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Teatro Grottesco Paperback – March 9, 2010
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"A generous serving of Edgar Allan Poe, a dash of Franz Kafka, a smidgen of Robert Aickman: These comprise the components in the cauldron of creativity of Thomas Ligotti. . . . His descriptive powers are mesmerizing." Hellnotes
From the Back Cover
Thomas Ligotti is one of the most original and remarkable figures in horror literature since H. P. Lovecraft. In Teatro Grottesco Ligotti follows the literary tradition that began with Edgar Allan Poe: portraying characters that are outside of anything that might be called normal life, depicting strange locales far off the beaten track, and rendering a grim vision of human existence as a perpetual nightmare. Just by entering his unique world where odd little towns and dark sectors are peopled with clowns, manikins and hideous puppets, and where tormented individuals and blackly comical eccentrics play out their doom, is to risk your own vision of the world.
'Quite unlike anything else being published One of the most unique voices in the field His imagery is breathtaking' Science Fiction Chronicle
'(Ligotti uses) restrained, lyrical prose and subtly disturbing images that Poe himself might well have admired' USA Today
Top customer reviews
Reclusive oddball loners with haunting secrets of murder and unnatural repercussions (fueled by the need of some sort of vengeance by the parties involved) and hopeless treadmill wage-slaves, maintaining the system with their monotonous daily grinds at the assembly blocks or in drab storefront offices, inhabit the gloomy landscape of some godforsaken, foggy northern border town gradually fading into the bleak environment of oblivion. Occasionally, grim and seemingly indifferent clowns, a marionette puppet menacing in its persistence, and the garb of a jester/fool join the surreal parade as messengers of fate/death, as manifestations of the trickster archetype of liminality.
"Our company [Teatro Grottesco Ventures] is so much older than its own name, or any other name for that matter. (And how many it's had over the years - The Ten Thousand Things, Anima Mundi, Nethescurial.)...I go around with a trunkful of aliases, but do you think I can say who I once was really?...Possibly I was the father of Faust or Hamlet - or merely Peter Pan" (p. 180).
Featured in three short stories ('the town manager', 'my case for retributive action' and 'our temporary supervisor'), although explicitly named only in two of them, is the shadowy and dreaded Quine Organization, the all-pervading presence of which is conveyed by the writer in a tangentially Kafka-esque, Dickian fashion. It is a monopolist entity, a political as much as a commercial one, "whose interests and activities penetrate into every enterprise, both public and private,...[and] in whose employ are all the doctors [and pharmacists] on this side of the border...and perhaps also on your side" (pgs. 82, 88, 97, 99).
Common threads that run through several or all of the five stories from the last (3rd) segment dubbed 'The Damaged and the Diseased', albeit varied in articulation and intensity, are: artistic underworld, art-magic, schizophrenia/split personality, women dressed in purple/crimson/emerald green, "backstreet hospital with dated fixtures and a staff of sleepwalkers" (p. 175), and, last but not least, gastrointestinal agony induced by a sense of anxiety "to be a success at doing something and at being something" (p. 261), or by bacterial/amoebic infestation. Either way, I wonder, without revealing too much, if the hilarious and somewhat gross concluding piece ('the shadow, the darkness') is, in part, a not so veiled assessment of post-modern art.
Finally, T. Ligotti's diagnosis of the human condition is encapsulated in the following passage:
"We should give thanks...that a poverty of knowledge has so narrowed our vision of things as to allow the possibility of feeling something about them...[W]ithout the suspense that is generated by our benighted state...who could take enough interest in the universal spectacle to bring forth even the feeblest yawn, let alone exhibit the more dramatic manifestations which lend such unwonted color to a world that is essentially composed of shades of gray upon a background of blackness?...All our ecstasies, whether sacred or from the slime, depend on our refusal to be schooled in even the most superficial truths and our maddening will to follow the path of forgetfulness. Amnesia may well be the highest sacrement in the great gray ritual of existence. To know, to understand in the fullest sense, is to plunge into an enlightenment of inanity, a wintry landscape of memory whose substance is all shadows and a profound awareness of the infinite spaces surrounding us on all sides" ('a soft voice whispers nothing', pp. 143-4).
And what solution is offered as a way out of this entrapment?
"I wanted to believe that th[e] artist had escaped the dreams and demons of all sentiment in order to explore the foul and crummy delights of a universe where everything had been reduced to three stark principles: first, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was nothing for you to know" ('the bungalow house', p. 214). In other words, non-striving and disengagement through non-attachment. Easier said than done (sigh).
Some stories are driven by plot or character or even mood. Ligotti's stories - in this collection at least - seems to be driven by a world-view. He focuses on different aspects of this world-view in different stories but the main character is in all of them not a person or a monster but a conception of the world which speaks through people, places, things, creatures.
Here are some examples of what I mean.
The social/interpersonal aspects of this world-view are highlighted in "Purity"
"The Clown Puppet" delves into the psychological aspects of Ligotti's world-view
"The Red Tower" is about ontology. In a very odd way it is the only story I can think of where existence itself is a character. It was an unsettling experience for me.
"Our Temporary Supervisor" is about the nature of work.
"The Bungalow House" is the most interesting of the book for me. In another of Ligotti's books - "The Conspiracy Against the Human Race" - which I have yet to finish so I may not accurately capture his thoughts here - he makes use of the idea of sublimation which he borrows from Peter Wessel Zapffe. I am probably going to oversimplify this but basically Zapffe/Ligotti believe all of humanity is running from certain basic facts of existence. In a very subtle move, one of the ways we run from this knowledge is to write about/make movies about/sing about the very facts we are trying to escape from and thereby we exert some measure of control over them - albeit in a false and dishonest way. In this story Ligotti demonstrates the paradox in a vivid fashion.
Sublimation - as Zapffe uses the term - reminds me of all the European philosophers I read in college who talk about nothingness as if you could experience it. But talking about it so quickly turns into a verbal game that just puts more distance between you and what you're talking about - or rather the nothing that you aren't talking about.
Taken as a whole, Teatro Grottesco is probably the book that comes closer than any I've read to capturing the quality of a fever dream. Some other stories and novels come close - some of Laird Barron's stories for example - but none I've read capture it as well as this collection. If you like weird, unsettling dreams you will probably enjoy this book.
I will give this warning, though. It can be an exhausting book. I wouldn't want it to be the only book I had on a long plane ride, for example. It is worth it, though.
Ligotti uses the phrase "bland malevolence" in one of the stories. This seems to be the key to understanding this book. Malevolence is so common place in Ligotti's world - if only we hand the eyes to see it - that it is the bland, the mundane, the norm. We just ignore the bland malevolence. And that is why we need to read Teatro Grottesco. We need reminders, not new knowledge.
But the knowledge is rather pointless. Talking about meaninglessness or even writing great books about it is just a dodge as the narrator of "The Bungalow House" and the narrator of "The Shadow, The Darkness" also realize - eventually.
I'll give an example of how his work affected me after reading the first story in this book. I finished in bed and closed the app - yes, yes, I know - I thought, "That was really good. I enjoyed that." I drifted off into dreamland with the knowledge that I had found a new author that I enjoyed. I woke at 3:30 in the morning with the story on my mind. The more I thought about it, the more terrified I became. The story became very scary for me. It had seeped into my mind while asleep and frightened and excited me like no other author has done since I first read "The Damnation Game" by Clive Barker way back in high school - a long (too long) time ago,
Do yourself a favor and read Ligotti.