The notion that life, whether individual or collective, might ultimately be pointless, nonsensical and pathetic is familiar to the more philosophical purveyors and consumers of horror entertainment. In a Lovecraftian context, this perspective goes by the name of cosmicism, expressed here in the opening lines of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928):
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Closer to our own time and sensibility, this bleak point of view can be identified as a subset of nihilism, an intensely skeptical questioning of the purpose, meaningfulness and value of human life and human beliefs, even of reality itself.
A contemporary champion of this gloomy world view is Thomas Ligotti, who brings Lovecraft’s broad cosmic sweep, encompassing centuries and lightyears, to the local and personal, that is, psychological level. For Ligotti, the horror is not approaching us from distant “black seas of infinity” but is already at arms’ reach, in what might be considered “dark ponds of ridiculousness”. Both authors emphasize human powerlessness and inescapable doom in the midst of a hostile and incomprehensible universe. Ligotti however adds the elements of the surreal and nonsensical, typically by way of dream-like imagery and story structure.
Thomas Ligotti’s “The Clown Puppet” (2006) one of the offerings in his masterful collection, Teatro Grottesco. The story is rich in metaphor and levels of meaning, and ranges from metaphysical considerations to creepy, grotesque imagery. A dimly lit setting, perseverative thoughts and a circular story arc create the impression of being in a nightmare that cannot be escaped, much less awakened from.
The narrator works a succession of night jobs in various locations—“medicine shop situations” as he terms them—night watchman, cemetery groundskeeper, library clerk, night deliveryman, and lately a 24-hour pharmacy. In these dark, lonely places he experiences visitations by a strange apparition, a “clown puppet” that has angelic, if not god-like powers. Superficially, the notion of an isolated and anxious worker on the midnight shift who repeatedly interacts with such an entity would seem preposterous. But in the context of this finely wrought and word-smithed nightmare, it makes perfect visceral sense.
Or nonsense, a word the author uses repeatedly throughout the text. The story begins with a philosophical premise: “It has always seemed to me that my existence consisted purely and exclusively of nothing but the most outrageous nonsense.” Ligotti then goes on to use the events of this story to illuminate—since there is not much light—this dreary perception.
Curiously, the narrator describes his mind as the “Scribbles of a mentally deranged epileptic”. As the story progresses, there is an implied comparison between the narrator’s existence and the movements of the clown puppet—neither of which is subject to internal control. The puppet’s appearance is announced by an aura-like glow, a symptom that many people with epilepsy report as a prelude to a seizure. The subtext seems to be the loss or lack of control over one’s actions and fate, or at least the realization of this fact. Is the narrator merely another puppet? If so, what is the point of this play?
The narrator’s self-deprecating remarks serve to create distance between his story and the horror he is trying to describe in dream imagery, as if to say, “Don’t take me seriously, but…” Like the images in a dream, those in Ligotti’s fiction serve as a kind of psychological hypertext, linking the reader to ever deeper and more elaborate levels of meaning, to other “pages”, as lines in a poem can do. The author is after a much bigger idea than the absurdity of visitations by a nocturnal clown puppet.
Elsewhere Ligotti has written:
"We are somebodies who move freely about and think what we choose. Puppets are not like that. They have nothing in their heads. They are unreal. When they are in motion, we know they are moved by an outside force. When they speak, their voices come from elsewhere. Their orders come from somewhere behind and beyond them. And were they ever to become aware of that fact, they would collapse at the horror of it all, as would we."
There are interesting symmetries in Ligotti’s stories. For example, in “Purity”, an earlier story in Teatro Grottesco, the narrator, reminiscing about his childhood experiences, crosses back and forth between two troubled households, each a distorted mirror image of the other, each standing on a darkening horizontal plane. In “The Clown Puppet”, the symmetry is vertical. The owner of the pharmacy where the narrator works lives upstairs, and may have some special relationship with the clown puppet that visits and torments him:
Later events more or less proved that Mr. Vizniak indeed possessed a special knowledge and that there existed, in fact, a peculiar sympathy between the old man and myself.
Why do the strings which control the puppet’s movements vanish upward in a nebulous, impenetrable cloud? Who is pulling the strings? Is the puppet some kind of messenger angel? Is the “man upstairs” a representation of Ligotti’s perception of God? In a literal sense, probably not; later in the story Mr. Vizniak suffers an obscure fate, as the story returns to an earlier setting much obsessed about: a curtained backroom where potentially fatal medicines are stored. The climactic scene is oddly reminiscent of the one in The Wizard of Oz (1939), when Dorothy and Toto discover the supposedly god-like Oz cowering behind another curtain, no longer perceived as all powerful or in control—a mere human haplessly trying to control his own machinery of illusion.
The narrator’s epiphany, precipitated by the clown’s periodic visits and his employer’s mysterious demise, is the insight that his outrageously nonsensical experience is also a universal one. He also realizes that just like his boss he will eventually come to know who or what is pulling the strings—a revelation more to be dreaded than hoped for. “The Clown Puppet” is one of Ligotti’s more metaphysical, even religious pieces, as close to a theological statement as he gets.