Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #7:-
TWO FROM VIRGIN
Teatro Grottesco (Virgin paperback, 280pp, £7.99) is a collection of short stories by Thomas Ligotti, an author who has been compared to Poe and Lovecraft. While he is the lineal descendant of both, a strand of despair permeates Ligotti’s work that makes HPL’s bleak vision of Great Old Ones and man’s unimportance seem unduly optimistic. A more fitting counterpart might be found in the philosophy of the Marquis De Sade, but whereas Sade’s perspective led him into excess and unrestrained hedonism for Ligotti even pleasure is insignificant. His work is nihilism given a voice, a black hole that swallows all meaning, but the paradox is that this nullity is couched in prose of the finest quality, a language that compels even as we register unease at the things it has to say.
Teatro Grottesco contains thirteen stories, divided into three sections, ‘Derangements’, ‘Deformations’ and ‘The Damaged and the Diseased’. All of the stories are told in the first person, with a voice that on occasion seems almost monotone, a matter of fact narration of grotesque events and the suggestion that really these are no more noteworthy than other events, those that we regard as everyday matters.
One representative story from each section then.
The narrator of ‘The Clown Puppet’ believes that everything is nonsense. He tells us this constantly, as if to convince himself. He (I am guessing at gender – Ligotti tells us nothing conclusive) does however experience occasional visits from a hideous clown puppet and gives an account of the most recent, which took place in a medicine shop, and this too is nonsense, only the clown puppet doesn’t come to visit him, but the owner of the shop, who disappears with it into a back room. The narrator never learns of the owner’s fate, but suspects that he may have encountered the entity that pulls the clown puppet’s strings. Like all of Ligotti’s work, this story is riddled with ambiguity. Is the deranged narrator simply imagining customers at the shop where he works as hideous clown puppets, a guise that sees people as both figures of fun and slightly sinister, and under the control of some unseen puppeteer? It’s one of several possible scenarios, and Ligotti does not commit himself. Instead he leaves the reader to decide, and of course one possibility, as the narrator would surely agree, is that it is all nonsense, with the measured prose and clown imagery of the piece an end in itself, the only meaning we can expect to procure.
While personal derangements are at the heart of stories in the first section, those in the second centre on the working life and the Quine Organization (Q. Org), a corporation that has grown to the point where its activities are indistinguishable from those of the state. The narrator of ‘Our Temporary Supervisor’ is an employee at a Q. Org factory, assembling metal pieces, but he has no idea of their purpose or eventual destination. Changes are brought in, as Q. Org is ‘always making adjustments and refinements in the way it does business’. The temporary supervisor is a monstrous figure, never seen except by the one employee who ventures into his office and disappears, later reported dead. New working practices are introduced. The production rate grows exponentially, the working day ever longer. The narrator tries to resign, but Q. Org is not currently accepting resignations. He leaves all the same, only to return because there is nothing else for him. It’s a hellish picture of pointless production, a Kafkaesque vision of human beings reduced to worker ants but with even less purpose or direction, and it ends on a yet more chilling note, the possibility that even death won’t end their servitude.
In the third section matters of aesthetics are addressed. In Ligotti’s scheme of things artists and writers, those who seek to fashion beauty and prise meaning from life, are indeed the ‘damaged and diseased’, and art a symptom of their condition. The ‘Teatro Grottesco’ is a sinister, shadowy organisation, invisible to the general populace and yet all powerful, reminiscent in many ways of Tristero in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Rumours abound about the Teatro, but nobody is quite sure what it does when it comes to a town. People engaged in the arts go missing for a period of time and when they resurface will say nothing of where they have been, but the pursuit of art is something they have put behind them. An encounter with the Teatro destroys the will to creativity. The narrator, a writer, invites the Teatro into his life by claiming to have already been approached and written his latest work about them. He succeeds in his aim but their intervention is nothing he could have imagined. It’s a story that has many of the familiar tropes of horror fiction (e.g. an organization that is out to ‘get’ people), but run through the blender of Ligotti’s imagination and what emerges is entirely unexpected, a grotesque street theatre, laced with surreal and bizarre imagery. The conclusion to be reached, if any, is that art can only exist in the service of anti-art, that any hope of greater things is doomed to failure.
Ligotti’s is a distinct and powerful voice. He is one of that small band of writers who seem so invested in their work and with a consistent vision, that you pause to wonder where the fiction ends and life begins.
The Perils & Dangers of This Night (Virgin paperback, 262pp, £7.99) is the fifth book out of the Virgin stable, and the first that isn’t a reprint of a title previously available from a small press. I’m not familiar with author Stephen Gregory’s past work, but he has an impressive pedigree, with an earlier novel that won the Somerset Maugham Award.
The setting for Perils is Foxwood Manor, an exclusive prep school in Dorset, where 12 year old Alan Scott is left in the care of headmaster Dr Kemp and his wheelchair bound wife one Christmas, while his feckless mother enjoys herself abroad. Kemp is fixated on bringing out Alan’s musical talent (the boy has perfect pitch), regardless of the holiday season. But then matters are thrown into confusion by the arrival of old boy Martin Pryce and his girlfriend Sophie. Their car apparently breaks down and, with Foxwood Manor snowed in, the couple invite themselves to stay, but Pryce has an agenda of his own.
This is a short book, but it packs a considerable punch, with not a single word wasted. Gregory effectively sets the mood in the first half, with his picture of the vast Manor house, all its winding corridors and endless rooms, set in an empty tract of countryside, far from any other habitation, and with the blanket of snow emphasising this isolation, so that Foxwood itself almost becomes a character in the story. The characters are perfectly drawn – Alan with his feelings of loss and abandonment, the tyrannical Dr Kemp, with hints that there is something more unsavoury than a mere bully about the schoolmaster, and his wife who acts as both peacemaker and foil for his bad moods. Into this volatile mix comes the wild card that is Martin Pryce. Suave and arrogant at first, a fun loving rebel who seeks to win Alan over and turn him against the Kemps, Pryce soon reveals a dark side to his nature, growing increasingly crazy as the book progresses, until nothing seems beyond him. Driven by a tragedy that occurred to his brother, also a Foxwood old boy, and which may be purely imaginary, nothing more than a justification for his own actions, the monstrous Pryce dominates the story. His transformation from borderline sane to outright psychopath is seamless, with no way to tell at what exact moment the line is crossed. Secrets from the past are revealed and schemes for revenge put in motion. There follows a tautly written and tense fight for survival, with escalating atrocities and changes of fortune, as Alan uses his superior knowledge of the school to advantage.
By using Alan as the narrator, or rather the adult Alan trying to get back inside the mind of the twelve year old, Gregory adds another frisson to the story. Everything is seen through a child’s eyes, with events such as sexual encounters, which an adult might take in his stride, given a more disturbing cast. The end result is a book that reads like somebody thought it would be a good idea to introduce the characters from If to the setting of The Devil’s Backbone (yes, there is a hint of the supernatural, but only a hint) and then get them to play out the plot of Die Hard. And yes, that does sound like a horrendous fix-up, but it works marvellously well, and the end result is one of the best examples of literary horror I can recall reading recently.