Thomas Ligotti is an American writer of strange, disturbing fictions, which linger in the mind long after you’ve finished reading. He has been compared to the horror writers H P Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, and since 1982 he’s been winning nominations and awards for his work.
His 2008 collection of short stories Teatro Grottesco is an unsettling one. Although they appear at first sight to be about the routines and rituals of “normal” life, details soon accumulate that twist our perception of the world he is conjuring into existence. Several of the stories share a very similar environment – a remote “northern border town” which inhabits a post-industrial landscape, semi-derelict and decaying. Very little can be seen – the stories are usually set at twilight, or during the night, or in a miasma of permanent fog. The street lights, when working, are dim. The inhabitants work at pointless and repetitive jobs – processing endless forms or constructing strange metal artifacts with no understanding why they are doing so. They are overseen by managers and foremen, who may or may not be human, and who mysteriously appear and disappear, possibly at the behest of the Quine Organisation, a company that also controls the medication upon which everyone relies.
The stories are told in the first person in an old-fashioned, excessively detailed and deliberately repetitive prose style. The repetitions suggest that we are listening to the musing of someone who feels compelled to be as precise as possible at all times in communicating their thoughts and speculations, in order to prevent confusion – but the very presentation of several alternative descriptions or explanations for every event or situation hints at layers of differing realities beneath the ordinary which we can’t quite grasp. For example, in The Bungalow House, the manager of an art gallery is found dead on the street. “Presumably she had been waiting for a cab to take her home from a bar or a party or some other human gathering place where she had gotten very drunk.” Doesn’t identifying the (alternative) gathering places as human hint that there’s another set of gathering places for an alien set of beings?
The story When You Hear The Singing, You Will Know It Is Time from the Teatro Grottesco collection displays perfectly the style and form of Ligotti’s work.
The nihilist narrator lives, of course, in a northern border town, and he believes that he will die there. He contemplates alternative deaths “by his own hand … or possibly by the more usual means of some violent misadventure or some wasting disease”. He thinks about being “buried, or interred in any way whatsoever, within the hilltop graveyard”. What could it mean to be “interred in any way whatsoever” if it doesn’t mean “buried”? Again, it suggests a whole other universe where there are possibilities that don’t apply in our reality.
He lives in a “small backstairs apartment on the ground floor of a large rooming house located in one of the oldest parts of town”. His apartment is subsequently described using any combination of these attributes, which lends an equal and mechanical emphasis to their importance. This device is central to Ligotti’s style, for example here, as our protagonist wakes in the night to hear a droning “beneath the floorboards of my small backstairs apartment”.
“Until that night I had not suspected that there was a cellar below the rooming house where I live on the ground floor. I was even less prepared to discover, as I eventually did, that hidden under a small worn-down carpet, which was the only floor covering in my room, was a trap door – an access, it seemed, to whatever basement or cellar might have existed (beyond all my suspicions) below the large rooming house.”
Following a wakeful night, he walks the streets in an altered frame of mind, and eventually joins others – always described as “hysterics” or “imposters”, or possibly both – as they begin “to collect on street corners, or in back alleys, as well as in abandoned storefront rooms or old office buildings where most of the furniture was badly broken and out-of-date calendars hung crooked on the walls.” In Ligotti’s stories, these casual gatherings usually start at twilight and dissolve and regroup throughout the night, and the inhabitants exchange the rumours that take the place of hard news – here, of the dwindling population of the town and “disappearances” of those who have “seen the signs”. These signs turn out to be strange doors – “some type of threshold” – that keep appearing in out-of-the-way places, “such as a miniature door at the back of a broom closet or a door appearing on the inner wall of a fireplace, and even doors that might not seem to lead to any sensible space, as would be the case with a trap door in an apartment on the ground floor of a rooming house that that did not have a cellar, nor had ever had one that could be accessed in such a way”.
There’s – or rather there isn’t – an absent, strange, “demonic” preacher called Reverend Cork, who has disappeared, and a discussion about whether he was from or disappeared into the old town or the other town. Someone says that the old town existed on the site of the northern border town, but disappeared. And someone else says that “it was a demon town and was inhabited by demon entities of all sorts who made the whole thing invisible. Now they throw out these thresholds as a way to lure another group of us who only want to live in this town near the northern border and not in some intolerable demon town”.
Our narrator sums up the anxieties produced by such layering of realities.
“There was simply no peace to be had no matter where you hid yourself away. Even in a northern border town of such intensely chaotic oddity and corruption there was still some greater chaos, some deeper insanity, than one had counted on or could ever be taken into account – wherever they was anything, there would be chaos and insanity to such a degree that one could never come to terms with it, and it was only a matter of time before your world, whatever you thought it to be, was undermined, if not completely overrun, by another world.”
The cumulative effect of Ligotti’s storytelling – the recurring motifs, the repetitions, alternatives, excessive detail – set up a creepy resonance which is really quite unsettling. We just can’t quite make out what is happening, yet feel compelled to continue reading. Sample Ligotti’s work here – it’s a reading of The Bungalow House. But don’t listen to it just before you go to sleep.