Review by Sheila Merritt
A generous serving of Edgar Allan Poe, a dash of Franz Kafka, a smidgen of Robert Aickman: These comprise the components in the cauldron of creativity of Thomas Ligotti. Stir and prepare to be stirred. In the short story collection Teatro Grottesco, Ligotti’s febrile fantasies survey the surreal. The tales are divided into three sections or themes, entitled: “Derangements,” “Deformations,” and “The Damaged and the Diseased.” They all certainly would fit under the umbrella heading of “Disturbing.”
There is much philosophical rumination in the stories. Reflections on art, the meaning of talent, and control by unseen forces are motifs which are threaded throughout the book. The anxiety driven/plagued characters accept certain circumstances without much question, yet reflect on others. “There is nothing like fear to complicate one’s consciousness, inducing previously unknown levels of reflection,” concludes one character.
Despair without desperation and futility without forlorn feelings, are emotions exhibited by the characters who inhabit the author’s strange settings. There are ominous alley ways, store fronts that house strange wares, and buildings and beings that conspire to confuse. In “The Clown Puppet,” the malicious marionette is described thus: “Its expressiveness was all in that face with its pale and pitted complexion, its slightly pointed nose and delicate lips, and its dead puppet eyes — eyes that did not seem able to fix or focus themselves upon anything but only gazed with an unchanging expression of dreamy malignance, an utterly nonsensical expression of stupid viciousness and cruelty.”
The “utterly nonsensical” randomness of life is addressed in these stories as a fact which one must endure and accept. In the work called “From Sideshow, and Other Stories,” this passage sums up those sentiments: “By necessity we live in a world, a sideshow world, where everything is ultimately peculiar and ultimately ridiculous.”
Thomas Ligotti, like the title of another of his books, is a very “Grimscribe.” His descriptive powers are mesmerizing as in this fragment delineating a character from “In a Foreign Town”: “His wiry, white streaked hair and beard were thinning, patchy remnants of a former luxuriance, much like the bare, frost-covered branches of the trees outside my window. His face was of a coarse complexion, rugged as frozen earth, while his eyes were overcast with the cloudy ether of a December afternoon,”
Teatro Grottesco is not a collection of simplistic “quick fix/instant gratification” horror stories: It requires concentration and an ability to address the esoteric, as well as art and aesthetics, with an openly existential outlook. Those readers who accept this challenge will be well rewarded.