This month I want to say a few words about Thomas Ligotti, an author of short stories in the horror genre. This is not a genre I am particularly well-versed in; although I have been since my teenage years a huge H.P. Lovecraft aficionado, and am reasonably familiar with a lot of the Weird Tales-era pulp material that formed Lovecraft’s milieu as well as some of his literary progenitors like Poe, Machen and Blackwood, I don’t really have much of a sense for horror as a genre, and am almost entirely ignorant of late 20th century and current manifestations of the medium. I have read very little Stephen King, no Clive Barker, and am not even sure what other names are important enough to horror that my ignorance of them is relevant to this review. Thus, I am not capable of analyzing and contextualizing Ligotti’s work in a way that would be attentive to the larger thematic and stylistic conversation he doubtless sees himself as taking part in, or of writing a review that would satisfy a real fan of horror.
However, it strikes me that Ligotti has written some things that could be appreciated by a generally interested reader of fiction, for lack of a better way of putting it. As is probably fitting for an author who works in a genre that is often dismissed as pulp, Ligotti’s stories, particularly the endings, are often sort of hokey, contrived, or in various ways unsatisfying. Several of them, however, are quite remarkable; here I would include, among others, “The Frolic,” “The Town Manager,” “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land,” “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” and “The Sect of the Idiot.” These are all stories I have either read recently or remember; several others may be worthy that I have forgotten or never read. But there are two stories by Ligotti that I find completely astonishing, each of which I have read repeatedly since first discovering them around 2005. The first, which I will not be considering here, is entitled, oddly and charmingly enough, “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech.” The second, which forms the subject of this brief review, bears a more prosaic title: “The Red Tower.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “The Red Tower” is its characters, or perhaps it would be better to say its lack of characters—at least, its lack of human or even humanoid characters (There is a first-person narrator, but he (or she?) plays no real part in the narrative). And if the red tower, a broken-down “factory” of sorts, is the story’s protagonist, narrative tension is suitably provided by an antagonist, which is also not human. The first sentence of the story, in fact, introduces the main “characters”: “The ruined factory stood three stories high in an otherwise featureless landscape.” The landscape, then, is the other main “character.”
What is horrible, or horrifying, or anyway what makes this a horror story, is that the story provides a vision of existence in which creativity, production, and novelty are seen as a disease. The red tower is a factory which produces “novelty items,” which are gruesomely, and somewhat humorously, detailed by Ligotti. But we come to realize that what the tower produces is novelty itself, and that the latter is in some sense horrible, as it proceeds blindly, haltingly, and perversely to disrupt the grey solitude of nonexistence. The line between nature and artifice is made brutally irrelevant as we are brought to consider a factory that spontaneously produces its artifacts, often generating them in some ill-defined way that employs machinery which itself is grown more than made.
But if the line between natural and human production were simply erased in this way by authorial fiat, the story would be far too glib. Rather, what provides a vertiginously telescopic context to production is what might perhaps be termed anti-production, which is not anything as mundanely diegetic as “entropy” or any kind of force, but, hard as it would be to talk about, indeed, impossible as it would be to narrativize, is brilliantly adumbrated as the grey landscape that increasingly comes to the fore as the real, if implicit, subject of the story. And if production, novelty, that is, existence, is horrible, the grey landscape is even more horrible.
“The Red Tower” looks at existence, and contextualizes it in such a way that differences between natural and artificial, animate and inanimate, spontaneous and contrived, are not so much obliterated as made to seem petty. This is done by virtue of the “featureless landscape” which wages a sort of war against the red tower, subtly, insidiously, without effort or legible effect. Whether or not this is ontologically convincing, it is certainly horrible. But to call a story like this a successful horror story would be absurdly understated. “The Red Tower” is one of those pieces of writing that can be said to go beyond genre because it exemplifies nothing but itself, and it does so unforgettably.