Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti
Virgin Books – 2008 (First published 2006)
This collection of short stories makes most of the horror fiction I’ve read seem like a children’s cartoon. This isn’t bump in the night stuff; it’s black, oily, suffocating horror. It is the second book that I have ever read that actually gave me nightmares.
Nightmares are interesting things. While they always contain some kind of unpleasant element, they also have to be similar enough to our day to day lives to actually disturb us, and it’s this fact that gives this Teatro Grottesco a truly nightmarish quality.
This collection is truly weird weird-fiction, but while the scenarios it describes all contain an element of the fantastic, their reality is never far enough from our own to void the message they deliver. And there is a message in these tales. Ligotti is a philosopher as well as a fiction writer, and it is his takes on reality that make these stories truly horrifying. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has read his The Conspiracy against the Human Race, one of the most pessimistic books in existence. I read and enjoyed that one a few years ago, but my one complaint was that although the arguments therein are convincing, they didn’t hugely influence the way I was feeling when I read them. I was able to brush them off as somebody else’s bad attitude. For me, it was far more effective coming across these ideas in fictional narratives than in a treatise of philosophy. The final tale in this collection, The Shadow, The Darkness, is one of the most profoundly articulate discussions of the futility of human existence that I have encountered. It made me feel quite bad when reading it. Indeed, the horror of Ligotti’s prose is more directed at its reader than at its characters.
The characters in these tales are very strange. They appear more as shadows than as distinguishable individuals. They’re all artists or managers of boarding houses. The narrator of any one tale in this collection could be the narrator of any of the others. This might seem like a criticism to somebody who hasn’t read the book, but I strongly suspect that it was intentional. One of the key ideas throughout this collection is that the self is an illusion. Human minds and souls aren’t real; they are a symptom of the sickness of reality, and the attempt to distinguish between one person and another is a pathetic exercise in futility. In one of the tales, a character describes himself thus:
“My body – a tumor that was once delivered from the body of another tumor, a lump of disease that is always boiling with its own disease. And my mind – another disease, the disease of a disease. Everywhere my mind sees the disease of other minds and other bodies, these other organisms that are only other diseases, an absolute nightmare of the organism.”
Get the idea? What difference does it make who is narrating the story if every living thing is just a drastically diseased and deluded tumor? This book is horrible – horrible but also absolutely deadly.
Shout out to my mother in law for buying me this for Christmas. It’s probably my favourite book that I’ve read this year – I really, really liked this one. It’s also the third of Ligotti’s books that I’ve read, and from what I can see online, most of his books are fairly difficult to come by. This is unfortunate because he’s a brilliant writer. I’ve seen a bunch of stuff that talks about how Ligotti is like a modern Lovecraft, but I find his writing more similar to that of Samuel Beckett than to any horror writer I’ve read. (I think the similarity lies in how both writers present human relationships – maybe I’ll write an essay about this some day.) Anyways, I am going to try to find a copy of the Penguin edition of Ligotti’s first two books and review it in the very near future. This is the kind of horror I want to read.