There are some writers who are all wrong, individuals with stylized approaches that routinely violate the dictums of Good Writing, and yet somehow remain utterly right. These rareties, usually male, never achieve a wide appeal– the best they will manage is the odd occurrence of independent bookstores, in an attempt to deter theft, stocking the writer’s books close to the cash register. But even these relative successes– those who earn the dubious distinction of cult authorship– have a certain quality, a likability and a willingness to be understood that emulate the principles of Good Writing.
The remainder are too purely of themselves. The golden standard is (our hero) Howard Phillips Lovecraft– the old boy of Providence with a body of work centered around a perverse way of seeing, and his purple prose, his long winded paragraphs and his barely one-dimensional characters are all tools employed in support of this literal vision. I’m not sure whether or not sf/horror people even exist anymore, but back in my school-boy days, the note sounded most constantly about Lovecraft was that he was a “bad writer,” a man whose work succeeded despite itself.
This is, of course, an inversion of the truth.
Newsflash: HPL is dead. Death removes the most complicated part of the literary equation: the living, breathing writer who often subverts his or her own best interests, and who insists, consistently, that his or her work has meanings that are missed by most readers. Lovecraft’s way of seeing was a bottom-up personal cosmography that began with the creeping decay of Olde New England, expanded ever outwards into different corners of society, then the world, and finally embraced the essential insignificance of man in an indifferent universe, a place in which anything at any time can and will destroy the whole wretched human race. The underlining point is that sum total of this destruction will be precisely nothing, that all of human endeavor has been as insignificant as dust gathering on a bookshelf.
This way of seeing was misunderstood upon publication, with the Weird Tales confederateship focusing on the number of appendages attached to dumb monsters. As enjoyable as Lovecraft’s collected letters are– and for my money, there’s hardly any more pleasurable reading– they invoke a sadness as missive after missive finds HPL explaining his cosmography to people interested in the number of teats found on Shub Niggurath and acquiring a copy of The Necronomicon. The Cthulhu Mythos subculture can be seen as a prolonged misinterpretation of the most salient aspects of Lovecraft’s work for the sake of its worst.
This has a long pedigree. Before the plushy toys and ugly t-shirts, there were written pastiches, many authored while Lovecraft was alive and often by his less talented friends. (For the record, we note that the Mythos stories of Robert E. Howard are the exception.) Sad to say, the monsters were a necessary evil. HPL was a genre writer playing a genre game: cloaking perceived truth in nonsense. Despite his own assertions to the contrary, until late in his life he possessed the writer’s ugliest quality: the desire to be heard. He did what he must. As do we all.
Having recently finished Thomas Liggoti’s Teatro Grottesco, a new collection of shortish fiction, my thoughts have been wandering in this direction. The book has been a revelation– I had a Liggoti kick at the tail end of the go-go ’90s, squirreled away in my Thomspon-street basement apartment with a bad case of the crazies and a copy of The Nightmate Factory, but somehow my interest faded. I tried reading more from Ligotti but each subsequent book seemed less and less interesting. The newer work seemed too dry, too mannered.
But let’s not forget: back in those days, I was more than a little insane. About halfway through Teatro Grottesco, the truth hit me square. Thomas Ligotti is the real deal, a genuine master. Best book I’ve read in months.
Liggoti has been called a horror writer and I guess the designation is vaguely accurate, but I doubt there’s another writer in the ghetto-genres doing work that comes close. His early career designation as a proto-HPL has proven to be surprisingly apt. Having shed his early anxiety of influence, Ligotti has developed his own absolute way of seeing. It is as equally compelling as Lovecraft’s, and, in truth, rather bleaker. HPL was about indifference– the world might kill you, but there was nothing malign in its intentions. You got in the way of something bigger than you.
Ligotti is different. A malign element pervades his work. All of his reoccuring images– abandoned factories, intestinal disorders, faceless corporations, burned out warehouses, hack artists, marionettes and falling darkness– are in an active conspiracy against man. Totally paranoid and amazing.
When I first read Ligotti, I had yet to set foot within southeastern Michigan. A short biographical note mentions Ligotti’s deep Detroit origins and decades within the city. Having whittled away my share of the years in the reigion– a place where it’s overcast ninety percent of the time and everything is falling apart– allowed a special insight into Ligotti as a regional, Michigan writer. The stories never name any fixed locale, no actual locations are given, but they are very clearly set in a nightmare version of a pseudo-American and make frequent references to bleakness over a northern border. This is Detroit, however transformed. Trust me.
Finally, to return to our major theme: there is no reason why Ligotti’s stories should work. By any standard of Good Writing, his labyrinthine sentences, his endless paragraphs and his zero-dimensional characters should spell disaster; but the work has a transfixing and hypnotic quality, a poetic repetition of key phrases and ideas. Let me reiterate: people will call anything hypnotic, but this stuff is genuinely hypnotic, and there is a deliberate method of prose construction producing this effect. Ligotti achieves the perfect approach for his subject matter– a blank tableau of interchangable paranoia– and though the book is a collection of shortish stories, its many repetitions leave the reader feeling as though they’ve read a sustained and complete work.
In other words: the real deal. A brilliant writer.
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