The Last Feast of Harlequin – Thomas Ligotti

Classic Ligotti, this short story is an eerie and macabre comment on contemporary society, told through a supernatural town and terrifying clowns.

The plot is relatively simple. The narrator, an academic fascinated with traditional clown festivals visits the town of Mirocaw to experience its annual festival. On arrival the place is unnatural and the festival, far from a celebration, seems to be an opportunity for the established part of the town to attack an underclass who are forced to dress up as clowns and endure jeering, abuse and violence.

Nothing in the story is clear, not the festival, not even the motives of the protagonist.
There’s a striking moment when he gets swept up by the festival’s atmosphere and pushes a clown to the ground, but his actions are ignored and he instantly feels he has violated a code he didn’t know existed. And we never find out. 

Equally there’s a moment when the protagonist is told that the clowns are chosen for the festival from across the town’s population so it could be anyone next. But this again isn’t clarified and elsewhere the clowns are described as picked from the underclass.

It ends with a mysterious and underground ritual, in which the protagonist is spared, and he drives away leaving the terrifying figures behind.

Apart from the sense of dread the story conjures up – like a cross between Stephen King and Kafka – what is striking about this story is the comment on the symbiotic relationship between a group and its other,  where one can only exist because of the suppression of the second:

Towards the end of the story the protagonist reflects in his journal on what he’s seeing, where this is made clear: 

“One thing that seems certain, however, is the division of Mirocaw into two very distinctive types of citizenry, resulting in two festivals and the appearance of similar clowns – a term now used in an extremely loose sense. But there is a connection, and I believe I have some idea of what it is. I said before that the normal residents of the town regard those from the ghetto, and especially the clown figures, with superstition. Yet it’s more than that: there is fear, perhaps hatred – the particular kind of hatred resulting from some powerful and irrational memory.”

“As I wobbled from street to street tonight, watching those oval-mouthed clowns, I could not help feeling that all the merrymaking in Mirocaw was somehow allowed by their sufferance.”

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