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Black Static

Dark Fiction & Film BLACK STATIC ISSUE 61 OUT NOW!

Notes on the Reviewing of Ligotti: A Parody

19th Apr, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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In his 1985 story Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story, Thomas Ligotti illustrated various approaches to the art of horror writing by telling the same story over again, but each time written in a different style. It occurred to me that it might be entertaining and informative to attempt something similar with regard to reviewing, and that if I did so then it would, given my source of inspiration, be wholly appropriate to use Ligotti’s novella My Work Is Not Yet Done as the subject for my hypothetical reviewers to use in demonstrating their art.

Not much needs to be said about The Synopsist. He is the quintessential lazy reviewer. He reads the book and he makes notes about what happens as he goes along, and then he publishes his notes as the review, with perhaps a line or two of comment tagged on the end, but nothing so opinionated that a reader might disagree with his ‘conclusion’. His justification for this approach is that he is an ‘objective’ reviewer, and certainly the facts and nothing but the facts are all you are going to get from members of this reviewing tribe. Here is how a Synopsist might review Ligotti:-

Frank, the protagonist of Thomas Ligotti’s novella My Work Is Not Yet Done, is not a happy man. His peers at the company where he is a department head are conspiring against him, hatching plots that see Frank robbed of credit for the innovative concept that will turn the business round and then demoted. Finally he is placed under the supervision of a man who is many years his junior and who frames him for misconduct and incompetence. Sacked, Frank plots violent revenge against those who brought this ignominy down on his head, but before he can cut loose with automatic weaponry a miracle occurs, and Frank comes under the sway of the Great Black Swine who rules the universe. Granted power to warp the fabric of reality itself, he visits a gory demise on each of his nemeses, but there is a final twist in the tale that sees Frank robbed of his ultimate revenge by the flaws in his own nature. This is Thomas Ligotti at his very best, firing a warning shot across the bows of corporate America. Recommended.

The Hyperbolist is a somewhat more discerning reviewer, with refined tastes. He never reads anything that he doesn’t like, and everything he likes is a work of genius. Usually he concerns himself with first novels by new writers who are often so cutting edge that they fail to find a bona fide publisher and so must embrace Publish America or take the route of self-publishing, and the Hyperbolist can lay claim to his own heart’s desire, a place in the literary pantheon, by virtue of being first to applaud the new Poe/Lovecraft/Rowling/Fitzgerald (pick a genre paradigm and stick with it), and hey, if the reading public are so blinkered as to not see the towering talent that is blindingly apparent to the Hyperbolist, then there'll be another genius along shortly. Things like correct grammar and spelling are not an issue for the Hyperbolist, but the concern of lesser minds: his own intellect is focused on great things, not the quirks of syntax and peccadilloes of language, which he will gladly leave to the bean counting brethren. While his outpourings do sometimes worm their way onto the pages of respectable publications, they are more likely to be found posted on Amazon or cluttering up blogs and message boards where there is no quality control. No self-respecting Hyperbolist would go near a work by Ligotti, whose talent has already been widely recognised by others, but let’s imagine that one might:-

My Work Is Not Yet Done is a masterpiece of modern horror, a novella that not only turns the tired old tropes of genre on their head but also tackles head on the shortcomings of commercial life in 21st century America. Ligotti is a genius whose work is set firmly in the grand tradition of American weird fiction, but completely transcends the genre of which it is a part. He is the lineal descendant of Poe and Lovecraft, but far superior to both, taking the form of which they were undoubted masters to new heights of which they could only dream, conflating the supernatural elements of his tale with a paranoia that is pure Kafka (another writer of quality, but not on a par with Thomas Ligotti). Ligotti’s protagonist Frank is the Everyman of corporate America, the worker drone with whom we can all identify as he is relentlessly screwed over by his superiors, but also a unique individual, with traits that are his and his alone. He is a George Bailey for the noughties, only unlike Capra’s milksop Frank is not a man to take things lying down and, with a little help from a source that is far from angelic, he wreaks a terrible revenge on those who have done him wrong. This novella is far more than a horror story though, superb as it is in that regard. It is also an important social document and should be required reading in the boardrooms and washrooms of corporate America, where it will send shivers down the spines of greedy bankers and bloated financiers, showing them  what they can expect by way of a comeuppance if they don’t mend their ways. Ligotti has become the spokesperson for a generation with this concise and compelling depiction of our world, filled with brilliantly realised characters, written in a language that dazzles with its sheer virtuosity and explodes off the page in lyrical flights of fantasy. This is a book that should be read by everybody who cares about quality fiction, and which will endure long after the situation it portrays with such eloquence and wit has passed from living memory. Horror has found its Joyce and Shakespeare and Melville, all rolled into one. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Thomas Ligotti.

And after that I feel quite gung ho for Thomas Ligotti myself, and so a dissenting voice courtesy of The Tunnel Visionary seems in order. Actually the term Tunnel Visionary covers several sub-divisions of the reviewing tribes, and often these groups are fiercely critical of each other. The common factor is that they will all focus on one aspect of a work of fiction – usually something political in nature, or possibly connected to matters of faith and morality – and make it the lynch pin of their review, with everything that can't be taken out of context and/or doesn’t fit in with the chosen schemata either sidelined or ignored completely. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with reviewing work from, for example, a feminist or a Christian perspective. Problems occur only when that focus is too narrow and obsessive. Tunnel Visionaries do not review a work so much as assume a position with regard to it, and the review will reflect the position, with matters of fairness to the writer and objectivity of little or no concern. Let us see how My Work Is Not Yet Done fares when subjected to a Feminist example of Tunnel Visonary technique:-

There are two types of female characters in Thomas Ligotti’s novella My Work Is Not Yet Done – ciphers and cannon fodder.  We are immediately introduced to a triumvirate of the former, Lois and Lisa and Christine, who are the subordinates of Ligotti’s protagonist Frank. Their distinguishing characteristic is that they are contented cogs in the company machine, utterly devoid of ambition and drive; their sole purpose is to validate Frank’s own career apathy through their deference and by joining him in ridiculing those who have progressed further up the corporate ladder.  The paradigm of the cipher character type is Lillian, though at first glance she seems more substantial – a woman who owns her own business and is Frank’s landlady – but this is an illusion. Strip away the surface veneer and Lillian is a glorified waitress, dependent on the goodwill of men like Frank and the tips they provide. Her role is to serve, to take the customers’ orders and see that their wishes are gratified, and Frank’s liking for her, his opinion that she is a nice person, is predicated solely on the uncomplaining manner in which she fulfils this function. Women who have demonstrated ambition, who hold a similar rank in the corporate hierarchy to Frank, are the objects of his scorn. Supervisor Sherry is an attractive woman, but Frank feels that this somehow makes her inhuman, a pod person inhabited by ‘some kind of thing’, and when he is caught staring at her legs it’s not because he is an idiot who thinks with his dick, but somehow the fault of Sherry herself, who is accused of manipulating him. Ligotti could not have been any clearer if Sherry had offered Frank an apple. This misogynistic streak blossoms fully when the time comes for Frank to dispose of his enemies. Mary is transformed into a living mannequin, a doll that is then sexually abused by tramps. The ruthlessly efficient Kerrie’s S&M lifestyle is revealed, with the tables turned on her, so that the dominatrix is reduced to a subhuman slave, punished for her temerity in assuming the mantle of a master.  The beautiful Sherry is sucked into a hole in the wall in a death that is a terrible reversal and mockery of the birth process, while lines such as ‘Sherry could feel the knob-thing pulsing with a squirmy sort of life’ hint at the true agenda. These competent, autonomous and sexually precocious women are a threat to male authority, and so they have to be debased and humiliated, a fate that is spared their more domesticated sisters.  At the end of book only Frank and his nemesis Richard are left standing, the two main contenders for role of alpha mule (Richard’s career has been blighted by a woman he seduced and who then did him the inconvenience of committing suicide on the desk in his office), and if Ligotti contends that underlying the universe is a Great Black Swine then we can safely assume that it is a male chauvinist pig.

There are other reviewing tribes, as for instance The Intellectual, who will take himself o so seriously and can only reconcile his liking for horror, or any form of genre fiction, with his academic pretensions by putting an intellectual spin on everything, so that a castration scene becomes emblematic of the emasculation of modern man, brain munching zombies become a metaphor for rampant consumerism and a magic ceremony is symptomatic of an anti-science ethos.  For the Gorehound Gothique body count is more important than any literary merit, and torture porn is a sub-genre to be taken seriously, with work judged solely in terms of its ability to nauseate the reader by depicting moments of excruciating pain and body mutilation.

But my work here is done and so we shall leave the cataloguing of these reviewers’ assorted vices and virtues for another occasion. In the meantime, for a more balanced review of Ligotti’s work (by balanced I mean incorporating elements of all the shortcomings and biases illustrated above, plus a few more that are all my own) I would direct you to the Case Notes section in Black Static #10, where Thomas Ligotti is our featured author.

Disclaimer: No reviewers were physically harmed in the writing of this blog entry, and anyone who thinks the comments on Ligotti’s work are meant to be taken entirely seriously should go back and read the heading – there’s a reason it’s called a parody.


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