101 Weird Writers #47 — Thomas Ligotti

Absurd Degenerations and Totalitarian Decrepitude in "The Town Manager"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Thomas Ligotti (1953 – ) is an iconic American writer of weird short fiction whose oeuvre has been as ground-breaking as, if not always as well-acknowledged as, that of Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and H. P. Lovecraft. His first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986), is an outright classic in the field. His subsequent compilation, The Nightmare Factory (1996), won both the Bram Stoker Award and the British Fantasy Award. The influence of workplace experiences infused Ligotti’s fiction with fresh energy, resulting in the masterpiece “My Work Is Not Yet Done (2002).

Jon Padgett is a professional — though lapsed — ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans. His first short story collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, was named the Best Fiction Book of the Year by Rue Morgue Magazine. Padgett is the creator of the Thomas Ligotti Online website and is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of Vastarien, a source of critical study and creative response to Ligotti’s work.

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The Town Manager” illustration by Jason Van Hollander for Weird Tales #333

But even if I know what governs their trajectory, if I know the rules of the movement of things and how things are organized and how certain mutations, transformations, gestations take place, even if I know all that, I shall only have learnt how to get along after a fashion in the enormous gaol, the oppressive prison in which I am held. What a farce, what a snare, what a booby-trap.”

- Eugène Ionesco, Fragments of a Journal

Thomas Ligotti’s mid-career story “The Town Manager” takes place in what he elsewhere calls “skeleton towns”: isolated, semi-rural hamlets that are many years beyond their best days.[1] Prior examples include the gothic setting of “The Tsalal,” the town and its people featured in “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” and perhaps a dozen or more Ligotti tales set in such decrepit locales. “The Town Manager,” however, stands apart from previous, similar stories for several reasons: 1) the deconstruction of this fictional town’s corporate governing system is highlighted, 2) humor — specifically of an absurdist nature — is utilized to more devastating effect than in previous stories of its kind, and 3) the physical degradation and corruption of the landscape featured in “The Town Manager” mirrors a kind of self-indicting rottenness that infects the narrator himself.

The Story

The Town Manager” opens during a significant change in the town’s leadership. The unnamed hamlet maintains a simple, corporate form of government in which the populace is led by a single individual, traditionally called “the town manager.” As the story opens, the latest town manager has disappeared — a not unusual but always mysterious occurrence that marks the end of one manager’s administration and the beginning of another’s. The action required of the populace during this leadership changeover (a bogus search for the former manager) has gone on since time immemorial, set in stone via a shoddy and oblique town charter.

The new town manager, who remains an invisible and possibly supernatural entity throughout the story, leads the town to an unprecedented phase in its history, as strangers come in from outside and redevelop the whole area, transforming the hamlet into “Funny Town,” a kind of sideshow tourist trap. All the inhabitants are assigned new, often humiliating and thankless jobs.

The transformation of the town turns out to be nothing more than a huge moneymaking scheme, as for a time it is filled with tourists who pay exorbitant fees to buy the narrator’s soup or visit the other sideshows offered there. The residents do not benefit from this economic windfall, though, the money they generate collected multiple times a day by armed guards (outsiders) who leave only the most meager funds for the workers.

Eventually, the tourists stop coming to town, and the townsfolk realize that the latest town manager has disappeared. The narrator, however, doesn’t wait to witness further degradations. He leaves for other towns and cities, working odd jobs. After his travels reveal a similar political framework everywhere he goes, the narrator decides to kill himself, but is finally approached by a well-dressed man on commission to find new talent. He tells the narrator that he may be town manager material. The narrator, who sees only two options ahead of him (suicide or town management), replies, “I’m listening.”

The Ritualistic Politics of a Skeleton Town 

Ligotti observed that “[‘The Town Manager’] was meant to be against the world… an anti-governmental story.”[2] The story presents a municipal government that operates much like a big corporation. Towns, like business departments or agencies, are run by a single manager, who presumably is supervised by a higher authority (nameless, out-of-town entities).

Like many legislators or workers, managers or not, the town manager who vanishes at the beginning of the story has become almost entirely non-productive in the weeks leading up to his presumed resignation: “[H]e spent the whole of each working day asleep behind his desk.” The town managers, the narrator tells us, have been declining in overall quality for some time, but each of them during their tenure (not unlike new mayors or other executive leaders) introduces “some element of change” to the community. A new opera house, far inferior to the old one, is built as part of a push for “civic rehabilitation.” [3] An unneeded trolley is created that runs from one end of the small town to the other in no time at all. These changes lead to work for the residents, of course, which seems their only true purpose. Unfortunately, the changes also lead to instability and uncertainty.

As in our world in certain times and places, administrative overhauls and reorganizations are the most disruptive aspects of the residents’ lives:

The difficult part was waiting for new administrators to reveal the nature of their plans for the town and then adjusting ourselves to whatever form they might take. This was the system in which we had functioned for generations. This was the order of things into which we had been born and to which we had committed ourselves by compliance. The risk of opposing this order, of plunging into the unknown, was simply too much for us to contemplate for very long.[4]

The town itself appears to be run through poor memory and superstition, via the Town Charter, “now only a few poorly phrased notes assembled from recollections and lore…”[5] The residents are resigned to the ritualistic precepts enumerated in this ancient document, except during the limbo-time between town manager administrations. The townsfolk, of course, have little free agency and will to change the system in any meaningful way:

Our only concern was to act in such a way that would allow us to report to the new town manager, when he appeared, that we had made an effort to discover the whereabouts of his predecessor. Yet this ritual seemed to matter less and less to each successive town manager, the most recent of whom barely acknowledged our attempts to locate the dead or living body of the previous administrator.[6]

Here are people not even motivated by fear of noncompliance (at least until the trolley operator’s death). They are simply brainwashed into action and obedience by tradition. Leeman, the Barber, comes closest to progressive thinking by suggesting that “it’s time to find out just who we’re dealing with,” but that line of thinking dissolves once the new town manager makes its presence known.[7] The townsfolk are trained by previous administrations to follow the directives of the Town Charter and go through specific motions when the town manager disappears. In this case, they have to search for the old town manager, whether or not they know for certain that he is gone for good. According to the narrator, “these searches were performed with increasingly greater speed and efficiency whenever one town manager turned up missing as the prelude to the installation of another.”[8] In this twisted world, again, not so unlike ours, speed and efficiency are paired with illogic and absurdity – the paradox of moving through red tape like clockwork via ritualistic activities.

Many of these rituals carry a peculiarly occult feeling, from the lamplight being turned off to symbolize the passing of the old manager to the new. “He has left us,” someone says, suggesting the town manager as a temporary, shabby savior.[9] The sinister, unseen, new town manager — who communicates with slashing, all-capped, often misplaced, malformed words containing no vowels except for “A,” “U” and “O,” — suggests both illiteracy and the occult. Communication with the new manager, as with the monstrous manager in Ligotti’s “Our Temporary Supervisor,” has become a wholly esoteric process. Directives are found on floating pieces of paper, or, when they are not followed in a timely manner, burned or scratched into mutilated flesh. The previous town manager was simply lazy and incompetent. This new town manager is alien to the residents on a different level, operating in a gloomy locale out of town limits.

Things had always been moving in that direction. At one time the town manager conducted business from a suite of offices in the town hall and lived in a fine house in The Hill district of town. Now this official would be working out of a weather-beaten shed next to a ruined farmhouse. Nothing remained the same for very long. Change was the very essence of our lives.[10]

The town managers have become despotic but are themselves subject to some kind of outside direction and rules. Their own bosses are invisible and unknown entities. It is rule by proxy. The search for the old town manager, even when the residents know he is gone, suggests the absurdity of certain religious rituals. In “the new epoch” of the town’s management, excuses are no longer made for the ridiculous pet projects the managers enact.[11] Immediate compliance is expected under the penalty of death, a kind of Old Testament operation. Again, though, the town managers themselves are a part of outside, corporate (and perhaps globalized) forces — a fact highlighted by the workmen and construction crews from foreign locales who transform the town. The new town manager may be uneducated and is certainly deranged (even homicidal), but is nonetheless successful in transforming the town (temporarily) into a moneymaking operation at the expense of the townsfolk, who are used like raw materials. They are dehumanized to the point where they, like the town managers, literally live in their work facility and, presumably unlike the town managers, do not profit for their efforts. Armed guards and spies from outside of the area ensure that no resident takes more than the meager amount that they are allowed to keep. The townsfolk are given just enough to survive and are often humiliated and starved in the process. The corrupt municipal government alone is allowed to thrive even as it degenerates further into madness.

At the end of the story, the narrator realizes to his dismay that every other community in the country and presumably the world is ruled by the same principles and order as his skeleton hometown. There is no escape from this system of dissolution that pushes citizens to follow insane edicts and treats them as cogs in a great machine that no one individual, town manager or not, can fathom.

Horror Hilarity

What drew us to [‘The Town Manager’] was a kind of dark sense of humor underlying the story,” the Weird Fiction Review interviewer of Thomas Ligotti comments.[12] Elsewhere, in a separate interview, Ligotti addresses this point:

The particular town manager of the title reflects an advanced stage of the town’s degeneration and derangement. States and circumstances of degeneration, derangement, ruin, decay, etc. have a tremendous attraction for me, whether they are incarnated as a decrepit urban area or a worn-out small town. And sometimes the result of this attraction is humorous.[13]

Use of humor has always been a feature, often understated by critics, of Thomas Ligotti’s work. Even early tales, like “The Chymist,” are infused with dark humor. That story’s first-person, present-tense narrator engages in continuous, sardonic wordplay while waxing poetic about the degenerating city in which he lives. Later works, like “The Bungalow House” and Ligotti’s novella “My Work Is Not Yet Done,” include grimly and often absurdly funny moments from narrators who are also obsessed, like Ligotti, with bleak and ruined landscapes.

Illustration by Jason Van Hollander for Weird Tales #333

The humor in “The Town Manager” is of an absurd (or, rather, absurdist) flavor, from the useless trolley to the murder of the trolley operator by possibly supernatural means via the semi-literate town manager. In the pivotal book, The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin quotes philosopher Apuleius, describing ancient mime plays in which “serious, even horrifying matters are miraculously mingled with the… humorous.” [14] This is of a kind used by Ligotti, humor that might be found in a Beckett or Ionesco play – a hilarity that reinforces and deepens rather than defuses the horror of existence.

This grim absurdity reaches its comical apex in Ligotti’s story when the new town manager transforms the hamlet into “Funny Town.”[15] The hardware store becomes “Comfort Castle,” a maze of nonfunctional lavatories, putting Ritter — formerly the hardware store owner — in the position of Attendant, a job with no apparent function. The progressive-minded barber, Leeman, is the subject of a worse humiliation, being forced to wear infant clothes, sitting day by day in the middle of a giant playpen, formerly his barber shop, which is christened “Baby Town.”[16]

The whole community becomes likewise transformed into a series of sideshows, some “whimsical,” like the aforementioned shops, but others surreal and sinister and oppressive. The narrator himself is set to selling soup (actually only bouillon cubes in water) and is confined, day and night, to “tunnel-like arcades” behind main street, “where it was perpetually night.” The alleys sometimes end up “in someone’s kitchen or living room” or just peter out or transform into a “big city” façade, in which street noises (“screams and sirens”) are piped in through speakers.[17]

The artificial nature of the new town is, at its height, where the narrator is stationed, inside of “painted theatrical backdrops of tall tenement buildings with zigzagging fire escapes [rising] up on every side…”[18] The narrator is forced to subsist on his product, working and living there on a flimsy mattress day and night. This kind of black humor bolsters the material that might be too bleak to ingest without it.

Ligotti’s narrator ultimately abandons his hometown to escape the insanity, humiliation and injustice of his plight. What he finds is more of the same, everywhere. The state of the outside world, so like that of the degenerating skeleton town, leads the narrator to the brink of suicide. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explains how such epiphanies can lead the individual to similarly existential depths:

…in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. [19]

Even though I’m writing a weird story,” Ligotti writes, “I want it to be all of a piece. I wouldn’t want anything humorous in the story to undermine the story as a whole, which is definitely not supposed to be funny.”[20] Ligotti has succeeded here. Though notable elements of “The Town Manager” are indeed humorous, nothing about the story as whole is (a hallmark of successful absurdism in literature).

Illustration by Jason Van Hollander for Weird Tales #333

Degeneration of Landscape, Degeneration of Self

In a recent email conversation with Ligotti, I asked if there was a connection between “The Town Manager” and the Detroit area, in which he was born and raised, and where he lived for many years. Ligotti replied:

[T]he sub-prime mortgage scam is often cited as having its beginnings in Detroit, where poor were preyed upon by greedy lending institutions. That didn’t sit well with me. The ruination of Detroit had begun long before that, though. During the late sixties there was a co-called “white flight” to the suburbs that contributed in a major way to the deterioration of Detroit… However, Detroit did become particularly interesting afterward… It wasn’t the “great ruins,” such as the train station, that attracted me so much as the houses on backstreets by the railroad yard that you couldn’t tell were inhabited or not, old car repair places and other such left behind businesses, and abandoned lots that came to be used as dumping yards for sofas and large appliances. Those weren’t ruins of a city but of people’s lives.[21]

In the story, the town itself is shrinking as its “decrepitude” (and that of its residents’ lives) worsens:

The buildings and houses comprising our town were now far fewer than in my childhood and youth. Whole sections that had once been districts of prolific activity had been transformed by a remarkable corrosion into empty lots where only a few bricks and some broken glass indicated that anything besides weeds and desiccated earth had ever existed there.[22]

Paradoxically, the growth of the systematic machine comes at the cost of the living and working space of the townspeople.

When the perspective changes from first-person plural to first-person singular for the first time, the narrator describes his “youthful ambition.”[23] Namely, he had always wanted to live in a prestigious neighborhood known as The Hill, which had at some point in a previous administration been razed level with the rest of the town and was now an “empty stretch of ground.”[24] Perhaps it is this ambition and unwillingness to accept his situation that sets the narrator apart enough to be later considered managerial material. Ligotti writes:

In “The Town Manager,” the town’s continued decrepitude was the result of a succession of outside business and political interests that gradually sucked the life out of the place while enriching themselves in increasingly odd and nonsensical ways. I experienced that madness from the inside in the form of new ownerships that bought out a family company that published a modest series of quality books. The number of titles subsequently published grew rapidly while the quality of the books went into the toilet, and I lost my place in the company by my reluctance to work longer and harder for entities located outside the U.S. It’s a familiar story now, but at the time it was new kind of hell wherein formerly decent people went rotten before my eyes.[25]

Why does the narrator of “The Town Manager” go “rotten” in a community that mirrors Ligotti’s own degenerating work experiences, where quality “went into the toilet?” Or rather, other than his “youthful ambition,” what is it about the narrator that sets him apart?

A clue comes early in the story after Leeman the barber voices the townsfolk’s complaints about the useless search for the missing Town Manager. The narrator pipes up:

I referred him and the others to the section of the town charter, a brief document to be sure, that required “a fair search of the town and its environs” whenever a town manager went missing. This was part of an arrangement that had been made by the founders and that had been upheld throughout succeeding generations. [26]

This perhaps highlights a willingness on the narrator’s part to at least speak for an appeal to tradition — a trait that would be valued in any managerial capacity. When Leeman rebukes this defense of the Town Charter by suggesting that “’it’s time to find out just who we’re dealing with,’” the narrator observes, “Others agreed with him. I myself did not disagree.”[27] The political savvy of the narrator is obvious. He is knowledgeable but knows when to speak up and when to keep his mouth shut.

Later in the story, we are given to know that the narrator, like other townsfolk, has endured a series of job changes due to various town managers’ directives over the years. The narrator had initially cultivated a successful delivery business and had ended up sweeping the barber’s floors and doing odd jobs about town. We are told that his drive “was all but extinguished” (my emphasis) once The Hill in which he had wanted to live “had eroded to nothing.”[28] Now the reader knows that there is some ambition left, which perhaps can be cultivated later at the right time and in the right place.

Near the end of the story, when the narrator is forced to sell bouillon cubes in water, he realizes that the town has been transformed into a successful, if dreary and fascistic, tourist destination:

I was in awe of the town manager’s scheme. Not only had this faceless person taken our last penny to finance the most extensive construction project the town had ever seen, from which there was no doubt a considerable amount of kickback involved, but this ingenious boondoggle had additionally brought an unprecedented flood of revenue into our town.[29]

Again, the narrator, cleverer and more observant than his fellow townsfolk, reveals his proto-managerial chops. He understands that the whole scheme is an “ingenious boondoggle.” One wonders how much, or whether, the tourists appreciated “Funny Town,” or if they had any choice at all in the matter – perhaps having been directed by their own town managers to take a vacation under strict specifications.

In any case, once the boondoggle and the latest town manager’s tenure have reached an end, the narrator leaves his hometown (as Ligotti left his longtime job and home in the Detroit area) only to realize the system that has ground him and the rest of his fellow citizens down also rules elsewhere in the world—everywhere else in the world. There is, in fact, no escape from the humiliating degradations of the individual by a degenerating, totalitarian, corporate form of government, in which quality goes “into the toilet” in a never ending quest to make the most revenue at the least possible cost. The narrator decides, in light of this soul-crushing revelation, “to make an end of it.”[30]

Before he can take any action toward suicide, though, the narrator is approached by “a well-dressed man,” who is on commission to find people like the narrator for town management. In the end, it seems like the narrator will go that route, since “It was either that or make an end of it.” [31]

How does the “well-dressed man” know that the narrator is indeed managerial material? He asks him, “’You’ve been some places, am I right?’”[32] In the world of this story, extensive traveling likely connotes both a greater awareness of the form and function of the system at large and an ambitious, paradoxically unsatisfied nature — traits that would suggest managerial promise. Perhaps, also, the powers that be have been watching the narrator (maybe for many years in some esoteric and/or technological sense).

Finally, why does the narrator choose town management, the very process by which he has been ruined, over suicide? Ligotti writes:

In “The Town Manager,” the narrator who speaks for both the town and himself ultimately goes rotten in a way that’s quite apparent by how the story ends. It wasn’t his plan to go the way he did. It was the fact, as he discovers, that the whole world as well as the town he knew had become unsalvageable and his options had run out. That’s the “realistic perspective…” This situation can be seen in plenty of zombie movies and TV shows: you either become realistic or die, by the bite of a zombie or the savagery of other humans.[33]

Conclusion

The Town Manager” is a singular piece of fiction within Thomas Ligotti’s remarkable oeuvre to date, even among the subset of his “skeleton town” tales, thanks to its incisive dissection of governmental systems, its perfect application of absurdist humor, and the self-eviscerating, moral degeneration of its narrator. The story, among the best examples of literary weird fiction, is a sardonic, subtle indictment of corporate rule and is as fiercely humane and uncanny as the best of Thomas Ligotti’s work.

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[1] Noctuary, Thomas Ligotti (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2012), 79.

[2] Thomas Ligotti, e-mail message to author, October 23, 2017.

[3] Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti (Poplar Bluff, MO: Mythos Books, 2007), 30.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Ibid., 27

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] Ibid., 31.

[12] Thomas Ligotti, interview by Jeff VanderMeer, “Thomas Ligotti on Weird Fiction,” Born to Fear, ed. Matt Cardin (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2014), 202.

[13] Thomas Ligotti, interview by Daniel Ableev, “Interview Nonsense with Thomas Ligotti,” Born to Fear, ed. Matt Cardin (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2014), 156 – 157.

[14] The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2004), 159.

[15] Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti (Poplar Bluff, MO: Mythos Books, 2007), 36.

[16] Ibid., 34.

[17] Ibid., 34 – 35.

[18] Ibid., 35.

[19] Albert Camus, “An Absurd Reasoning” in The Myth of Sisyphus (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1991), 6.

[20] Thomas Ligotti, interview by Jeff VanderMeer, “Thomas Ligotti on Weird Fiction,” Born to Fear, ed. Matt Cardin (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2014), 203.

[21] Thomas Ligotti, e-mail message to author, October 23, 2017.

[22] Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti (Poplar Bluff, MO: Mythos Books, 2007), 25 – 26.

[23] Ibid., 26.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Thomas Ligotti, e-mail message to author, October 23, 2017.

[26] Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti (Poplar Bluff, MO: Mythos Books, 2007), 27.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 30.

[29] Ibid., 36.

[30] Ibid., 38.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Thomas Ligotti, e-mail message to author, October 23, 2017.

5 replies to “101 Weird Writers #47 — Thomas Ligotti

  1. Thanks so much for this, Jon. Easily the most intelligent — and enjoyable — piece I’ve read in a long while. I’m gifting myself Matt C’s interview collection, and your own book (which I’ve sampled and found enthralling). Hope all is well in New Orleans.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this article. What a pleasure to read a well-researched critical review of one of Ligotti’s great stories. Thank you!

  3. Great article, Jon! I enjoy these fully-flushed out, deep-dives into theme and philosophy which infest Ligotti’s works. Coincidentally, I got caught up at lunch yesterday reading a 5,000 word dissertation of Camus’s concept of absurdity developed in “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “The Rebel” to which so much relates to the foundations of weird fiction. Glad to see the reference!

  4. Excellent review, Jon. I especially appreciate the insight gained from your personal communications with Ligotti. They shed a new light on this great story!