Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti

I don’t read a lot of horror which may or may not explain why I was captivated by Ligotti’s book of short stories.

There are around twenty stories, each telling an eerie and disconcerting tale of strange occurrences in a world devoid of hope. It is horror (or perhaps what seems to be referred to as speculative or weird fiction) with a focus on creating an atmosphere or creeping terror rather than any recourse to violence or gore. Each story is written in a flowing but formal matter of fact tone, which adds to the distance the reader feels.

Take The Town Manager, which tells the odd story of a town which has a manager who runs it. There has been a succession of managers, each bringing in new and stranger decisions, with the latest boosting tourism by forcing all the shopkeepers to turn their stores into bizarre carnival-like attractions. As always the town manager eventually disappears. The protagonist leaves the town, only to be approached and asked to be the next town manager.

Our Temporary Supervisor is perhaps the most powerful in the collection. Written in the first person it describes a factory where the supervisor is replaced by a dark phantom like presence and, more strangely still, where a new worker appears who is faster and works harder than everyone else. Not to be seen to be lazy or inefficient, everyone else starts to work longer and longer hours until their lives are spent working in the factory, rarely leaving or stopping.

Many of the stories are driven by themes of determinism, of dark forces – both supernatural and the very material power of capital – driving everyone’s behaviour, of our lives being the plaything of others. The books are full of despair and almost entirely lacking in warmth or character. Yet they are absolutely compelling reading, as if you are being forced to read on by powers beyond your control ….

Haruki Murakami – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Having only read Norwegian Wood, this was quite a surprising read. It was Kafka-esque in the sense that the main character was led from one action to the next with no understanding of why and little control over his destiny. And it had a strong dose of science fiction and fantasy.

It turns out the narrator is a ‘shuffler’ and the last survivor of an experiment by a science professor. He meets the Professor and his unsocialised daughter and they embark on a quest beneath what is and isn’t contemporary Tokyo city – a quest at the end of which he is destined to die. The protagonist accepts his fate with a shrug and humour in the firm tradition of a hard boiled hero.

This alternates with an alternative ‘perfect’ world in which nothing happens, which it turns out is in the mind of the protagonist. It’s a slow, eerie fantasy world, a village, where he is detached from his shadow, and which ultimately he rejects for the uncertainty and danger of an imperfect but real world beyond.

It’s a strange book. Hard to follow and dragging occasionally, particularly in the alternative village. The last 100 pages pick up, as the theme becomes clear and the plot quickens. The book contains interesting ideas and a few gripping moments but ultimately it is the characters – the protagonist, his librarian girlfriend, the Professor’s daughter – who are fun, readable, well characterised and make it a strong story.