Ligotti’s stories are difficult to describe. The word “nightmarish” comes to mind, but that word is so overused in horror circles that it fails to convey the precise absurd, unsettling quality of his work. They are reminiscent of fever dreams, of misremembered experiences from childhood. Blurry snapshots of a bleak universe.
And bleak it is. The universe of Teatro Grottesco seems comprised entirely of art galleries, bars, diners, offices and inns connected by a network of shadowy alleys and grimy streets. Places where people swap nightmares and attempt to ward off the incomprehensible nightmares that lurk outside. We infiltrate the inner circles of this landscape: the coffee shop intellectuals, the failed artists, the desperate office drones contending with a vast and indifferent bureaucracy. Perhaps it’s because I’m a mere office drone myself, but I particularly enjoyed the stories “My Case for Retributive Action” and “Our Temporary Manager,” in which the machinations of office work take on a particularly monstrous quality while, in the periphery, a pharmaceutical company completes its hostile takeover of the planet.
There’s little conventional plot in these tales. The protagonists are often nameless, drifting through a world that is at best uncaring, at worst evil. Oftentimes the story itself is unveiled second- or third-hand over coffee or cocktails. “Gas Station Carnivals” is one such tale, in which the protagonist navigates his friend through a disturbing nostalgia for a non-existent type of Americana. The demonic figures of these memories are never exorcised, and come to slowly haunt the narrator’s own timeline. And that’s it. The convoluted nightmare begins, then gets worse, then the story ends.
Typical of the plotless nature of these stories is the classic “The Red Tower,” also included here. In it, a factory springs from barren landscape, and begins to produce and then deliver grotesque parcels all over the world. As the oppressive nothingness of the landscape bears down on this outcropping of chaos, the factory is forced to move its operations deeper and deeper underground, its productions becoming increasingly bizarre. There is no real plot to speak of, and there are no characters, not even the narrator, who encounter the factory firsthand. Instead, it presents a duality emblematic of the collection: Existence is nightmarish, and the alternative is nothingness. There simply isn’t anything else.
This book will no doubt frustrate or confound some readers (despite thoroughly enjoying the book, it took several months of stopping and starting to finally reach the last page). It’s at times meandering and dense, with seemingly little payoff other than a feeling of deep discomfort. But for those content to simply wander through the dreamscape, this collection is indispensable reading.