Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti is a collection of stories that would appear to veer between science fiction, fantasy and horror, or combine all three genres at once. Since they are determinedly fantastical and morbid, I suppose horror is the main ingredient, a horror that there is another world nearby, just across the northern border, where there are grotesque and inexplicable happenings and beings that somehow echo our daily existence and are, in fact, more real or authentic than our daily existence because we can barely see them but they apparently can see us.
Ligotti’s strengths are several. He writes extremely well in a story-telling, as opposed to story-showing, mode. By this I mean his sentences are vivid and strong and almost error-free in maintaining a distinctive tone and rhythm. They are comparable to Kafka in the sense that they powerfully understate the unbelievable, and that’s good, because the unbelievable needs to be whispered, not shouted. In addition, Ligotti’s tales are uniquely atmospheric; he creates wholly self-enclosed worlds that extend themselves, paragraph after paragraph, into deeper and deeper realms of the same thing, turning monotony (up to a point) into a virtue.
If Ligotti has a natural gift for a narrative arc, however, or an interest in a well-prepared “ending,” I can’t say I entirely grasp it. These stories are wonderfully detailed but more suggestive than conclusive. What one learns is what one would suspect all along: the secret-keepers on the other side of the northern border aren’t sharing their secrets, nor are they surrendering to rational interpretation.
So these are enactments, or performance art, meant, I would think, to fire up the reader’s imagination and engage her as a co-teller, someone who would infuse the reading experience with deeply personal anxieties and fears and suspicions.
Certain motifs recur: there are broken puppets, weird artifacts, recurrent bouts of indigestion, mysterious attics and mysterious basements. Doors, of course, are important. So are streets lined by tombstone-like buildings, evidently uninhabited and sometimes seemingly doorless and windowless.
When Ligotti needs to add communal ingredients to the mystery, he simply summons crowds of unintroduced friends of the narrator or inhabitants of the city or folks walking by who stop to watch the enigma stage a parade . . . or procession of the dead and dying.
I think a real Ligotti-lover would be someone who simply enjoyed his well-articulated vision and how it departs from the normal. This would not be someone who took horror seriously but rather someone interested in vacating the premises of quotidian reality.
It seems to me that Ligotti’s real claim and interest, again, has to do with how well and consistently he writes. He is not as ornate and melodious as Poe or as succinct and powerful as Kafka, but he is still like a hum, a drone, with an undeniably unsettling effect.
There is no “other” world lying nearby, staring at us and bewildering us, except in work like Ligotti’s, but that raises the question, explicit in several stories, about whether art is more real than reality, likely to take us unawares in strange moments, insist on the truth of dreams, and convince us that we are right when we admit to ourselves that we really don’t know what’s going on as we conduct our daily affairs, barely conscious of what we’re conscious of and significantly unconscious of what we’re really thinking despite all evidence to the contrary.