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[Tychy is nothing if not a writer and reviewer of short stories: this website to date features about eighty short stories, of varying ambitions and success; and numerous reviews of either individual stories or complete volumes by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.F. Benson, and Laird Barron. “Short Story Review,” a series devoted exclusively to volumes of short stories, consolidates this website’s longstanding and ongoing critical appreciation of short fiction.]

Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco (2006) is based upon a fundamental error, which is at once aesthetic and philosophical. Horror writers have traditionally accepted a distinction between humdrum reality and a more potent unreality. M.R. James, for example, evoked a clockwork world in which a lonely bachelor would, say, go to the seaside to play golf. James would then proceed to slip a ghost into this hitherto safe and predictable reality. The ghost is not in itself frightening, or any more frightening than an aggressive human would be, and it only acquires its horror from a setting in which it does not belong and cannot be explained. The ghost is not only in the machine, but it is made by it.

The established distinction between the natural and the supernatural is an essential component of any horror story. We expect to find American children being possessed by the Devil in brightly-lit suburban homes, and vampires to turn up in the familiar school canteen. The dead are only at home in the hereafter, monsters live in their own diabolical reality, and their attack upon any particular human being is equally an attack upon our entire human world.

Yet Thomas Ligotti does not accept any distinction between reality and unreality. For him, reality is already a nightmare and it has been completely conquered by horror from the very beginning. Our leading scholar of “weird” fiction, S. T. Joshi, hopes to pass this off as “simply… a defining characteristic of Ligotti’s writing.” He tries to reason that Ligotti’s game is “not, in the end, a replacement of the real world by the unreal, but a sort of turning the real world inside out to show that it has been unreal all along.” But Ligotti’s faith in the unreality of reality is not merely a poise adopted for the purposes of fiction, rather as James has to pretend that ghosts exist. Ligotti readily claims to be a nihilist or some sort of intellectual barbarian.

In interviews, Ligotti generally gets into something of a muddle when trying to dress his misanthropy in respectable rhetoric. He insists that life has no value, with the relentless determination of a flasher insisting upon how important it is that you look at his penis. Yet he soon grants the significant concessions that, “in practical terms, I have all kinds of values that are not in accord with nihilism” and that “I politically self-identify as a socialist.” We have soon reached the point where Ligotti wants “everyone to be as comfortable as they can be while they’re waiting to die” – a position shared by every ideology that has ever existed. He seems to believe that life is entirely futile beyond the meaning given to it by humans, although if one happens to conclude that the meaning of life is to make everybody happier, then the nihilistic starting-point is wholly abandoned.

Throwing light over Ligotti’s nihilism may reveal it to be flimsy and transparent, and it only derives substance from his insistence that human beings are themselves essentially spectral. We are lonely, afraid, powerless, and self-destructive. Perhaps this ideology could be treated with pills, since Ligotti has freely equated it with his own clinical depression and “panic-anxiety disorder.” If nothing else, this renders his antinatalism somewhat unglamorous. One can only really suffer from anxiety in a condition of bourgeois security, because it would be otherwise justified by events rather than having any greater life of its own. Ligotti may remain cocooned in bedsheets whilst there’s a sunny day outside, but one cannot dispense with his philosophical hypochondria and enjoy the fiction. An aesthetic which assumes that reality is inherently horrific is only ever capable of imagining horror as normal and unremarkable. And there is indeed an undeniable correspondence between the deadened, bloodless nature of Ligotti’s horror and the stultifying dreariness of suburbia.

Throughout the stories in Teatro Grottesco, the protagonists accept supernatural visions and manifestations of otherworldly power with the same resignation that they would greet a decision by a local government planning department. In “The Town Manager,” a small American town indeed suffers from the random pronouncements of an unelected official, whose powers are both constitutional and supernatural. Whereas the Devil had traditionally visited small towns and tried to corrupt their virtue, this story is set in an alternative reality where the Devil has written every town charter:

This was the system in which we had functioned for generations. This was the order of things into which we had been born and to which we had committed ourselves by compliance. The risk of opposing this order, of plunging into the unknown, was simply too much for us to contemplate for very long.

Successive town managers inflict “greater degeneracy” upon the town, but the narrator learns that the whole of the outside world is undergoing the same sinister degeneration. Everywhere is as alien as his home. If this is intended as a metaphor for America’s de-industrialisation, it clearly pales in comparison to the horror of the signified reality. The characters in “The Town Manager” are blandly resigned to their degeneration, and the narrator eventually colludes with it, but in reality ordinary people are fighting to reverse America’s economic decline, often with passion and innovation, and their failure is consequently a lot more frightening than anything dreamt of in Ligotti’s philosophy.

The author in “Sideshow, and Other Stories” dismisses reality as “show business,” and he seems to offer five visionary anecdotes as an example of “that unnameable, unknowable, and no doubt nonexistent order that is not show business.” Yet they eventually turn out to be examples of “show business” too, for the author concedes that “the peculiar and the ridiculous” are “immanent and absolute in all existence and would be in any conceivable existent order.”

Anticipating the very criticism that demolishes Teatro Grottesco, the author cites the accusation that he has “no standard” or objective measure for “the peculiarity and ridiculousness of things,” but he raises this straw man only to be tyrannised by it. He demands why his challenger would “allow so many things to remain on the surface that might easily have gone so much deeper?,” but he himself seems to be stuck to the surface of life and detached from it at the same time.

The narrators of “My Case for Retributive Action” and “Our Temporary Supervisor” find themselves imprisoned in paid employment. The first works in a bourgeois office and the second in a more proletarian factory, but the monotony is the same. These stories flourish by way of a failed or an intentionally-failed metaphor, because exploitation is no more horrific if organised by a demonic power than if by conventional capitalists, and the “supervisor” of the latter story is ten times more terrifying as a capitalist than as a demon. Both narrators observe the tyranny of keeping whole populations enslaved under “medication,” which is terrible in its sheer pointlessness, in the gratuitous human waste. In the later stories, America’s industrial workforce seems to have morphed into a mass of self-employed “artists,” who endlessly hold failed exhibitions and poetry readings, but they are haunted by the same industrial monotony and their “art” is like a useless alternative therapy.

The traditional horror story ends with a climactic glimpse or understanding of something greater than reality. So, the haunting in M.R. James’ tale accumulates into a final ghostly appearance in the bachelor’s bedroom. One appears to encounter crescendos and climaxes of this nature in Teatro Grottesco, but upon inspection the ground turns out to be quite flat. In “The Clown Puppet,” the narrator is as much of a dangling wooden puppet as the being that haunts him. In this respect, the puppet predictably confirms rather than challenges the narrator’s reality, and the story would convey the same atmosphere and meaning if the spectre had never appeared. In later stories such as “Gas Station Carnivals” and “The Bungalow House,” the convoluted horror eventually returns home to the narrator’s psyche, from whence it came. The reader of “The Clown Puppet” may similarly comfort themselves with the possibility that the narrator’s story is only a deranged justification for murdering his employer.

Ligotti’s “macro narratives” – brief, flat reports of inconsequential events – venture pure imagery, and relinquish any attempt at suspense and crescendo. In “The Malignant Matrix” from “Sideshow,” for example, the author is sent to an old building, where he sees a wailing human head sliding along the floor. It is like glimpsing a rare wild animal, except that this is a report of supernatural fauna. As Ligotti cannot tell horror from reality, however, then it is just the same, and just as consequential, as if one had spotted a badger in the woods.

As with Poe’s tales, Ligotti’s stories are set in a world outside of identifiable time and space. The reviewer Brendan Moody finds that “references to real-world places, events, and concerns are virtually non-existent,” whilst Joshi observes that “the absence of any vivid or realistic description of the contemporary world gives Ligotti’s tales a curiously archaic cast…” Ligotti’s stories at times whisper with a sense of Poe’s allegorical possibilities – that Red Tower, for example, could be a metaphor for America, or art, or all human enterprise. “The Town Manager” could be an allegory of the American presidency, without the fig-leaf of democracy.

Literary commentators have convinced each other that Ligotti’s use of the first-person narrative is some sort of tribute to Poe, but Poe’s narrators were luxuriantly histrionic, whilst Ligotti’s narrators are confined to a slower, drearier tempo. Perhaps Ligotti resembles a medicated Poe, but there is also an important difference in breadth. At least a third of Poe’s tales were comic, whilst there is more chance of a skull letting its hair down than one of Ligotti’s narrators. His best story, “The Red Tower,” is not really an exception to this rule, but it reveals an almost playful quality, perhaps suggesting a gloomy afternoon in the world of Dr Seuss.

Ligotti is a better writer than his other supposed influence, H.P. Lovecraft, but there could be no fainter praise with which to damn him. As the leading contemporary scholar of Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi must take to bad prose like a duck to water, but even he turns his nose up at Ligotti’s writing, complaining that it is, “so self-conscious and self-referential that it utterly lacks spontaneity and emotional vigor; its appeal seems directed almost wholly to the intellect…”

The hallmark of Ligotti’s fiction is his use of the first-person narrative, but this is decidedly a weakness. Brendan Moody notes that, “Ligotti’s language, direct but with a certain coolness about the horrors it describes, is not unlike that of a psychologist writing a report on a patient, perhaps describing the patient’s dream.” Ligotti’s narrators explain everything very carefully and precisely, but without the third dimension of imaginative speculation, often creating the impression that we are reading a precocious schoolchild’s letter to his penpal. Whilst “Purity” is apparently narrated by an adult, it could be told by the child who is experiencing the events of the story.

The fact that all of the other stories are narrated by the same voice, in the same creaky half-autistic deadpan, perhaps defines Ligotti as a carnival act with only one glove puppet. The rambling, undisciplined passages at the end of “The Shadow, the Darkness” do not so much signify a break from the uniformity of the prose as a bottleneck. So much prose builds up that the story grinds to a halt.

With bores for narrators and nothing very sensational for them to narrate in the first place, Ligotti’s tales depend entirely upon a certain lightness of touch for their occasional unexpected successes. The deft choreography of stories such as “Purity” and “Gas Station Carnivals,” with their concise narratives and clever endings, certainly make them pleasurable to read, but only in isolation. If these stories are read in succession, their broader philosophical and aesthetic failings quickly eclipse their individual victories. Paradoxically, given that his entire world is supposed to be subsumed in nihilistic dread, Ligotti would benefit from encountering or imagining some real human horror. And to do this, he first needs to rediscover the innocence of the funfair.