Now and then The R’lyeh Tribune takes a break from its survey of early twentieth century horror, science fiction and fantasy to look at more contemporary work. It was a delight to learn recently that our local university English Department will be hosting a discussion next week of Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco (2006) at its Fantasy and Science Fiction/Theory Reading Group. Teatro Grottesco is a collection of Ligotti’s short stories, some of which have appeared in previous collections, and includes revisions of earlier work. Several of these are thematically related, comprising a cycle of nightmares involving artists who are also lost souls.
I was not able to find the book locally, which is not surprising, given that his readership is small, though devoted. Like the echo of a typical Ligotti story, I discovered that staff in the book stores had heard of Teatro Grottesco, believed that they had seen it recently, but were currently out of stock. However, someone else had been in the store just a day or two earlier asking for the same book. None of their suppliers had the book; it would need to be special ordered, and would takes weeks to obtain. Recalling another master of understated horror from a century ago, I thought also of asking “Have you found the Yellow sign?”
Like Lovecraft and Poe, Ligotti can be a subtle writer, exhibiting considerable restraint and a leisurely pace. His work needs additional time and attention to savor the imagery and psychological effect of his disturbing fiction. He is one of those writers that is rewarding to read a second, even a third time. There is little graphic violence or suspense in his work, or decisive action—only a growing discomfort and anxiety. This culminates in a lingering dis-ease about the nature of reality and our ultimate fate, a chill not easily shaken. Avoid reading Ligotti in November or December if you are prone to seasonal affective disorder.
The other day I reread The Bungalow House, a story nominated in 1995 for the Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Fiction. I confess that I was not impressed the first time I read the story, years ago, but this was not the fault of the author as much as insufficient time and attention span on my part. Ligotti’s horrors are understated in an oblique, unadorned matter-of-fact-prose. They appear offstage, or in the corner of one’s eye, and are only half-remembered, like a bad dream. Re-reading the story made all the difference.
Like Lovecraft, one of the most striking elements of Ligotti’s work is his preoccupation with dream-like imagery. But Ligotti—if it can be believed—has a much darker, bleaker vision than Lovecraft, whom he emulates in some of his stories. (See for example his Nethescurial.) Ligotti’s work expresses the sensibility that both reality and the dream life are imbued with a lingering nightmarish evil, essentially a death wish that makes them indistinguishable from one another, and drawing all to some inescapable doom. Lovecraft, despite his anxious cosmicism and belief that human life is inconsequential, had some lighter moments.
In The Bungalow House, the narrator eventually comes to understand who is leaving audiotapes in a decrepit art gallery—a kind of “performance art” comprised of monologues depicting the desolate interiors of a bungalow house and a derelict factory. It is implied that the series will include similar treatment of other obscure locations. The artist has apparently dreamed of these places, which include “the bodies of insects and other vermin on the pale carpet.”
The Bungalow House takes place in a strangely depopulated urban setting. There is only the narrator, who works in the “Language and Literature” department of a library, Dahla, the owner of a shabby art gallery, and Henry, a night watchman. The narrator interacts with them, responds to what they say, but only as a cue ball might interact with the other balls on a pool table—by colliding but not actually connecting with anyone. This effect might have been intentional, as the narrator frequently reiterates his sad and disturbing world view several times in the story: “…there is nowhere for me to go, nothing for me to do, and no one for me to know.”
The narrator’s obsession with the tapes is suspicious and increasingly disturbing, but others are also listening to these tapes, and it may be that Ligotti is commenting more broadly about the human condition despite the nightmarish focus on one man’s psychological condition. Except for one scene in which the artist appears as an apparition at the narrator’s workplace, and possibly at a nearby bus stop, the mysterious artist is never actually seen, only heard. But in some sense the reader has already met him.
Ligotti’s The Bungalow House is an excellent example of a doppelgänger tale, or more clinically, of a story depicting dissociative identity disorder. This is one of the creepiest and most enduring themes in horror, fantasy and science fiction. The possibility of a double or replica challenges our notion of a unified self, of free will, of being able to trust others whom we think we know, of being able to trust ourselves. (For earlier discussions of this theme see also The Horror of the Dissociated Mind, 2. A Doppelgänger from De La Mare, and Dancing With Doppelgängers.)