Nonsense Sideshow Business

by Arthur B

Teatro Grottesco showcases Thomas Ligotti's eccentric brand of horrific meaninglessness.
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Thomas Ligotti, Virgin Books? Thomas Ligotti?!?

Don't get me wrong; I'm utterly overjoyed that you've seen fit to take on the man's work. He has lacked a British publisher for so long, and now thanks to you he's creeping into major book shops all over the place. But still, I'm surprised at you. You're a mass-market publisher backed by the Branson behemoth. I can understand you taking on Ramsey Campbell; as low-key as The Grin of the Dark is, it's still fairly accessible, and Thieving Fear is downright mainstream.

But Thomas Ligotti? Really, guys, if you keep this up I'll start thinking you're doing this out of a genuine love for horror, or maybe attempting to bring small-press values to a mass-market audience or something. I might start thinking you're in this because you love books. That can't be true, can it? Can it?

For those of you who have never read him - and that's probably everyone since he's criminally underexposed - Thomas Ligotti is a atheist philosopher who once mainlined HP Lovecraft's liquefied brain or snorted Edgar Allen Poe's bones or something. He writes stories which could be described as nihilistic or existentialist or even postmodern (they could even be described that way by people who know what those words mean) in which fragile souls living in dreary modern towns discover that there is no God or afterlife and life has no inherent meaning except what we choose to ascribe to it in our brief butterfly existences; his protagonists react to this in a variety of ways. And if that wasn't bleak enough for you, he dresses his stories up in the trappings of horror stories.

Not just any stories either; the usual ghosts and vampires and Great Old Ones are only rarely in evidence in Ligotti's work. Although he has occasionally written about more conventional horrors - especially when he chooses to dabble in the Cthulhu Mythos - Teatro Grottesco, his 2008 debut collection from Virgin Books (an abridged version of an earlier anthology), seems to go out of its way to avoid such works. Monsters and strange entities aren't absent - and unlike Lovecraft, Ligotti sometimes even describes them, vividly and clearly - but often they are a side effect rather than the main event. Take, for example, The Red Tower, an allegorical story about a red factory (representing life) spewing grotesque novelty goods and grave-born mutants across a bleak and featureless grey landscape (representing the universe as a whole).

The most obvious and notable feature of Ligotti's writing, though, is his prose style, which is highly reminiscent of Poe or Lovecraft when those two layabouts decide not to fuss around and get to the point. Rather than crapping out vague adjectives to no good end, however, Ligotti gives the impression that he's writing in this mode in order to be extremely precise; often within particular stories Ligotti will fixate upon particular terms, like "nonsense" in The Clown Puppet or "sideshow" in Sideshow, and Other Stories, and use them to label the ideas he's developing. The other effect of Ligotti's archaic prose seems to be part of an effort to be deliberately anachronistic; wherever a time period for his stories is identifiable at all, they seem to be taking place in some approximation of the present day, or at the very least some point in the twentieth century or thereabouts, but his unreliable narrators swan about narrating like Poe anyway (although the affectation is often suppressed or dropped altogether for the purpose of dialogue). Maybe that's the point: his narrators, in clinging to the idea of life having some inherent meaning or purpose, are adopting an outmoded mindset inappropriate to stark modern realities. Or maybe Ligotti just really likes Poe.

I'm fond of Ligotti, but he strikes me as someone who's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. In real life he seems to be kind of a prat, but I personally find his writing weridly life-affirming. Yes, he's saying that life is a corrupt process shitting itself across an uncaring cosmos (digestive disorders figure heavily in his writings, I suspect he gets most of his best ideas in the grips of explosive diarrhoea), but the way he's so clearly reconciled to this is oddly inspiring. Resistance to death is futile, and embracing life equally so, but if everything is equally futile we may as well choose the futility that serves ourselves and others best in the brief spans we have. This is probably not the way the stories in Teatro Grottesco are meant to be taken, but it's what I got out of them, and as a result they seem oddly unhorrific to me, although still extremely interesting.

Of course, part of this may be down to me being an atheist. The big reveal in most of his stories is "There's no god and nothing means anything, fuck you", which leaves someone with my take on the cosmos nodding in agreement. Others may find his work disturbing or even offensive on a philosophical level. I still strongly recommend Teatro Grottesco, but I advise readers to tread carefully. It's the horror equivalent of marmite.
Themes: Books, Horror
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Comments (go to latest)
Rude Cyrus at 20:15 on 2009-08-14
I haven't read any of his stories, but he definitely seems like an acquired taste. I have to disagree with his notion that the future of the horror genre lies with mentally disturbed individuals. Apparently, imagination is just a crock. I'm sure having a mental disorder helps when writing about unspeakable terrors, but it shouldn't be a requisite. I also have a problem with nihilists like Ligotti in general, but that's inconsequential.

And god, what is it with writers being interviewed that turns them long-winded and pompous?
Arthur B at 16:43 on 2009-08-15
I don't think he's saying you need to be disturbed to write good horror fiction, I think he's saying you need to be disturbed to write revolutionary horror fiction; if you look he's careful to say he's talking about the future development of the genre, rather than just the future.

On the other hand, he's just plain wrong, unless you're willing to declare Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce and William Hope Hodgson to all be mentally disturbed, all of whom cooked up stories you could confidently describe as Lovecraftian well before Lovecraft put pen to paper. Then again, nobody talks about them to nearly the extent people enthuse about Poe and Lovecraft.
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2009-08-19
Of course, part of this may be down to me being an atheist. The big reveal in most of his stories is "There's no god and nothing means anything, fuck you", which leaves someone with my take on the cosmos nodding in agreement. Others may find his work disturbing or even offensive on a philosophical level.
As an atheist, I certainly find it unappealing on a philosophical level. (Well, two out of three.)

I also have to question how something which cares the message "nothing means anything" can possibly be life-affirming, which pretty much requires the existence of some sort of meaning, doesn't it?
Arthur B at 22:53 on 2009-08-19
I also have to question how something which cares the message "nothing means anything" can possibly be life-affirming, which pretty much requires the existence of some sort of meaning, doesn't it?

Well, if nothing means anything it follows that none of the things we suffer are necessarily that bad, so long as we can overcome our attachment to transient things.

That sounds rather Buddhist, and Ligotti does veer close to that sort of territory; in The Shadow, The Darkness he expounds a sort of nihilistic Buddhist Taoism in which the Tao is a blind idiot force pervading everything and all material things are just an expression of that force, and a weird sort of enlightenment can be achieved by those who accept that they are nothing more than a tiny shred of the Tao expressing itself.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2009-08-20
enlightenment can be achieved by those who accept that they are nothing more than a tiny shred of the Tao expressing itself.
... Which certainly sounds like meaning to me. As I see it, if we allow for the existence of meaning in some form (whether that meaning be intrinsic or only what we make of it) then we can have endless fun arguing the nature of meaning and where it ultimately resides.

If, however, we adopt the motto "nothing means anything," then we are taking an absolutist stance. We cannot tolerate any suggestion of meaning to anything whatsoever.

I further submit that for something to be "life affirming" requires the existence of some form of meaning to life. If "nothing means anything" then life can neither be affirmed nor denied, at best, it can be observed to occur.
Arthur B at 20:59 on 2009-08-20
Which certainly sounds like meaning to me.

Well, no, because the underlying force of the universe in the story is mindless, aimless chaos.

I further submit that for something to be "life affirming" requires the existence of some form of meaning to life. If "nothing means anything" then life can neither be affirmed nor denied, at best, it can be observed to occur.

I have no interest in getting into semantic arguments. Please assume I meant "life-affirming" as in "it makes me feel better about life" if it means the review will make more sense to you.

For what it's worth, in the sort of universe Ligotti describes merely the fact of life occurring is reason to be cheerful. It's a small victory against the arbitrary, pointless cruelty of the world.
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