“You were only a pawn,” I said. “You and all the others were nothing but pawns in a struggle between forces you could not conceive.” (p. 134)
So I really don’t know much about horror. I dislike watching horror movies and the only horror I read, are Stephen King – if you can even call him a horror writer. As I understand it, horror either deals with creepy-crawleys (some with tentacles) or with some kind of more existential horror, roughly said. Thomas Ligotti definitely writes horror of the latter kind and though he tries to show the bleakness of existence, the purposelessness of it all as well as the shadows and blackness that controls us, I don’t find it horrifying. Mostly because I don’t believe in one meaning for us all but rather, that we all are responsible for creating meaning in our own lives and therefore I find the idea that life in general is meaningless to be … well … wrong.
When that is said, there are some of these short stories that deal with the horror of the 9-5 – and I do see the horror in that! I can get truly horrified when thinking about going to work day in and day out for the next 30 years or so. It might be more true to call these weird fiction, as my friend Henrik has pointed out – and he’s probably right too, he’s the expert. I’m just not quite sure how you define weird fiction but I guess the category is less important than what I think of what Ligotti has put on the pages.
The book consists of 13 short stories as well as some collections of poems. Some of these were just so weird and left me with no clues about how to understand them – or about what to do with them. The writing was lovely but when I was done with a story, I just thought ‘huh?’. There are stories about nasty marionettes, creepy factories, weird towns across the border, mutants, factory workers and struggling artists.
One of my favorite stories was ‘Teatro Grottesco’ about a weird company, the Teatro Grottesco, who destroys artists or rather, the artistic impulse. But I’m unsure whether I really liked what Ligotti did here or because it reminded me of the Torchwood episode ‘From Out of the Rain’ about a traveling show as well as began in a way, that reminded me of Monthy Python’s ‘Spanish Inquisition’ sketch.
Another I liked was ‘Gas Station Carnivals’ which was about remnants of carnivals located close to gas stations and always with a sideshow. Or is it? Maybe it’s just about delusions and the inherent chaos of things.
I also quite liked ‘The Bungalow House’ where a man discovers some audiotape artworks in a gallery where the artist seems to have very much in common with himself.
Some of the themes in these stories are about identity and delusion, the role of the self, and whether we have any power over our own destiny or it’s all just an illusion. Ligotti seems to have a life philosophy (he would probably not like me calling it that and I don’t much like it myself either, but anyway) consisting of three rules: there is nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to know. And according to the last story, ‘The Shadow, the Darkness’, we are all just bodies activated by the shadow, the darkness. It is clear that with such an on life, the resulting artwork will be rather grim and dark.
And while it is so in the short stories, it definitely turns from dark to darker in the poems which are either just too much explicit bleakness or just indifferent.
What I think Ligotti completely forgets in this work, is a very simple thing but at the same time a very powerful one. Hope. When he paints the world so dark, deterministic and hopeless, he completely forgets that it’s also about your point of view and how you look at the world. And yes, it is full of pain, war, terror, sorrow, destruction and so much more. But it is also full of children laughing, sunshine, rainbows, art, love and hope. And you definitely don’t find any of that in Ligotti’s work.
Still, even though the world he creates is so dark and sinister, the words he uses to create it with, are beautiful and his writing is really amazing at times. But sometimes he uses these brilliant words to create fascinating and interesting settings – which he then does absolutely nothing with. Which is rather infuriating. It takes more than an interesting set-up to make a story.
What I did like was – besides that some of the stories made me think – was the interconnectedness of the stories. Towards the end, I was almost playing a game with myself, questioning whether the narrator from ‘Teatro Grottesco’ was the same as in ‘The Shadow, The Darkness’ and if the latter story is a sequel to the first and how these two were connected to ‘Gas Station Carnivals’ and how many of them took place in a town just north of the border etc. and these apparent links between the different stories made the collection more interesting to me.
In conclusion, Ligotti is a powerful writer who unfortunately lets the words run away with him so they paint fascinating images but images Ligotti seemingly don’t know what to do about. It’s not a scary book but the horror is the more silent and sneaking kind that can catch you unaware as you sit as your desk, getting through the daily work. It’s a bleak look at the world as we think we know it and as it definitely not is to Ligotti’s mind. And while this is interesting and fascinating, it’s really not that much for me.
‘Wihtout the interference of my mind and my imagination, all that nonsensical dreaming about my soul and my self, I was forced to see things under the aspect of the shadow inside them, the darkness which activated them.’ (p. 259)
- Title: Teatro Grottesco
- Author: Thomas Ligotti
- Publisher: Durtro
- Year: 2013
- Pages: 331 pages
- Source: Borrowed from Henrik
- Stars: 3 stars out of 5
Very interesting review! I’d not heard of Ligotti before. Perhaps ‘unsettling fiction’ might suit the bill? Although the idea of a world without hope is certainly horrific. It sounds intriguing but I’m not sure I’ll be adding this one to my list.
It was an interesting read but not a writer I will actively seek out in the future.