Thomas Ligotti seems destined to go to his grave as an underappreciated author. Too frequently these days such speculation seems reserved for writers who really aren’t all that good, which is why they aren’t as appreciated as their fans, and often the writers themselves, believe they should be. Ligotti however, is not one of these pretenders to the throne, which is what makes his lack of commercial success, and/or acceptance all the more frustrating.
Then again, upon reading such collections as The Nightmare Factory, Noctuary, and The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, one might almost surmise that the author does not wish for commercial success, that instead he would prefer his work to be, like many of the destinations found in his stories, chanced upon by the uninitiated so that the horrors within retain maximum effect. Surely such a choice should not be the author’s to make, but that’s an argument for another time. The point that should be gleaned from this is a simple one: Read him.
Although I would suggest The Nightmare Factory as a better place to start for a newcomer to Ligotti’s work, it is no exaggeration to say that any one of them will do. Each collection is, in essence, like the doorways that populate Ligotti’s tales. No matter which one you open, the effect will be the same: complete immersion in a hostile, skewed, and bleakly curious landscape that is catastrophic in its absence of hope. In Ligotti’s hands, humans seem weak, unequipped to deal with, understand, or challenge (as the naïve narrator in the title story of this collection attempts to do, with typically awful results) the superior and all-consuming forces that skirt around the edges of reality and consciousness.
In Teatro Grottesco, the stories are divided into three sections. The first, “Derangements” focuses on the corruption of reality either via supernatural influence, the narrator’s crumbling sanity, or both. As such we are acquainted more than once with a staple of Ligotti’s work–the unreliable narrator (though this device is not restricted to “Derangements”.) This narrative device is used particularly well in “The Red Tower”, a story which won Ligotti a Bram Stoker Award, and deservedly so. Assuming you read the collection in order (which I did), this opening section is a particularly good one in which to develop a sense of the prevalent characteristics of Ligotti’s universe. In the five tales herein, man is a follower, blindly led by an invasive, incomprehensible force (or “sideshow”) to some unknowable doom. The characters rarely, if ever, question the genesis or nature of the enemy, but rather wonder in horror at the effects it has on their lives while making little or no attempt to escape it. They have, it appears, already been defeated when we are introduced to them. We become then, witnesses to the dreadful things that must inevitable follow. In “The Town Manager” the location of the title has already been overtaken by a strange new reality, and it has been accepted as ordinary. The residents only raise their heads and begin to worry when that curious reality is upset even further by an aberration in the routine.
The second section “Deformations” concerns itself mostly with a deeply cynical and depressing view of industrial and office work. Nameless workers coexist in drab factories with windows revealing nothing but dense gray fog beyond the walls. Pharmaceuticals of questionable origin are administered to keep these industrial drones focused, though so intent does that focus become that anything beyond it becomes strange and frightening. The final story, and one that will no doubt be familiar to avid followers of Ligotti’s work (though in truth, there are few tales in Teatro that won’t be–something which is disappointing but not entirely surprising), is “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land”, a series of interconnected vignettes about an unnamed town, the odd citizens that reside there, and the lost souls who believe they should.
The final section (a fourth, “Dead Dreams”, which appeared in the Dutro edition of this book in 1996, is conspicuous by its absence here) is titled “The Damaged and the Diseased” leaving little mystery as to what to expect. One of the strongest stories in the section, and indeed the book, is the titular one. “Teatro Grottesco” follows the ill-advised provocation by an artist of a vampiric theater that feeds, not on blood, but on something equally precious to those of a creative bent–creativity itself.
There are subtle explorations of the human condition in every one of these stories. Our flaws are exposed almost from the first page. The horror is established early, and from there we follow the doomed down a particularly ragged and dangerous rabbit hole into the surreal. And yet the horror always remains personal. It is always the decay of the mind, the sanity, the things we hold most dear, which make these stories so disturbing. That, and the vivid descriptions of the monsters, which Ligotti sometimes seem to view more favorably than the people suffering them. And other times, they are one and the same.
Ultimately, Teatro Grottesco is another stellar grouping of intimate and intricate nightmares from a peerless master of the short form.
Purchase the book here.
— Kealan Patrick Burke
(This review originally appeared in Subterranean Magazine.)