The Town Manager (2003)
Sideshow and Other Stories (2003)
The Clown Puppet (1996)
The Red Tower (1996)
My Case for Retributive Action (2001)
Our Temporary Supervisor (2001)
His Shadow Shall Rise to a Higher House (1997)
The Bells Will Sound Forever (1997)
A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing (1997)
When You Hear the Singing, You Will Know It Is Time (1997)
Teatro Grottesco (1996)
Gas Station Carnivals (1996)
The Bungalow House (1995)
The Shadow, The Darkness (1999)
Still the relatively slow-writing Thomas Ligotti's most recent collection, Teatro Grottesco is a droll, horrifying tour of strange places and the strange minds trapped within them. At this stage in his writing career, Ligotti has made the Lovecraftian elements in his fiction into a sinister underlier. No chants, no tentacled bogies: just the terrible hum of a universe so hostile to humanity that humanity may not even exist, or ever have existed, as humanity qua humanity.
We may all just be puppets of a darkness that plays with us for its amusement. There is no free will, perhaps, because human beings only imagine that they possess imagination and individuality. Nothing real exists. 1999's "The Shadow, The Darkness" is Ligotti's definitive statement on this inhuman condition; fittingly, it closes the collection.
But for all the dismal absurdity of Ligotti's universe, it's also a bleakly comic one at times. "The Clown Puppet" showcases this best. The strange happenings -- happenings that would probably drive a 'normal' narrator insane -- are instead interpreted by our narrator as "outrageous nonsense." Our narrator riffs on various iterations of this phrase throughout the story. He exists in a world so strange that he essentially reacts to (and interprets) irruptions of insanity with a bemused 'Meh.'
Among other modern horrors, Ligotti deals with office life (in "My Case for Retributive Action" and "Our Temporary Supervisor") in ways that make both versions of The Office look like utopias by comparison. The horrors remain murky and partially unexplained, but horrors they are, whether of drudgery or sudden and mysterious death.
It's tempting to read some of these murky yet precise stories as allegory, especially "The Red Tower," which can seem at points like an examination of all human belief and faith. "The Town Manager" seems like it's about something other than its surface story, in which a decaying town is run by a succession of never-glimpsed Town Managers.
The stories can support a lot of interpretations. They can also be enjoyed simply for their oddness, their existential dread, their linguistic elegance, their commitment to outrageous nonsense. They're destabilizing of one's sense of reality in the way all truly great horror is. Highly recommended.