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Literature / The Red Tower

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There is a factory in the middle of a desolate wasteland, once alive and industrious with the production of peculiar novelty goods, now a fading ruin of red brick. Or so people say, anyway. No one seems to have ever seen it. Yet they say so many fascinating things...

"The Red Tower" is a short Cosmic Horror Story by Thomas Ligotti. It was first published in his 1996 collection The Nightmare Factory. It can be read here.

"The Red Tower" contains examples of:

  • Abandoned Mine: The Tower's first underground level has this appearance. Its shoddy rail system is vast, and was used to distribute the Tower's products.
  • Bizarrchitecture: On the outside alone, the Red Tower is a ruined factory whose brick walls have no doors or loading bays or other visible means of entry, nor any roads leading to it. The inside is stranger.
  • Blank White Void: The Tower is surrounded by an empty grey landscape, defied by the the intolerable impurity of the Tower's redness.
  • Body Horror: The factory originally manufactured abstract kitsch, but soon began experimenting with adding incongruous and unsettling organic features, which eventually evolved into its line of hyper-organisms. The Tower itself is often described in terms comparing it to a cyst or a spreading growth, struggling against the immune system of the surrounding wastes.
  • Creepy Cemetery: The second underground level is filled with blank headstones packed together, illuminated by the haze of phosphorescent paint on the stone walls. No one is buried there, though - they are the factory's highly experimental birthing graves for the production of hyper-organisms.
  • Eerily Out-of-Place Object: Besides being itself a monumental brick ruin in the middle of nowhere, the Red Tower was also a manufacturer and distributor of other such objects. It delivered its novelties straight to the back corners of messy closets, or to bedroom nightstands, or even into the body cavities of living people. The narrator wonders how many were deliberately sent to places they would never be found.
    • Unnaturally heavy cameo jewellery.
    • Lockets that open to a reverberating abyss.
    • Lifelike replicas of diseased organs, unpleasantly warm to the touch.
    • A music box which plays the sound of someone dying.
    • A pocketwatch with insects for numbers and lizard tongues for hands.
    • Exotic carpets woven with abstract hallucinogenic patterns.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: The Factory's first destruction merely forced it to expand its basement.
  • Eldritch Location: The Red Tower seems to be haunted by its own machinery, which was evaporated by a retaliation of the wasteland. The narrator believes the building originated as a crude sketch in the empty landscape that slowly solidified and reddened like a sore, and talks as though the Tower and the wastes are alive and mutually hostile.
  • Exact Words: When the narrator refers to the "the Tower" having motivations and intentions, it initially seems like synecdoche - a rhetorical way to refer to the factory as a business or institution. Then it slowly becomes clear that the Tower is unstaffed.
  • Gaia's Vengeance: The factory exists in defiance of the natural order of the surrounding wasteland - not because it is artificial, because it certainly isn't, but seemingly because it is alive and keeps making more life.
  • Genius Loci:
    • The Red Tower is attributed traits like ambition, devotion, creative intent, and "an enigmatic passion for betrayal and perversity"; there is never more than the obliquest implication that anyone ever actually worked there.
      But such structures or creations have their own desires, their own destinies to fulfill, their own mysteries and mechanisms which they must follow at whatever risk.
    • The surrounding gray wasteland is also alive in some bizarre form. It somehow made the Tower's machinery disappear leaving a ghostly outline behind in a failed attempt to stop the Tower.
  • Mind Screw: No one has ever seen the Red Tower, but everyone is talking about it - without knowing they are talking about it. To what extent, then, is the Red Tower real? If not a physical location, then is it at least a metaphor for some underlying truth of existence? Or just meaningless ravings from a mystic in denial?
  • Minimalist Cast: The story has only three characters. Two of them are ambiguously-sapient locations, and the third is the unnamed narrator.
  • Nightmarish Factory: The aboveground floors of the Tower were once full of harshly grinding gears and levers, twisting pipes and deep vats. Then they were evaporated, leaving their spectral outlines behind.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: The "hyper-organisms" are so-called because the narrator believes they exaggerate the two primary traits of living beings - vitality and decay. It's unclear whether they look like any conventional form of The Undead, however, as the narrator hastily avoids describing them "in accord with a┬átradition of dumbstruck insanity".
  • Order Versus Chaos: The Red Tower is a force of meaningless change and undirected creativity, in petty rebellion against the surrounding wastes which threaten it with entropy and eternal stasis.
  • Polluted Wasteland: Inverted. The Red Tower is surrounded by a "greyish halo of desolation", but the featureless landscape was there before the Tower emerged from it, and reacts against the Tower for being noisy, malodorous, and red as a blight upon its austerity.
  • Rise from Your Grave: The operation of the birthing graves.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The narrator claims to merely be repeating what people say about the Red Tower.
  • Spontaneous Generation: The Tower's origin, and its apparent means of production.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: A variation. The narrator would like to say as little about the hyper-organisms as possible... then spends the next paragraph wondering vividly about their activity, anatomy, life cycles, and mental condition.
  • Technically-Living Zombie: The "hyper-organisms" are apparently some kind of undead, but they're born that way rather than reanimated.
  • The Tower: The Red Tower, of course, an omen of industry and evolution that persists in solitary defiance of the natural order.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator is desperate to convince you, the reader, that the Red Tower exists, acknowledging that no one else has ever knowingly seen or spoken of it but denying having made it up.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: The narrator believes the Red Tower may still be active even after the destruction of its birthing graves, on a new third subterranean level, and is waiting for the voices to speak of it.