February 16, 2008

Thoughts on "The Red Tower

Pending the last of China Mieville's Weird Fiction workshops for the year, I sat down (probably on a bus) and read "The Red Tower" by Thomas Ligotti in one sitting. It's good. Definitely the best of the samples we were given. If you want to find a copy of it, you're going to have a tough job - the "Nightmare Factory" collection it comes from is out of print and costs about £50 on Amazon or Alibris. Photocopies might still be circulating in the Capital Centre writing room - and otherwise I'm afraid you're out of luck.

   SPOILER ALERT

   Don't read on if you ever intend to read The Red Tower - major, major spoilers up ahead. Which is to say that I'm going to summarise the story right now.

The story - if such it can be called - centres on the titular Red Tower, a decaying former factory situated in the centre of an infinite expanse of wasteland. The Tower was created out of the wasteland, and the wilderness, realising it's mistake, has been attempting to correct it since. As a result all of the machinery which produced the factories peculiar "novelty items" - rocks with organic eyes, disturbingly accurate models of diseased internal organs - have evaporated and the structure above ground now lies in ruin.

  In response the factory has burrowed deeper into the surface of the wilderness, forming a second basement below the first - the first being used to transport the novelty goods of the Tower to all points on the earth. This second basement - in turn shut down by the pressure of the wilderness  - contains a graveyard of birthing graves, producing monstrous and malfunctional organic creatures. Finally, there may or may not exist a third basement, but what that might produce is a mystery.

   SPOILER END, PONCY MEANDERINGS BEGIN!

  So, its a peculiar tale. It's got a lot of typical Ligotti features (Hah! I sound as if I know stuff about him. I've read four of his shorts. Does that qualify? I'll level with you - most of this is borrowed from China, but it's interesting, and I don't want to withhold interesting things from you) - his overpowering nihilism and death-drive, his morbid fascination with change and decay, the interplay between decay and vitality, and commercial fabrication. 

  The wilderness is an overpowering force of nihil - it tends absolutely towards entropy. What is odd is that it chooses to throw up the Red Tower at all - even if it chooses to rescind on that decision, nevertheless it has the latent capacity, if not at least the general inclination, to create. It reminds me of one particular theory about the fundamental nature of the universe - God knows what the name was, but it said that quantum randomness meant that eventually, anything could pop into being. It seems somehow to fit - the universe tends always towards entropy, but occasionally, we have a moment of random creation.

And then there's the fact that the Red Tower fights back. It keeps on producing. It keeps on being. Compare with "The Tsalal" - in that, the arrival of nihil is stalled, not stopped. In "The Prodigy of Dreams" the arrival is welcomed, indeed summoned. In "I Have a Special Plan for this World" the main character is the force of annihilation (although arguably not nihil). But existence doesn't fail. I like to think that the final (perhaps mythical) sub-basement of the Tower does indeed exist; something about the tone of the piece tells me that it would be wrong for it not to.

And what does that sub-basement produce? As the Red Tower's operations are pushed underground, it's output changes from "novelty items" to, for want of a better term, "novelty organics". There's an increase in complexity, even if the new products are every bit as malformed, ugly, malfunctional, disturbing and (yet) horifically compelling as their forebears.

  The answer is in the text - or rather, the answer is the text. It has all of the relevant characteristics. It doesn't follow the normal form of even a weird fiction short story. There's nothing beautiful about it. It doesn't seem to work like a normal story - you don't hear a little tale, or learn about a character, or gain a deep and meaningful insight into modern life. It is definitely disturbing. And yet I read it one sitting. Something about the ungainliness, the imaginitive oddness of it, as well as the pleasure of its grotesquery, force you to read.

So. Buy that lot if you will.

  What does that mean? That the Red Tower is now writing Weird Fiction. Or, that "The Red Tower" was produced by the Red Tower. That Thomas Ligotti (and perhaps Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen et al, for Ligotti likes to include them all in the same fraternity) are manufacturing devices within an alien manufacturing plant.

That's about all I have to say. If anyone knows more about Ligotti's take on manufacture (mechanical reproduction) in relation to absolutely anything, please say, I'd be eagre to see what spin they think that puts on my reading.


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