Saturday, January 4, 2014

Corporate Nightmares

H.P. Lovecraft had enormous impact on fellow horror and science fiction writers circa the early 1900s, and his work continues to influence contemporary authors.  Over the past few years there have been several anthologies of Lovecraft inspired short fiction, among them, Ross E. Lockhart’s two volume The Book of Cthulhu (2011-2012) and S.T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu, to mention just a couple.

One author who has acknowledged Lovecraft’s inspiration yet retains a unique voice and style is Thomas Ligotti.   He even dedicated one of his stories to Lovecraft, (The Last Feast of Harlequin).  A reclusive writer, little is known about him. He was born locally in Detroit in 1952, went to Wayne State University, and worked for many years at Gale Research, over in Farmington Hills.  He later moved to Florida.

I am familiar with three of Ligotti’s books: Noctuary (1994), The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, (2005) and My Work is Not Yet Done (2002).  All three are collections although the last one consists of three novellas.  Of these, my favorite is The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, which contains several effective stories, among them the subtle Nethescurial.  This tale can be read as an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, given its theme and Lovecraftian paraphernalia—the active component of a cosmic evil is revealed to be in the very ink of a mysterious manuscript.  But all of Ligotti’s writing is unique and disturbing.

My Work is Not Yet Done contains Ligotti’s characteristic use of dream-like imagery to convey mood and atmosphere.  As in Lovecraft, the transmutation of dream material into a narrative creates a coherence that would otherwise not be sustained by the events of the story.  Ligotti’s stories read like elaborately detailed reports of nightmares, but are more concretely rendered than in Lovecraft’s stories. 

The novella contains several characters, albeit thinly drawn, who are swiftly dispatched as the story unfolds.  There is some dialogue, but it has a dream-like quality and is oddly non-interactive.  As with Lovecraft, Ligotti’s tends to employ a single omniscient voice, a first person narrator who describes events and their significance.  Like Poe and Lovecraft, to whom he has been compared, Ligotti gives especial attention to atmosphere and concept, but not so much to character detail or dialogue.

The plot of My Work is Not Yet Done involves the protagonist Frank Dominio, a midlevel manager in some corporation, who endures disrespect and betrayal by his peers and his supervisor. He decides to kill them all.  Their deceptions and backbiting, their theft of his new product idea, all combine to cause him to go ‘postal’.   He dispatches each co-worker in nightmarishly gruesome ways.  (What was it like working at Gale Research?)  Later on it is revealed that all this time he has actually been comatose in the hospital—he had been hit by a bus just before he was to carry out the murders of his colleagues.  Was he thereby granted special and lethal psychokinetic powers?  Or did he merely dream about revenge?

It is hard to say, because most of the scenes are hallucinatory and dreamlike in their symbolism.  Ligotti’s work contains very little realism, but then, it does not have to.  Insofar as his writing is intriguing and disturbing, it is because he is very effective in drawing the reader into nightmarish moods and settings which seem oddly empty or depopulated.  For readers who enjoy visiting places like this, on their own or nearly so, his stories will provide this experience, and with a queasy chill.

My Work is Not Yet Done also seems to comment on corporate life, to analyze the emotional experience of at least one office worker.  For decades it has been popular to satirize and criticize corporations and bureaucracies.  They are evil, treacherous, and actively power-mad, or they are insensitive, unintelligent, soul-crushing monstrosities.  Or both.  The people inside them lead ‘lives of quiet desperation’ or—if they are at the top—are busy scheming to control the world or conceal some ghastly crime.   In this respect, Ligotti is unoriginal.   

Admittedly, some employees have definitely experienced ‘big business’ in this way and have suffered injustice and harm.  But Ligotti’s depiction of Dominio’s office seems laden with stereotypes and broad generalizations about corporate life.  One might wonder if the author ever worked in such an office, or if he did so for very long, and whether he was able to fit in with his co-workers.  Yet Ligotti was a successful associate editor at Gale Research, which is an educational publisher here in Michigan.  He did this for 23 years before leaving that position and moving to south Florida.  So it would seem there is some credibility to his perspectives on office work.

Many of us who work in offices, who are ‘slaves’ to companies large and small, do fit in, and remain for years.  We establish fairly deep and nuanced relationships with colleagues and business associates, whom we often spend as much or more time with than with family.  Never mentioned in the catalogue of corporate abuses are instances of humor, creativity, tragic loss, and mutual concern. 

Corporations currently provide the majority of products and services we rely on daily.  (As I write this, I am thankful to the corporation that will ensure I have heat in my house during the ‘polar vortex’ that arrives tomorrow.)  It may be that “corporate life” is the ideal and natural state for human beings.  To be without involvement in a corporation is abnormal, unnatural and sad—in the same sense that the ancient Greeks felt that a ‘man without a polis’ was to be avoided.  Legally, ‘corporations are people’.  And they have feelings.

And yet, as Sartre would say, “Hell is other people”.  What is interesting in Ligotti’s fiction is that the horrors are for the most part social, collective, and bureaucratic.   Now, as the entire world knits itself into one colossally incorporated political and economic bureaucracy, Ligotti’s fictional explorations are timely and necessary.

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