Thursday, July 14, 2011

Teatro Grottesco: Exploring The Nightmare World of Thomas Ligotti

[As its colon-ized title might suggest, this is less a review and more of an appreciative/analytical essay. It discusses plot details more than a review would, and I recommend that those who have yet to read Teatro Grottesco avoid the review until they have.  Although Ligotti's stories are atmospheric expressions of a worldview, their effect is communicated as much by plot as by anything else, and that effect may be lessened if you read the stories for the first time knowing how some of them end.]

"Where I live is nightmare, thus a certain nonchalance."
--Thomas Ligotti, "The Mystics of Muelenburg"

In his essay "The Last Messiah," Peter Wessel Zapffe identifies four mechanisms by which human beings avoid dwelling on the inherently tragic nature of human life: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation.  I first encountered this framework in an early draft version of Thomas Ligotti's monograph The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which transformed my own mechanism from anchoring (constructing the illusion that certain principles transcend or defy the horror of existence) to sublimation (acknowledging that horror but using the knowledge of its existence as a source of action and consolation).  As time has passed, I've found my interest in sublimation limited, and moved on to distraction, amusing myself with entertainments and getting caught up in the business of daily life.  I still regard the pessimistic view of existence as accurate; I just don't find it very interesting.  I retain, however, my enthusiasm for fiction that expresses this view, fiction that is, like the essay and monograph mentioned above, itself a form of sublimation.  And Thomas Ligotti remains one of the premier contemporary authors of such fiction.

In a recent discussion on a Ligotti-devoted message board, I remarked after rereading it that the story "The Red Tower"
has always been a favorite of mine. What struck me this time was how it, like so much of Ligotti's work, evokes the incomprehensible experience of nightmare in its surreal but vivid imagery and its paucity of explanation. And yet the story has both the narrative coherence necessary for a satisfying reading experience and a strong philosophical undercurrent. This balance between the formlessness of dreams and the structural rigor of literature is not an easy one to strike, as any study of the myriad unsatisfying dream sequences in all types of contemporary fiction will demonstrate. It is, I think, Ligotti's mastery of that balance that makes his fiction so unsubtly disturbing on levels both visceral and intellectual. Everything in his stories is pregnant with meaning, but precise definitions constantly escape us-- just as they do in the sideshow world we call reality.
In reply to that comment, after a duly modest acknowledgement that not all readers share my appreciation of his work, Ligotti remarked that I had described
the influence of my masters as mirrored in my stories. For instance, if you want to hold a reader's attention throughout what might be an otherwise boring dream scenario, mix in a dose of the banal. Ask Bruno Schulz about that. And if you want to tell a story that satisfies the reader's sense of being "about something," at least on a superficial level, while being about something more on a deeper level, simply leave out some exposition, something that would perhaps illuminate what the writer himself may only dimly feel. Ask Poe why the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" murders the old man whom he says he loves. There isn't a clue aside from the distressing effect the old man's eye has on the nervous tale teller. There's only our entrapment inside the narrator's mad mind where both he and his readers hear the pounding heart of the old man after he has been savagely slaughtered and dismembered. That's enough for the casual reader, and the rest--the deeper level--is strictly for those who would gaze into the reflecting abyss of that "pale blue eye with a film over it" and absorb into themselves what is both there and not there.
In this essay I hope to expand on some of those ideas, with reference to "The Red Tower" and other stories from Teatro Grottesco, Ligotti's most recent and possibly final collection.  (It should go without saying that my extensions of Ligotti's comments are my own, and may well not reflect precisely what he meant by them.)

I.  "A World of Rain and Darkness"

It's easy to say that a story's atmosphere is dreamlike, but what does one mean by it?  Anything that truly captured the chaotic non-structure of a dream would, almost by definition, be an unsatisfying piece of fiction.  What Ligotti's work does is to isolate certain features of that non-structure, and combine them into something of greater coherence that nonetheless captures the mystery and disquiet of a most memorable nightmare.

One such feature is incomplete context.  The dream world is never fully realized; even if a dream happens in a specific actual location, that location is isolated, devoid of connection to the larger locations and notions that define it (even if we are rarely conscious of that act of definition) during waking existence.  And more often dreams occur in an imaginary spot cobbled together from our experience of similar places: a bedroom or park or grocery store drawn from many realities but resembling none of them.

Ligotti's fiction is similarly without context.  The time, though usually contemporary, is never stated, and while towns and cities occasionally have names, states and nations never do.  References to real-world places, events, and concerns are virtually non-existent.  There are only such characters and settings as are vital to the story.  Some of this, of course, has to do with the short story form itself, which demands a great degree of concision.  In Ligotti's work, however, the effect of this constricted focus is to suggest that, both in a literal and philosophical sense, there is nothing else.  Take the opening of the story "Gas Station Carnivals."
Outside the walls of the Crimson Cabaret was a world of rain and darkness. At intervals, whenever someone entered or exited through the front door of the club, one could actually see the steady rain and was allowed a brief glimpse of the darkness. Inside it was all amber light, tobacco smoke, and the sound of the raindrops hitting the windows, which were all painted black. On such nights, as I sat at one of the tables in that drab little place, I was always filled with an infernal merriment, as if I were waiting out the apocalypse and could not care less about it. I also like to imagine that I was in the cabin of an old ship during a really vicious storm at sea or in the club car of a luxury passenger train that was being rocked on its rails by ferocious winds and hammered by a demonic rain. Sometimes, I thought of myself as occupying a waiting room for the abyss (which of course was exactly what I was doing) and between sips from my glass of wine or cup of coffee I smiled sadly and touched the front pocket of my coat where I kept my imaginary ticket to oblivion.
These images of isolation can be taken as expressions of the protagonist's state of mind or the author's philosophy, and indeed they are that, but they also suggest that there may literally be no world beyond the Crimson Cabaret, because that is the setting of this tale, this nightmare.

Consider also the end of "The Red Tower."
I myself have never seen the Red Tower - no one ever has, and possibly no one ever will. And yet wherever I go people are talking about it. In one way or another they are talking about the nightmarish novelty items or about the mysterious and revolting hyper-organisms, as well as babbling endlessly about the subterranean system of tunnels and the secluded graveyard whose headstones display no names and no dates designating either birth or death. Everything they are saying is about the Red Tower, in one way or another, and about nothing else but the Red Tower. We are all talking and thinking about the Red Tower in our own degenerate way. I have only recorded what everyone is saying (though they may not know they are saying it), and sometimes what they have seen (though they may not know they have seen it). But still they are always talking, in one deranged way or another, about the Red Tower. I hear them talk of it every day of my life. Unless of course they begin to speak about the gray and desolate landscape, that hazy void in which the Red Tower - the great and industrious Red Tower - is so precariously nestled. Then the voices grow quiet until I can barely hear them as they attempt to communicate with me in choking scraps of post-nightmare trauma. Now is just such a time when I must strain to hear the voices. I wait for them to reveal to me the new ventures of the Red Tower as it proceeds into ever more corrupt phases of production, including the shadowy workshop of its third subterranean level. I must keep still and listen for them; I must keep quiet for a terrifying moment. Then I will hear the sounds of the factory starting up its operations once more. Then I will be able to speak again of the Red Tower.
There are three ways to look at this passage, two of them relevant here.  First is the allegorical.  Elsewhere in the thread linked above, Ligotti pointed to an interpretation of "The Red Tower" that echoed his own intentions for the story.  In that reading, the Red Tower stands for existence itself, protruding into and marring the perfection of nothingness, and the narrator's claim that everyone is speaking of the Red Tower must be true, because the Red Tower symbolically encompasses everything of which one could possibly speak.
A second way to look at the passage is to extend that symbolic notion into the realm of the story, by imagining a world that is, in fact, rounded out by the Red Tower and the plain surrounding it, a world like that of dreams, somehow, impossibly, vast and tiny all at once.

II.  "A Fog of Delusion and Counter-Delusion"

But these perspectives, though possibly diverting, are in a way beside the point.  What's absent may have something to do with the atmosphere of a Ligotti story, but what's present is by far more important.  Because they are, with a few exceptions, stories of the supernatural, there are, of course, many elements in Ligotti's work that are literally impossible and therefore in some sense dreamlike.  But not all that is imaginary is truly oneiric.  (As Ligotti observed in one of his essays, the vampire has been so well-defined, given so many "rules," that its power as a manifestation of disturbance is basically nil.)  What, then, makes the difference?  Events that evoke nightmare are strange, unexplained or ill-explained, yet accepted in the fiction, as in dream, with an indifferent shrug.

One could point to several examples of-- the child protagonist of "Purity," unsurprised by the products of his father's strange experiments and by the barren hostility of the world beyond his rented home; the narrator of "The Clown Puppet," for whom the title object's baffling visits are not an exception to the normality of the world, but the epitome of its nonsensical nature.  (These attitudes have implications for the philosophy of Ligotti's fiction, to which we will return.)  But I intend to focus on three stories that invoke, in different ways, one of the most unnatural, dislocating aspects of dreams: the change of perspective.

We have all, I imagine, had dreams in which we suddenly become a different person.  Once an observer of events, we are now a participant, or vice versa.  Death in a dream sometimes means not waking up, but becoming another player in the same scenario.  And at times, of course, we shift to something so different that it might be another dream altogether, except for the inexplicable sense of continuity.  In "Gas Station Carnivals," "The Bungalow House," and "Severini," these changes are paralleled by similar revelations about or shifts in the identity of each story's protagonist. 

Much of "Gas Station Carnivals" is a dialogue between the narrator, who suffers from a stomach ailment, and Stuart Quisser, an art critic who has earned the enmity of the Crimson Cabaret's owner by calling her a "deluded no-talent."  They discuss the titular carnivals, themselves quite unlikely and nightmarish, over the narrator's mint tea and Quisser's wine.  But after Quisser departs for the bathroom, something shifts.  Suddenly Quisser's wine glass has disappeared, and on investigation he is gone from the Crimson Cabaret.  When found he claims that he was never there, but stayed home suffering from a stomach ailment, and that the narrator was the one who called the proprietor a deluded no-talent.  Nor is this the end of the confusion.  "All of us had problems, it seemed, whose sources were untraceable, crossing over one another like the trajectories of countless raindrops in a storm, blending to create a fog of delusion and counter-delusion."

The narrator of "The Bungalow House" becomes obsessed with a series of taped monologues left at a local gallery by an unknown artist.  After begging the gallery manager to contact the artist on his behalf, he is granted a meeting... only to discover that the artist is an illusion, his own creation that he can't remember generating.  "Severini" is similarly a story of the identity between the artist and an observer, who prove to be two halves of a divided whole, part of an obscure ritual to cleanse the body of disease.  These alterations in being, as surprising to the reader as to the characters, have the same bewildering sense of opening out or shifting sideways as what one experiences at the pivot point of a dream.

Part of what makes nightmares so unbearable is that they offer the illusion of getting away.  Like a horror movie in which the coed escapes the masked maniac and meets a kindly cop only to discover that he's allied with the maniac, nightmares allow you to escape for a moment, only to heighten the atmosphere of dread.  This breeds in the sufferer, who can sense that his hope is false, a kind of paranoia, a belief in the imminence of something horrible because that is the tone of the dream.  One might say that all dreamers are mad.

In this light we may return to the climax of "The Red Tower."  A third way of looking at it is that the narrator is insane, has allowed his obsession to cloud his judgment so that he believes everyone is speaking of the Red Tower, whether they are or not.  The possibility of mental defect hangs over other characters in these stories, from Grossvogel, reputed to be heavily medicated, in "The Shadow, the Darkness," to the narrator of "The Bungalow House," told by the gallery director that he "really [is] a crazy man."  Crazy these characters may be, or they may be responding in as sane a way as possible to what goes on around them, a milieu that is itself insane: the milieu of nightmare.

III.  "An Aura of Meaning or Substance"

I have often strained to describe the characteristics of Ligotti's prose style.  Ellen Datlow has called it baroque, but I'm not sure that's quite the word.  It has an air of formality, to be sure, an almost clinical quality, but it's not quite elaborate enough to be baroque.  In fact, it was that word "clinical" that helped me pull things together.  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.  (The story "Dream of a Mannikin" from the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer is, in fact, such a report, with a twist.)  On making this observation, it further struck me that some of Ligotti's stories involve first-person narrators who recount in summary fashion things told to them by others, increasing this sense of reportorial distance.  (The second-hand storyteller is, of course, a common device in horror fiction for a number of aesthetic reasons.)  Here is an exemplary passage from "Gas Station Carnivals:"


There were always only a few carnival rides, Quisser said, and these were very seldom in actual operation. He supposed that at some time they were in functioning order, probably when they were first installed as an annex to the gas stations. But this period, he speculated, could not have lasted long. And no doubt at the earliest sign of malfunction each of the rides was shut down. Quisser said that he himself had never been on a single ride at a gas station carnival, though he insisted that his father once allowed him to sit atop one of the wooden horses on a defunct merry-go-round. 'It was a miniature merry-go-round,' Quisser told me, as if that gave his recollected experience an aura of meaning or substance. All the rides, it seemed, were miniature, he asserted - small-scale versions of carnival rides he had elsewhere known and had actually ridden upon. Beside the miniature merry-go-round, which never moved an inch and always stood dark and silent in a remote rural landscape, there would be a miniature ferris wheel (no taller than a bungalow-style house, Quisser said), and sometimes a miniature tilt-a-whirl or a miniature roller coaster. And they were always closed down because once they had malfunctioned, if in fact any of them was ever in operation, they were never subsequently repaired. Possibly they never could be repaired, Quisser thought, given the antiquated parts and mechanisms of these miniature carnival rides
This quality of reportage is one of the things that mitigates against the dreamlike atmosphere of the stories, providing them with a certain solidity that, paradoxically, they would not possess if told in the intense language of nightmare itself.  The banal details with which the reader is presented-- the excellent pastries of Mrs. Angela's psychic coffee house, the panels framing the stage at the Crimson Cabaret-- are, given the general sparseness of incidental description in Ligotti's stories, like facts elicited from the memories of the dreamer, the nothings that find their way into the dream alongside that which is of psychological import.  All fiction is founded on details that create the illusion of depth, that make us believe, just for a moment, that we are dealing with the real and that the bag of bones is as complicated as an actual human being.  In Teatro Grottesco, such details are provided sparingly, but have, given the authorial voice at work, disproportionate power.

The other element that binds Ligotti's stories into cohesive wholes is the habit of repetition.  In many of his stories certain words and phrases recur at intervals.  Whether details like Mrs. Angela's pastries, words taken out of the mouth of a character, or the nihilistic credo of the narrator of "The Bungalow House," these motifs remind the reader that, despite the chaos inherent in these scenarios, there are guiding principles at work, a conscious design more focused than the unconscious riot of dreams.  It is toward those principles that this essay turns in closing.

IV.  "Only Nonsense and Dreams"

Both of the stories I have quoted at length in this essay were among six that appeared originally in the Ligotti omnibus The Nightmare Factory as the only pieces original to that volume.  These stories have a number of common features, some of which have been discussed above.  One of those features is a certain apparent frustration with the weird tale itself.  Perhaps "awareness of the limitations of" is a better phrase than "frustration with."  The narrator of "The Bungalow House" declares that the author of the dream monologues has "totally failed on both an artistic and an extra-artistic level.  You have failed your art, you have failed yourself, and you have also failed me."  The gas station carnivals that Stuart Quisser describes are likened to the narrator's own stories... and then are promptly dismissed as a useless delusion.

This awareness is elevated in "The Shadow, the Darkness," a novella published a few years after The Nightmare Factory that may be the most perfect fictional statement possible of Ligotti's philosophical position... which is to say, is of necessity a deeply imperfect statement.  Why?  Let us hear it from one of the story's characters.
The answer to that is exactly what Grossvogel has been preaching in both his pamphlets and in his public appearances.  His entire doctrine, if it can even be called that, if there could ever be such a thing in any sense whatever, is based on the non-existence, the imaginary nature of everything we believe ourselves to be.  Despite his efforts to express what has happened to him, he must know very well that there are no words that are able to explain such a thing.  Words are a total obfuscation of the most basic fact of existence, the very conspiracy against the human race that my treatise might have illuminated.  Grossvogel has experienced the essence of this conspiracy first-hand, or at least has claimed to have experienced it.  Words are simply a cover-up of this conspiracy.  They are the ultimate means of this cover-up, the ultimate artwork of the shadow, the darkness-- its ultimate artistic cover-up.  Because of the existence of words, we think that there exists a mind, that some kind of soul or self exists.  This is just another of the infinite layers of the cover-up.  There is no mind that could have written An Investigation into the Conspiracy Against the Human Race-- no mind that could write such a book and no mind that could read such a book.  There is no one at all who can say anything about this most basic fact of existence, no one who can betray this reality.  And there is no one to whom it could ever be conveyed.
 It is this awareness of  absolute falseness, and the simultaneous awareness of the inability of fiction, or anything else, to convey such philosophical truth that punctuates "The Bungalow House," that makes Ligotti's characters indifferent to the nonsense that surrounds them, that demands the presence of nightmare in Ligotti's fiction.  Only that fractured world can even approximate the reality being gotten at, a reality that is impossible to communicate in full, which can only be apprehended experientially by an individual existing in his own corner of the shadow, the darkness.  Zapffe's acknowledgement, shared by Ligotti, that the writing of pessimistic works is only another defense mechanism becomes the point: there can only be defense mechanisms.  Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.  And there is, ultimately, nothing whereof one can speak except dreams, nightmares, and other illusions.

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