on 4 August 2011
Teatro Grottesco is a collection of thirteen short stories (give or take (some include `micro' narratives inside themselves)), in the horror genre. What kind of horror, precisely, is difficult to say, because while Ligotti doesn't conform to any of the basic slasher-gore, paranormal, supernatural, serial killer (etc.) genre types, he doesn't ignore them either. Instead he offers a subtle convergence of all of these ranks of horror (and much more besides), while simultaneously corrupting and distorting them from their more classic/familiar incarnations. For example, Ligotti's conception of viscera isn't a hyperbolic focus on blood `n' guts, but a half-glimpsed suggestion of mutation, tumorous growths and sick, malformed bodies. In the opener `Purity' I see a fetishising of the latent horror implicit in extreme body types - from the incredibly obese to the deathly emaciated or over-tumoured; the reader is unnerved not by any explicit focus on blood/bile/organs or the other inside aspects of the body which commonly dominate horror, but by an external grotesque which, mostly hidden in shadows or shooed away, is all the more disturbing for its malformity - such bodies cannot exist without something having gone drastically wrong. In this aspect, Teatro Grottesco is strikingly Lovecraftian: the body isn't a healthy temple which spills its secrets when sliced from the outside; it's instead an internally corrupting, treacherous, sickly and unhealthy shell liable to bloat itself or shrivel or grotesquely mutate: unreliable and frightening.
Similarly, Ligotti's approach to the supernatural is unconventional. In the title story `Teatro Grottesco', an elusive, never-seen theatre company drains all ambition and creativity from any artist precocious enough to enlist their services. Not only is this a bizarre re-imagining of Vampire mythology (the sucking away of lifeblood), but it also functions as sarcastic metaphor for what Ligotti clearly sees as a rampant lack of creativity in his own genre and, on a more pernickety level, a grotesque manifestation of the author-centric fear of writers' block. Elsewhere the supernatural is less explicit, such as in `The Red Tower', which is a brief description-piece about an abandoned factory that used to produce and ship creepy artefacts. Underneath this factory, however, sleeps a more disturbing and surreal manufacturing work of the grotesque. So it is with much of Teatro Grottesco's supernatural moments: they occur off-camera - conjured via suggestion and narratorial guesswork as much as by explicit description or explanation.
That Ligotti's narrators are all (without exception) unreliable, is simultaneously both problematic and beneficial to the portrayal of the supernatural. Where Ligotti is highly skilled in drafting incredibly varied, different horror stories, he conversely suffers from a singleness of style which colours all of his work with the same narratorial tone. Every story here is narrated in the first-person past tense, and each is told by an alarmingly disturbed individual; narrators who suffer from extreme anxiety, panic attacks, depression, schizophrenia, insomnia and self-imposed loneliness. While this forsaken identity gives the narrator a privileged position as social outsider, perfectly situated to recognise and name the supernatural for what it is, it also makes him an unreliable storyteller. Such obsessed individuals brilliantly unsettle the reader, as we see everything through the eyes of a very specific and disturbed subjective - but, as I've stated, this is also problematic, as any combination of madness with the paranormal begs that most boring of naturalist questions: is anything real? Is the narrator of `The Clown Puppet' really terrorised by a deformed, life-size wooden mannequin, or is the puppet merely a narrative manifestation of our mad narrator's internal psychoses? Such a focus on disturbed narrators has the double-edged-sword effect of giving the stories an unsettling point of view, while also throwing into doubt the very truth of the horror. Horror that, once dubious, loses much of its power.
Location, as well as narrator, also suffers from a lack of variety in Teatro Grottesco. Abandoned, out-of-the-way towns are the norm: and while this is a great setting for revelations of the uncanny and horrific, it gets a tad repetitive. Similarly, the locales of these short stories are all so idiosyncratically weird, and so intertwined with the narrator's identity, that I couldn't help but read many of them as a psychological construct - maybe our mad/anxious/depressed narrator has conjured up these grotesque towns from the walls of a mental institution in which he's imprisoned? Are the phantoms his nurses? The ghouls his fellow inmates? The locked rooms inaccessible hospital wings? In stories in which madness is so significant, it's difficult to ignore these questions. Unnerving in themselves, when they pop-up in story after story after story they begin to wear. As brilliantly disturbing as Ligotti is, the singularity of his approach came as a let-down. But maybe this is a failing of my own making. I recommend you don't read Teatro Grottesco as I did: cover to cover, like a novel. After all, many of these stories were written decades apart, in which case, it's probably a little disingenuous of me to highlight their uniformity.
A final note about style that I can't ignore is Ligotti's preoccupation with repetitious phrasing. In almost every story there are long phrases repeated in their entirety again and again, which eventually pound into the reader's mind like some kind of verbal hammer - reinforcing the concept of madness while concurrently boxing the reader into a claustrophobic space of constant, inescapable repetitions.
There's so much more I have to say about Ligotti, but I'm already running long. If I had to pick a favourite story, it'd be `My Case for Retributive Action' - set in a perpetually mist-covered American town, it's a quasi-comic and highly disturbing story about infinite working days, meaningless paper-work that's recycled endlessly (you can see the satire) and grotesque rumours about a deformed man-spider responsible for maddening sounds that haunt the town.
Ligotti's nightmarescapes didn't scare me as much as they left a lingering sensation that I'd been unsettled and disturbed. They're preoccupied with the individual's struggle to find meaning and definition in a hostile and increasingly repetitive world - and in this regard they're strikingly modernist: a space in which, to quote, there is "a killing sadness that feels as if it will never leave me no matter where I go or what I do or whom I may ever know."