The Day the Call Came – Thomas Hinde

The Day the Call CameThe Day the Call Came (1964) occupies a kind of genre superposition by simultaneously functioning as both a spy thriller and a tale of suburban paranoia. The difficulty is that, rationally, the story the book tells cannot be both of these things at once; our protagonist is either a sleeper agent for a shady organisation, or he’s suffering from severe paranoid delusions. Unlike the superpositions of quantum physics, however, observation doesn’t collapse the ambiguity to reveal a definite identity; the either/or problematic remains intact right until the end. Indeed, you may exit the novel more confused about its character than you were when you entered it. It’s down to the caprice of the individual reader, therefore, to decide exactly what kind of book this is. But I would argue that even attempting to pin it down and nail it with  definite narrative explanations and genre signifiers is to wilfully miss the point.

The novel is narrated in the first-person past by Harry Bale, a married father of two living the suburban dream: walks in the country, dinner parties with the neighbours, tennis on the weekend etc. etc. One day a letter arrives instructing Harry to “Stand by”, activating him as an agent for some non-disclosed secret organisation. What his orders will be, when he was recruited and what kind of organisation this is are never explained. The crux of the narrative is that all of this spy stuff might be a delusion; maybe he wrote the letter to himself, maybe it’s all just in his head. Harry will occasionally ask these questions of himself, but for the most part he is firm in his conviction that the spy thing is real.

The more natural reading, it seems to me, is the one that interprets Harry as raving batshit insane, rather than a genuine sleeper agent awaiting orders. And indeed this appears to be the critical consensus, with the majority of reviews discussing Harry’s “obvious” paranoia. Spies don’t live like this, suburban lives aren’t this exciting, there are no conspiracies; Harry must be paranoid. But other than a postmodern distrust of narrators and our knowledge that twentieth-century suburbia wasn’t a hotbed of espionage, what reason do we have to doubt him? After all, we accept without question much wilder claims from our fiction on an almost daily basis. Maybe the book’s style, which has more in common with literary realism than traditional genre writing, is what sways critics to the paranoia interpretation? After all, it certainly doesn’t *read* like a spy novel.

And Hinde manipulates style to admittedly convincing paranoid effect. This is mostly achieved by a constant deployment of intransitive verbs. Harry “suspects” and “witnesses” and “sees”, but the referents are always missing, generating a vagueness that definitely reinforces the sensation of paranoia.

Despite this, though, the text always feels balanced, never giving the reader the advantage of its protagonist, and never, in my opinion, favouring one interpretation over the other. For example, when Harry receives a call from his superiors, he simultaneously hears both a dial tone (suggesting he’s delusional) and his employer’s voice (suggesting he really is in communication with someone). The gender-neutral pronoun in the following quote nicely reinforces the ambiguity of the scene:

What was clever was that the dialling tone wasn’t interrupted by their voice.

I was tempted to be anti-establishment and review this entire book as if it *were* a straight-up, unambiguous spy thriller, just to be contrary and screw with the apparent consensus of the paranoia interpretation. Perhaps it’s my reading history that inclines me to give greater credence to the fantastical spy aspects than is really justified by the text? But ultimately I decided not to let the spy interpretation dominate the paranoia one, and vice versa. This is because holding these two contradictory ideas about the novel in your head at once creates a cognitive dissonance out of which emerges the book’s most interesting tonal duality: that of comedy mixed with horror.

The comedic elements are the more obvious; scenes of Harry – who may or may not be a spy – breaking into his neighbours’ houses and fixating on their mundane private lives are undeniably funny, but such is Hinde’s skill that these scenes are never over-played or heavy handed:

Either I was mistaken and Charlie’s early-morning golf was the genuine health-obsession of a retired man; or more sinister and complicated things were happening around me than I’d imagined.

The horror manifests itself in different ways: if Harry is working for a shady organisation, then we must accept that our lives are subject to the whims of powers beyond our immediate perception or understanding. If, however, he is paranoid, another kind of horror presents itself. Firstly there’s the surface-level stuff; the horror that’s explicit in mental unwell-ness. But there’s also something else going on; a suggestion that the spy thing is an escapist fantasy that enables Harry to cope with the meaninglessness of modern suburban life. His neighbours are impossibly boring, he’s distant from his wife, he worries that people are attempting to undermine him in unfair and unreasonably small ways, he’s getting older. This is suburbia as a place of abject panic and despair, without sense or future or love: a life-horror.

The most striking visualisation of this, of the unnatural, wasteful meaninglessness of modern life, is the oft-repeated image of “fruit rotting on our trees”.

In this regard The Day the Call Came reminds me of more modern philosophical horror writers like Thomas Ligotti, whose “corporate horror” sub-genre extracts horror from microscopic examinations of day-to-day life and the panic-inducing quest for value in an indifferent, meaningless world. Dinner with the dull neighbours and their stories about golf is not what life was supposed to be. The spy fantasy, if that’s what it is, gives Harry meaning, and elevates him beyond the horrific mundane of the suburban:

And now I didn’t care whether or not I should let myself hunt. I didn’t care that I was making my memories real when they might not be. To me they were real because they were the only reality I had.

The spy narrative becomes a metaphor for the modernist search for genuine, non-contrived experience. In order to feel real among the salvo of suburban bullshit, Harry has to inhabit a fantasy life of his own devising: this is the novel’s most potent horror.

The balancing of comedy (Harry on spy “missions” crawling through his neighbours’ bushes etc), with paranoid horror is the novel’s greatest achievement; these seemingly contradictory genre elements, when deployed in unison, is what makes the book so original, and each aspect enriches the other. The comedy imbues the horror with a sense of pathos that, if anything, makes the suburban even more tragic, whereas Harry’s paranoia, if that’s what it is, augments the blackness of the comedy: the laughs are bigger and darker when you know that Harry really, really believes in all of the stupid stuff he’s doing. This a great little book, but it discourages over-zealous interpretation. Holding two contradictory ideas about something in your head is a difficult thing, but Thomas Hinde’s prose almost forces you to do this, and, as I hope I’ve shown, with good reason, and to excellent effect.

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The Spectral Link – Thomas Ligotti

Spectral LinkThe Spectral Link (2014) comprises two novelettes that represent the first new fiction from cult horror writer Thomas Ligotti in ten years, following a protracted case of writer’s block (or “existence block”, as the dust jacket puts it).

The blurb, by the way, which describes Ligotti’s output as being “as paltry as it is directionless” must surely have been penned by the writer himself? It’s this weirdly long and self-aware invective that functions as much as biography as it does synopsis, and focuses on the “abdominal crisis” (read: emergency surgery) that was the genesis of his creative second wind. The depiction of Ligotti on the surgeon’s table reminds me of this horror story by Georg Heym, and the almost-negative tone of the thing calls to mind those early editions of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory that included reprints of bad reviews as a kind of ironic marketing ploy to attract the sort of book hipsters who like the idea of reading shocking and disturbed stuff because it’s cool or anti-mainstream or whatever. With Ligotti, though, I get less the impression of smart-arsed marketing, and more a genuine feeling of discomfort with having actually published something, with having to describe it and sell it, and with the idea of existing in general, really. Which articulation of discomfort, after all, is why we read his books in the first place, I guess.

The first of the two novelettes, Metaphysica Morum, combines Ligotti’s early interest in bodyshock with his more recent concerns for emotional despair (as best captured in the exceptional “corporate horror” novella My Work is Not Yet Done). It’s about a guy “at odds with the status quo of the world” attempting to recruit his therapist, Dr O., into euthanizing him by anaesthesia. Forming the background to this is some vague dream stuff about a sinister figure called ‘The Dealer’, and a short diversion into the narrator’s disquieting family history. The prose is characteristically purple, but more theoretically dense than his usual output, calling to mind his non-fiction philosophical declaration “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” more than any of his earlier narrative writings. This, it turns out, is a double-edged sword, as the flowery philosophy of the story brilliantly articulates the narrator’s conception of humanity as wretched, of life as an “eternal nightmare” and being in the world as an “organic horror”, but it nonetheless stifles some of the atmosphere and tensions, creating a jarring and stilted reading experience as scenes are constantly interrupted by long philosophical asides. Some may argue, of course, that this is the whole point: the fracted story and constant reminders that life is awful is a narrative and structural reflection of the lived day-to-day reality of the narrator (and the writer, it seems) but I preferred Ligotti’s nihilism when it was more implicit, less preachy. This aside, however, I enjoyed the story immensely.

The second story, The Small People, is longer, but feels the more minor of the two. Perhaps this is because it’s less of an in-your-face philosophical statement. Who knows? The story is about a boy’s hate-filled campaign against the titular small people, a race of tiny itinerant humans. This is framed by a therapist’s-couch sort of conversation, as the boy, years later, describes his childhood to a doctor. The Small People is genuinely disturbing in its articulation of pure hatred, and in this way it reminds me of Michael Cisco’s The Traitor, where there’s an odd cognitive dissonance between, on the one hand, the perverse voyeurism of wanting to see how far his hatred will go and, on the other, condemning his bigotry and cruelty. There’s also an unresolved dualism going on, with the narrator simultaneously presenting as both batshit insane, and the only person with the clarity of vision to have seen and recognised the horrible truth about the world. The Small People themselves call to mind Gulliver’s Travels, but other than a playful literary reference, I can’t really parse out the significance of this. It’s a good story, and the ending especially is composed of such chillingly dark language that I was genuinely panicked for a while.

Having read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race we are, more than ever, aware of the parallels between Ligotti and his equally isolated, misanthropic, suicide-fixated characters. This equivalency between the writer’s inner life and those of his protagonists’ brings a quasi-autobiographic poise to his writing that, given the incredibly weird and distressing nature of these stories, augments the sense of horror by orders of magnitude, making him the purest horror writer writing today. As a sufferer of chronic anxieties myself, I found The Spectral Link reassuring in a you’re-not-alone kind of way. But as a human being, I also found it upsetting, cruel, and unrelenting in its darkness.

You’re never likely to find a more perfect exemplar of the old idiom that the purpose of art is to disturb the comforted, and to comfort the disturbed.

My Work Is Not Yet Done – Thomas Ligotti

I’ve written before about the protean nature of Thomas Ligotti’s horror fiction; the ways in which he seems completely at home writing in genres as diverse as Lovecraftian grotesque or the ghost story, slasher fiction, philosophical horror, vampire mythos, demonic possession etc. and etc.  He’s equally comfortable subverting and corrupting the well-established tropes of these categories as he is paying sentimental homage to their more classical incarnations.  And while his mastery over so many different genre forms is undoubtedly impressive, it’s a little too easy to accuse Ligotti of over-reliance on the anaphora of his forbearers; the once-original motifs that have since become tired and predictable through over-use, Hollywood hack and the familiarity of age.  This isn’t to say those stories in which he channels Poe or Aickman or Lovecraft or Heym are disappointing or unsuccessful, quite the contrary, but horror fiction – perhaps more so than any other genre – relies on constant innovation in order to fulfil its ostensible mandate: to provoke, shock and disturb.  Even when Ligotti is distorting classic designs, he is still nonetheless working within structures that were mastered elsewhere, by other writers.  Predictability is the greatest crime a work of horror can commit.

Thankfully, My Work is Not Yet Done signifies the point at which Ligotti steps out of the shadows of the old masters and does something we all secretly hoped he was capable of: writes a novel in a genre truly his own.  The descriptor “Corporate Horror” is perhaps a crude epithet to plaster over the title page, but it’s a useful term, and one which I’m sure will soon become a valid and commonplace part of critical vocabulary.

The novel, as this appellation suggests, is about a man who works in an office – scary stuff, right?  It’s true that the office space and the workaday routine has become common fodder for the literary mainstream – the pointlessness of it all, the existential ennui of routine and the black comedy of bureaucracy – but the office of My Work is Not Yet Done, though as mundane and ordinary as any other, is cast as a place of abject panic, despair and horror for our narrator Frank Dominio, whose prose is most poignantly characterised by his opening and oft-repeated refrain “I have always been afraid”.

The book takes great pains to describe the head-splitting flicker of florescent office tube lights, the grotesque and unearned self-confidence of those in higher management, the never-ending barrage of non-specific and pointless paperwork and the unfair and unreasonably small ways Frank’s co-workers attempt to undermine him.  The acts of selfishness and cruelty best described as “office politics” Frank knows he should ignore and rise above but which, simultaneously, seem deeply, personally, disgustingly offensive and hurtful.  Ligotti’s pitch-perfect prose oscillates between a microscopic focus on unimportant, trivial details on the one hand, and a fetishisation of the mundane, vague, unspecific blandness of it all on the other: “He was of average height and build, average weight, average age”.  The cumulative effect of this cloying and constant description is a sensation of desperate, claustrophobic loneliness, anxiety and horror as Frank trudges through his daily “maze of pain”.

I was somewhat disappointed with the second half of the novel, in which some strange force Frank terms “the great black swine” grants him the power to fulfil all of the sadistic fantasies of violent murder he harbours against his co-workers “I wanted to do things to Richard that would make the sun grow cold with horror”.  The jarring tonal shift from paranoia and solipsism to supernatural hyper-violence really irked me: it converges clumsily with the insightful social criticisms of the novel’s first half in a way that almost undermines the book’s sense of hopelessness.  I mean, the novel’s second half is well-conceived, well-structured horror with some gloriously imaginative comeuppances directed at the book’s most perversely unpleasant characters (and I especially liked Frank’s hubristic fall when he presumptuously ignores the single caveat and condition of his new supernatural gifts – powers which are otherwise in danger of being so all-encompassing and poorly defined as to be narratively uninteresting), but the whole supernatural element is just so, so unnecessary.  The book’s aesthetic identity is fully realised in its first half. The fact that Ligotti crafts such disturbing and panic-ridden horror from what is essentially a description of a man going to work is the book’s most striking achievement.  The rest is good Ligotti, but perhaps the writer’s ideas would have been better served had these two parts been kept entirely separate.

It goes against my every readerly impulse to say this, then, but when Ligotti offers the suggestion that the book’s supernatural elements have entirely rational and psychosomatic foundations, I embraced it whole-heatedly.  Given the choice, I would usually pick the more fantastical of any two feasible textual interpretations (it’s just more fun that way), but the possibility that My Work is Not Yet Done doesn’t collapse into hocus-pocus-fuelled demonic mayhem, though by far the least substantiated interpretation, is by far the most interesting reading.  The nine-to-five office space of corporate drudgery, with all its potential for loneliness, repetition, anger, desperate anxiety and claustrophobic despair is horror enough: there’s nothing more to add.

Tomcat.

Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti

Given the internet’s propensity for yielding up every sordid detail of even the most negligible popular figure’s life, it’s somewhat unnerving quite how difficult it is to find either biography or photograph of Weird Fiction maestro Thomas Ligotti.  But this remoteness of the writer, if you will, is part of his aesthetic appeal – his withdrawal is almost a continuation of his narrative agenda to disturb and horrify.  The majority of his narrators are likewise isolated and misanthropic, and this parallel between Ligotti and his protagonists brings a quasi-autobiographic tone to his writing which, given the incredibly weird and distressing nature of these stories, augments the reading experience by making it that much more unsettling.

Teatro Grottesco is a collection of thirteen short stories (give or take (some include ‘micro’ narratives inside themselves)), in the horror genre.  What kind of ‘horror’, precisely, is difficult to say, because while Ligotti doesn’t conform to any of the basic genre types of slasher-gore, paranormal, supernatural, serial killer (etc.), he doesn’t ignore them either.  Instead he offers a subtle convergence of all of these ranks of horror while simultaneously corrupting and distorting them from their more classic/familiar incarnations.  For example, Ligotti’s conception of viscera isn’t a hyperbolic focus on blood ‘n’ guts, but a half-glimpsed suggestion of mutation, tumorous growth and sick, malformed bodies.  This is most prevalent in the opener ‘Purity’, which sees a fetishising of the latent horror implicit in extreme body types – from the incredibly obese to the deathly emaciated or over-tumoured – the reader is unnerved not by any explicit focus on blood/bile/organs – the inside aspects of the body which commonly dominate horror – but by an external grotesque which, mostly hidden in shadows or shooed away, is all the more disturbing for its malformity – such bodies cannot exist without something having gone drastically wrong.  In this aspect, Teatro Grottesco is strikingly Lovecraftian: the body isn’t a healthy temple which spills its secrets when sliced from the outside; it’s instead an internally corrupting, treacherous, sickly and unhealthy shell liable to bloat itself or shrivel or grotesquely mutate: unreliable and frightening.

Similarly, Ligotti’s approach to the supernatural is unconventional.  In the title story ‘Teatro Grottesco’, an elusive, never-seen theatre company drains all ambition and creativity from any artist precocious enough to enlist their services.  Not only is this a bizarre re-imagining of Vampire mythology (the sucking away of lifeblood), but it also functions as sarcastic metaphor for what Ligotti clearly sees as a rampant lack of creativity in his own genre and, on a more pernickety level, a grotesque manifestation of the author-centric fear of writers’ block.  Elsewhere the supernatural is less explicit, such as in ‘The Red Tower’, which is a brief description-piece about an abandoned factory that used to produce and ship creepy artefacts. Underneath this factory, however, sleeps a more disturbing and surreal manufacturing space of the grotesque.  This is microcosm for much of Teatro Grottesco’s supernatural moments: they occur off-camera, beneath the words – conjured via suggestion and narratorial guesswork as much as by explicit description or explanation.

That Ligotti’s narrators are all (without exception) unreliable is simultaneously both problematic and beneficial to the portrayal of the supernatural.  Where Ligotti is highly skilled in drafting incredibly varied, different horror stories, he conversely suffers from a singleness of style which colours all of his work with the same narratorial tone.  Every story here is narrated in the first-person past tense, and each is told by an alarmingly disturbed individual; narrators who suffer from extreme anxiety, panic attacks, depression, schizophrenia, insomnia and self-imposed loneliness.  While this forsaken identity gives the narrator a privileged position as social outsider, perfectly situated to recognise and name the supernatural for what it is, it also makes him an unreliable storyteller.  Such obsessed individuals brilliantly unsettle the reader, as we see everything through the eyes of a very specific and disturbed subjective – but, as I’ve stated, this is also problematic, as any combination of madness with the paranormal begs that most boring of naturalist questions: is anything real?  Is the narrator of ‘The Clown Puppet’ really terrorised by a deformed, life-size wooden mannequin, or is the puppet merely a narrative manifestation of our mad narrator’s internal psychoses?  Such a focus on disturbed narrators has the double-edged-sword effect of giving the stories an unsettling point of view, while also throwing into doubt the very truth of the horror.  Horror that, once dubious, loses much of its power.

Location also suffers from a lack of variety in Teatro Grottesco.  Abandoned, out-of-the-way towns are the norm: and while this is a great setting for stories and revelations of the uncanny and horrific variety, it does get a tad repetitive.  Similarly, the locales of these short stories are so idiosyncratically weird, and so intertwined with the narrator’s identity, that I couldn’t help but read many of them as a psychological construct, their presentation entirely a subjective description – maybe our mad/anxious/depressed narrator has conjured up these grotesque towns from the walls of a mental institution in which he’s imprisoned?  Are the phantoms his nurses? The ghouls his fellow inmates? The locked rooms inaccessible hospital wings?  It’s difficult to ignore these questions in stories that are so prominently concerned with madness .  Unnerving in themselves, when they pop-up in story after story after story they begin to wear.  As brilliantly disturbing as Ligotti is, the singularity of his approach came as a let-down.  But maybe this is a failing of my own making.  I recommend you don’t read Teatro Grottesco as I did: cover to cover, like a novel.  After all, many of these stories were written decades apart, in which case, it’s probably a little disingenuous of me to highlight their uniformity.

A final point about style( one I can’t ignore) is Ligotti’s preoccupation with repetitious phrasing.  In almost every story there are long phrases that are repeated in their entirety again and again and again: they pound into the reader’s mind like some kind of verbal hammer – reinforcing the concept of madness while concurrently enclosing the reader in a claustrophobic space of constant, inescapable repetitions.

If I had to pick a favourite story, it’d be ‘My Case for Retributive Action’ – set in a perpetually mist-covered American town, it’s a quasi-comic and highly disturbing story about infinite working days, meaningless paper-work that’s endlessly recycled (you can see the satire) and grotesque rumours about a deformed man-spider responsible for the maddening sounds that haunt the town.

Ligotti’s nightmarescapes didn’t scare me as much as they left a lingering sensation that I’d been unsettled and disturbed by something in my own mind.  These are stories preoccupied with the individual’s struggle to find meaning and definition in a hostile and increasingly repetitive world – and in this regard they’re strikingly modernist: a space in which, to quote: “there is a killing sadness that feels as if it will never leave me no matter where I go or what I do or whom I may ever know.”

Tomcat