Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Work Is Not Yet Done

           The rundown is as follows. This is arguably one of the nastiest things I've ever read, from one of the nastiest authors I've ever read. If you want a good, surreal Halloween read, you cannot go any better than Thomas Ligotti, whose works convey a certain pessimistic and existential dread. So the master of dread and dark pessimism doing a novella about a man pushed past the point of collapse who exacts some very creepy revenge on the people who wronged him gets a warm recommendation from me, despite the caveat that the novella and its companion pieces are fairly sick to read*. My Work Is Not Yet Done is not as human as Joe Hill's work, nor as sickeningly sensual as Clive Barker's early pieces, but Ligotti is in a class all of his own when it comes to unnerving the bejesus out of someone.
          The drawbacks come in when every narrator and main character sound like I imagine Ligotti to sound, not exactly purple in prose but using the same syntax and dialogue choices despite being presented as different people. The curse of Ligotti having such a unique voice is that it's kind of easy to pick out, and when confronted with a lot of it at once, it all kind of runs together a bit, with only the unique themes of the novella and two stories to keep things separate enough to be enjoyable. But pick this one up if you get the chance, or try to find it in a library. If not, try to find his other work.

*You'll forgive me for not going into too much detail yet...

"It was the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life"
- Frank Dominio

- Domino
          So I thought for Halloween** I might go back and look over an author I haven't given much time to. Thomas Ligotti is one of those authors who a lot of writers hold in high regard, but not many people in the mainstream give much time to. He writes short stories and novellas in a style that emphasizes the existential dread of existence and forces beyond the control of human comprehension. So, like HP Lovecraft, but not nearly as dry as the actual HP Lovecraft stories***. I was first introduced to Ligotti through Amazon's recommendations page, as I had bought a copy of the novel Pandaemonium and a few other fantasy and horror books. My Work Is Not Yet Done popped up on the first page, and I was intrigued by a tale of corporate horror, as you don't see many of those in works. I can only think of this, Company (which is a black comedy despite being a very funny book), and Resume with Monsters. So naturally, I was intrigued, but at eleven bucks for an ebook of one novella and two stories, I kind of felt it was a little steep. So I let it go and filled my life with other stuff until two Decembers hence, where I wanted someone new to read and picked up My Work is Not Yet Done

          And I haven't regretted it yet. The book is twisted in a way I haven't seen since Clive Barker or maybe the nastier work of Carlton Mellick III, but manages to be more subtle than either of them. It's simultaneously abstract and very concrete in its execution. Ligotti has a singular voice in fiction, and while there are no doubt detractors of his work, whether you wind up liking or hating him, you have to agree that at least he's like nothing you've ever read****. My Work Is Not Yet Done may not even be his strongest collection of stories, but it's my current reigning favorite overall, and it's a good place to get into the literary enigma that is Thomas Ligotti.

             My Work Is Not Yet Done begins with the title novella, a story of a man named Frank Dominio. Frank is an average man, a little on the obsessive compulsive side, who works for an unnamed corporation in a nameless city full of decaying buildings. We're told he's a supervisor, but for what we do not know. What we do know is that he's very good at his job, beloved by his staff, and works under a group of management types known as The Seven-- Mary, Kerrie, Barry, Perry, Sherry, Harry, and Richard. The Seven are somewhat grotesque...they're not people so much as caricatures of people, and when Frank brings them an idea one day so that they can give it to the New Product department, they have him passive-aggressively demoted to a different department and then shortly after that, fired entirely from the company through a series of nasty little re-organizations. 

 And then things get weird*****.

            Frank gets angry enough to go on a bullet-riddled rampage at his old place of work and buys himself a new set of black clothes and some firearms to match The Seven. But on his way from the office supply store, he realizes he forgot the paper and toner he'd need to print out his "Ultimate Statement" to the world and goes running back only to suddenly black out in a loud burst of noise. When he comes to, he's not quite a ghost, not quite a vengeful monster, but he's definitely something not human, able to move almost at will and to see the darkness all around people, as well as something he calls "The Great Black Sow" at the edge of the universe. He uses this power to spy on the people who betrayed him, watching as they go about their day. But then Frank learns the full extent of his powers, and it becomes a game of hunter and hunted between Frank and The Seven. But there are a few things Frank doesn't know, and in the end it may be his undoing, even from this state.

            I suppose what I like the most about the novella is the atmosphere. Ligotti piles on the paranoia and the oppressive other bits quite well, creating a sense of mounting dread****** that continues all through the first half of the novella, making the violent and quite frankly revolting second half of it a wonderfully cathartic release not of gore-- oh, no, it's cleverer than that-- but of cold-blooded fate-worse-than-death revenge

         Which, in its own way, is something everyone can relate to. We all have the people in our life who have in some way or another cut us off or have slighted us in some way. Some of these are devastating. Other slights aren't as much. But there's that urge to "get back" at someone. Definitely not in the same way that Frank, as the pitch-black avenging angel "Mr. Domino"******* does, but in some way we want to be vindicated. Ligotti takes a universal theme and cranks it up to almost cartoonish levels, even if by cartoonish I mean one of those creepy Eastern European cartoons with washed-out colors and strange jerky movements. And it works amazingly well. Even if you think that the fates of the villains are sickening (and believe me, without spoiling anything, they are), you can't help but think they deserve something for what they did, and Frank's just sympathetic enough that it casts Domino's actions in a better light, if not a sympathetic one.

          Although this brings us to the issue I have with My Work is Not Yet Done, and not just the novella, but also the two short stories that come after it (that I haven't talked about in detail). I once got into an argument about The Shining where I referred to Stanley Kubrick as "observing emotion from two blocks away with a telescope". Ligotti has the same problem Kubrick does-- his approach to emotion is sterile, alien. He touches on some very primal subjects, and creates a nice atmosphere of dread by playing off of the emotional responses involved, but in the end, it comes down to this: he's very hands-off when it comes to the emotion of things. He knows how to trigger the fear response, but I still feel like I'm watching from the outside of it. It pushes emotional triggers, but only so many, settling for merely giving me disturbing things to think about instead of forcing me to feel them.

           The two short stories contained in here take a more surrealistic bent and while good are slightly weaker than the main piece, possibly due to their being significantly less grounded than the title piece. The other issue is one more prevalent in these two works after reading the first, and it is that while Thomas Ligotti has a unique voice, there is not much differentiation. This is especially clear in "I Have a Special Plan for this World", arguably the weakest story of the three, as its plot is muddled and the lack of differentiation makes it difficult to concentrate on the events of the story and the atmosphere, taking you right out of it. Thankfully, the third story, "The Nightmare Network", brings things back into a nice surreal focus, taking the shape of a series of press releases detailing a company trading in the subconscious from its rise to its eventual decay. I think. It's kind of a hard story to get a handle on, but a nice departure from the first-person accounts of the other two. 

         In the end, this is well worth the price I paid for it, even if I was overcharged for an ebook that was barely out two years when I picked it up. It's a good introduction to the world of Thomas Ligotti, the stories are (while weak in places) original and definitely a cut above most of the stuff currently in the genre, and very enjoyable to read. Even if they do linger a little in the head******** and kind of crank up the squick a little. The issues with the book do not ultimately keep it from being a very good, very creepy read, and it is definitely worth checking out. Find some way to find this book. I cannot stress this enough. Even if you don't enjoy it, you have to at least recognize you won't read anything like it in all of fiction.

- A Tourist in an Unknown Land returns with "Strange Tales on the Road to NekoCon" (I know, I know, too soon, but I have to write this stuff about a week or so after I do the con, otherwise it just comes outta nowhere and has no bearing on anything any more)
- The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

And when I can fit them in:
- Johannes Cabal and the Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard
- More Walter Moers
- Possibly some Carlton Mellick III

**This is not, however, the Halloween special. That got cancelled due to the storm
***Everyone loves Lovecraft. Few actually read him, and most spout the memes. Given I've read a fair amount of Lovecraft...I actually don't see this as too bad a thing. He's kinda dry and xenophobic and a little pedantic.
****Unless you've lived under a rock and only had Poe, Stoker, and Lovecraft to read. Then I can see your stories probably coming out a little like his.
*****Ooooh, it feels good to say that after so long!
******Why yes I have a checklist of cliched horror review phrases I'm ticking off. Why do you ask?
*******This may be the con mindset still rattling around in my brain, but "Avenging Angel Domino" sounds like a damn good name for an anime...
********Cream of mucous membrane. CREAM OF MUCOUS MEMBRANE. Phew, feels good to get that out.

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