most evoke Lovecraft. Actually, its glimpses of a priesthood of Tantric Medicine on an island near the Philippines using dysentery as a tool of enlightenment reminded me of one of Lovecraft’s favorite stories – A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool”. “The Shadow, the Darkness” is a powerful story that, in its horrific insistence on humans as only bodies, tools for the Tsalal (evidently, recurring entitites in Ligotti’s works) raises questions of free will and cosmic parasitism.