Thomas Ligotti - The uncanny monsters are us: the self is an illusion, the body a bio-robot, consciousness a tragic aberration that has imprisoned us
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Hippocampus Press, 2010. "Should the human race voluntarily put an end to its existence? Do we even know what it means to be human? And what if we are nothing like we suppose ourselves to be? In this challenging philosophical work, celebrated supernatural writer Thomas Ligotti broaches these and other issues in an unflinching and penetrating manner that brings to mind some of his own imperishable horror fiction. For Ligotti, there is no refuge from our existence as conscious beings who must suppress their awareness of what horrors life holds in store for them. Yet try as we may, our consciousness may at any time rise up against our defenses against it, whispering to us things we would rather not hear: Religion is a transparent fantasy, optimism an exercise in delusional wish-fulfillment, and even the quest for pleasure an ultimately doomed enterprise."This is the most bracing and affecting work of philosophical speculation I've ever read. Not for the weak of heart or mind, Mr. Ligotti's 'contrivance' is a dense and remarkable work of linguistic precision and poetic power, a horror story in which the uncanny monsters are us, and we've known it all along, in the backs of our minds: the self is an illusion, the body a gene-duplicating bio-robot, consciousness a tragic aberration that has imprisoned mankind to a life of suffering and reproduction. Here, the carnivorous universes of Lovecraft and Barron are shown to be not creations of fantastical speculation, but the universe in which we reside as deluded mistakes, born to suffer and die and make replicants to do the same.
Drawing upon the work of such pessimistic philosophers as Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, as well as the findings of various fields of study such as neuroscience, moral philosophy, Terror Management Psychology, the sociology of self-deception, and the theory of uncanny experience, Ligotti presents a compelling contrivance of horror for the consideration of his reader. Perhaps most provocatively, Ligotti sees in the literature of supernatural fiction a confirmation of the cheerless vision he is propounding, dovetailing into his book the overarching theme that, having been ousted by evolution from the natural world, the human race has been effectively translated to a supernatural order of being. In this state of existence, we are denied slumber in nature s arms and must exist in a waking nightmare in which we are taunted by hints of our true nature.
Written with the pungency and panache we expect from a master of English prose, The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a hypnotic guide to the darker regions of one of the most interesting minds of our time." - www.fantasticfiction.co.uk
Drawing upon the work of such pessimistic philosophers as Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, as well as the findings of various fields of study such as neuroscience, moral philosophy, Terror Management Psychology, the sociology of self-deception, and the theory of uncanny experience, Ligotti presents a compelling contrivance of horror for the consideration of his reader. Perhaps most provocatively, Ligotti sees in the literature of supernatural fiction a confirmation of the cheerless vision he is propounding, dovetailing into his book the overarching theme that, having been ousted by evolution from the natural world, the human race has been effectively translated to a supernatural order of being. In this state of existence, we are denied slumber in nature s arms and must exist in a waking nightmare in which we are taunted by hints of our true nature.
Written with the pungency and panache we expect from a master of English prose, The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a hypnotic guide to the darker regions of one of the most interesting minds of our time." - www.fantasticfiction.co.uk
Of course, since I have to carry on with my life somewhat, I wouldn't say I did or even could seriously adopt the ideas contained herein, but what a penetrating, powerful work of true horror, the ultimate horror - the thing behind our lives which gives us the sure sense that things are not right and never will be. Bravo."
"The Conspiracy against the Human Race sets out what is perhaps the most sustained challenge yet to the intellectual blackmail that would oblige us to be eternally grateful for a 'gift' we never invited." - From the Foreword by Ray Brassier
"The Conspiracy against the Human Race is renowned horror writer Thomas Ligotti's first work of nonfiction. Through impressively wide-ranging discussions of and reflections on literary and philosophical works of a pessimistic bent, he shows that the greatest horrors are not the products of our imagination. The worst and most plentiful horrors are instead to be found in reality. Mr. Ligotti's calm, but often bloodcurdling turns of phrase, evoke the dreadfulness of the human condition. Those who cannot bear the truth will pretend this is another work of fiction, but in doing so they perpetuate the conspiracy of the book's title." - David Benatar
"In his nonfiction book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, horror writer Thomas Ligotti discusses the relationship between his grim, supernatural fiction and his anhedonia - a mental condition that makes it impossible to enjoy anything.
I couldn't possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists. As far as putting words into other people's mouths, as if what seems true to me is what is really true, this is just a commonly used device in writing personal essays. Everyone preaches to the converted. If I didn't believe my thoughts were superior to and truer than the thoughts of people who disagree with me, then I would think something else. And I would think that was superior and truer. Even some scientists who can be almost conclusively demonstrated to be wrong still cling to their erroneous views. This is one of the running themes of The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Truth works within a very tiny, often self-reflexive framework. Three of a kind always beats two pair. Someone believes God exists because a book tells them he does; they believe the book is true because lots of people have told them that it's the word of God. Plus they like what the book says--that's the most important thing. If they didn't like it, they wouldn't believe it. I think that's the problem I'm encountering in responses to TCATHR. Its readers not only haven't liked what it says, they also don't like that someone they know and to whom they feel otherwise well-disposed could write such a book. It's disturbing, as if you found out your best friend was a serial killer who liked to eat the brains of toddlers. The essay is essentially about how humans can't handle unpleasant realities and what those realities are. But we're predisposed not to think about those things in a way that will affect how we live, or to think about them at all in most cases." - Cory Doctorow
"This is a book for brave readers. Thomas Ligotti did not write this book brighten your day. He wrote this book to ask, and at last attempt to answer, what is arguably the most important question ever posed:
Sure, the autonomic nervous system does its job. Your heart beats and you breathe. Beyond that — what happens and why is a mystery. It is the sort of thing that we don't talk about. It is the sort of thing that we don't think about. Beneath each step, beyond our perceptions lies an inviting but uncaring black pit of nothingness that would just as soon see us suffer as disappear.
Certainly, the experience of reading Thomas Ligotti is one reason to bother. From his first book, 'Songs of a Dead Dreamer' to 'Teattro Grottesco,' Ligotti has created a truly unique body of prose, one that partakes of the horror genre, but swallows it whole and dissolves it in a sucking void of philosophical despair. Still, he's for the most part kept to work that is clearly recognizable as fiction, with exceptions that are as enjoyable as the fiction that surrounded them.
'Songs of a Dead Dreamer' includes two works that look like non-fiction; "Notes on the Writing of Horror" and "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror." Outwardly, they were critical observations of the horror genre, thought-experiments. But there was the feel of fiction, of a character who had written these pieces who was not Thomas Ligotti.
Ligotti has finally taken off the gloves with which he created characters and plots. With 'The Conspiracy Against the Human Race' (Hippocampus Press ; April 2010 ; $25), Ligotti offers readers something that looks a lot like a philosophical treatise. The back cover blurb describes this book as "renowned horror writer Thomas Ligotti's first work of non-fiction."
Inside, matters proceed apace for a non-fiction work of prose. Assertions are made and actual philosophers are quoted. Actual works of fiction are referred to and analyzed for their pessimistic content and intent. Ligotti's reverse flashlight, casting a shadow of darkness wherever it is aimed, pinpoints reasons for depression and despair.
Reading this book, however, is not among them, though, by implication (and the actual content), this book provides more reasons for despair than an undertaker's convention. Though Ligotti explores with great precision, and even enthusiasm, the works of writers like Peter Zappfe, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. He quotes, he cites, he notes. In every aspect of appearance, we have before us a serious work of philosophy.
And yet; and yet.
Ligotti is up to something considerably more interesting here than a bleaker-than-thou philosophical treatise. For all the citations and scholarly work on display here — and it is an impressive display -- what is far more impressive, equally scholarly, but unbelievably more entertaining, is Ligotti's prose. Ligotti demands to be read aloud, though to be quite honest, reading aloud from this book in any public setting would likely get you tossed into the loony bin, in a 5150 loop that would be impossible to escape.
Still, there it is, undeniable: Ligotti is incredibly entertaining, and one is hard pressed to read the bleakest of pronunciations without barking in laughter. And you will bark, not laugh, exactly. The bleakness of the prose, the precision of the idea and the intent is gob-smackingly hilarious; and yet it is clear that Ligotti is deadly serious. He contends that life is, to humans, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. In caps. Repeatedly.
Readers who enjoyed Michel Houellebecq's 'H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life' are really going to enjoy this book. Ligotti does not confine himself to philosophy, but reaches out to analyze movies like John Carpenter's The Thing and books by Lovecraft and other writers of supernatural horror. Wherever the dark shadows of despair and hopelessness fall, Ligotti is there, with a tight, smart sentence that sears your brain.
And that glorious writing, that breathtakingly good prose, both makes and undoes Ligotti's premise. One begins to sense that he is perhaps a character of his own creation, that this depressive, despairing but incredibly insightful and talented man, who cites Zappfe's arguments in favor of childlessness as a means of bringing about the welcome extinction of the human race, has, in this book, created his own child. In arguing so passionately, so articulately, so insightfully about the upside of extinction, Ligotti gives readers a reason to turn the page. He gives readers a reason to die that is itself a reason to live — and to read." - Rick Kleffel
"Several years ago, word first began to circulate about Thomas Ligotti working on a philosophical treatise. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which takes its name from a fictional book by a character in his story "The Shadow, the Darkness," then remained mysteriously out of reach, save for an early draft published at Thomas Ligotti Online. In the meantime, it underwent an unknowable battery of revisions, additions, and alterations of all sorts. Finally, the titular work is undergoing the final stages of preparation by Hippocampus Press for a release in April, 2010.
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror is many things, but it is definitely well worth the wait. It emanates a black power longtime readers of Ligotti's fiction will recognize, yet it is not an old comforting horror story. Instead, the book is a history, a philosophy, and a V.I.P. pass to the backstage of Ligotti's many talented puppet shows. On the way to get behind the curtain, though, you find yourself trapped in a dimly lit elevator. Rather than the fireside chat with Thomas Ligotti you expected, you end up listening to his dark observations about this universe and about your existence--many of which make you want to scream and cry and laugh at once--as they pour in over a piercing intercom.
In Conspiracy, Thomas Ligotti successfully balances the multiple authorial roles integral to the book. There is Ligotti, the literary historian and tour guide, who provides a competent overview of pessimistic philosophers many readers without a formal philosophy education will not have heard of. Obscure figures like Zapffe, Michelstaedter, and Mainlander, to name a few, have their bleak and unusual ideas presented in clear terms almost anyone can understand, alongside the equally heady thoughts of more recognizable actors like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Each of these thinkers has relevant information extracted and pruned for supporting evidence in Ligotti's case against life. Ligotti, the argumentative pessimist, does not relent from his overall belief that everything, particularly human existence, is MALIGNANTLY USELESS. But his attacks are not constantly overwhelming, they die down enough, when appropriate, to allow the pessimistic historian his say, as well as the cultural critic. Ligotti as analyst effectively incorporates a selection of grim movies and literary works into his narrative. Familiar horror media is particularly drawn on to underscore the terrible condition he believes we find ourselves in. Then, not surprisingly, there is Ligotti the storyteller. While there is nothing that blossoms into a full blown original vignette, the creative flourishes this Ligotti utilizes keep the pages turning, and impress the text with his inimitable stamp. Conspiracy offers a gigantic portion of what may be Thomas Ligotti's special plan for this world, but it comes with cherished side dishes his admirers have tasted before in Death Poems, Clown Puppet nonsense, and the lectures of Professor Nobody.
The existential conspiracy of the book's title is easy to understand. Ligotti's main divergence from most other writers, thinkers, and people is his disagreement with the idea that "being alive is alright." To rip apart this concept, one held sacrosanct by most individuals and civilizations, he uses the framework established by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in his essay, "The Last Messiah." Zapffe believed humanity's existence is a terrible mistake, an error mitigated and hidden by a bag of tricks employed to get by in daily life, but made all the worse by human reproduction. The exceedingly complicated mental hoops jumped through to convince ourselves that existence is not so bad, and will be even better for our children, is the grand conspiracy. To Ligotti, it is an insufferable situation, especially since humanity itself is the chief conspirator.
More intellectually challenging are the ideas he presents to blast the good (or at least tolerable) life espoused by his optimist foes (generally, those who believe "being alive is alright"). The horror of conscious existence, an evolutionary oops of nightmare proportions, is the most convincing evidence Ligotti deploys. Consciousness is a curse, and the conspiracy's sustenance. To Ligotti, conscious awareness results in an illusion of selfhood, a really wild suggestion, until one considers the bizarre theories of Thomas Metzinger and neuroscience highlighted by the author.
"Nobody is Anybody," Ligotti once said on a musical CD called The Unholy City, and he just might be right. His assertion and its support is convincing, fascinating, and frightening. However, if it is true, then the illusion is brutally potent--as readers will see when they react to this news with enthusiastic agreement or sickened dismay, responses pre-scripted by their personalities. With the exception of a few ego-dead savants discussed by Ligotti, the web of persona is almost ironclad, as the author himself notes, perhaps to his own horror and frustration.
The deterministic conundrum of biology and mental self-trickery is not the only monstrous entrapment to be found in Conspiracy. Even if Ligotti fails to change anyone's mind about the human condition, part of his adeptness is in his ability to force a reader into deciding which side of the optimist-pessimist divide they are on while reading. A minefield of observations about life lurks within each chapter, intellectual explosives that will gradually hurl readers into pessimism or away from it, or at least leave them dazed on the battlefield. For instance, Ligotti points out the tremendously important role of pleasure as a driver of human activity, contrasting its limited rewards with the bountiful suffering available to all. Sexual activity and feasting are playfully scorned in ways that oscillate between intensely amusing and freakishly disturbing.
Then there are the times when Ligotti confronts the mammoth in the room: Death. His commentary on the subject is sharp, secretly didactic, and purposeful. As a horror writer, Ligotti already knows how painful it is to be stalked through life by the shadow of death. But his aim is to get us to feel the distant chill of our deaths, even if it is only while thumbing through his book's pages. His crystallizing focus, in fact, mirrors death's advance in many ways, until its whole bulk is pressing down on readers at the nauseating end (where else?) of Conspiracy.
A less abrasive but no less important segment of Ligotti's dark tome explores an entertaining byproduct of consciousness familiar to those likely to pick up this book: the development of the supernatural. A treasury of insight and knowledge about the macabre that only an accomplished horror writer could access is tapped. Ligotti produces original and intelligent observations about the evolution of supernatural atmosphere in literature. He expertly examines weird fiction writers and more "mainstream" literary figures schooled in darkness and demons of one sort or another. In some ways, the book starts to resemble an embryonic draft for an updated, modernized version of H.P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, but Ligotti wisely reigns this in before it veers away too far. He does not allow readers to forget why supernatural fiction and media exists in the first place: it is a reflection and an outgrowth of the sad state our race is condemned to by existing as conscious creatures, things which are practically supernatural by nature's standards.
Outside a lengthier discussion of the supernatural, Ligotti seasons the entire book with relevant quotations from and observations on all types of horrific media. John Carpenter's eerie films, Lovecraft's dark entities, and the violent machinations in Sweeney Todd are just a few of the diverse examples Ligotti illuminates as supplemental sideshows to the main attraction. All together, these works provide some context for attacking the entrenched fortresses Ligotti seeks to bruise. Where else can existence be seen as pure nightmare, or selfhood as eggshell frail, but in horror?
Although it is non-fiction, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race bristles with Ligotti's sardonic and sometimes hilarious tone, and his well received command of language. The dark comedy, fearful scenarios, and engaging paradoxes on display constitute a sweetener in an otherwise bitter medicine. Just enough to make the book sufficiently readable and even enjoyable for staunch optimists who will not be swayed by Ligotti's tirade against existence. Since this is a work by Ligotti, it would almost be a let down not to see puppets. Luckily, puppet imagery is abundant here, rolled out in eerie and believable comparisons that go beyond their traditional Ligottian roles as harbingers of darkly surreal atmosphere. But the ultimate deterministic puppets, in the author's estimation, may be something all too familiar--and what it is becomes strikingly clear in the frequent, colorful mockery and probing of human existence.
As if the dour argument of Conspiracy were not controversial enough, Ligotti goes one step further by boldly taking optimistic ideas to task. Readers feel the presence of a merciless gardener, who rummages through the soil of humanity's collective beliefs and tears apart anything not conducive to his pessimistic crop. All major religions, except perhaps Buddhism, are sliced, scorched, and tossed aside as delusion making weeds. The same fate awaits transhumanism, a utopian current without any relevance for Ligotti, except its potential to produce a superman one day that might recognize existential futility. Nature-worshiping environmentalism does not escape either. It seems that "Mother Nature" is a sort of demon to Ligotti, a blind and clumsy force responsible for humanity's highbrow suffering as well as the idiotic pain of lesser beings. In short, nothing that celebrates life, tries to make living worthwhile, or mitigates death's horror receives a pardon from Judge Thomas Ligotti.
This includes his vision of a better world where man has concluded that being alive is not alright. It is an unlikely portrait of something approaching a Ligottian utopia for humanity, a planet with a diminishing population as more and more people opt not to reproduce. Yet, it is an idea that crashes on the runway under the heavy weight of impracticality, at least in our own era and any in the near future, as Ligotti himself acknowledges. His frustration bleeds out the pages when he parodies the maniacal attitude of the world at large to the pessimist minority. Ligotti's paradox is our own as an agonized species moving through a world with no exit, or none accessible to readers at this moment in the early twenty first century. What, then, is mankind to do in the face of a conspiracy identified, but unthwarted? What is the role of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race when its anti-natal solution appears too distant today?
Like every notable work before it, the real fate of this volume and its ideas will be determined in due time by a large jury of readers and critics. However, Conspiracy is so rich, so strange, and so thoughtful that each main component of its inner-workings deserves a full evaluation. It is a hyper-effective philosophical tract that demands answers from readers to a few questions, not the lazy consideration of many questions raised by most other philosophic material. It is literary and artistic criticism with an agenda, focusing on its chosen works with a laser beam precision that is rare, and rarer still when it comes from a weird fiction writer. Its engaging prose is solid enough to drive readers of all mindsets onward, from cover to cover, almost making it feel like "being alive is alright" while the book is in one's hands. Almost.
The writing is also proof that Ligotti has lost none of his literary muscle tone, and may have gained some new forcefulness by venturing into non-fiction. Certain words, phrases, and metaphors are familiar, but they have never been this serious before. Moreover, Conspiracy may have one final use its author never intended: a primary resource for scholars studying his fiction. As a clear, vibrant expression of the ideas in his oeuvre swirling around beneath their storytelling framework, the book brushes on an additional layer of black gloss to every Ligotti tale. Any confusion about where Ligotti stands on existence is forever dispelled. This may blow open new mineshafts in his stories, allowing longtime devotees to dig deeper and extract new, strange, and precious intellectual gemstones.
So, perhaps the overarching worth of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is in its function as a sort of literary Silver Key. It promises to unlock doors unique to whoever picks it up. Unsuspecting newcomers may step through an entrance to a library that holds black truths about their lives they never suspected. Faithful Ligotti readers may find themselves lost in a meta-fictional reverie always dead with darkness to outsiders, but always alive with literary lights for them. And everyone, everyone, will have to answer to a Supreme Court of pessimist philosophers regarding their role as co-conspirators. The shadowy faces of Zapffe, Lovecraft, Schopenhauer, and Ligotti might be indistinct as they glare down from the bench, but the crime itself is not. In the end, everyone will know the self-inflicted conspiracy as fact, not mere theory, and as Pandora's Box rather than Jack-in-the-Box."-Grim Blogger
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. - James Joyce, Ulysses Herein lies the problem of consciousness. Before its refined emergence as the node called human, there is only sleep. An uneasy sleep, to be sure. A tranquility punctuated by appalling interruptions of rumbling stomachs and tearing flesh. No nobility in pre-solipsistic savagery, perhaps, but the agonies keep to their assigned beats and only bother those who cross their paths. A dream within a dream.
Then, the worst thing imaginable happens. The dream awakens within itself, becomes lucid. A shard of the latency breaks loose. Falls out of the sky. There is a sense of plummeting, of scrambling for altitude in the midst of obstacles. Worse yet, there comes an awareness of gravity, and of the maxim ‘What goes up...’. The dream becomes a nightmare.
In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a work of non-fiction soon to be released, acclaimed horror author Thomas Ligotti strikes at the heart of the lie we maintain to shield ourselves from the contemplation of that nightmare, lest we find ourselves face to face with the secret ‘too terrible to know.’ The lie? That ‘being alive is all right.’ And the unutterable secret? That life is ‘malignantly useless.’ And so we shut our eyes to that particular horror, sleepwalking our way from one oasis of distraction to the next, as we grope by faith toward whatever version of Zion happens to suit our soteriological temperament.
But even as that nightmare is not of our own making, neither are our somnambulistic defenses against it. For we are puppets, one and all. Forgotten toys dangling from the imbecilic fingers of the First Urge, moved by the mephitic winds of heritage and circumstance, believing all the while that we are real boys and girls. Condemned to dance, and twirl, and dream of what it might be like to be autonomous, rather than automatons.
Of course, none of us really wants to believe this. Question: What do you call a puppet that refuses to acknowledge its patrimony of woodpulp and ashes? That claims not to feel the tug of the wire at its wrists? Answer: An optimist. But what of his counterpart, the pessimist? The ‘man with a morbid, frantic, shuddering hatred of the life-principle itself? (Lovecraft) Does he occupy some loftier position in the kingdom of wood, cloth and string, a perch from which he can gaze down upon this play of absurd passions with - dare I say it? - objectivity?
Herein lies the conundrum of the hard determinist, of which Ligotti is fully aware. How to build a case on reason, when reason’s foundations are ultimately no more secure than the sound of wind whistling through cracks in the mortar? Origins are lost to us in the stifling complexity of our causative heritage; we are stuck with who we are, and with what we think we know. Our perceptions have been handed over to us bearing neither manufacturer’s label nor warranty. This being the overriding circumstance in the duchy of puppetry, what is the justification by which we can possibly proceed to make our respective cases?
There is none. We push forward -- or speaking with a tad more accuracy, perhaps, are pushed - weighing the quality of music issuing from our squeaking joints, as well as that conjured up by our ideological opposites, against the standard of sawdust between our ears. Knowing that we do not know, the knowledge of our ignorance is splayed out against the leading edge of a juggernaut whose engines exist in a realm we’ll never be privy to, even after we’re torn to pieces.
We push forward. Make our appeals. Pessimists have made theirs, though you’d be hard pressed to hear them in the midst of the Official Life Affirmation Choir and Jug Band. There are names -- Schopenhauer. Nietzche. Sartre. Camus. Mainlander. Zapffe. Others. Some motivated by disdain, others by despair. Still others by misanthropic intellects unwilling to take their seats at ringside. Some of these held more or less true to their offending creeds, while others sought and wrought loopholes, straining for illusory beams of light in the cloud cover.
Ligotti has made his case as well, drawing from his background of horror and phantasmagorical literature, polishing the mirror of our self-reflection to an astonishing degree. Each time I gaze into it, I catch another glimpse of the darkness behind my eyes. The emptiness. An awareness made more palpable by the knowledge of my own nothingness, realizing that that nothingness is everything I am. A nothingness that one day will be swallowed by its own shadow.
There’s a picture on my desk, a piece of paper confined within a frame of wood and glass. These are my daughters. Little bits of the Nothing that coalesced into temporary simulcra of something. They will remain briefly, moved by the wind, fading in the sun, and finally dissolved in darkness. Once they were not. Soon they will return to that former station, and it will be as if they never were. There is an infinitude of raw material existing in potentia, driftwood in danger of being lifted and shaped by the madness at the core of creation. Carved into the likeness of futility, given breath, and with that breath, hope, and with that hope, pain and dissolution. Carved into the likenesses of sons and daughters. Daughters like mine. At the end of the rainbow? Splinters of broken wood. Bits of rusty wire, and springs, scraps of cloth, and hope, and aspirations. A junkpile.
The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a work of non-fiction by Thomas Ligotti, with a forward by Ray Brassier. It is an important contribution to the literature of pessimism, as well as antinatalism; of which, unfortunately, there is a paucity, especially in the contemporary sense. It is sober, insightful, and supports the feeling I’ve always had that fiction writers often have a better hold on reality than philosophers. For those interested in the subject, I can’t recommend a better piece of reading material- well, unless...er, never mind." - Jim Crawford
"Thomas Ligotti is not out to make a name for himself, which is perhaps the reason why his name is not better known. He is, sad to say, a poor self-promoter. You will not find him posting messages on Shocklines or Goodreads, suggesting you buy his latest book. He doesn’t even maintain his own website (though a group of fans maintain a site devoted to discussion of his works, Thomas Ligotti Online, at www.ligotti.net). An appearance on The Funky Werepig is not likely in the foreseeable future, and I wouldn’t look for him at any upcoming convention.
He is un-funky, not to mention, un-conventional.
As comfortable as Thomas Ligotti himself seems to be with this arrangement, it can be annoying to his most passionate fans (those of us who find his works of philosophical pessimism indispensable to our existence). To alleviate this vexation – if only momentarily – I thought I would post a blog to shine a spotlight (however dim) on Ligotti’s work and place in the annals of dark fiction, with a focus on his latest book (and first work of non-fiction) The Conspiracy Against The Human Race.
I first came across Ligotti’s name almost ten years or so ago, when I stumbled across his story “Our Temporary Supervisor” in an issue of Weird Tales.
I have to confess that, on reading Ligotti the first time (in my late twenties) I didn’t get him.
Perhaps, at that stage of life (still a bit naive) I just couldn’t. If you are in your late twenties, I am not saying you should stop trying to read Ligotti and understand the despair lurking in his pages. I’m just saying that you’re more likely to connect with that despair after you’ve served a few more years of your sentence on this planet.
Don’t worry, you’ll get there.
In my case, it wasn’t until many years later (seven or eight, to be approximate) that I was able to read, and to get Ligotti. It turned out that in order for me to get Ligotti, I had to first get Lovecraft, which meant that I had to read Lovecraft. In the past I’d found Lovecraft’s purple prose impenetrable and really didn’t see much of a pay-off for wading through it. After all, it was all just about running from a big giant squid-god that had been immortalized in con dealer rooms in the form of plushy, tentacled stuffed animals. Right?
Well…no. When I finally approached Lovecraft (a few years ago) I discovered that to really get him, I had to read him in the context of cosmic horror.
Now, what is “cosmic horror”?
Here’s a hint, contrary to what one author acquaintance of mine suggested, it is not simply a cross-genre pairing of horror and science fiction. It’s a lot more complicated (and soul-shattering) than that.
Cosmic horror is perhaps best understood when compared to traditional horror. In traditional horror, there is a protagonist who is deemed “good” (or at least “good enough”) countered by a malevolent force that threatens to end his existence. More often than not, the protagonist wins, and existence is preserved. This is interpreted as a victory.
In cosmic horror, horror is woven into the very fabric of existence. It may (as in the case of Lovecraft’s work) be a horror that has been with us forever but lay dormant and undetected until the “sciences each straining in their own direction” find traces of it. Through a plot in which “pieces of dissociated knowledge” are gradually assembled, vacant parts of the puzzle are filled in, and there comes a realization that the way the universe is assembled is intrinsically horrific, and there is no escape from it. Victory exists only as an illusion.
Cthulhu is not cut from the mold of a classic monster like Dracula or Frankenstein. The horror in Lovecraft is that Cthulhu and his kin are human-nullifying forces. The horror rests not in that they render us dead, but rather in that they render us insignificant.
Not to get all high hifalutin, but it’s a sort of existential horror. Horror of a very different stripe. It’s a sort of horror that Ligotti acquaints with atmospheric horror traced all the way back to the late 18th century novelist Ann Radcliffe and from there on to Poe.
And so Ligotti is the heir to Lovecraft, who was the heir to Poe. And all three may be heirs of Radcliffe.
Having heard the Dark Gospel According to Lovecraft, I decided to once more check out Ligotti. I started with Teatro Grottesco (a collection which is as good an introduction to Ligotti as any, focused – as I read it – on the themes of creativity and nihilism). From there, I went on to read the short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done (which had won the Bram Stoker Award for long fiction in 2002). Both of these are now available in mass market editions from Virgin Books.
I am not at all the best authority on Ligotti, of course. Matt Cardin knows so much more about the man and his works than I do. There are many, many other books, going all the way back to the 80s. But I can only speak to the books I know.
And just what can I say about these books? They are chock full of dark poetry. I have yet to find any writer who can match Ligotti as a prose stylist. At first, they can strike a reader as being “dense”. Sometimes, I found myself having to re-read them, but that is a pleasure not a pain. Often, dialog is sparse (at times, verging on non-existent). The settings are more often than not the type of dank, decrepit cities one is likely to find in the rustbelt midwest.
The books are unlike anything else out there.
It is as though Ligotti is standing on Lovecraft’s mouldering shoulders, tearing away at heights of human delusion in new and ever-more-haunting ways. While Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones were of exotic, extraterrestrial origin, the quintessential Ligotti horror is often presented as a puppet: something that thinks that it thinks, but really doesn’t. Something that believes it exists and has free will, but is in fact merely animated by an outside force. Something, says Ligotti, like you and me.
All of this brings me to the reason why I started this blog in the first place: to tell you about Ligotti’s new non-fiction book, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race. With over two hundred pages of philosophical argument and literary theory, it comes across as a little indulgent. But then again, if anyone deserves to be indulged it is Ligotti.
The Conspiracy Against The Human Race allows Ligotti to put all of his cards out and show us his hand. He comes across as a man of extreme erudition, whose mind can jet from Classical playwrights to mid-twentieth century existentialists, from Buddhism to the latest neuroscience, all in the space of a few pages.
Perhaps his biggest contribution is introducing the reader to a whole cadre of thinkers classified as “pessimists” (though most people would refer to them as “nihilists”). In bouncing their ideas off of his own (and a slew of others), he builds a compelling case that existence is a nightmare, that horror is more real than any of us are, and thus existing (and bringing others into existence) is “not all right”.
The “conspiracy” in the title refers to games Ligotti says we play to minimize our consciousness of reality (in particular, the reality that one day we will cease to exist). We compartmentalize our death-consciousness into a distinct part of our awareness that is sealed off from our day to day lives. We anchor ourselves away from death-awareness, in ultimately ephemeral institutions (family, country, religion). We distract ourselves from our death-awareness by watching sports or fretting over soap operas or politics. We sublimate our death-consciousness by putting it out for general consumption, for open display; sometimes laughing as we point at it.
From this foundation, the author goes on to explore the meaning of the uncanny and how all of this relates to the history of horror fiction.
Needless to say, this book isn’t for everyone. I suggest a heavy dose of distracting from the book’s themes before, during, and after your time with it (watching old Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows worked for me). But, if you’re the sort that’s prepared for the brutal message within, you must read this book. Read it, and if you are a member of the Horror Writers Association (I am not), I recommend that you recommend it for best non-fiction book of 2010.
I doubt that will happen. Too few people seem aware of Ligotti these days for him to get much in the way of awards. But then again, one must hold onto hope…" - Nicoel Cushing
"The essay is, ostensibly, one dealing with the origins and development of the horror genre. It also carries in it, quite explicitly, an argument, or plea for, the voluntary extinction of the human race, not for the sake of the planet, or anything like that, but simply in order to reduce human suffering. I suppose it could be called something like the case for genocidal euthanasia, but that would be misleading, since the main solution to the problem of human suffering that is put forward is simply not to perpetuate that suffering by procreation.
At the time I was ambivalent towards such a conclusion and the arguments upon which it was built, and I suppose I still am. However, I feel like making a certain qualification now to the remarks I made then.
In as far as anything ever is right or wrong, I think that Ligotti is probably right here. Or to put it another way, unless there is such a thing as mass-enlightenment, there will always be a sense of intolerable suffering to human existence, and the only way to end this will be through extinction. Some means of extinction will be gentler than and preferable to others.
To state that even more simply: Yes, I agree; it's always better not to be born.
That wasn't the qualification I wished to make, actually. But before I make my qualification, I should perhaps qualify my qualification by saying, I think I am far less consistent in my views than Ligotti, and likely to vacillate wildly.
At one point in the thread - I believe at more than one point - a poster calling himself 'The Yellow Jester', who is, in fact, Thomas Ligotti, if, in fact, such an entity exists, makes a distinction between emotional pessimism and cerebral pessimism, claiming as his own the latter:
In my own case, I can say that my pessimistic outlook is a matter of cerebral introspection and not "emotional thinking." No matter how I felt on an emotional level, I would still say, "It would be better not to be born." That is a constant which could only change should I become the victim of a brain tumor or something of the sort that would derange my thought processes. At the time I noted, but did not quite appreciate this point. I'm not sure that any thinking can ever be free of emotion, or at least, of something like 'personality'. My own pessimism (not that I especially want to own it) I have always thought of as emotional, of consisting in a sensation that no one else would ever understand, because I could never put it into words. It was an almost physical entity, as reasonless as any object on Earth, like a ball of fear and loneliness inside me.
Now, however, I appreciate this point much better.
At the time that the essay came out, my strong reaction to it was probably due to the fact that it was 'too close to home'. Now my reaction to it is less powerful. It seems little different to any other accumulation of letters that I may read or ignore at will. For the past few months I have not had the intense depression that I suffered for many years before. I feel relatively detached now, and it seems to me that, no, you do not need to be depressed to think that it's better not to be born. You might even be enjoying an ice cream - as I believe Ligotti himself remarked - and still think that to be born is a curse that should not be visited upon anyone. I agree.
What, after all, is everybody looking forward to? What have they been looking foward to throughout history? Why has it taken so long without finding that thing - which cannot even be conceived - and people still go on and on reproducing? I do not understand." - Quentin S Crisp
"In conceiving Azathoth, that 'nuclear chaos' which 'bubbles at the center of all infinity,' Lovecraft might well have been thinking of Schopenhauer's Will."
Shamelessly, I draw attention to my own novel 'Nemonymous Night' in the context of the above quote from CATHR (page 57). I think CATHR is ostensibly the bleakest thing you will have ever read, but by its nature of re-sublimation of sublimation in providing human life its logical dark context, it is paradoxically joyful to experience. This is perhaps because the author so far retains the concept of a human self amid this bleakness as a fixity or certainty, despite, with the metaphors of puppets, a puppet-master trying to jab the self's limbs elsewise. Only by setting loose the anchor of one's own identity amid this bleakness can one perhaps portray that bleakness to its full. In other words, open oneself to the Intentional Fallacy both as a long-held literary theory and as a frightening horror trope in 'the synchronised shards or random truth and fiction'. However, I keep my powder dry till this book has fully percolated in 'my mind'. The author has yet many tricks up his sleeve to pull the carpet from under me.
Up to page 71 in my current percolation. I find myself looking forward to reading this book each morning - a reason for living. It is so beautifully written and true. Yet, therefore, not true because it is so true? Life is a paradox. This book - for those who have not gained this from my review so far - is an ostensible 'pessimisitic' philosophical work (a history of thinkers in that mode of philosophy (suicide, race destruction etc), works of fiction inspired by it and the author's own extrapolation from that history within himself), i.e. about the grounds for humanity's predicament: its entrapment by self, a self that was gifted but not asked for, that if you stay with that self you cannot win anything but future despair, but if you don't stay with that self, you are faced with self extinction in a few hours' (minutes?) time or tomorrow when you destroy that self: an in-built despair for now. Yet, paradoxically, I, for one, feel boosted by facing such concepts. My self is intrinsic to now not to tomorrow. Meanwhile, my own despair is the thouight of not putting my name to my own 'work', a self-imposed Nemonymity. A self that drowns in non-existence while simultaneously it still has a self (a self's self?) to recognise the sense of that drowning. CATHR (a great book, no doubt) obviates against Nemonymity. It has the author's name on the spine and a silhouette of his body. And a significant dedication at the front: "To the memory of Peter Wessel Zapffe." (my italics).
Is CATHR, therefore, a work of philosophy or fiction? Or neither? Or both? I tend to think of it as a real Proustian dystopia... whereby, with its in built oxymoron or paradox, is a utopia we should all strive to share by reading it?
> Page 95. I see the author is now addressing my earlier 'self's self' point but only, of course, from the point of view of the single self. Shame. We perhaps need to put pieces of opaque paper over the silhouette on the spine to create its zombie soul? In the pages leading up to this, there is essential reading for Horror Writers and those interested in the uncanny and supernatural, including some films, some vampires, some zombies...
P 97 - the author broaches determinism, causality and their implications for Free Will. I wonder if he will broach 'retrocausality'... Hmmm
> p 103. As this book has no index or bibliography, I cannot tell yet whether it takes into account 'retrocausality' or the selves of Proust, in its treatement of selves, causality, responsibility etc. Or Fowles' 'nemo' (see comment three below on this page). Another consideration: when the author discusses 'responsibility' from (wrongly?) inferred causality with regard to asking a friend to mend one's toilet who then is killed in a road accident on the way to your house: think about the multiform requests and interferences that the internet literally 'tapestries' (if that can be a verb). How many of you will have your whole life changed because I wrote this review in real-time? The internet is the new philosophy, not in what it contains but in what it is or does simply by existing. This is an argument for proving, perhaps, that YOU *are* the internet. Until .. The Machine Stops.
> p. 113: "There are no retroactive fix-ups for the corpses we shall become."
Ah well, so the author has it. But does that take into account Quantum Physics, the Large Hadron Collider, Cone Zero?
BTW, I admire some of the author's humour as he enters Metzinger, regarding 'fridge magnets' and 'shoe size'. At the end of the day (if not yet at the end of this book), I ask a single question: how does one judge the selves of others by the yardstick of one's own self? This book may be a puppet's book or a predetermined book, a book that has ever existed at this single everlasting point in time? Knowing I am the *only* self makes me feel good, fridge magnet or not, Cone Zero Ultimatum or not - and this book is merely (merely?) an entertaining fiction within a world I created in real-time simply (simply?) by reviewing it here. (I only real-time review fictions, as the regular readers of my reviews over the last few years already know, if readers there are within my wishful thinking).
> p. 117. Interesting discussion of 'depression' and other illnesses and how they affect the perceived integrity of the self. But as the author himself implies, to suffer depression can be the fulfilling of the perfection of existence. To feel everything bad and good is to live life to the full. Without bad, there cannot be good. But what if it's all bad? Will bits of it seem good?
And a chink of light: the author cites many ingredients of a depressed human in his views on the world, one being that he sees that "The image of a cloud-crossed moon is not in itself a purveyor of anything mysterious or mystical;" - but what, I ask, if that cloud-crossed moon is truly mystical (even when the view of it by the depressed human is initially that it is unmystical), will the human being then gradually feel the lifting of his depression once the moon's intrinsic mysticism starts to sink into him involuntarily?" - weirdmonger.blog-city.com
"The horror genre seems to attract two dominant personality types: those who love the emotional thrill of fear and shock for its own sake, and deep thinkers who enjoy musing over the alternative possibilities promised by the Unknown. On the latter score, some authors approach the ideas of life, death, and the great beyond with impressive sophistication and scholarly research that often supersedes their fictional imaginings. Stephen King’s non-fiction titles (Danse Macabre, On Writing) are seminal works of criticism. Anne Rice’s musings on the church are followed by many. Dean Koontz wrote the book on Writing Popular Fiction. China Mieville writes Marxist criticism. HP Lovecraft wrote a virtual bible for authors of the weird tale (no, not the Necronomicon; I’m talking about his essay, “The Supernatural in Horror Literature”). And, of course, Poe’s criticism is oft-cited in courses that study theories of the short story. The history of scary authorship almost requires a philosophical contemplation of the abyss. Call it a “dark theology.” It’s worth gazing into.
Two notable books in this subgenre were published in the independent press this year that strongly remind us of the serious business of horror and spirituality: Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin and The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti. The latter is a fantastically written philosophical treatise advocating pessimism about the human existence. With all the sophistication of a doctoral thesis in Philosophy, Ligotti argues, essentially, an idea he’s been employing in his scary fiction for many years: that man lies to himself about existence all the time, that other unseen and unknowable forces may be pulling our puppet strings, and that THOSE STRINGS might themselves be a construct of our imaginations, because our existence could be meaningless after all.
Reminiscent of Emil Cioran’s wonderfully depressing book of aphorisms, The Trouble With Being Born, Ligotti’s “Conspiracy” is a twisted celebration of pessimism — at times laugh-out-loud funny in its bold disregard for any hope for humanity and other times downright convincing in its unflinching suggestion that life is a “malignantly useless” enterprise, and that suffering is inherent to this existential condition. Ligotti’s philosophy is three levels beyond atheism, and requires a strong-minded reader to really accept his position. Yet I loved Ligotti’s book, because it so smartly builds an audacious case in support of the idea that human extinction might not be such a bad thing, and he does so in such an earnest and serious voice that the prose, simply, convinces. A downer on downers, a love letter to the suicidal, this book challenges our assumptions in a way that I wish more writers would try to do." - Michael Arnzen
We Are Not From Here, By Eugene Thacker
"Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti are a reasonable list of the three best writers of horror short stories. In the tradition of gnarled minds that scare more with their thinking than with simple shocks, they're almost certainly the ones who matter most.
Ligotti is a genius at exploring emptiness and nothingness. He has committed his life to rejecting life. It's harder than it sounds. His stories take place in a "world forever reverberant with the horror of all who ever have lived and suffered" (a phrase taken from "We Can Hide from Horror Only in the Heart of Horro: Notes and Aphorisms", excerpts from his notebooks from circa 1976-1982). His many books, including recent works like The Shadow at The Bottom of The World, Teatro Grottesco, and Death Poems, are often released as limited editions that become totemic objects for his readers.
Ligotti's is an important and vital voice, though one that speaks most loudly to a certain and rarified sense of darkness. He has been included in numerous anthologies and been a nominee for and winner of multiple awards, but his focus on the horror of pain, suffering, and death have kept him from coming anywhere close to the mainstream. His long essay The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (still awaiting publication) will shatter those who embrace it fully.
What led to your writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race?
- I could recite a litany of reasons for my writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but the most immediate cause was my reading an essay written in 1933 called “The Last Messiah” by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. Down the ages, pessimistic writers and thinkers have wailed that our lives are predominantly characterized by meaningless suffering and therefore everyone would be better off not to have been born. This is sometimes referred to as a hedonist view of existence, and for one reason or another practically no one is persuaded that there’s anything to it. Even if someone grants that life is mostly, or even entirely, a trail of tears with nothing but death at the end, they still don’t feel that being alive is not worth it. They’ll carry on till the end and pass on this legacy to another generation, perhaps thinking that somehow things will get better.
My own long-held view was that even if suffering as we ordinarily conceive it could be wholly eliminated, there would still be a differential among the pleasures in our lives. The consequence of this would be that some pleasures would be greater than others, and the lesser pleasures would then come to be felt as suffering. You could also turn this around and say that in a world of all-pervasive but variegated suffering, some ways of suffering would be felt to be worse than others, making the lesser sufferings perceptible as pleasures. One solution to this state of affairs seemed to be the achievement of a steady state of non-suffering. Of course, the problem is that to attain a tolerable middle ground between pleasure and suffering isn’t possible without the experience of pleasure on the one side and suffering on the other. This is assuming that we could live under laboratory conditions in which pleasure and suffering, or degrees of pleasure and suffering, could be controlled by some means presently unknown, unworkable, or underdeveloped. That would be a fantastical scenario, of course.
Other solutions that occurred to me were also more or less fantastic or futuristic. Among them was a psychophysical apparatus that could be implanted in us so that we could live much as we do now, except that whenever a certain level of suffering was reached, a combination of mood elevators and, if necessary, painkilling drugs would be released into our system in proportion to our suffering. These agents could also be regulated to work disproportionately as we approached death, thus assuring us that we would leave this world in a state of ecstasy. No one would ever have to witness the agony of a loved one dying from natural causes or imagine the horror of someone close to them who has died from gruesome accidental causes, since they would comforted by the knowledge of an anti-suffering apparatus functioning in the moribund or traumatized individual as well as having their anxiety assuaged by their own anti-suffering mechanisms. Now, the methods outlined here are just extensions of present-day strategies for bettering our lives, and those of future generations, and operate on the premise that suffering has negligible value or none at all. They’re also based on the same hedonist philosophy that, taken to sufficient lengths, is the basis for pessimism.
But hedonism as a life-philosophy isn’t limited to pessimists. All spiritual beliefs and practices originate in hedonist values and they’re not condemned as pessimistic. What could be more hedonistic than to be addicted to the idea of heaven or Nirvana? Belief in an afterlife is a great Plan B if things don’t work out so well for you in this one. And why even believe in a blissful afterlife, or in the salvation of total oblivion if you happen to be a Buddhist, unless you’re already committed to the view that this life is pretty lousy? Nevertheless, this isn’t how religionists consciously look upon human existence, at least most of the time. As far as atheists are concerned, they just have to hope for the best for themselves and for those who mean anything to them. This is the substance of what I would call "functional optimism" -- the idea that on the whole things aren’t so bad and won’t ever become so bad that everyone would be better off not having been born. And it’s impossible to effectively oppose that way of thinking. It really doesn’t work to tell someone who’s already alive that it’s better not to have been born. They’ve already been born. It’s too late for them. So they make the best of things. They try to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Even pessimists for the most part follow this course. It would be suicide not to, and committing suicide is really hard to pull off in cold blood. Almost no one kills themselves because they think nonexistence is preferable to existence, or because they want to avoid any extraordinary psychological or physical suffering that may be awaiting them. Suicides wait until things are so awful that they can’t stand being alive anymore. Sometimes they’ll kill themselves when it looks like things are going to become really awful in the near future, but there are a lot of pressures against being a proactive suicide. And when it comes around to facing the facts, almost everyone is afraid of death, so they do what they can to hang on as long as they can. They choose the path that they perceive to lead to the lesser of two horrors and keep following it until they keel over dead. And no hedonistic philosophy is going to convince them or anyone else that this isn’t the way to go.
Zapffe was the first pessimistic philosopher to my knowledge who actually came up with a non-hedonist reason for why it would be better not to have been born and not to give birth to others. His observation was that human consciousness, an evolved trait of our species, turned our existence into an untenable paradox. According to Zapffe, it’s one thing to experience suffering and then die. But it’s quite another thing to be acutely conscious that this is our life - to be aware that we suffer for no good reason and have only a decline into death, or death by trauma, to look forward to. In order to cope with our consciousness of these realities, then, we must smother our consciousness as best we can by using various tactics. The result is a whole species of beings that have to lie unceasingly to themselves, not always successfully, about what they are and what their lives are really like. If we didn’t so this, the rug would be pulled out from under us and we’d have to face up to the fact that we’re a race that can’t come to terms with its existence. Thus we devise ways to mute, distract, and otherwise obfuscate our consciousness so that it doesn’t overwhelm us with what we’re up against in being alive. This line of thought goes beyond hedonism by exposing us as creatures who bullshit themselves a mile a minute in order to keep going. This bullshit takes various forms. Primary among them are simply ignoring that there is anything problematic about our existence, indulging in pleasurable distractions, creating bogus structures of meaning such as a pleasant afterlife in which the books will be balanced for the suffering we endure in this life, and transmuting our suffering into works of art and philosophy wherein we distance ourselves from what real suffering is and in the process reform it into a source of amusement. Even pessimists who believe they have gone the distance of realizing that we lead lives of meaningless suffering are caught up in this game and must brutalize their consciousness into submission or feel the full force of the reality that all our so-called pleasures are based on lies. The only solution to this conundrum, as Zapffe saw it, would be to bring an end to this festival of falsehoods by ceasing to reproduce.
Now, every reading of human life is subject to alternate or contrary readings, and so is Zapffe’s. But his reading captivated me, because I was already predisposed to believe that life was at best worthless and at worst an intolerable nightmare. In essence, Zapffe’s philosophy became another source of bullshit that kept me going so that I could articulate the many aspects of my own grievances against being alive and, I hope, extend or give a greater rhetorical force to what Zapffe had written in "The Last Messiah." I might add that the title character of this essay appears at the end, tells everyone to stop being fruitful and multiplying, and then is murdered for his trouble. Given Zapffe’s reading of the way we are, no other conclusion except utter hopelessness that we will ever change our ways is possible. We’re positively doomed to live and wallow in our own bullshit until we become extinct as a species by one of the many means that have led to the extinction of almost every other species on this planet.
When did you first read Peter Wessel Zappfe's essay, "The Last Messiah?"
- I read it not long after it was published in the March/April 2004 issue of the British journal Philosophy Now. Later that year I began work on The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
Does this mean that Zappfe's work was a confirmation of things that you already knew or were aware of?
- I hadn’t conceived of the paradox that Zapffe explained had been incited by the development of consciousness in the human species. Nevertheless, I did feel that being conscious was not a good thing. In my story "Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech," there’s a dummy who suffers for having been awakened into awareness. I just thought of consciousness as a source of suffering rather than as a faculty that made all human existence into a tissue of lies, which was Zapffe’s idea. While it’s not invulnerable to argument -- as is no concept in philosophy -- this idea provided me with a basis for my generic pessimism, which, as I’ve already said, is not conceptually defensible. I could rant on a daily basis that, as Lovecraft wrote in one of his stories, "life is a hideous thing." But anyone could come along and say, "What are you talking about? Everything is beautiful. I’m having the time of my life being alive." There’s no reply to that. You can just say, "Well, if everything is beautiful, even on every other day, then you’re just not paying attention." But Zapffe’s reply was that not only is everything not beautiful, no one actually believes it’s beautiful even if they say they do. All of our actions bear witness to this observation. In a single essay, which was later expanded as a treatise titled On the Tragic, Zapffe beat the stuffing out of the theory on which Arthur Schopenhauer expatiated for thousands of pages -- that everything in the universe is activated by a "Will-to-live," a transcendental force that works the world like a cosmic puppet show. Schopenhauer’s Will does have its appeal, because if you accept it, then everything that once seemed mysterious makes perfect sense. If you ever wondered why things are the way they are or why people do the things the things they do, it all goes back to the Will, which is pulling all the strings. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s very satisfying. The problem is that Schopenhauer’s system only works on paper and can’t be detected as being part of existence any more than a creator-God.
Zapffe’s thought is very down to earth. You can experience how being conscious ruins human life by taking it out of nature, where the imperative of every living thing is simply to survive and reproduce. Human beings, on the other hand, can ask themselves what they are, why they’re alive, what happens after death, and so on. Since there aren’t any credible answers to these questions, we make up answers for the purpose of shutting down our consciousness as much as possible. At the same time, we busy ourselves with all sorts of projects and playthings just to wile away our time, also for the purpose of repressing our consciousness as creatures who know they’re alive and know they’re going to die. At any rate, the whole endeavor of being human is reduced to trying not to be human, which is very messed up. This allows Zapffe to go all the way and make the pessimist’s signature pronouncement -- that instead of continuing to carry on, we should be getting down to giving up on life. Naturally, this line of thought will not sway anyone who thinks that everything is beautiful, or that anything is beautiful, but it does takes pessimism another step forward, which is admittedly something that concerns only other pessimists.
Before reading Zapffe, I too was aware of my life as a series of distractions and denials that staved off thoughts of the terrible things that could happen to me and of my impending death. I was also sensitive, probably overly so, that these terrible things could happen and in fact were happening everywhere in the world. They had always been happening and, barring some radical change in material existence, would continue to happen until doomsday. I knew that I needed something to take my mind off these things and discover some immediate pretext for being alive. I also knew that I was just biding my time until something terrible came along and I snuffed it, something that would probably happen only after I had to watch those to whom I had become attached in one way or another had snuffed it. One of those terrible things, among others, that actually did come along in my life was major depression. This is sometimes called the common cold of mental diseases, but that’s not how it feels to those who suffer from it. Aside from its other effects, depression has a philosophical effect to it that other kinds of pain do not, and its implications very much changed my sense of what it was like to be alive in the world. In depression, everything is just what it seems to be: a tree is just a tree and not something that arouses symbolic meanings or affective associations. Life itself becomes very transparent in all its aspects to a depressive. There aren’t any mysteries left, since all mysteries come from within us. We’re mystery-making machines, and we project a sense of mystery onto a world that has no such thing behind or within it. Certain questions remain that may one day be answered or may not be answered. Either way it doesn’t matter to a depressive.
Recent movements such as transhumanism and abolitionism project a future in which suffering will be transcended with drugs and technology. There’s a guy named David Pearce who runs a Web site called The Hedonistic Imperative, and he very articulately insists that the only worthy goal in human life is that of feeling good all the time. Of course, this is the goal that everyone is concerned with in their lives, but Pearce argues that this could be more effectively and speedily attained by entirely artificial means. The fact that these people are obsessed with making a serious attempt to abolish human suffering, and to establish this aim as the central project of their lives, is nice to see. Thus far in human history, people have put their effort into curing diseases that make us dysfunctional and unproductive or that are obstacles to increasing our longevity. There hasn’t been much interest in confronting human suffering as such. Paradoxically, should the efforts of those who want to annihilate suffering succeed, it could be the end of us as a species. We would be returned to paradise. And reproduction would be irrelevant in a paradisal landscape where all dreams have been satisfied and all fears quashed.
You're best known for writing horror stories and poems. Did The Conspiracy Against the Human Race feel like a different endeavor, even though it was an obvious continuation of certain themes in your work?
- Writing Conspiracy was different from writing horror stories in the following way. For me, a story usually has its inception in something irrational - a dream, an image, a phrase that doesn’t make any sense. This irrational germ for a story will be something that I feel is dense with meaning and possibilities, even if I know it’s going to end up as a horror story. Then some element of the story pokes its head out -- a character, a setting, a particular scene in the narrative - and everything comes together very quickly. I’m definitely a didactic writer in that my stories can be reduced to some point that I’m trying to get across, something that emerges in the course of elaborating its narrative elements. I may start a story in the irrational, but unlike a lot of writers I’m not content to let a story be its own meaning. I have to move from the irrational to the rational. With Conspiracy, I started in the rational and stayed there. It was kind of like working in two dimensions instead of three. All the force of Conspiracy had to come from concepts and rhetoric, both of which are prominent in my stories. But the imaginative landscape was missing. There wasn’t a sense of being in a world inside of my head as I wrote. It was more like writing a poem, which for me is an elaboration of an idea. I may start a poem with a single line that fits somewhere into the poem, but that line will make sense conceptually. So writing Conspiracy was like writing a very long poem.
What do you think readers will make of it?
- I can only say with any degree of confidence what one faction of readers will make of it. Those are people who have read my horror stories and enjoyed them not in spite of their bleak quality but because of it. An analogy could be drawn with fans of Lovecraft’s stories, who read them for their charming regionalism, their mythology of monsters, or for their unusually literate nature -- something prized by readers who are generally well read yet still have a weakness for the horror genre -- or some combination of these and other characteristics of his work. But they don’t read them as expressions of Lovecraft’s vision of human beings as bits of inconsequential organic material quivering in a black infinity that occasionally throws some phenomenon our way that is completely alien to the settled structures of our existence, as if to say: "You can just forget everything you thought you knew about yourselves and everything else in the universe. You know nothing. You are nothing. And the choices you have for dealing with this reality are to go insane or kill yourselves. How about them apples?" This can be a rather consoling vision to those readers who already think as much and are grateful that someone else out there felt the same and had the nerve to make it the basis of his art. I was one of those readers. It was a great relief to discover the writings of someone who didn’t go for the same consolations as most of the rest of the world, even if the consolations they did go for were no less questionable. I think that some of my readers look at my stories similarly. And those are the ones who will appreciate Conspiracy. As for anyone else, I couldn’t say. The book could very well be judged as badly done on its own terms. It would also be easy for anyone to dismiss it by saying that its author is just a nutjob and has always been a nutjob who should be pitied or justly derogated or simply ignored. I would be in no position to argue with such an assessment, since the general estimation of the reading public about themselves and their existence is so different from mine. I myself don’t believe that my experience itself is so different from that of most people, but the conclusions I’ve drawn from my experience are indeed quite different. Furthermore, the whole point of Conspiracy is that pessimism as a resolute life-stance is not welcome to the minds very many people, even when it’s laid out as entertainingly as possible, which I’ve tried to do. But pessimistic works have never been well received as a rule. And I’m not naïve enough to think that it could ever be any other way." - Interview with Geoffrey H. Goodwin Read the book
Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco, Virgin Books, 2010.
"So for a while, whenever I looked at Amazon’s page for one of my own obscure books, the system recommended something called Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti. According to the unfathomable Amazonian formula, if you liked one, you might like the other. (Because both their covers feature masks?) Ligotti’s name came randomly to my attention other ways, too. I’d be searching for something unrelated and a relevant keyword would pop up in some message board post about Ligotti. I found a site devoted entirely to his work, which by then I realized had a hardcore cult following.
The work itself sounded Lovecraftian in content and style. I don’t like Lovecraft much. A purple writer with visceral but repetitive and fairly superficial ideas. But out of curiosity I finally bought Teatro Grottesco. I’m pleased to report that it’s fucking phenomenal.
Teatro Grottesco isn’t a page-turner. It’s more like a scope-creep of dread and awe. It took me about a week this fall to read all the stories–but since then I’ve thought of them pretty much every day, puzzling them out, piecing them together.
Ligotti writes in a genre all his own. The only title I can think to give it is philosophical horror. Think Kafka meets David Lynch meets… I don’t know, Cortazar? Ligotti’s stories contain grotesqueries, but almost no violence whatsoever. They’re about as far from traditional horror as horror can get. The dread Ligotti creates is the dread of living a life with no agency whatsoever, deluded and hopeless, controlled by malevolent and incomprehensible forces.
From “My Case For Retributive Action,” the story of a man starting a new job in foggy town on the wrong side of an ill-defined border:
“In those moments, which were eternal I assure you, I had no location in the universe, nothing to grasp for that minimum of security which every creature needs merely to exist without suffering from the sensation that everything is spinning ever faster on a cosmic carousel with only endless blackness at the edge of that wheeling ride.” Ligotti’s characters are always being stricken by gastrointestinal ailments which seem to function as manifestations, sometimes veiled but sometimes explicit, of their psychological afflictions: brain as intestine. In the title story, the narrator (Ligotti always writes with a first-person narrator) writes of a mysterious organization called the Teatro Grottesco that terrorizes artists, causing them to lose their artistic inclinations and in some cases disappear entirely. The narrator is then laid low by “an intestinal virus.” (Emphasis Ligotti’s.)
Suffering through the days and nights of an illness, especially an intestinal virus, one becomes highly conscious of certain realities, as well as highly sensitive to the functions of these realities, which otherwise are not generally subject to prolonged attention or meditation. Upon recovery from such a virus, the consciousness of these realities and their functions necessarily fades, so that the once-stricken person may resume his life’s activities and not be driven to insanity or suicide by the acute awareness of these most unpleasant facts of existence. Through the illumination of analogy, I came to understand that the Teatro operated in much the same manner as the illness from which I had recently suffered, with the consequence that the person exposed to the Teatro-disease becomes highly conscious of certain realities and their functions…
In Ligotti, the body is an analog of the mind and the environment is an analog of the body. (Perfectly enough, Ligotti is apparently based in Detroit.) In one of the most excellent stories, “The Red Tower,” a bizarre factory interacts with the landscape surrounding it, and the underground levels produce “hyper-organisms” out of “birthing-graves.” You have a sense of rising, horrified awe reading Ligotti’s description of these creatures, a description that I won’t reproduce here because it would spoil the dreadful recognition you feel as you begin to realize what, in fact, he’s describing.
“Gas Station Carnivals” is maybe my favorite story (it’s either that or “The Clown Puppet”). It comes in the third segment of the collection, a cluster of five stories called “The Damaged and the Diseased.” These stories are the most brain-twisting and arcane, usually involving tales told to a narrator by an interlocutor whose veracity (or existence) comes into question even as the tale coils back onto itself and starts to strangle the narrator. “Gas Station Carnivals” is best read without any prior knowledge of its completely bizarre contents.
That’s true of the whole book, actually, but I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying that it’s profound and terrific and there’s nothing else like it. And if nobody told you to go out and get it as soon as humanly fucking possible, then you’d be less likely to do so, wouldn’t you?" - Nick Antosca
"Liggoti has been called a horror writer and I guess the designation is vaguely accurate, but I doubt there’s another writer in the ghetto-genres doing work that comes close. His early career designation as a proto-HPL has proven to be surprisingly apt. Having shed his early anxiety of influence, Ligotti has developed his own absolute way of seeing. It is as equally compelling as Lovecraft’s, and, in truth, rather bleaker. HPL was about indifference– the world might kill you, but there was nothing malign in its intentions. You got in the way of something bigger than you.
Ligotti is different. A malign element pervades his work. All of his reoccuring images– abandoned factories, intestinal disorders, faceless corporations, burned out warehouses, hack artists, marionettes and falling darkness– are in an active conspiracy against man. Totally paranoid and amazing.
When I first read Ligotti, I had yet to set foot within southeastern Michigan. A short biographical note mentions Ligotti’s deep Detroit origins and decades within the city. Having whittled away my share of the years in the reigion– a place where it’s overcast ninety percent of the time and everything is falling apart– allowed a special insight into Ligotti as a regional, Michigan writer. The stories never name any fixed locale, no actual locations are given, but they are very clearly set in a nightmare version of a pseudo-American and make frequent references to bleakness over a northern border. This is Detroit, however transformed. Trust me.
Finally, to return to our major theme: there is no reason why Ligotti’s stories should work. By any standard of Good Writing, his labyrinthine sentences, his endless paragraphs and his zero-dimensional characters should spell disaster; but the work has a transfixing and hypnotic quality, a poetic repetition of key phrases and ideas. Let me reiterate: people will call anything hypnotic, but this stuff is genuinely hypnotic, and there is a deliberate method of prose construction producing this effect. Ligotti achieves the perfect approach for his subject matter– a blank tableau of interchangable paranoia– and though the book is a collection of shortish stories, its many repetitions leave the reader feeling as though they’ve read a sustained and complete work.
In other words: the real deal. A brilliant writer." - Jarett Kobek
"The litmus test of any form of writing is how vividly believable it is. Thomas Ligotti passes in terrifyingly flying colors. It might be safe to say that not since Nathanial Hawthorne penned the likes of “The Birthmark” and "Rappaccini’s Daughter” has anyone delved so deeply into the essential horror of the human condition. But whereas Hawthorne concerned himself with man at odds with nature thereby inevitably dooming himself, Ligotti concerns himself with nature in all its aspects inevitably at odds with man thereby dooming him.
There are never any psychotic killers, traditional monsters, or reanimated dead in Ligotti’s work. There are no morals, no cheap thrills, no escape from any concrete danger. Theater of the Grotesque as a metaphor for life is subtle, existential, ubiquitous.
In his world, one can be trapped working for an international organization that controls the doctors, who addict the workers, who in turn forever toil in thankless repetitive jobs that eerily worsen as managers and employees alike mutate to increase production, while the doctors experiment with bizarre new meds. There is a decaying town, worthy of a collection of vignettes strung together into a coherent tale in which everything mutates into a spiraling web of the darkest despair while the inhabitants, hysterics or imposters all, gather together in the darkness of abandoned buildings to discuss the implications of the latest madness. There are the innocuous meetings in an all night cafe of two insomniac writers, both suffering from writers block but for very different reasons…
To say the fictions are depressing does them no justice. They are unquestionably haunting, even inspiring. Ligotti often uses a technique of repeating a catch phrase within each telling, like a mantra, that like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart” drives the point home, and like Poe, Ligotti’s tales favor the first person. His language is flawless, his images haunting, the words he employs glisten like flecks of paint upon a canvas.
One gets the sense Ligotti himself is plagued by the things of which he writes, that life sapping medications to stave off the darkness are not simply allegory, that man mutating to the demands of his world is something he knows well. He appears to be the quintessential artist suffering for his art. Perhaps that is what makes it so vividly believable." - Paul L Bates
"Thomas Ligotti seems destined to go to his grave as an underappreciated author. Too frequently these days such speculation seems reserved for writers who really aren’t all that good, which is why they aren’t as appreciated as their fans, and often the writers themselves, believe they should be. Ligotti however, is not one of these pretenders to the throne, which is what makes his lack of commercial success, and/or acceptance all the more frustrating.
Then again, upon reading such collections as The Nightmare Factory, Noctuary, and The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, one might almost surmise that the author does not wish for commercial success, that instead he would prefer his work to be, like many of the destinations found in his stories, chanced upon by the uninitiated so that the horrors within retain maximum effect. Surely such a choice should not be the author’s to make, but that’s an argument for another time. The point that should be gleaned from this is a simple one: Read him.
Although I would suggest The Nightmare Factory as a better place to start for a newcomer to Ligotti’s work, it is no exaggeration to say that any one of them will do. Each collection is, in essence, like the doorways that populate Ligotti’s tales. No matter which one you open, the effect will be the same: complete immersion in a hostile, skewed, and bleakly curious landscape that is catastrophic in its absence of hope. In Ligotti’s hands, humans seem weak, unequipped to deal with, understand, or challenge (as the naïve narrator in the title story of this collection attempts to do, with typically awful results) the superior and all-consuming forces that skirt around the edges of reality and consciousness.
In Teatro Grottesco, the stories are divided into three sections. The first, “Derangements” focuses on the corruption of reality either via supernatural influence, the narrator’s crumbling sanity, or both. As such we are acquainted more than once with a staple of Ligotti’s work–the unreliable narrator (though this device is not restricted to “Derangements”.) This narrative device is used particularly well in “The Red Tower”, a story which won Ligotti a Bram Stoker Award, and deservedly so. Assuming you read the collection in order (which I did), this opening section is a particularly good one in which to develop a sense of the prevalent characteristics of Ligotti’s universe. In the five tales herein, man is a follower, blindly led by an invasive, incomprehensible force (or “sideshow”) to some unknowable doom. The characters rarely, if ever, question the genesis or nature of the enemy, but rather wonder in horror at the effects it has on their lives while making little or no attempt to escape it. They have, it appears, already been defeated when we are introduced to them. We become then, witnesses to the dreadful things that must inevitable follow. In “The Town Manager” the location of the title has already been overtaken by a strange new reality, and it has been accepted as ordinary. The residents only raise their heads and begin to worry when that curious reality is upset even further by an aberration in the routine.
The second section “Deformations” concerns itself mostly with a deeply cynical and depressing view of industrial and office work. Nameless workers coexist in drab factories with windows revealing nothing but dense gray fog beyond the walls. Pharmaceuticals of questionable origin are administered to keep these industrial drones focused, though so intent does that focus become that anything beyond it becomes strange and frightening. The final story, and one that will no doubt be familiar to avid followers of Ligotti’s work (though in truth, there are few tales in Teatro that won’t be–something which is disappointing but not entirely surprising), is “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land”, a series of interconnected vignettes about an unnamed town, the odd citizens that reside there, and the lost souls who believe they should.
The final section (a fourth, “Dead Dreams”, which appeared in the Dutro edition of this book in 1996, is conspicuous by its absence here) is titled “The Damaged and the Diseased” leaving little mystery as to what to expect. One of the strongest stories in the section, and indeed the book, is the titular one. “Teatro Grottesco” follows the ill-advised provocation by an artist of a vampiric theater that feeds, not on blood, but on something equally precious to those of a creative bent–creativity itself.
There are subtle explorations of the human condition in every one of these stories. Our flaws are exposed almost from the first page. The horror is established early, and from there we follow the doomed down a particularly ragged and dangerous rabbit hole into the surreal. And yet the horror always remains personal. It is always the decay of the mind, the sanity, the things we hold most dear, which make these stories so disturbing. That, and the vivid descriptions of the monsters, which Ligotti sometimes seem to view more favorably than the people suffering them. And other times, they are one and the same.
Ultimately, Teatro Grottesco is another stellar grouping of intimate and intricate nightmares from a peerless master of the short form." - Kealan Patrick Burke
"Horror fiction tends towards two trajectories, the narrative and the atmospheric – they often overlap, as traditions often do, and any attempt at labeling is perfunctory at best. But still, it is helpful to differentiate the two in order to better understand the methodology behind the writing. The mainstream of horror fiction is mostly composed of works within the narrative tradition. This title may be misleading, but it highlights the predominant concern of such horror writing – the story over all else. I’m calling it the narrative tradition because while both types of horror fiction contain narrative, the writing of this first school hinges upon it aesthetically and philosophically. Fiction of this type possesses many of the features of the popular thriller; here we see a story told through action and the escalation of narrative tension. Such a story often begins with the manifestation of a threat and moves towards a confrontation with same threat. The characters may overcome such a threat, or in turn the menace may destroy the protagonists. Either way, the story involves the intrusion into the status quo of a denormalizing agent, who must be destroyed if the established order is to be maintained.
What of the other tradition then? I call it the atmospheric tradition because while both narrative and atmosphere is present in such a story, the latter is emphasized here, just as the reverse is true of the first school. This is not a story of traditional narrative conflict, in fact, the usual concerns of story are often marginalized or subverted to heighten an overarching malignance. The threat or menace of the first tradition is not a destabilizing agent, because instability and dread is itself the status quo. A horrible secret may be uncovered within the first tradition, but the very state of existence is despicable in the second type. The first kind of horror fiction hinges upon the “reveal,” an uncovering of the damnable. On the other hand, the second type confirms that existence is damnable. This is a world where “…everything that we supposedly live by and supposedly die by – whether it’s religious scriptures or makeshift slogans – all of it is show business.” Thomas Ligotti doesn’t say that, one of his characters does, but he could have, as it summarizes the pessimistic thrust of his work.
The character who is accredited with the above quote is the unnamed, older writer of “Sideshow, and Other Stories,” one of the short stories included in the new reissue of Thomas Ligotti’s 1988 collection, “Teatro Grottesco.” The writer, a misanthrope who dines with a younger writer at a dilapidated diner before disappearing, is one of many ciphers Ligotti constructs within his stories. That is not to say he writes himself into his own stories in the autobiographical manner of Philip Roth or John Updike. It would be more appropriate to say Ligotti writes avatars of himself in a fashion similar to comic book writer, Grant Morrison. By avatar, I mean a stand-in who does not reflect an autobiographical facet of the writer himself, but a philosophical or aesthetic one. It is worth noting that Ligotti’s ciphers are generally self-deprecating parodies, clownish simulations who voice his misanthropic pessimism. This then allows other characters, usually the unnamed character of the story in question, to criticism or revise such nihilism. The Ligotti stand-in of “Sideshow, and Other Stories,” refuses “…to be a scribe for this show-business phenomenon any longer…” and so atrophies into a shrunken creature in the alleyway, like “…something that might have come from a jar in a museum exhibit or a carnival sideshow.” But the main character, on the other hand, triumphs “…over [his] literary crisis, and wanted nothing more than to get back to [his] desk…” to write. Ligotti’s characters are as obsessive as Lovecraft’s bibliophiliacs and antiquarians, but he has enough irony to poke fun at them, and through them himself, as well. We see point and counterpoint through Ligotti’s narrators, though the conclusion at the end of the story is always one of bleak emptiness.
Look at the final story in the book, the extended exegesis of “The Shadow, the Darkness.” Throughout the collection, different characters serve as a mouthpiece for Ligotti: the father in “Purity,” the voice on the audiotapes in “the Bungalow House,” and the speaker of “the Red Tower,” but it is through Grossvogel that the reader is presented with Ligotti’s most complete and unabridged treatise on a pessimistic universe. Grossvogel, a second-rate artiste turned shadowy philosopher, suffers physical collapse due to a gastrointestinal infection. After his recovery, he begins a series of caustic orations on reality, which is composed entirely of sideshows, nonsense and trash. Grossvogel realizes “…the only thing that had any existence at all was this larger-than-average physical body of mine. And I realized that there was nothing for this body to do except to function in physical pain and that there was nothing for it to be except what it was – not an artist or creator of any kind but solely a mass of flesh, a system of tissues and bones and so forth, suffering the agonies of a disorder of its digestive system, and that anything that did not directly stem from these facts, especially producing works of art, was profoundly and utterly false and unreal.” This is similar to the post-artistic existence of the Teatro Grottesco in the title story. Grossvogel’s speech is as lucid a summary of Ligotti’s own philosophy as we are likely to get, so how do the other characters in the story react to him? The unnamed main character finds Grossvogel’s oration “…on the whole comprehensible enough, even if certain points he was articulating seemed at the time to be questionable and his overall discourse somewhat unengaging.” Ligotti, as is typical of the self-negating paradox in his writing, is just as likely to turn his cynicism against himself as he is any other subject.
The paradox of Ligotti’s writing is nicely summed up in “The Shadow, the Darkness.” Ligotti distrusts words, as any discerning writer should, they “…are a total obfuscation of the most basic fact of existence, [a] conspiracy against the human race…” Ligotti belongs to the subterranean tradition of Weird Fiction, which choses not to engage the idealism and progressivism of the 20th century avant-garde – modernism, postmodernism, et al., and instead pursues a highly skeptical post-romanticism informed by the dull realities of post-industrial, middle-class life. Ligotti’s philosophy of decay has as much in common with Edgar Allan Poe as it does social pessimists Julius Evola and Oswald Spengler. A character in “The Shadow, the Darkness,” prepares a treatise called “An Investigation into the Conspiracy against the Human Race,” the title of a book Ligotti himself is preparing. The character is actually unable to compose such the piece, though. The composition is impossible, he says, the conspiracy in the treatise’s title is impossible, “…because the phenomenon of a conspiracy requires a multiplicity of agents, a division of sides, one of which is undermining the other in some way, and the other having an existence that is able to be undermined. But there is no multiplicity or division, no undermining or resistance or betrayal on either side.” There is nothing but utter emptiness. Creation is, for Ligotti, an aberrant shadow, a black spume, or a diseased fungus.
The eponymous crimson structure of “The Red Tower” on first reading strikes one as horrific in its grotesquery. It’s a monstrosity. The Red Tower a forbodding structure erupting from a bleak grey landscape, produces from its warehouse a variety of ghoulish novelty items. There is something unspeakably horrible in its very existence, though Ligotti writes around the particulars. The tower is a betrayal in its very existence, as it deviates from the desolate perfection of the grey landscape. The Red Tower as it ceaselessly churns out meaningless material is nothing less than a substitute for existence itself. The narrator of “The Red Tower” finds “…it quite easy to imagine that there might have occurred a lapse in the monumental tedium, a spontaneous and inexplicable impulse to deviate from a dreary perfection…[and]…as a concession to this desire out of nowhere, as a minimal surrender, a creation took place and a structure took form where there had been nothing of its kind before.” This structure is notably a red tower, as in blood.
Perfection in both “The Red Tower” and “The Shadow, the Darkness,” is a human incomprehensibility; it is what composes the “soft black stars” of the title story. The paradox, then, of Ligotti is that while creation is despicable, it is also attractive in its aberrance. Many of the characters in “Teatro Grottesco” are artists and creative individuals, but by the end of each story, they are subsumed by normalcy – nonexistence. While mainstream horror fiction is for the most part concerning with a break from the status quo, as discussed above, in Ligotti we see a return to a status quo from which existence and humanity in particular is the deviation. Ligotti does what much horror fiction professes to do, but rarely does, present an actual deviation from general conceptions of health and normalcy.
It is a shame, then, that Ligotti’s writings are so difficult to find. This new reissue via Virgin Books is currently the only volume in print. The last book printed, the 2005 anthology “The Shadow At the Bottom of the World,” is already out of print. Ligotti remains one of the most idiosyncratic and underappreciated short story writers working today, and he’s worth seeking out even for readers with no interest in horror as a genre. Be warned though, the Virgin Books edition is a sub-standard affair, even if the text itself is superlative. This edition comes with no supplemental material, a tacky cover, cheap newsprint paper, and a binding that creases after even a cursory read. Virgin Books’ production values may be sub-par, and this is definitely not the treatment Ligotti deserves, but at least it’s nice to see such a fantastic book back in-print and available to purchase from all major bookstores." - Allen Mozek
LigottiReview by weirdmonger
Thomas Ligotti, My Work is Not Yet Done, Virgin Books, 2010.
"A haunting tale of one man’s inventive revenge against his employers.
When Frank Dominio is suddenly sacked it seems there was more than a grain of truth to his persecution fantasies. As he prepares to get even, he finds an ally in a malevolent force that grants him supernatural powers. Frank takes his revenge in the most ghastly ways imaginable—but there will be a price to pay once his work is done."
"Ligotti has written another colorful collection of horror stories... which spring on the unsuspecting reader the combination of supernatural characters, natural props, and "weird" circumstances... snapshots of horror that demonstrate Ligotti's command of language and rich imagination. Starkly colored images keep the reader gasping." — Library Journal
"If there were a literary genre called 'philosophical horror,' Thomas Ligotti's Grimscribe would easily fit within it... provocative images and a style that is both entertaining and lyrical." — New York Times Book Review "The bureaucracy of the modern office and the dehumanization of workplace drones are fodder for surreal black comedy in this triptych of tales from horror master Ligotti (The Nightmare Factory). Each of the selections resonates with echoes of Kafka and Orwell in its elaboration of the daily work grind as a disturbingly credible metaphor for universal entropy. In "I Have a Special Plan for This World," worker discontent in the office setting becomes so toxic that it generates a cloud whose release into the external environment accelerates social decline of the surrounding city. "The Nightmare Network" is presented as a series of want ads and dispatches for Oneiricon, an all-consuming multinational corporation whose merger mania leads inevitably to hideous physical transformations of its work force. The title tale, a short novel, begins as the morbidly amusing narrative of Frank Dominio, a Dilbert type driven to psychotic paranoia by the seemingly senseless boardroom protocols enforced by his fellow supervisors and their superior. It soon morphs into a bizarre pas de deux between Frank and a department head nicknamed "The Doctor," who come to represent cosmic forces in a collision that draws the business and its employees into their vortex. As Ligotti depicts it, the modern workplace is an infernal realm where illogical demands are clues to an inscrutable malevolent scheme, and where terms like "reorganization," "relocation" and "product" have sinister talismanic meaning. There is little balm in these stories for the overworked, but enough dark satire to make the reader cringe in agreement." - Publishers Weekly
"This is a collection of three horror stories. The title story, which is substantially longer than the other two, recounts the revenge of Frank Dominio on his former bosses after he is unfairly sacked; a revenge both facillitated and made more Gothic by the dark powers he somehow acquires. The revenges are not necessarily bloody: one hapless victim, for example, is trapped in a world of endless doors so that whenever he opens one, there's another behind it.
The two shorter stories also have fear and hatred in the workplace as the theme. "I Have a Special Plan for this World" is about a sinister company whose supervisors keep getting murdered. "The Nightmare Network" concerns a company that supplies dreams.
Ligotti certainly has a distinctive vision, and is strong on atmosphere. Parts of this are as creepy as Edgar Allan Poe. Unfortunately, the prose is also as ponderous as Edgar Allan Poe. Ligotti simply will not use one word where he can use lots of them. For example, one story features a character known as Bow Tie Man. Because he wears one? No, "due to his penchant for sporting this eponymous item of apparel on a daily basis". - Brandon Robshaw
"Surprisingly enough, though we live in a time when unemployment is high, and employment itself is as necessary as food or water (it's necessary to be able to afford food or water), few writers of speculative fiction are treating this vital theme. Thomas Ligotti is known as a writer of grotesque, gothic horror, rather abstract and trending towards literary. His own work is highly regarded and doesn't seem to come often enough. Thus far, all his work has been short stories, collected in 'Songs of a Dead Dreamer', 'Grimscribe', 'Noctuary' and 'The Nightmare Factory'. 'Songs of a Dead Dreamer', in the original edition illustrated by Harry O. Morris is a genuine collector's item, rarely on the market for very long. Ligotti's latest title, 'My Work Is Not Yet Done' features the title novel and two shorter, somewhat related works, and a cover by Harry O. Morris. Everything you get in this Mythos book, from cover to close, is top notch. You'll want more.
More is slow to come from Ligotti, and reading 'My Work Is Not Yet Done', you can see why. The title novel is one part Kafka, one part Columbine and one part 'Sixth Sense'. And though those may seem like confining boundaries, Ligotti's novel is nothing if not wholly original and unusual even for Ligotti. 'My Work Is Not Yet Done' tells the story of Frank Dominio, a middle manager in a monolithic corporate entity. "I have always been afraid," the book begins. Ligotti nails the combination of rage and terror that so many trapped in unpleasant and unfulfilling jobs experience on a daily basis. Dominio is betrayed by his boss, and driven to violence, when something intercedes and he achieves a whole new level of understanding.
Ligotti is equally at home humorously describing the quirks of being trapped in corporate capitalism or in the fleshy tombs that carry our blighted souls. It's not for nothing that this work is subtitled 'Three Tales of Corporate Horror', and the word is used in both senses. Though his tone is rather different than the tone readers have encountered in his previous works, Ligotti still achieves the same cosmic splendor at the end of his long workday. As a novel, 'My Work Is Not Yet Done' may leave some reader scratching their head. At first, it appears to be heading nowhere fast, and when it gets somewhere, those same readers will find themselves wondering what and why. But those who love Ligotti will rejoice in his ability to morph his style but retain his power. In the end readers who stick around will find that Ligotti is indeed writing a very cleverly constructed novel, not just a long string of weirdness.
'My Work Is Not Yet Done' is followed by two shorter works, 'I Have A Special Plan For This World' and 'The Nightmare Network'. 'I Have A Special Plan For This World' hinges somewhere out past the end of the first story, though the connection is vague at best, in the best fashion of Ligotti's professional evocation of vague. For those who have worked for large corporations where the top boss is mostly a rumor or a headline in the business pages, Ligotti evokes a mystic feeling of being connected to something impossibly huge and possibly evil. 'The Nightmare Network' is Ligotti's first verifiable piece of literary science fiction, a series of evolving prose poems set in the far future of the two preceding pieces.
Throughout this work, Ligotti's sense of humor keeps readers enjoyment high while simultaneously helping to crush their hopes. Few have Ligotti's mastery of humor and horror and his ability to pair them up like a man with his nose to the mirror. The cover image by Harry Morris is gorgeous, and the interior illustration is eerily frightening. However, as much as I usually dislike dust jacket notes, I find their absence on this book somewhat flustering. And, since Frank Dominio is an amateur photographer, who specializes in taking photos of empty buildings and abandoned lots, the opportunity for Mythos to put out a more thoroughly illustrated edition seems obvious. Everything that is here is top rate. But there could have been so much more. Effective DJ notes, and about thirty more B&W collages from Morris would have made this book a classic volume to own. Have no doubt, it's definitely worth owning. But reading Ligotti's work tends to make one think about what's in - or not in - the dark spaces between things of this world, even if they are the pages of the book you're reading." - Rick Kleffel
"I don't read very much horror fiction. I enjoy Poe and Lovecraft and even occasionally King, but the genre doesn't grab me in quite the same way that SF does. But the biggest exception for me is Thomas Ligotti, a little-known writer whose short fiction has mostly been confined to small presses and tiny print runs despite the fact that he's one of the best writers in any genre, living, dead, or otherwise. His sort of most recent work, a novella (or just a short novel, depending on your page count threshold) called My Work is Not Yet Done, won both the Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild in 2002, but didn't get a print run bigger than 1,000 copies until Virgin Books re-released it earlier this year. Some long-time Ligotti fans have complained that the story is too mundane, and certainly its setting, a modern cubicle-ridden office, is more down-to-earth than some of Ligotti's previous work. But despite-- or perhaps because of-- its accessibility, the story contains perhaps the most extreme example of Ligotti's bleak philosophy than anything else he's written to date.
My Work is Not Yet Done is the story of Frank Dominio, a mid-management drone in a company that does... well, we're never quite sure, and it doesn't much matter. Dominio becomes convinced that his co-workers, who he calls the Seven Dwarfs, the Seven Swine, or just the Seven, are conspiring against him. At first it seems like simple paranoia, but events soon begin to prove him right, leading him on a bizarre path of revenge that takes more than a few unexpected turns. More importantly, though, Dominio's understanding of the conspiracy against him grows. He begins to understand that it's not simply the Seven who hope to destroy him, it is the system that they represent-- their company, and, on a greater level, the entire corporate system. In a particularly powerful passage, Dominio decries the aims of his company and others like it:
The company that employed me strived only to serve up the cheapest fare that its customers would tolerate, churn it out as fast as possible, and charge as much as they could get away with. If it were possible to do so, the company would sell what all businesses of its kind dream about selling, creating that which all our efforts were tacitly supposed to achieve: the ultimate product-- Nothing. And for this product, they would command the ultimate price-- Everything.
This market strategy would then go on until one day among the world-wide ruins of derelict factories and warehouses and office buildings, there stood only a single, shining, windowless structure with no entrance and no exit. Inside would be-- will be-- only a dense network of computers calculating profits. Outside will be tribes of savage vagrants with no comprehension of the nature or purpose of the shining, windowless structure. Perhaps they will worship it as a god. Perhaps they will try to destroy it... Ligotti's aim, at this point in the story, seems to be to depict the dehumanizing horror of capitalism. But, as Dominio descends further to the bottom of the conspiracy against him, he begins to see it as a much, much larger problem than simply a poorly-designed economic system. By the end of the book, he describes the being behind the conspiracy, a cosmic entity he calls the Great Black Swine: "a grunting, bestial force that animated, that used our bodies to frolic in whatever mucky thing came its way." This force "moved and manipulated all the created life of this world and gave me the power to move and manipulate things according to my will." The Great Black Swine is more than simply a plot against a single middle-manager; it is something more akin to sin itself-- and, for Ligotti, that nameless evil is ultimate reality.
There are a lot of parallels between Ligotti's worldview and Buddhism. In an interview with the New York Review of Science Fiction, Ligotti acknowledges the similarity, stating that "Buddhism isn’t my point of departure, but I’m in a similar place." Dominio gives a description of the ultimate nature of reality, which he experiences after crushing a cockroach, that seems to express the Three Marks of Existence of Buddhism: that all things are impermanent, that all reality is suffering, and that there is no self. His statement of this enlightenment (not a term he uses, but certainly applicable) could come directly from the Dhammapada:
We were brought into this world out of nothing... We were kept alive in some form, any form, as long as we were viciously thrashing about, acting out our most intensely vital impulses... We would be pulled back into the flowing blackness only when we had done all the damage we were allowed to do, only when our work was done. The work of you against me... and me against you. But where the Buddhist response to this understanding of existence is to seek to liberate all beings from the cycle of suffering, Dominio's reaction is much darker: he concludes that all existence must be destroyed, or, failing that, he must destroy himself. He must do "all the damage he is allowed to do"-- and, by the novel's conclusion, he seems to have gained enough eldritch power to do a great deal of damage indeed. That desire for destruction is the result of the enormous difference between Ligotti's worldview and Buddhism. To Western eyes, Buddhism can appear pessimistic, or even nihilistic: all that talk about existence being suffering, and the ultimate goal being "cessation" from existence as we know it. But in fact Buddhism sees a potential, if not a necessity, for a positive end to the universe in which all created beings cease suffering. Dominio does not see that possibility: he sees only the conspiracy, and not the solution to it.
That pessimism is the biggest distinguishing characteristic between the philosophy of Ligotti's stories and Buddhism. His stories are bleak, but that bleakness is presented in such a singular manner, with such gorgeously-composed prose, that it's impossible not to be intrigued by it. The true horror about which Ligotti writes is ontological; the fear he hopes to awaken in his readers is: what if he's right? By setting this terror of being in so recognizable a setting as a fluorescent-lit office space, My Work is Not Yet Done makes this bleak argument all the more frightening." - Gabriel Mckee
Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory, Harper Paperbacks, 2007.
"A fractured mind is often the way into a world not suspected by those of an innocent normality."
Enter the universe of renowned horror master Thomas Ligotti--a universe where clowns take part in a sinister winter festival, a scheming girlfriend makes reality itself come unraveled, a crumbling asylum's destruction unleashes a greater horror, and a mysterious Teatro comes and goes, leaving only shattered dreams in its wake.
In the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Ligotti's sophisticated tales of terror take us to places few would suspect exist, where madness is only a thought away. The Nightmare Factory adapts four of Ligotti's most chilling tales into fine graphic literature by famed writers and artists Stuart Moore, Joe Harris, Colleen Doran (The Sandman), Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night), Ted McKeever (Batman), and Michael Gaydos (Alias)."
"Thomas Ligotti, in his own words, writes of "a world that both surpasses and menaces this one." He is the contemporary master of the "weird tale," and yet his style is so intellectually intriguing, he has as much in common with Borges and Kafka as with Lovecraft and Machen. If you haven't discovered Ligotti yet, this edition is a great opportunity to do so: it collects all 39 stories from previous collections, plus 6 new ones--also, a forward by Poppy Z. Brite, and an introduction by Ligotti on "What are the consolations of horror?" - Amazon.com Review
"In this stout volume, Ligotti offers American readers selections from three previous collections not readily available in the U.S. and, in a concluding section, some entirely new pieces. Very little seems to be known about Ligotti, but to judge from his stories, he is well traveled, has a superb command of setting and tone as well as of the English language, and is strongly biased toward the darker end of the fantasy spectrum. He also exhibits admirable economy of words, for more than 50 of his stories fit between the covers of this book. If there is very little here that will slake the lover of vast, sprawling horror novels, connoisseurs of literary skill who are willing to be frightened will find the book a feast, albeit one best consumed in small helpings." - Roland Green
Thomas Ligotti, The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, Subterraean Press, 2006. "But I wanted to witness what could never be
I wanted to see what could not be seen -
The moment of consummate disaster
When puppets turn to face the puppetmaster. - Thomas Ligotti, "I Have a Special Plan for This World"
Thomas Ligotti has long been known for the extreme darkness of his philosophical vision, and for the power his stories possess to imprint this darkness upon the reader's own outlook and mood. In this paper I shall examine this darkness as it relates to Ligotti's story "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," which can be found in his collection Grimscribe: His Lives and Works, as well as in his omnibus collection titled The Nightmare Factory. Specifically, I shall examine the ways in which the story uses the motifs of liminal terror and collective identity to achieve the acme of philosophical nightmarishness that has come to be recognized as the hallmark of Ligotti's fictional oeuvre.)
"The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" relates the story of an unspecified rural town which experiences an unnatural prolongation of the autumn season one year. The sights, sounds, and smells of autumn ripen to an almost unbearable pitch, until one night the town's residents see a scarecrow begin to move in a grotesque fashion in a farmer's field on the edge of town. They gather the next day to examine the scarecrow, and when they attack it and remove its outer garments, they discover not the expected wooden frame but "something black and twisted into the form of a man, something that seemed to have come up from the earth and grown over the wooden planks like a dark fungus, consuming the structure" (Ligotti, Grimscribe 222). In a vague communal panic, they dig deep into the earth to find the base of the stalk, but no matter how far they dig, they cannot find its end. By the next day the stalk has disappeared ("It's gone back," says the farmer who owns the field. "Gone into the earth like something hiding in its shell" (224)), and in its place there is now a wide and seemingly bottomless pit. The overripe autumn season continues to linger over the following days and weeks until eventually the townspeople's dreams are affected. "In sleep," they say,
we were consumed by the feverish life of the earth, cast among a ripe, fairly rotting world of strange growth and transformation. We took a place within a darkly flourishing landscape where even the air was ripened into ruddy hues and everything wore the wrinkled grimace of decay, the mottled complexion of old flesh. The face of the land itself was knotted with so many other faces, ones that were corrupted by vile impulses. Grotesque expressions were molding themselves into the darkish grooves of ancient bark and the whorls of withered leaf; pulpy, misshapen features peered out of damp furrows; and the crisp skin of stalks and dead seeds split into a multitude of crooked smiles. All was a freakish mask painted with russet, rashy colors -- colors that bled with a virulent intensity, so rich and vibrant that things trembled with their own ripeness. But despite this gross palpability, there remained something spectral at the heart of these dreams. It moved in shadow, a presence that was in the world of solid forms but not of it. Nor did it belong to any other world that could be named, unless it was to that realm which is suggested to us by an autumn night when fields lay ragged in moonlight and some wild spirit has entered into things, a great aberration sprouting forth from a chasm of moist and fertile shadows, a hollow-eyed howling malignity rising to present itself to the cold emptiness of space and the pale gaze of the moon. (225-6)
Things come to a head one night when two strangers, a woman and a small boy, arrive in town unexpectedly and begin to walk the streets. The townspeople watch from their windows as one of their own named Mr. Marble goes out to meet them. Mr. Marble is an old eccentric, well known to everyone, who all along has seemed to understand much more about what is happening than the other townspeople are able to grasp. He is a blade sharpener by trade, an "old visionary who sharpened knives and axes and curving scythes" (227), and the spell of the season seems to have overtaken him with an especially virulent intensity. On the night of the visitors' arrival, he reappears from an unexplained absence and begins to stalk the streets with a blade in his hand: "Possessed by the ecstasies of a dark festival, he moved in a trance, bearing in his hand that great ceremonial knife whose keen edge flashed a thousand glittering dreams" (228). The townspeople watch in anticipation as he approaches the visitors to perform the rightful sacrifice that will culminate the energies of this aberrant season. But his hand trembles; he is unable to do it, and the woman and the boy flee. The next morning the townspeople find him facedown in the farmer's field, dead of a self-inflicted wound from his own blade. His blood appears to be of the same substance that grew up from the ground and into the scarecrow, and they take the body and throw it into the pit.
From the outset, "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" abounds in details that invite the reader to analyze the story in terms of the motif of liminality. By this term I refer to the idea, so familiar to poststructuralist critics, of a state or category that does not conform to the rigidly defined distinctions of conventional thinking, but instead falls somehow "between" the lines of generally accepted categories. The term "liminal" itself is borrowed from the discipline of anthropology, where many investigators have used it to refer to the status of tribal members during the period of their initiation into full adulthood. Such people are regularly viewed as neither adults nor children for the duration of the initiation ceremony, and as such they "elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space" (Turner 95). In a word, they are liminal entities.
The significance of this idea for the current paper can be found in the fact that encounters with liminal phenomena almost always produce a sense of strangeness, uncomfortableness, or uncanniness. This reaction accounts for the fact, noted by structuralist theorist Edmund Leach, that "whenever we make category distinctions within a unified field...it is the boundaries that matter; we concentrate our attention on the differences, not the similarities, and this makes us feel that the markers of such boundaries are of special value, 'sacred', 'taboo'" (Leach 35). This is so, simply because an encounter with something that falls on the interstices of one's conceptual and cultural "world" tends to remind one of the fact that virtual mountains of phenomena have been, and are being, excluded from one's field of vision by the classificatory grid itself. One realizes that reality itself is much bigger and stranger and more unbounded than one usually perceives it to be, and thus the validity of the grid is called into question. Sociologist Peter Berger argues that "the socially constructed world is, above all, an ordering of experience. A meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals" (Berger 19). Berger further argues that nomization is every society's most important function. To be separated from the nomizing influence of society, he says, is to be in danger of experiencing a sense of meaninglessness, which in his view is "the nightmare par excellence, in which the individual is submerged in a world of disorder, senselessness and madness. Reality and identity are malignantly transformed into meaningless figures of horror. To be in society is to be 'sane' precisely in the sense of being shielded from the ultimate 'insanity' of such anomic terror" (22).
The question at hand, of course, is whether such an experience of anomic terror (which for the purposes of this paper shall be equated with liminal terror) is possible without being separated from a societal nomos. Is it possible that hints of this terror may filter into the daylight world of nomic reality through the interstices of the classificatory grid (which in structural terms would be explained as a system of binary opposites) that define the world's parameters? Is it possible that literature might serve one such venue for the experience of liminal terror? Literary critic Scott Carpenter points out that the use of literary techniques which emphasize the fuzzy boundaries between our conceptual categories -- that is, techniques which emphasize the limen, the threshold between the categories -- "traditionally excite[s] the fear and fascination of readers. Thus the intersection of such opposites as living/dead gives rise to ghost stories (phantoms being both animate and inanimate), the blending of human and inhuman gives birth to such figures as Frankenstein's monster, and the intermingling of past and present becomes the stuff of science fiction." He continues with the sociological observation that "Historically, elements corresponding to the logic of both/and are regarded by society as exceptional, scandalous, and even monstrous. Often efforts are made to repress or at least to neutralize these representations of 'in-between-ness'" (Carpenter 60).
Quite clearly, the experience of liminal terror can indeed be generated by literature, and this brings us back to Ligotti's "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World." As mentioned above, the story seems almost to invite the reader to analyze it in terms of its use of the motif of liminality, and this gives us a clue about the ways in which the story will attempt to affect its readers. Consider, for example, the second sentence of the first paragraph, in which the narrator says that the strange mood of the prolonged autumnal season was evident to everyone, "whether we happened to live in town or somewhere outside its limits" (Ligotti, Grimscribe 219). The liminality of the space between town and countryside is a common theme in some anthropological literature. This is a slippery space: where exactly does town become country? When you find yourself on the outskirts of a town, how can you know for sure whether you are located inside or outside its limit? Immediately, Ligotti has called attention to this liminal space, and has thus begun to invest the story with a mood of liminal terror. The same issue is brought out even more clearly in the next sentence: "(And traveling between town and countryside was Mr. Marble, who had been studying the seasonal signs far longer and in greater depth than we, disclosing prophecies that no one would credit at the time.)" (219) The liminal space that was referred to only obliquely in the previous sentence is now made explicit. Notice that Mr. Marble's liminal status - he travels "between town and countryside" -- is reinforced by the fact that the sentence is enclosed in parentheses. In a way, it can be said that we put mental "parentheses" around all liminal phenomena by relegating them to the periphery of our attention, and so the sentence in which we first meet Mr. Marble has the double effect of situating him in liminal space both in content and in form. This interpretation gains added weight from the fact that the second mention of him in the story, two paragraphs later, is also parenthetical: "But everything upon that land seemed unwilling to support our hunger for revelation, and our congregation was lost in fidgeting bemusement. (With the exception, of course, of Mr. Marble, whose eyes, we recall, were gleaming with illuminations he could not offer us in any words we would understand.)" (221)
In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator describes a field that lies "adjacent to the edge of town," providing yet another invocation of the liminal space between town and countryside (220). The strange nocturnal dance of the scarecrow represents yet another instance of liminality. What is it about scarecrows that seems so strange to so many people? Why do scarecrows sometimes appear as prominent figures in weird literature and horror movies? One reason may be that scarecrows are effigies of the human form, and as such they call attention to another basic category distinction, the distinction between human and not-human. (At this point the reader is referred to Ligotti's longtime fascination with dolls and dummies.) On a subconscious level, scarecrows seem to resist being neatly categorized as either completely human (since they are not alive) or completely non-human (since they are vaguely man-shaped), and so they provoke a peculiar emotional reaction, namely, the experience of liminal terror. When a scarecrow is portrayed as standing alone in a field on a breezeless night, and then beginning to kick its legs as it raises its face to the moonlit sky, one may easily imagine the heightening of the effect that results.
On the morning after the nocturnal dance of the scarecrow, when the townspeople arrive at the farmer's field, things seem rather dreamy and murky. It almost seems as if the people are unable to fully wake up: "The sky had hidden itself behind a leaden vault of clouds, depriving us of the crucial element of pure sunlight which we needed to fully burn off the misty dreams of the past night" (221). This passage highlights yet another basic category distinction: the line between waking reality and dreaming reality. In the famous words of the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu, "Are you a man who dreamed you were a butterfly, or are you now a butterfly dreaming that you are a man?" Strictly speaking, in subjective experience it is impossible to answer this question either way with complete confidence. Equally impossible is the attempt to remember the precise moment when one crosses over from wakefulness into sleep, or vice versa. The very fact that our lives are divided into two realms of consciousness whose fuzzy boundaries make them anything but discrete provides fertile ground for the experience of liminal terror.2) In "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," this truth is exploited by the inability of the narrator to fully wake up on the morning following the scarecrow's dance. Henceforth, the very narration itself can be viewed as taking place in the liminal space between waking and dreaming, and the fact that the story is narrated in the first person means that the reader experiences his or her own reading self as being located in the same space. There is a symmetry in the story's use of liminal periods of time. As with sleep and waking, so with night and day: when exactly does one become the other? Twilight and dawn can both be seen as liminal periods. Significantly, the attack of the townspeople on the scarecrow occurs at twilight, and when they gather back at the field the next morning, it is at the precise moment when "the frigid aurora of dawn appeared over the distant woods" (224).
Near the story's midpoint, the literary cues encouraging us to interpret the story in terms of the experience of liminal terror begin to increase in scope. When the townspeople begin to have their vivid dreams of "a ripe, fairly rotting world of strange growth and transformation," they are beginning to see the dissolution of all their conceptual and perceptual categories. When the visions from their dreams -- the faces and figures visible on walls, the overripe colors of the leaves, etc. -- begin to make their appearance in waking reality itself, it is apparent that the "other world" glimpsed in liminal spaces is on the verge of breaking through and overrunning the daylight world of conceptual categories. The concluding sentence of this section explicitly describes a liminal presence, an unknown and unknowable something that exists not in the categories of our world (or any other) but between them, and is thus worth quoting again:
It moved in shadow, a presence that was in the world of solid forms but not of it. Nor did it belong to any other world that could be named, unless it was that realm which is suggested to us by an autumn night when fields lay ragged in moonlight and some wild spirit has entered into things, a great aberration sprouting forth from a chasm of moist and fertile shadows, a hollow-eyed howling malignity rising to present itself to the cold emptiness of space and the pale gaze of the moon. (225-6)
This is the closest the story gets to describing the nature of the reality which seems to be pressing in upon the daylight "world of solid forms," and the reality so described would seem to correspond in every respect to Berger's description of anomic reality as "a world of disorder, senselessness, and madness" in which "reality and identity are malignantly transformed into meaningless figures of horror" (Berger 22).
More than any other single element, the fact that the story is set in an extended autumn season serves to invest it with a sense of liminal strangeness and terror. During the spring and summer, the world is alive. During the winter it is dead. During autumn it is both, and neither. Of course, the boundaries between all seasons are indistinct, but with autumn the sense of strangeness seems to be particularly pronounced. It is no accident that Halloween, the holiday devoted to acknowledging and celebrating the dark side of life, occurs during this season. Ligotti himself speculates about this quintessential mood of autumn in the opening paragraph of the story when he describes the common thread winding its way through all the autumn scenes pictured on all the calendars in the homes of the townspeople:
On the calendars which hung in so many of our homes, the monthly photograph illustrated the spirit of the numbered days below it: sheaves of cornstalks standing brownish and brittle in a newly harvested field, a narrow house and wide barn in the background, a sky of empty light above, and fiery leafage frolicking about the edges of the scene. But something dark, something abysmal always finds its way into the bland beauty of such pictures, something that usually holds itself in abeyance, some entwining presence that we always know is there. (Ligotti, Grimscribe 219)
This "entwining presence" is none other than the liminal strangeness that seems to be more palpable during the autumn months than at any other time of the year. In the very next sentence, the narrator announces this autumn weirdness as the very subject of the story: "And it was exactly this presence that had gone into crisis...."3) The liminal strangeness of autumn is also accented in this story by the fact that for some reason, autumn won't end. Winter will not come. The temporal setting becomes more and more strange, more and more liminal, as the leaves that should have fallen long ago remain on the trees, and as the field that should have frozen long ago remains warm. As mentioned above, autumn is already a liminal season. The end of autumn is even more so, and Ligotti prolongs this end until the story seems to take place in a time that nobody has ever known before, a time that is familiar and yet unfamiliar, beautiful yet hideous, flourishing yet decaying. Above all, it is a time that is thoroughly terrifying in its liminality.
This investigation of the liminal motif in "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" does not deliver its full reward until we consider it in light of the second motif I have chosen to emphasize, which is the motif of collective identity. We can see at a glance that the story is told in the first person plural. The pronoun I does not appear a single time. Instead, the townspeople seem to narrate the story with a single voice (all emphases in the following quotes are mine): "The field allowed full view of itself from so many of our windows" (220). "Soft lights shone through curtained windows along the length of each street, where our trim wooden homes seemed as small as dollhouses beneath the dark rustling depths of the season" (224). "Our speculations were brief and useless" (224). "It was not long after this troubling episode that our dreams, which formerly had been the merest shadows and glimpses, swelled into full phase" (225). "But the truth is that we wanted something to happen to them -- we wanted to see them silenced. Such was our desire" (229). This narrative voice, while relatively rare, is hardly unheard of in the annals of literature, but in this particular story it is unusually important, and we will find that a careful consideration of it will elicit some significant points.
For instance, consider for a moment the first person plural narrative voice in light of the concept of liminal terror as developed in the paper up to this point. Viewed this way, we immediately begin to sense the strangeness of the voice. In concrete reality we never experience a communal voice either objectively or subjectively (the claims of Freudian psychoanalytic theory about repression etc. notwithstanding). In fact, in concrete reality we never experience such a thing as a group. Consider, for example, the idea of "fruit." You can't hold "fruit" in your hand. "Fruit" is a category, a conceptual grouping that is useful for purposes of classification and recognition, but that in truth has no concrete referent. In existential reality you can only hold a specific fruit, e.g. an apple or a banana. The same is true of human groupings. There is no such existential entity as a group, e.g. a town. There is real land, there are real houses and streets and street lamps, there are real individual people, but the grouping of these separate entities into the collective entity known as a "town" is a conceptual exercise, and this leads us to view the first person plural narrative voice as something extremely peculiar, something that tends to inspire feelings of liminal terror and strangeness. The collective narrator of "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" can exist only in mental space. Even if a thousand people were to read the story aloud in unison, they would still amount to nothing more than a thousand separate voices. At no point could we say that a true collective voice had emerged from the group reading. Ligotti's use of the collective narrator immediately creates an aura of otherworldly strangeness; as we read the story we are placed inside the mind of an entity that is at once entirely familiar (the population of a town) and yet entirely strange (the collective voice of a town).
Having established this point, it becomes most interesting and revealing to note the use of the third person to refer to characters in the story, because such instances serve to sharpen the boundaries of the collective narrator's identity. There are only five people in the story who are referred to in the third person: Mr. Marble, the farmer who owns the field containing the scarecrow, the anonymous townsperson who says "Maybe there'll be some change in the spring" (although this person may still be considered to exist within the boundaries of the collective narrator), and the woman and child who arrive in town unexpectedly. Whenever someone is referred to in the third person, he or she is thereby placed outside the boundary of the "we" who are telling the story. The logic behind these instances seems to make sense. The farmer owns the field from which the black stalk erupts, and the collective narrator wants to distance him/her/itself from the strange manifestation. The farmer is excluded from the boundary of the narrator's collective identity simply by virtue of the fact that he is too closely associated with something the narrator fears. The person who speaks of a possible change in the spring may still be considered a member of the group; perhaps "someone said" may be taken as implying "one of us said." The mother and son are complete outsiders; their very alienness to the narrator seems to bring out the narrator's greatest fear: "Our fear was what they might have known, what they must certainly have discovered, about us" (229, Ligotti's emphasis).
But these instances are all overshadowed by the extended treatment of Mr. Marble, who possesses by far the strongest individual identity of any character in the story. He is always referred to in the third person, and interestingly, his notable individuality seems to be bound up somehow with the fact of his liminal positioning. He is notable because he travels "between town and countryside" both physically and in his thoughts. His deep knowledge makes him opaque: his "eyes, we recall, were gleaming with illuminations he could not offer us in any words we would understand." He is able to "read in the leaves" the activities of that strange liminal presence that is forcing its way into the light. The fact that he sharpens blades for a living only serves to reinforce his individuality and his liminal status: blades cut, blades separate, just as the sharpness of Mr. Marble's mind slices through, and perhaps widens, the lines or cracks in the world through which the liminal presence is emerging. Importantly, he is the only character in the story to be given a separate name, and the name "Marble" itself suggests the streaking or mottling of separate colors (read: separate conceptual categories) that would occur if the liminal were transposed with the conceptual or the nomic.
Ironically -- or perhaps all too expectedly -- Mr. Marble's individuality, his ability to see and think on his own apart from the crowd, renders him especially susceptible to invasion and domination by the invading presence. His mental acuity fades as he is drawn farther and farther into the thrall of the dark presence, until eventually he is entirely under its control, much in the manner of the scarecrow which was invaded by the "thick dark stalk which rose out of the earth and reached into the effigy like a hand into a puppet" (222). Before being taken over by the presence, Mr. Marble unwittingly states his own doom as a cryptic prophecy: "Doesn't have arms, but it knows how to use them. Doesn't have a face, but it knows where to find one" (227). When the strangers arrive in town on the night when the gathering eruption is obviously coming to a head, the liminal has become central. After having been referred to twice in parentheses, after having spent so much time "traveling between town and countryside," Mr. Marble is now at the center of the town and the center of events. In the mind of the collective narrator, by all rights Mr. Marble should kill the visitors. This is the end toward which the entire upsurge of energy has been leading. The proper sacrifice will signal the completion of the strange mutation. The energy has reached a peak and must be discharged.
But at this point the story reveals an even deeper layer, a layer that further complicates the issue of collective identity vs. individual identity, and that promises to bear fruit in our ongoing investigation of the story's use of liminal terror. Even though Mr. Marble's "outsideness," his liminality and individuality, are responsible for opening him up to control by the invading presence, they also endow him with the freedom to choose. When he chooses not to complete the sacrifice, and instead to vent the gathering energy on himself, the true heart of the narrator's identity is revealed by the fact that they want the sacrifice to be completed. They want the outsiders to be killed because "only then would we be sure that they could not tell what they knew... Our fear was what they might have known, what they must certainly have discovered, about us."
Which one has truly surrendered self-control to the invading dark presence, Mr. Marble or the narrator? Mr. Marble can still resist. The townspeople cannot, because -- and here is the awaited reward -- they realize that the nightmarish reality attempting to break through into their daylit world is none other than their own deepest self. The dark thing is the root of their own collective identity. It is they who have been controlled by the black stalk rising up into the scarecrow "like a hand into a puppet." The very fact that they have been speaking in a collective voice, which, as noted above, can occur only in a liminal space, shows that the dark root has been behind their thoughts and actions all along. Their horror is self horror. They do not want to become self-conscious, to recognize and know the horrible thing which they are.
Although "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" was originally published in issue number sixteen of the small press horror magazine Fear, we can deepen our understanding of its secrets by viewing it as being organically related to Ligotti's second collection of short stories, titled Grimscribe: His Lives and Works, in which it is the final piece. This allows us to relate it back to the framing device introduced at the beginning of the book, where in the introduction the stories in the collection are framed as tales told by a metaphysical entity who has no name, but who for the purposes of the book has decided to call itself Grimscribe. It is also said that his name is the name of everyone, and that "he keeps his name secret, his many names. He hides each one from all the others, so that they will not become lost among themselves. Protecting his life from all his lives, from the memory of so many lives, he hides behind the mask of anonymity" (Ligotti, Grimscribe ix). This could just as well be taken as describing the narrator of "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," a story which is appropriately the only entry in the final section of the book titled "The Voice of Our [i.e. Grimscribe's] Name" (other sections being titled "The Voice of the Damned," "The Voice of the Demon," "The Voice of the Dreamer," and "The Voice of the Child"). Considered in light of Grimscribe as a whole, this story may be understood as being narrated by Grimscribe itself in the first person, standing out at last from behind the mask of the other characters in whose guises it has appeared (all the stories in Grimscribe are told in the first person). If Grimscribe is indeed the name of everyone, then the near transposition of worlds in "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" represents the near loss of all sanity and identity. The collective identity of the town brings about the horror, because such collectivity is already the beginning of that "backward slide," as Grimscribe calls it, "into that great blackness in which all names [i.e. identities] have their source" (ix).
The narrator's (Grimscribe's) fear of what the visitors might have discovered about it may arise at least in part from the fact that the discovery of the townspeople's secret is also the discovery of the visitors' secret. That is, the madness passes itself on through the recognition of one's own secret self in another. Grimscribe's careful self-deception almost comes unraveled in a horrible birth of self-awareness. When Grimscribe/the townspeople drop Mr. Marble's body into the bottomless pit, its/their motives are obscure. On the one hand, they are still horrified by the black substance that has replaced Mr. Marble's blood, and this shows that they are still horrified at the possible discovery of their own identity. On the other hand, they envy and hate Mr. Marble because he represents the individuality which eludes them. The key to understanding their action lies in the recognition that in a perverse way, they/Grimscribe wanted their own destruction to be complete. The murder of the outsiders would have killed the spread of the townspeople's self-knowledge, but it would also have signaled the successful conquest of the daylight world by the darkness, and thus brought an end (albeit not a pleasant one) to their, and Grimscribe's, torturous charade. Grimscribe would have met the darkness and discovered it to be his own self, and there would have been no one left to say or do or know or suffer or fear or be anything. But since the rightful sacrifice was aborted, Grimscribe must continue the charade, and conscious beings must continue to suffer the ambivalence of simultaneously fearing and longing for ultimate self-knowledge, until at last, in the words of Ligotti's prose poem "Primordial Loathing," "that perfect lid of darkness falls over this world once more" (Ligotti, Noctuary 179)." - Matt Cardin
Thomas Ligotti, Noctuary, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1995. "Ligotti's clever title suggests the marriage of "nocturne" and "mortuary," an appropriate preparation for this dark grouping of tales. In the foreword, the author explains that they fall in the category of "weird fiction," that is, extreme gothic horror, featuring macabre endings and unremitting doom. The studied extravagance in the narration of the some of the stories verges on stylistic overkill. Nevertheless, as gothic tales, a number of them are interesting. Three good tales are "The Medusa," which tells of a scholar obsessed with the Gorgon whom Perseus apparently did not kill; "Mrs. Rinaldi's Angel," a tale that lends new meaning to the term "bad dreams"; and the novella-length "The Tsalal," a gothic work of demonic prophecy that boasts a gruesome ending. These 27 stories describe shadowy worlds of blurred dimensions and ill-lit interiors; as with all such tales, the "when" and "where" are much less important than the atmosphere of gothic horror produced by Ligotti's baroque prose." - Publishers Weekly
"Ligotti has written another colorful collection of horror stories, which spring on the unsuspecting reader the combination of supernatural characters, natural props, and "weird" circumstances. Stories include "The Medusa," which recounts the horror of Lucian Dregler, a man obsessed with finding the Medusa, the hideous woman with serpents on her head whose look turns men to stone. "Conversations in a Dead Language" is told from the perspective of an insane candy giver on three subsequent Halloweens; suspense mounts with each year as the reader witnesses the narrator's physical and mental deterioration. The last section of the book, "Notebook of the Night," is filled with short, lurid vignettes--snapshots of horror that demonstrate Ligotti's command of language and rich imagination. Starkly colored images keep the reader gasping. Recommended for horror collections." - Stacie Browne Chandler
Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1991. "Songs of a Dreamer was Thomas Ligotti's first collection of supernatural horror stories. When originally published in 1985 by Harry Morris's Silver Scarab Press, the book was hardly noticed. In 1989, an expanded version appeared that garnered accolades from several quarters. Writing in the Washington Post, the celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Michael Swanwick extolled: 'Put this volume on the shelf right between H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Where it belongs.'
The revisions in the present volume of Songs of a Dead Dreamer have been calculated to make its stories into enhanced incarnations of the originals. This edition is and will remain definitive.
For those already familiar with the stories in Songs of a Dead Dreamer, an invitation is extended to return to them in their ultimate state. For those new to the collection, it is submitted to engage them with some of the most extraordinary tales of their kind. In either case, this publication of Songs of a Dead Dreamer offers evidence for why Ligotti has been judged to be among the most important authors in the history of supernatural horror."
"A reissue of Ligotti's first horror collection, which appeared in a limited edition in 1986, this volume includes several revised stories and others new to the book. Few of them are truly horrific; the emphasis is on language--sometimes poetic, achieving the quality of a woven tapestry, sometimes merely drab. Not one is strong on plot. "Notes on the Writing of Horror" and "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror" straddle the line between nonfiction and fiction; they contain self-descriptive essays that are evocative of mood and setting. "The Chemyst" has a new drug he shares with London's lowlife. "The Lost Art of Twilight" concerns a man trying to live down his mother's association with vampires. The cleverly titled "Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes" has an equally clever denouement. "Masquerade of a Dead Sword" is heroic fantasy with a twist. "The Music of the Moon" reminds one of Charles Williams's supernatural thriller. The other 13 stories suffer from combinations of murky prose, meaningless events and lack of focus." - Publishers Weekly
Thomas Ligotti, Grimscribe: his lives and works, Jove, 1994) "The eponymous first-person narrator of this chilling collection assumes many different guises in spinning his eerie tales, but the voice in each of the 12 stories remains the same, a voice "always speaking of terrible secrets." Witness, participant, victim, Grimscribe is, above all, our guide through a landscape at once relentlessly dark and luminously revealing, where a "brood of dark forms" push "through the fog" and "dark bricks that bulge like tumors" appear "on the facades of houses." Prisoners of this bleak but fascinating world include a mild-mannered village schoolteacher sent in "Flowers of the Abyss" to discover the awful truth behind a house in which an entire family perished horribly; in "The Cocoons" we encounter a man trapped in a unique doctor/patient relationship who finds the treatment infinitely more agonizing than the disease; instead of the three Rs, the young boy in "Miss Plarr" receives from his tutor a few lessons in "the sound of something that stings the air." Stylishly wrought in the best tradition of the American gothic and wonderfully reminiscent of Poe and Hawthorne, these scary stories transcend their genre. and command respect." - Publishers Weekly "High-style horror stories in a classic literary mode, in expressiveness not far from the American masters, Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Ligotti (Songs of a Dead Dreamer, 1990) writes out of what seems an all-embracing depression, making him willing to go into wipeout areas time and again and ask a lot both of himself and his readers. His narrators seldom effect any change; they simply observe a superbly described inner state, then leave, hungover. In ``The Last Feast of Harlequin,'' a professor obsessed with clowns locates a clown festival in the midwestern town of Mirocaw. He goes to observe and join the townsfolk in their festival, perhaps wearing his clown suit. But the festival is not meant for him. In fact, it is two festivals, one within the other, the inner one being a cruel festival of freaks who are detested and beaten by members of the larger clown festival. He joins the freaks and follows them out of town and down a hole in the earth wherein they have borne their frigid Winter Queen. In a cavernous earthen hall, the freaks begin turning into huge worms, and he flees up the black wormhole by which he entered. In ``The Glamour,'' the narrator enters a weird boarded-up movie house to find himself in a sparse audience surrounded by purple lights and seated amid hairy threads that bind all to their seats as they watch a cobweb screen on which is shown grisly purple organs being operated on. He leaves before he can be imprisoned by the floating and crawling hairs. In ``The Night School,'' he enters a dark, weird schoolground where strange figures stand around misshapen metal drums in firelight; then he goes into the hideously rotting school for a bizarre class in ``measurement of cloacal forces. Time as a flow of sewage. The excrement of space, scatology of creation...'' He leaves, finding the moon "coated with a luminous mold, floating... in the great sewers of the night.'' Thirteen tales out of a maggoty delirium." -Kirkus Reviews
"Some books and authors come into your life at precisely the right moment. They speak to you with a voice that sounds uncannily like your own, only better, more developed, more confident and mature, and profoundly wiser than you are about the secret themes that have long occupied your most private thoughts. They crystallize insights and intuitions that have flickered for years at the edge of your awareness, and they open up tantalizing new vistas that show you just how deep the secret springs of your fascination flow. In other words, they say what you have always wanted to say about things that have always been deeply important to you, and they say it in a way that resonates perfectly with your readerly sensibility. The net effect is to dumbfound and delight you with the exhilarating, unnerving sense of having come face to face with your own secret self mirrored in words written by another.
Certain writers are more prone to eliciting this experience than others, simply because of the way they write. For example, many millions of people have read and loved The Da Vinci Code, but it’s unlikely that any of them have found the voice of their soul reflected in Dan Brown’s prose. The same holds true for virtually all genre writers and mass market writers. When was the last time somebody felt profoundly confirmed and transformed by reading a Robert Ludlum novel? Or a Dean Koontz novel? Or a Conan story? Or a Harlequin romance? It seems the transformative power of literature is almost always found in the explicitly “literary” branch of the family tree, and with a few rare exceptions in the work of authors who write in a specific genre but do so with a distinctive voice and sophisticated style, and under the power of a driving personal vision. In such cases the term “literary” is often appended to the generic category label, so that for instance we today have the subgenre known as “literary horror.”
Which brings us to Thomas Ligotti. From the beginning of his career as a published writer in the early 1980s, Ligotti has identified himself as a horror writer. He doesn’t want to be known as anything else. He has, on occasion, taken exception when people have tried to label him otherwise. But when he says he writes horror, he means he writes from the center of what he knows best as a human being, and this is what elevates him to the status of a true literary artist. According to one commonly invoked dictum, art is centrally defined by its goal of expressing an individual’s emotion, which distinguishes it from entertainment, whose goal is to arouse emotion in the audience. Ligotti’s literary motivation has always placed his works in the former category. When he was 17 years old, he experienced the onset of what would become a lifelong panic-anxiety disorder. The first attack came as a kind of affective puncturing of his worldview that revealed the monstrous nature of everything that is, and that laid the emotional and philosophical foundation for his exquisite responsiveness to the writings of Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe, whom he encountered not long afterward, and who served as his own initial roster of transformative writers.
Over time this roster grew to include not only many additional writers of supernatural horror fiction, but also “experimental” writers, philosophers, essayists, literary theorists, and dozens more from all over the literary and geographical maps. The list of his inspirations and influences has become a kind of litany to his many passionate fans: Charles Baudelaire, Thomas Bernhard, Aloysius Bertrand, Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs, Louis Ferdinand Celine, E. M. Cioran, Douglas Harding, U.G. Krishnamurti, Vladimir Nabokov, Emile Nelligan, Maurice Rollinat, Arthur Schopenhauer, Bruno Schulz, Paul Valery, and many, many more. In the process of assimilating and responding to all of these, Ligotti has developed a unique style that places him firmly in the “literary” category and, in tandem with the dark vibrancy of his personal vision, makes him one of those transformative writers whose work can explode into a reader’s life like an eruption from the collective unconscious.
Please note that when I say things like that, I speak from personal experience. I didn’t encounter Ligotti until late 1997, nearly two decades after his work first began appearing in the horror small press and over a decade after the publication of his first fiction collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer. But today it feels as if I’ve known him much longer than that. From the first few pages of Grimscribe, his second collection, which was the first one I read, I felt as if I had been waiting my whole life to read such things. Several years earlier I had begun trying to express my own dark and troubled spiritual philosophy in stories of supernatural horror, but only one such attempt had amounted to anything, and I had buried it after it was rejected by a few small press publications (some of whose editors included very complimentary personal notes with the rejection slips). Reading Grimscribe was a revelation, confirmation, and inspiration all at once. Here was somebody who was saying many of the very same things that I had been getting at in my novice stories of absolute spiritual and existential horror, but he was saying it exquisitely, with what seemed a mystically charged aplomb, like a dark magus whispering sinister truths inside my head. I had felt much the same way about Lovecraft as I had reveled in his writings for the previous ten or fifteen years. Now here was somebody new who delivered an even more potent dose of that magical experience.
It was enough to make me wonder again about the possibilities of my own long-buried story. So I dug it out, revised it slightly, and ended up seeing it published on the Web at the newly-created Thomas Ligotti Online, where it garnered praise from the likes of Brian McNaughton and Ligotti himself. This encouraged me to try my hand at some more stories, which eventually led to my first fiction collection, Divinations of the Deep, some of whose contents were first published at TLO. And a few years after “Teeth” appeared at TLO, it became my first print publication credit when it was included in the Del Rey anthology The Children of Cthulhu. So my career as a published writer is intimately bound up with my revelatory discovery of Thomas Ligotti.
I’ve written a great deal about Ligotti — or rather Tom, since I’ve been lucky enough to cultivate his friendship over the past several years — in the time since that first encounter, and have seen these writings published in some very fine venues, including Thomas Ligotti Online, The Art of Grimscribe, and The Thomas Ligotti Reader. The next issue of editor S.T. Joshi’s Studies in Weird Fiction will feature my essay on Tom’s relationship to Lovecraft. (I think it will be issue #26, but I’m not sure of that.) So among the relatively small crowd of readers who know my name, I’ve firmly associated myself with Tom, which is just fine with me. [NOTE, 9/28/10: That essay about Ligotti and Lovecraft actually ended up appearing in the first issue of Joshi's new journal Lovecraft Annual in 2007. It's also available online; see below.]
Several years ago I began to think of interviewing him, but I never got around to it until now. The following interview was conducted by email over the course of about a week in July 2006. Tom has been so very generous in giving interviews through the years that it was impossible to avoid some overlap. A few of my questions and a few of his answers repeat or resonate with things he has said before. I don’t think this is a problem, since his readership finds an inherent fascination in just about everything he says, and since I didn’t set out explicitly to break new ground. But I do think I ended up accomplishing that by focusing a number of questions on the topic of his creative process. I’ve long been interested in what writers have to say about the practice of their craft, and have read so many books about the subject that I probably qualify as a junkie. So when Tom agreed to an interview, I seized the opportunity to ask him about some things I’ve wanted to know for years. Andre Dubus once wrote that his friend, the poet Michael Van Walleghen, said Kafka and Kierkegaard were his heroes “because they lived in the abyss, and kept throwing books out of it.” That’s how I feel about Tom. The existential horror that he presents in his stories is authentic. He isn’t seeking to entertain, but to express what’s most real to him. This leads to a conflicted situation wherein I wish for his sake that he could find freedom from his raging unhappiness, but am glad for my sake that this unhappiness exists to inspire and charge his writing. Naturally, I found his responses to my questions fascinating, and I hope you do, too." - Matt Cardin
“The book I would like to be buried with is a book I have never read, and likely never shall read. Its title is Die Philosophie der Erlösung (The Philosophy of Redemption) by Philipp Mainländer (born Philip Batz). The Philosophy of Redemption was published in German in 1876 and has not yet been translated into English. Perhaps it will be so translated before I die; perhaps not. I own a selection of Philipp Mainländer’s works in German that I would like to pay someone to translate, but translators are expensive. I’ve thought about taking on the task myself, but I know enough about the German language not to attempt to become so intimate with it that I could translate the words of a nineteenth-century German philosopher. (See Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language).
While I have not read the massive Philosophy of Redemption, I know its main points from reading others’ writings on it to be absolutely certain that this is the book I want to be buried with. Most of these writings are cited in my book The Conspiracy against the Human Race, which contains a section on Mainländer and his philosophy. Basically, the German pessimist believed in the goodness of the prospect that the human race should become extinct. This good thing would happen, according to Mainländer’s metaphysics, because there exists within humanity a gradually mounting Will-to-die, the mirror image of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Will-to-live as elucidated in his World as Will and Representation (which fortunately has been translated into English three times). Here I quote from Conspiracy:
Mainländer was confident that the Will-to-die he believed would well up in humanity had been spiritually grafted into us by a God who, in the beginning, masterminded His own quietus. It seems that existence was a horror to God. Unfortunately, God was impervious to the depredations of time. This being so, His only means to get free of Himself was by a divine form of suicide.
God’s plan to suicide himself could not work, though, as long as He existed as a unified entity outside of space-time and matter. Seeking to nullify His oneness so that He could be delivered into nothingness, he shattered Himself—Big Bang-like—into the time-bound fragments of the universe, that is, all those objects and organisms that have been accumulating here and there for billions of years. In Mainländer’s philosophy, “God knew that he could change from a state of super-reality into non-being only through the development of a real world of multiformity.” Employing this strategy, He excluded Himself from being. “God is dead,” wrote Mainländer, “and His death was the life of the world.” Once the great individuation had been initiated, the momentum of its creator’s self-annihilation would continue until everything became exhausted by its own existence, which for human beings meant that the faster they learned that happiness was not as good as they thought it would be, the happier they would be to die out….
Rather than resist our end, as Mainländer concludes, we will come to see that “the knowledge that life is worthless is the flower of all human wisdom.” Elsewhere the philosopher states, “Life is hell, and the sweet still night of absolute death is the annihilation of hell.”
More beautiful and soothing words I’ve never heard in my life than the above two quotes from Mainländer’s book — the book that I would like to be buried with.” - Thomas Ligotti
THE REPUBLICATION by Penguin Classics of Thomas Ligotti’s first two story collections marks the next stage of the ascendance of cosmic horror to the commanding heights of our literary culture. H.P. Lovecraft’s breakthrough — represented by the Library of America edition of his tales a decade ago — inaugurated the first stage. Over 70 years intervened between Lovecraft’s original appearances behind the garish covers of Weird Tales and his canonization in austere black binding. Ligotti has had to wait less than half that time: his first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, appeared in an edition of a few hundred copies in 1986.
The two writers share more than a genre and a trajectory from an underworld of little magazines and small presses to near-universal critical acclaim. Ligotti’s fiction undertakes a painstaking and ingenious exploration of the territory first mapped by the elder master. This second event — the Ligotti breakthrough — transforms our understanding of the first. We have fallen in love with the world revealed by Lovecraft’s fiction, but we have not understood what we love or why. Ligotti shows us.
First, we must acknowledge the symptoms of the love of cosmic horror all around us. To take an example near to hand, the Lovecraftian Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin volume, was published by the high-lit house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux to high praise in 2014. But perhaps Lovecraft’s most ardent recent lovers have been philosophers like Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, and Eugene Thacker, who approach his work with a new kind of intellectual intensity. These philosophers see Lovecraft as effecting a kind of Copernican revolution. In story after story, he depicts the invasion of the human world by a monstrous perspective, embodied in hideous forms of alien life. But what makes Lovecraftian horror genuinely cosmic is the capacity of the monstrous perspective to put humans in their place.
Ancient Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s demon/god/alien, represents a universe profoundly indifferent to human life. Cthulhu’s evil is not the Christian evil that specifically targets the human — like the devil, who spends his time prospecting for souls — but a more unsettling impersonal malevolence that simply fails to register anything of value or interest in our species. This is the impersonal malevolence of billions of icy planets, of trillions of miles of space, of primordial rock formations under the sea. They don’t care about us.
The philosophers believe that Lovecraft’s fictions dramatize the truth about the universe. To understand the world we find ourselves in, we need to “unhumanize our views a little,” in words of Lovecraft’s contemporary, the poet Robinson Jeffers. A good unhumanizing exercise is to ask: how does the world look to Cthulhu? The monstrous perspective of Lovecraft’s invention presents the ultimate challenge to anthropomorphism, which these thinkers argue became endemic to philosophy with the work of Immanuel Kant.
The philosophers imitate Lovecraft by resolutely pushing to the margins our own interest in the world, our own desire for the world, our own experience of the world. They tell us that we should strive to see ourselves as the puny and fundamentally insignificant beings we are. We need to abandon our comforting illusions of a human-centered world and orient our thought to the vast cold universe of things. We must inquire how things look from the perspective of the things themselves; we must attend to the world without us. As Thacker writes, those who desire truth should lose interest in their own experience, and instead track “that which in the shadows withdraws from any possible experience.” We will thereby overcome the Kantian human revolution and become soldiers of Lovecraft’s inhuman revolution, on the horrific path to the things in themselves.
From a distance, this strict disavowal of human experience gives Lovecraft’s philosophical readers a kind of alluring rigor. They ruthlessly expunge any human residue from their brave investigation of the abysses of the material world. But, after Nietzsche taught us to seek the desire behind the commitment to objectivity, we should perhaps be a little skeptical of any philosophy that claims to have freed itself from human psychology. And so we must ask:
Is it true that we who love cosmic horror are only interested in the truth? If Lovecraft is the last word in disenchanted realism, why is nearly every page of his tales stuffed with supernatural phenomena of the most unreal kind? Can it be that this strict avoidance of anthropomorphism is itself a mystification? Are we afraid to peer too deeply into our experience of the Lovecraftian abyss? Do we fear learning the nature of our desire for what Lovecraft offers?
¤Before reading Ligotti, I didn’t ask such questions. But in miniature narratives of uncanny craftsmanship, Ligotti psychologizes the phenomenon of cosmic horror, showing us the human appeal of inhuman vision. He suggests that our desire for knowledge of the world beyond the human conceals our desire to lose ourselves in it.
Consider the following passage from “The Mystics of Muelenberg,” in which the possessor of an uncanny enlightenment describes his new perspective on the social world:
I hear them buzzing like flies in the blackness […] they are struggling, straining every second to keep the sky above them, to keep the sun in the sky, to keep the dead in the earth — to keep all things, so to speak, where they belong. What an undertaking! What a crushing task! Is it any wonder that they are all tempted by a universal vice, that in some dark street of the mind a soft voice whispers to one and all: “Lay down your burden.” Then thoughts begin to drift, a mystical magnetism pulls them this way and that, faces start to change.
Today one often hears the call to surrender our anthropomorphic vision as an ethical challenge. Being less anthropomorphic will enable us to care for the environment better; it will advance animal rights. Such calls confuse inhuman vision with human empathy. Empathy might be a door leading to inhuman vision, but inhuman vision is not empathy. To unhumanize our vision involves a disintegration of the world where such things as “care of the environment” make sense. When one truly sees the world inhumanly, there is no environment. Nor is there care.
Ligotti gives this wild impulse to surrender our human way of seeing things its proper name: vice. His protagonists voluptuously give themselves over to it. They seek disciplines and practices that will give them the capacity to see the human world as a deceptive veil, “an ornamented void.” They wish to live, as the speaker of the lines quoted above lives, “in unwavering acceptance of the spectral nature of things.” Organic and inorganic matter pushes through the familiar shapes of the human world and warps them. Our world dissolves in fantastic shapes and unreal colors, “appearances cast out of emptiness.”
To understand the allure of the vice of posthumanism, you must empathize with the workers in the quotation. Have you ever felt the things of the human world like a burden you carry?
Some of us have. The critic Rei Terada has written about how mild optical illusions — something so simple as looking at your room through a bit of colored cellophane — lift the burden of reality slightly. As I look out my window now, I see cars, houses, streetlights — all heavy with the boring solidity of human social life. But if I follow what Terada tells us about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic, proto-Ligottian practice, and squint my eyes in just the right way, the streetlamp outside looks like it is submerged beneath flowing water. The burden has been slightly lifted.
What happened? A little gap opened between appearance and reality. For a moment, the streetlamp looked different. It looked as if it belonged to another world than the one I know. At such moments I am like the protagonist of Ligotti’s greatest story, “Vastarien”: “a votary of that wretched sect of souls who believe that the only value of this world lies in its power — at certain times — to suggest another.”
In the human view of things, appearance is welded to reality. Things are what they seem. The appearance of the streetlamp is welded to the function of lighting streets, which is welded to the effort to prevent crime, which is welded to the concerns of middle-class suburbanites, and so on. This is human reality. But if you can short-circuit the connection between appearance and depth, between thing and meaning, you can open a little hole in reality. You can make this human world suggest another.
What if this streetlight is submerged under water?
What if this streetlight is a fantastic antenna operated by a secret organization?
What if this streetlight is a thin metallic alien holding its breath until I look away?
Things are not what they seem. This is the mantra and the practice of cosmic horror. Lovecraft wrote stories in which familiar appearances — mountains, stars, old New England houses — melt away from things that now wear an unspeakably different aspect. While the focus in Lovecraft is always on the alien reality below the appearances, Ligotti is fascinated by the simple capacity of changing appearances to suggest a different reality. He pursues the inhumanist psychology of the process in which appearances come loose from their anchor in the human world.
What happens when I see the streetlamp as a strange species of antenna is not that the new, alien reality of the streetlamp is revealed beneath the old human reality of the streetlamp. It is that the streetlamp begins to look slightly unreal. And I like this, because “everything in the unreal points to the infinite.” The unreal is “unbounded by the strictures of existing.”
To Ligotti’s protagonists, this unreality is deliriously liberating. The hero of “Vastarien,” the story containing the above lines, develops a taste for unreality by noticing a few odd appearances in his city. These whet his appetite. But he finds persistent and satisfying unreality in an occult book, which gives him extended dreams of an unreal city. From the finitude of the human world, his consciousness is released into the infinite. Other Ligotti protagonists discover the gap between seeming and reality in strange religious rituals, or in exotic artifacts.
Ligotti looks for inspiration as much to writers of the high modernist tradition (Kafka, Baudelaire) as he does to Lovecraft. This conjunction should be unsurprising, because the key modernist aesthetic strategy, which Viktor Shklovsky in his classic 1917 essay “Art as Technique” termed defamiliarization, is also the key strategy for producing the unreality of cosmic horror. Defamiliarization cancels the habituated meanings of the human world, and allows appearances to float free.
Ligotti’s grasp of canonical modernism’s resources for cosmic horror helps explain the fact that his prose is the sharpest and most richly imaged of any in the genre. His metaphors are often drawn from the realm of modern art, as when a vampiric narrator compares his life to “a piece of modern music: a slow, throbbing drone like the lethargic pumping of a premature heart.” But while a modernist like Shklovsky claims that defamiliarization restores our human life by awakening us to vivid perception, Ligotti doesn’t hesitate to inform us of the very different aim his own art pursues. Stories like “The Spectacles in the Drawer” dramatize a person’s encounter with defamiliarized surfaces. The narrator introduces a character to a strange lens that transforms vision according to the logic of Shklovkian modernism. Under the spell of this new vision, “everything is so brilliant, so great, and so alive […] Unimaginable diversity of form and motion, design and dimension, with each detail perfectly crystalline.” But as Ligotti tells it, this encounter is not a healthy tonic, but a baptism into a corrosive mode of seeing that, in a shockingly literal manner I won’t give away, disfigures the human. It is likely — as studies of the persistently defamiliarizing vision of schizophrenics suggest — that in emphasizing the destructive dimension of persistent defamiliarization, Ligotti is more realistic than Shklovsky.
In describing Ligotti’s stylistic achievement, I wouldn’t want to denigrate the other practitioners of a genre that is often richer at the level of the sentence than the aesthetics of realism can appreciate. Lovecraft, as Harman’s brilliant study of him demonstrates, is a criminally underappreciated stylist. But Ligotti is characteristically more intentional and insightful about the psychological implications, the inhumanizing psychological function, of his style. As in “The Spectacles in the Drawer,” which is the story of perhaps the strangest aesthetic education in history, Ligotti frequently doubles the style of his sentences with reflections on style’s occult power carried out at the level of the plot. In “The Lost Art of Twilight” a painter discovers abstraction to be the most direct expression of his inhuman being. “Alice’s Last Adventure” depicts the invasion of an author’s reality by her style. And in nearly every piece we can find lines that serve both as a description of the action, and of his own art. Consider this sentence from “The Dreaming in Nortown”: “All that was needed to shatter this acceptance waited outside — something of total unacceptability atop a rickety scaffold of estrangement.” His stories are allegories of a style of writing that carries out guerilla warfare against the familiar world. They feature characters that fall victim to — or develop an insatiable taste for — seeing the world the way Ligotti’s style sees the world.
Another way to show the difference between Lovecraft and Ligotti is through their choice of protagonists. The typical Lovecraft protagonist is a scholar or detective, a seeker after truth, who is appalled to discover that things are not as they seem. While Lovecraft stories contain references to devotees of the occult phenomena that repel his nervous heroes, he rarely explores the cultists’ perspective. In reading “The Call of Cthulhu,” I’ve always wondered why the members of the Chthulhu cult do it. What’s the draw? What’s in it for them?
Ligotti — whose typical protagonist is someone who develops the posthumanist vice, who begins to hunger after occult deformations of the human world — gives us the answer. “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” which Ligotti has described as his breakthrough story, is narrated by an anthropologist investigating a midwestern town’s strange Christmas celebrations. He notes that the town appears to be divided between a middle-class section and a slum area. He soon discovers that people from the latter area are infiltrating the former’s festivities, dressed in unsettling masks. Our professor decides to don one of these masks, hoping to learn more about these slum-dwellers.
To his initial dismay, however, his ruse doesn’t lead him into any communication with his fellow masked celebrants: “If I passed one of my kind on the sidewalk there was no speaking, no exchange of knowing looks, no recognition at all that I was aware of.” The curious community to whom these masked figures belong doesn’t traffic in human recognition or human communication. Less surprisingly, the middle-class folks also avoid them. Our professor, to his surprise, finds himself beginning to like his new role: “As I drifted along with my bodiless invisibility, I felt myself more and more becoming an empty, floating shape, seeing without being seen and walking without interference from these grosser creatures who shared my world. It was not an experience completely without interest and even enjoyment.”
Finally, a pickup truck comes weaving through the crowd, collecting the masked people, and the narrator hops in. He is taken to the underground site of a horrific cult ritual. The massed slum-dwellers begin to sing. “They were singing to the ‘unborn in paradise,’ to the ‘pure unlived lives.’ They sang a dirge for existence […] A sea of thin, bloodless faces screamed their antipathy to being itself.” I won’t give away the conclusion except to say that just before the end, the narrator suddenly realizes the source of his strange “enjoyment” in the crowd. It was “the feeling that I had been liberated from the weight of life.”
Ligotti’s representation of this strange underground religion bears numerous resemblances to Lovecraft’s classic depiction of the Cthulhu cult in “The Call of Cthulhu.” In both stories, the cult consists of an alliance of lower-class workers and alienated intellectuals. Both the revolutionary motives of the cult, and its sociological composition, suggest it is in some way modeled on the historical workers’ parties of the radical left. With the reactionary Lovecraft, it would be easy to dismiss this resonance as expressing an antipathy for the movement. But with Ligotti one can’t be so sure. Perhaps Ligotti is expressing a new form of class struggle: a form appropriate to an era in which the media of cosmic horror and the technologies of unreality thrive among the exploited classes of the developed world. Closer examination of this question lies outside our present scope. It is enough to suggest that the politics of cosmic horror — the politics of the posthuman — may bear no resemblance to the post-class ethical fancies of its academic proponents.
The central difference between Lovecraft's and Ligotti’s cults, however, lies in the latter’s careful attention to the fascination of the occult. Ligotti’s protagonist feels the cult’s attraction. It is true that in rare moments — the final pages of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” for example — Lovecraft allows himself to steal a glimpse inside the experience of a person possessed by the desire to be released from the human world. But this experience is Ligotti’s obsessive subject, and his insights go far beyond the earlier writer’s furtive hints. In many tales, as we have seen, Ligotti describes the allure of the unreal with phenomenological rigor. Though none of his tales are quite free of religious imagery, the full-fledged cult scene of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” introduces a new term — “unborn” — and an equation that will henceforth be at the heart of Ligotti’s writing.
The unreal is the path to the unborn.
One might be tempted, along with Lovecraft’s philosophical readers, to read the story’s reference to “the unborn” as symbolizing an effort to imagine “the world without us.” But just as Ligotti describes the unreal as an experience, as a way of participating in the world beyond the human, so too does the unnatural radiance that clings to the image of unbirth here denote an uncanny new mode of experience.
We might approach this experience by asking: Who is it that feels liberation when the weight of life is lifted? Who is it that feels infinity flower as the appearances of the human world drift free of the things?
If in Ligotti’s cosmic horror “unreal” names the desired object of perception, then “unborn” names the desired subject of perception. The one who opens himself to the uncanny experience of the disintegration of the human world, discovers in himself a trace of someone or something that is not human.
Lovecraft says: There are people who like this kind of thing. Ligotti says: And you are one of them. You who love cosmic horror are one of them, one of us. - Michael Clune
S.C. Hickman: "Epicure of Pessimism: The Horror of Thomas Ligotti"
Thomas Ligotti: Puppets, Nightmares And Gothic Splendor : Interview
"Thomas Ligotti, Karl Popper and antinatalism" by Aschwin de Wolf
Thomas Ligotti Online