Sunday, September 21, 2008

Teatro Grottesco

by Thomas Ligotti

Horror fiction tends towards two trajectories, the narrative and the atmospheric – they often overlap, as traditions often do, and any attempt at labeling is perfunctory at best. But still, it is helpful to differentiate the two in order to better understand the methodology behind the writing. The mainstream of horror fiction is mostly composed of works within the narrative tradition. This title may be misleading, but it highlights the predominant concern of such horror writing – the story over all else. I’m calling it the narrative tradition because while both types of horror fiction contain narrative, the writing of this first school hinges upon it aesthetically and philosophically. Fiction of this type possesses many of the features of the popular thriller; here we see a story told through action and the escalation of narrative tension. Such a story often begins with the manifestation of a threat and moves towards a confrontation with same threat. The characters may overcome such a threat, or in turn the menace may destroy the protagonists. Either way, the story involves the intrusion into the status quo of a denormalizing agent, who must be destroyed if the established order is to be maintained.

What of the other tradition then? I call it the atmospheric tradition because while both narrative and atmosphere is present in such a story, the latter is emphasized here, just as the reverse is true of the first school. This is not a story of traditional narrative conflict, in fact, the usual concerns of story are often marginalized or subverted to heighten an overarching malignance. The threat or menace of the first tradition is not a destabilizing agent, because instability and dread is itself the status quo. A horrible secret may be uncovered within the first tradition, but the very state of existence is despicable in the second type. The first kind of horror fiction hinges upon the “reveal,” an uncovering of the damnable. On the other hand, the second type confirms that existence is damnable. This is a world where “…everything that we supposedly live by and supposedly die by – whether it’s religious scriptures or makeshift slogans – all of it is show business.” Thomas Ligotti doesn’t say that, one of his characters does, but he could have, as it summarizes the pessimistic thrust of his work

The character who is accredited with the above quote is the unnamed, older writer of “Sideshow, and Other Stories,” one of the short stories included in the new reissue of Thomas Ligotti’s 1988 collection, “Teatro Grottesco.” The writer, a misanthrope who dines with a younger writer at a dilapidated diner before disappearing, is one of many ciphers Ligotti constructs within his stories. That is not to say he writes himself into his own stories in the autobiographical manner of Philip Roth or John Updike. It would be more appropriate to say Ligotti writes avatars of himself in a fashion similar to comic book writer, Grant Morrison. By avatar, I mean a stand-in who does not reflect an autobiographical facet of the writer himself, but a philosophical or aesthetic one. It is worth noting that Ligotti’s ciphers are generally self-deprecating parodies, clownish simulations who voice his misanthropic pessimism. This then allows other characters, usually the unnamed character of the story in question, to criticism or revise such nihilism. The Ligotti stand-in of “Sideshow, and Other Stories,” refuses “…to be a scribe for this show-business phenomenon any longer…” and so atrophies into a shrunken creature in the alleyway, like “…something that might have come from a jar in a museum exhibit or a carnival sideshow.” But the main character, on the other hand, triumphs “…over [his] literary crisis, and wanted nothing more than to get back to [his] desk…” to write. Ligotti’s characters are as obsessive as Lovecraft’s bibliophiliacs and antiquarians, but he has enough irony to poke fun at them, and through them himself, as well. We see point and counterpoint through Ligotti’s narrators, though the conclusion at the end of the story is always one of bleak emptiness.

Look at the final story in the book, the extended exegesis of “The Shadow, the Darkness.” Throughout the collection, different characters serve as a mouthpiece for Ligotti: the father in “Purity,” the voice on the audiotapes in “the Bungalow House,” and the speaker of “the Red Tower,” but it is through Grossvogel that the reader is presented with Ligotti’s most complete and unabridged treatise on a pessimistic universe. Grossvogel, a second-rate artiste turned shadowy philosopher, suffers physical collapse due to a gastrointestinal infection. After his recovery, he begins a series of caustic orations on reality, which is composed entirely of sideshows, nonsense and trash. Grossvogel realizes “…the only thing that had any existence at all was this larger-than-average physical body of mine. And I realized that there was nothing for this body to do except to function in physical pain and that there was nothing for it to be except what it was – not an artist or creator of any kind but solely a mass of flesh, a system of tissues and bones and so forth, suffering the agonies of a disorder of its digestive system, and that anything that did not directly stem from these facts, especially producing works of art, was profoundly and utterly false and unreal.” This is similar to the post-artistic existence of the Teatro Grottesco in the title story. Grossvogel’s speech is as lucid a summary of Ligotti’s own philosophy as we are likely to get, so how do the other characters in the story react to him? The unnamed main character finds Grossvogel’s oration “…on the whole comprehensible enough, even if certain points he was articulating seemed at the time to be questionable and his overall discourse somewhat unengaging.” Ligotti, as is typical of the self-negating paradox in his writing, is just as likely to turn his cynicism against himself as he is any other subject.

The paradox of Ligotti’s writing is nicely summed up in “The Shadow, the Darkness.” Ligotti distrusts words, as any discerning writer should, they “…are a total obfuscation of the most basic fact of existence, [a] conspiracy against the human race…” Ligotti belongs to the subterranean tradition of Weird Fiction, which choses not to engage the idealism and progressivism of the 20th century avant-garde – modernism, postmodernism, et al., and instead pursues a highly skeptical post-romanticism informed by the dull realities of post-industrial, middle-class life. Ligotti’s philosophy of decay has as much in common with Edgar Allan Poe as it does social pessimists Julius Evola and Oswald Spengler. A character in “The Shadow, the Darkness,” prepares a treatise called “An Investigation into the Conspiracy against the Human Race,” the title of a book Ligotti himself is preparing. The character is actually unable to compose such the piece, though. The composition is impossible, he says, the conspiracy in the treatise’s title is impossible, “…because the phenomenon of a conspiracy requires a multiplicity of agents, a division of sides, one of which is undermining the other in some way, and the other having an existence that is able to be undermined. But there is no multiplicity or division, no undermining or resistance or betrayal on either side.” There is nothing but utter emptiness. Creation is, for Ligotti, an aberrant shadow, a black spume, or a diseased fungus.

The eponymous crimson structure of “The Red Tower” on first reading strikes one as horrific in its grotesquery. It’s a monstrosity. The Red Tower a forbodding structure erupting from a bleak grey landscape, produces from its warehouse a variety of ghoulish novelty items. There is something unspeakably horrible in its very existence, though Ligotti writes around the particulars. The tower is a betrayal in its very existence, as it deviates from the desolate perfection of the grey landscape. The Red Tower as it ceaselessly churns out meaningless material is nothing less than a substitute for existence itself. The narrator of “The Red Tower” finds “…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…[and]…as a concession to this 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.” This structure is notably a red tower, as in blood.

Perfection in both “The Red Tower” and “The Shadow, the Darkness,” is a human incomprehensibility; it is what composes the “soft black stars” of the title story. The paradox, then, of Ligotti is that while creation is despicable, it is also attractive in its aberrance. Many of the characters in “Teatro Grottesco” are artists and creative individuals, but by the end of each story, they are subsumed by normalcy – nonexistence. While mainstream horror fiction is for the most part concerning with a break from the status quo, as discussed above, in Ligotti we see a return to a status quo from which existence and humanity in particular is the deviation. Ligotti does what much horror fiction professes to do, but rarely does, present an actual deviation from general conceptions of health and normalcy.

It is a shame, then, that Ligotti’s writings are so difficult to find. This new reissue via Virgin Books is currently the only volume in print. The last book printed, the 2005 anthology “The Shadow At the Bottom of the World,” is already out of print. Ligotti remains one of the most idiosyncratic and underappreciated short story writers working today, and he’s worth seeking out even for readers with no interest in horror as a genre. Be warned though, the Virgin Books edition is a sub-standard affair, even if the text itself is superlative. This edition comes with no supplemental material, a tacky cover, cheap newsprint paper, and a binding that creases after even a cursory read. Virgin Books’ production values may be sub-par, and this is definitely not the treatment Ligotti deserves, but at least it’s nice to see such a fantastic book back in-print and available to purchase from all major bookstores.


Anonymous said...

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Nathaniel Katz said...

A fantastic review, pinpointing many of the things that make Ligotti such a fascinating read.