Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 14 - The Nightmare of the Organism

I'm not really sure where Thomas Ligotti came from. I don't mean geographically, because who cares, and I don't mean who influenced him, because over the years Ligotti has been very clear about that (for the record, Poe, Lovecraft and Thomas Bernhard are high on that list). I mean, where was he first published, who first noticed him? How did he break through the wall of miserable 1980s and 90s horror fiction to become someone who is deservedly recognized not only as one of the best horror writers alive, but one of the best who has ever lived?

I don't know. I know that he started publishing his stories in small press magazines in the 1980s, and he developed a cult following. And that's about it. Eventually, he had compiled enough stories to start publishing books. His first three -- Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe and Noctuary -- were published by Carroll & Graf as mass market paperbacks. I used to buy a lot of genre fiction put out by Carroll & Graf in those days, and I remember they cost about $4.99. Now, used on Amazon, those three books run between $25 and $35 each. Not bank-breakers, maybe, but it shows that those books are definitely in demand.

Ligotti has said that he feels that he's one of the few genuine horror writers out there today, because it's the only genre he works in, he has no interest in writing anything else. He's drawn to horror because of what he views as its main potential (from an excellent interview that I commend to everyone's attention):

I think there’s a great potential in horror fiction that isn’t easily available to realistic fiction. This is the potential to portray our worst nightmares, both private and public, as we approach death through the decay of our bodies. And then to leave it at that—no happy endings, no apologias, no excuses, no redemption, no escape...

...Joseph Conrad said that he shunned the supernatural because it wasn’t necessary to depict the horror of existence. I wish he hadn’t. Because the supernatural is the metaphysical counterpart of insanity—the best possible vehicle for conveying the uncanny nightmare of a conscious mind marooned for a brief while in this haunted house of a world and being slowly driven mad by the ghastliness of it all. Not the man’s-inhumanity-to-man sort of thing, but a necessary derangement, a high order of weirdness and of desolation built in to the system in which we all function.

In short, Ligotti isn't dicking around. He means his fiction. Ligotti suffers from a panic-anxiety disorder and manic depression, and has said something to the effect that his life without his medication would be an unending, shrieking nightmare. His view of humanity is so uncompromisingly bleak that in another interview (which I haven't been able to locate...), when Ligotti was asked why, if he felt as he does about life and the human race, he didn't simply commit suicide, Ligotti replied that if it weren't for certain family members who would grieve for him, he would.

How does all of this manifest itself in his fiction? Well, the first story today is called "Severini". Honestly, it turned out to be a bad choice. It's not a bad story, it's just a little...flat, I guess. It's about a mysterious man named Severini who lives in a shack on the marsh. This shack is regularly visited by the local artistic community, who are later inspired by these visits to create works in various media with titles like The Black Spume of Existence and In Earth and Excreta. Our narrator, though an artist, does not accompany any of his friends to visit Severini, and he claims he has no interest in doing so. Still, he feels a certain connection with the man, based on what he hears from those who've met him, and from the art they later create. This connection has something to do with certain delusions from which the narrator suffers, involving open sewers and some sort of tropical region. All of these elements plant in the narrator's mind what he calls a "concept":

The concept to which I have been referring may be stated in various ways, but it usually occurred to my mind as a simple phrase (or fragment), almost a chant that overwhelmed me with vile and haunting suggestions far beyond its mere words, which are as follows: the nightmare of the organism. The vile and haunting suggestions underlying (or inspired by) this conceptual phrase were, as I have said, called up the by the titles of those Severini-based artworks, those Exhibits from the Imaginary Museum.

Eventually, one of the narrator's artist associates informs him that there is to be a showing of these exhibits, and that Severini -- who has never met the narrator -- specifically asked that he attend. Severini, she tells him, said the he and the narrator are "sympathetic organisms" and that "the way into the nightmare is the way out".

All of this gets a bit thick in the final pages, as the narrative gets deliberately fuzzy. In some ways, this story is a crystallization of Ligotti's main theme, that life is a kind of disease, or mistake. The problem that I faced with "Severini" is that, having read quite a bit of Ligotti in the past couple of years, I felt like I'd read this story, in some form, several times already. There was nothing new in it for me, not just in its basic philosophy -- you won't get a lot of philosophical variation with Ligotti -- but in its story, images and language. Actually, that's not quite true. There are images towards the end that were surprisingly down-to-earth for Ligotti, in an unpleasant kind of way, but everything about the story was fairly tangled up by the end, and these moments just seemed to be another part of the mix. Again, it's not a bad story, and for newcomers to Ligotti, it's possible that "Severini" could work quite well as a starting point. But I was left a bit cold by it -- which is not to say that any Ligotti story has ever left me feeling warm -- and if one of my purposes here is to excite people who've never read Ligotti before, and tempt them to do so, the story was unable to churn up that kind of energy in me.

Thankfully, my second choice was "Gas Station Carnivals". This story is pure Ligotti, and it is close to magnificent. It begins in a place called the Crimson Cabaret, a kind of bohemian nightclub where artists gather to drink alcohol or tea and occasionally turn towards the small stage in the corner to watch a performance: musical act, puppet show, poetry reading. Our narrator (a story writer not dissimilar, we gather, to Ligotti himself) is there one night, nursing an unknown stomach ailment by drinking cup after cup of mint tea and smoking "light cigarettes". He's worried that his ailment might be due to food poisoning, or a virus, or perhaps something else, a possibility he doesn't name. That night, his preference is to be left alone, but an associate of his, an art critic named Stuart Quisser, joins him uninvited.

At first, their conversation revolves around an apparent insult delivered by Quisser at a party a few nights ago to "the crimson woman", an artist who owns the Crimson Cabaret. Evidently, at this party Quisser called the crimson woman a "deluded no-talent", and our narrator is surprised that Quisser is showing his face in the club. The crimson woman, it seems, has certain connections and powers that make her a particularly forboding enemy. Quisser brushes away these concerns, because he would rather talk to our narrator about a phenomenon from his childhood he's been thinking about recently, called "gas station carnivals".

These are more or less what they sound like: small, half-assed rural attractions set apart from, but commercially connected to, the kind of small, no-frills gas stations one encounters in the middle of nowhere. Quisser remembers going to these "carnivals" frequently as a child, when on long road trips with his parents. Invariably, the only carnival attraction that ever functioned at these places were their low-rent version of the sideshow. Unlike traditional sideshows, these did not feature "freaks", but instead usually consisted of the briefest performances -- conducted in front of an audience that at most consisted of Quisser and his parents, and sometimes just Quisser himself -- of people in cheap costumes, the performers almost always doubling as the gas station attendant. Quisser had names for all of these acts, which seemed to reoccur at gas station carnivals across the country: the Human Spider, the Dancing Puppet, Dr. Fingers.

One such performer, however, was different. He did reoccur, but Quisser never wanted to see him, and only did so because his parents drew him along in their wake. And this performer did not also work at the gas station. Quisser called him the Showman:

Quisser contended that his parents actually enjoyed watching him sit in terror before the Showman, until he could not stand it any longer, and asked to go back to the car. At the same time he was quite transfixed by the sight of this sideshow character, who was unlike any other that he could remember. There he was, Quisser said, standing with his back to the audience and wearing an old top hat and a long cape that touched the dirty floor of the small stage on which he stood. Sticking out from beneath the top hat were the dense and lengthy shocks of the Showman's stiff red hair, Quisser said, which looked like some kind of sickening vermin's nest...Yet the figure never budged. Sometimes it did seem to Quisser that the Showman was moving his head a little to the left or a little to the right, threatening to reveal one side of his face or the other, playing a horrible game of peek-a-boo.

All the Showman ever does is stand with his back to his audience. He's there when you enter the tent, and he's there when you leave. Our narrator doubts Quisser's story, and says that it is a delusion brought on by something he calls "art-magic", performed by the crimson woman as part of her revenge on Quisser for his slight.

If you think Ligotti has aligned his pieces to set up a creepy but predictable pay-off, you're wrong. Well, you're right about the "creepy" part, but even that's not quite right. "Uncomfortable" might be a better word, because Ligotti believes in, and lives his life confident that he's absolutely correct about, the sort of sould-deep fear everybody in the world feels in their bleakest moments. He doesn't write ghost stories, but his work is about the supernatural, and in his work the supernatural is the manifestation of our darkest private philosophies. You don't need to buy into Ligotti's claims that humanity is a disease and life is horror -- I certainly don't -- but he forces you to admit that sometimes you do think that, and sometimes you do believe it. Then you close the book and move on, and find valid reasons to strengthen your comparatively brighter (it would almost have to be) outlook. Ligotti doesn't close the book, and he doesn't move on. He wrote the book in the first place.

* * * *
By the way, if you're interested in Ligotti, don't be scared off by the prices quoted above. You can find some of his work at prices cheaper than those, including a new, reasonably priced collection called Teatro Grottesco which is, if I understand correctly, a kind of "best of", and which contains both stories listed above. Oh, and look for the paperback, because that's the cheap one.


Will Errickson said...

Big Ligotti fan from back in the day--should reread some this Halloween season. My copies of his books are all marked up because he has such startling imagery, like a crab scuttling across the moon. Or that one story that ends, simply, defiantly, "I am not dying in a nightmare." Whew.

bill r. said...

Or what about the end of "The Frolic"? I can't quote it off-hand, but that one is chilling.

Frank B said...

No Ligotti at all at the main branch of the San Francisco library. Hmph.