Teatro Grottesco, written by Thomas Ligotti (2006): Ligotti is an unusual American writer, a unique voice with echoes of Lovecraft, Borges, Kafka, Robert Aickman and Poe. He doesn’t write novels, believing them unequal to the task of writing horror. And in terms of his horror — metaphysical and unnerving, terrifying, and deeply weird — he may be right. The longest story in this collection runs about 40 pages, and that’s almost too much.

A Ligotti protagonist from a story not in this collection wanted to “stand among the ruins of reality.” That’s often where a Ligotti story begins, in a landscape subtly altered, or in a situation that makes no rational sense, a situation the characters often react to with just a bit too little surprise. People vanish. Towns die. The very notion of the self gets destroyed by a spiritual revelation brought on by acute gastrointestinal distress. Strange buildings loom over dead cities. Failed artists confront…what? The abyss? Factory workers build parts for mysterious machines. Ligotti’s vision is apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic. Something has torn apart the illusions of the world, leaving deep unease everywhere.

Which isn’t to say that the stories aren’t funny at points. Ligotti deals as much with absurdity as he does terror (actually, absurdity and terror are often the same thing in these stories). For example, in one story a character recounts childhood visits to “gas station carnivals” at which no rides ever worked and only one performer ever appeared at the sideshow, and that sideshow performer usually the gas station attendant in a costume. In great detail, these visits are recounted, along with the character’s reactions to them then and now. And these things, these gas station carnivals, are just the set-up for what comes next.

After awhile, one notes that Ligotti uses repeated phrases, phrases repeated by his characters throughout a work, as a musical ordering principle, or possibly an incantation. Late at night, this is the sort of horror fiction that can worry one because the fiction itself may seem to be acting against reality. Or for something beyond consensus reality.

That’s a high order of horror, the sort of thing TED Klein used Arthur Machen’s “The White People” for in Klein’s novel The Ceremonies: as a fiction that had unintentionally tapped into fundamental principles. Woohoo! The forbidden books are always being written. The conspiracy against the human race is ongoing. Is Ligotti a great writer? Yes — his stories demand concentration and deliberation, and they affect the way one sees the world. Highly recommended.

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