Classic Review: Teatro Grottesco

I admit to being totally smitten by the work of Thomas Ligotti before actually getting around to Teatro Grottesco. The Penguin edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe no less than changed my entire literary trajectory. Here it is, I thought, the collection I always knew was out there waiting for me.

Not that Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is perfect–what collection could be? While some stories, such as “The Frolic” and “Dream of a Mannequin,” left me perfectly breathless, others, like “The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise,” remained little more than puzzling curiosities. This isn’t to say that the experience of reading Ligotti didn’t leave me with images and questions I still haven’t stopped thinking about–it did, and there certainly aren’t many pieces of fiction out there that have exerted a similar impact.

Still, even though I bought it directly after finishing Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (along with The Spectral Link, which I have read but there’s no space to get into it here), I delayed reading Teatro Grottesco for years. It was an experience I wanted to relish, to meditate deeply on, and I didn’t feel the time was quite right until recently.

Is it better than Songs…? I think so.

Not a single story falls flat here–things get heavy, complexities of perspective abound, unexpected shifts crouch in every darkened corner ready to shake off the unwary reader, and the dread of existence is so thick it’s often funny, but it’s never boring. Ligotti has successfully honed the obsessively monomaniacal curiosities that grip his characters to a fever pitch, and the path their discoveries take never leads to the light. There is something hollow in these characters, something puppetlike, even when Ligotti isn’t dealing explicitly, like in “The Clown Puppet,” with the puppet theater. I’m reminded of the poet Dennis Silk’s justification for the elimination of the human actor in “When the Dead Awaken,” his essay on the “thing” theater:

[T]he personal actor has lost the thing in himself […]. He’s squandered his strength in a hundred personal emotions which he then inflicts on his role. But the thing-actor has guarded its strength. It’s a form of locked-up energy waiting for the right outlet. (228)

Ligotti’s protagonists are more “thing-actor” than human, hollowed by the fantastic repetition of their mechanical lives (“Our Temporary Supervisor,” “The Bungalow House”) or held in thrall by the enduring (and often communal) curiosity that leads them to a sudden prespectival shifts which amount to traumatic confrontations with the wholly negative Other (“The Town Manager,” Gas Station Carnivals”). There is no hope here, only the magnetic draw to the emptiness that ripples through the environment, poisoning the landscape with a black hole’s radiation that causes a strange decay that isn’t quite the same as disintegration, a fermentation that only looks like decay on the surface, turning a useless town into an absurd carnival, or a ruined factory to a factory of nightmares.

It’s true that Ligotti’s characters here, rather than victims of the inexplicable evils of the cosmos (“The Frolic”), are part of the mechanical deterioration of reality themselves. They are drawn, like the library employer irresistibly attracted to a voice recording entitled The Bungalow House in the titular tale, by a “locked-up energy” back to their sources, only to undergo an ontological shift that radically externalizes their inner emptiness. True to this emptiness, there is plenty of room within for Ligotti to seamlessly manipulate metaphors that reflect on the experience of reading weird fiction (“The Red Tower”)–one cannot help but feel a certainty that Ligotti writes from a place of empathy. He achieves what he does precisely because he knows how it feels to be alone and utterly captivated by an impossible blackness the rest of the world is unable to see.

Ligotti achieves a truly vertiginous terror unlike any other I’ve yet to come across in weird fiction. For this reason Teatro Grottesco is best read slowly, with a cautious finger against the pulse of the reader’s mental well being. Ask any reader who has experienced a deep affinity with this collection if I’m exaggerating.

It’s truly impossible to successfully characterize Ligotti’s work in such a short space. I can only encourage you to read it if you haven’t. For me, it’s only a matter of time before the smoke gathers and I’m compelled, like a puppet on its strings, to read My Work is Not Yet Done. But it must be the right time. In a way, the act of reading Ligotti is sacred.

Verdict: Too good to be true!

by Justin A. Burnett


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