So for a while, whenever I looked at Amazon’s page for one of my own obscure books, the system recommended something called Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti. According to the unfathomable Amazonian formula, if you liked one, you might like the other. (Because both their covers feature masks?) Ligotti’s name came randomly to my attention other ways, too. I’d be searching for something unrelated and a relevant keyword would pop up in some message board post about Ligotti. I found a site devoted entirely to his work, which by then I realized had a hardcore cult following.
The work itself sounded Lovecraftian in content and style. I don’t like Lovecraft much. A purple writer with visceral but repetitive and fairly superficial ideas. But out of curiosity I finally bought Teatro Grottesco. I’m pleased to report that it’s fucking phenomenal.
Teatro Grottesco isn’t a page-turner. It’s more like a scope-creep of dread and awe. It took me about a week this fall to read all the stories–but since then I’ve thought of them pretty much every day, puzzling them out, piecing them together.
Ligotti writes in a genre all his own. The only title I can think to give it is philosophical horror. Think Kafka meets David Lynch meets… I don’t know, Cortazar? Ligotti’s stories contain grotesqueries, but almost no violence whatsoever. They’re about as far from traditional horror as horror can get. The dread Ligotti creates is the dread of living a life with no agency whatsoever, deluded and hopeless, controlled by malevolent and incomprehensible forces.
From “My Case For Retributive Action,” the story of a man starting a new job in foggy town on the wrong side of an ill-defined border:
“In those moments, which were eternal I assure you, I had no location in the universe, nothing to grasp for that minimum of security which every creature needs merely to exist without suffering from the sensation that everything is spinning ever faster on a cosmic carousel with only endless blackness at the edge of that wheeling ride.”
Ligotti’s characters are always being stricken by gastrointestinal ailments which seem to function as manifestations, sometimes veiled but sometimes explicit, of their psychological afflictions: brain as intestine. In the title story, the narrator (Ligotti always writes with a first-person narrator) writes of a mysterious organization called the Teatro Grottesco that terrorizes artists, causing them to lose their artistic inclinations and in some cases disappear entirely. The narrator is then laid low by “an intestinal virus.” (Emphasis Ligotti’s.)
Suffering through the days and nights of an illness, especially an intestinal virus, one becomes highly conscious of certain realities, as well as highly sensitive to the functions of these realities, which otherwise are not generally subject to prolonged attention or meditation. Upon recovery from such a virus, the consciousness of these realities and their functions necessarily fades, so that the once-stricken person may resume his life’s activities and not be driven to insanity or suicide by the acute awareness of these most unpleasant facts of existence. Through the illumination of analogy, I came to understand that the Teatro operated in much the same manner as the illness from which I had recently suffered, with the consequence that the person exposed to the Teatro-disease becomes highly conscious of certain realities and their functions…
In Ligotti, the body is an analog of the mind and the environment is an analog of the body. (Perfectly enough, Ligotti is apparently based in Detroit.) In one of the most excellent stories, “The Red Tower,” a bizarre factory interacts with the landscape surrounding it, and the underground levels produce “hyper-organisms” out of “birthing-graves.” You have a sense of rising, horrified awe reading Ligotti’s description of these creatures, a description that I won’t reproduce here because it would spoil the dreadful recognition you feel as you begin to realize what, in fact, he’s describing.
“Gas Station Carnivals” is maybe my favorite story (it’s either that or “The Clown Puppet”). It comes in the third segment of the collection, a cluster of five stories called “The Damaged and the Diseased.” These stories are the most brain-twisting and arcane, usually involving tales told to a narrator by an interlocutor whose veracity (or existence) comes into question even as the tale coils back onto itself and starts to strangle the narrator. “Gas Station Carnivals” is best read without any prior knowledge of its completely bizarre contents.
That’s true of the whole book, actually, but I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying that it’s profound and terrific and there’s nothing else like it. And if nobody told you to go out and get it as soon as humanly fucking possible, then you’d be less likely to do so, wouldn’t you?