It’s All a Matter of Personal Pathology
Conducted by Matt Cardin, July 2006
Published in The New York Review of Science Fiction Issue 218, Vol. 19, No. 2 (October 2006)
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.
If you’re not familiar with Tom’s life and work, or if you just want to brush up on it before reading the following interview (which touches on a number of long-running themes and is thus a part of an ongoing conversation), several resources are available on the Web:
There’s also a wealth of excellent interviews available on the Web. Most or all of them have been catalogued and linked to from the two premier Websites devoted to all things Ligottian, Thomas Ligotti Online and The Art of Grimscribe, both of which I heartily endorse and recommend.
MC: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this, Tom. Let’s start with a passel of questions about your writing habits, since this is an issue that has long fascinated me. You’re now well into the third decade of your writing career. I know that for you, writing has always been annoying, agonizing, or both. As you’ve said several times, you’re one of those writers who enjoys having written as opposed to the act of writing itself. More than once you’ve resolved not to write any more, only to have something come along that called you back to it. What exactly does this involve? What comes over you that lets you know another project is calling? I’m also curious to know if anything about your experience of the writing process has changed over time.
TL: This is going to be a boring response because I haven’t anything writerly to say about this matter. It’s all a matter of personal pathology. Writing was not really difficult for me in the late seventies and throughout the eighties. There was a period from 1975 to 1979 when I was severely depressed, in addition to my panic-anxiety disorder. I was anhedonic all day every day. I thought my existence was over. But I was young, and it was during that period that I began to write in earnest. Years went by, and I wrote one bad story after another. Then I wrote “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” whose narrator is a depressive. It was very bad, but not so bad that I destroyed it. I kept it in an old beer case that I used to archive my writing. Every so often I’d read it over again, thinking how I could extract the good parts from the bad. In the meantime, I began writing stories that were published in small-press magazines. More than ten years after writing “Last Feast,” I was able to rewrite it so that it was no longer terrible. Around that time I was developing a case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome due to stress. If rolling on the floor of emergency rooms in spasms of intestinal agony sounds like fun, then ask your doctor if IBS may be the digestive disorder that’s right for you. That condition and my increasing panic-anxiety, along with getting older, really made writing an exercise in agony. It also became the basis for the stories of the “Teatro Grottesco” cycle. I still had other stories that I wanted to write, so I wrote them. But whenever I wrote, I would end up in a state of extreme agitation and my gut would be killing me. In 1991, I decided to call it quits as a writer. But I had to do something. So I started playing guitar again—I played from my teens and into the early seventies—thinking that this would be a less stressful activity. I became a complete guitar geek, and it wasn’t any less stressful than writing. This was around 1993 when the company I worked for was going through a reorganization, not its first. I think of 1993-1994 as the time when people working in offices realized their potential for being assholes. That second reorganization disturbed me so much with its blatant idiocies and pod-people mentality that I wrote “The Nightmare Network.” Now I was writing again and playing guitar on top of that. The situation at work kept escalating in its madness and pathos, and I wrote another corporate horror story called “I Have a Special Plan for This World.” By then, a number of my coworkers actually felt that I was going off my rocker and feared I would “do something.” I didn’t feel that I was to that stage yet. It wasn’t until 2000, several reorganizations later, that I began to lose it. I became obsessed by violent fantasies. These became the impetus for writing My Work Is Not Yet Done. I tried to give these stories a larger meaning than simply that of revenge, which is usually not a subject worth writing about as such. Then I wrote two more corporate horror stories, “My Case for Retributive Action,” and “Our Temporary Supervisor.”Labeling these stories as “Tales of Corporate Horror” was my way of organizing a reader’s perception of them but, I hope, not limiting them to the realm of working life. “I Have a Special Plan for This World” takes places in a corporate setting, but, like my other corporate horror tales, was intended to convey a broader perspective relating to themes that are important to me: the fiasco and nightmare of existence, the particular fiasco and nightmare of human existence, the sense that people are puppets of powers they cannot comprehend, etc. These themes just naturally come to the fore when I’m experiencing some especially intense or unpleasant episode in my life. Pain is my muse, so to speak. By 2001, my psychological status was that of bipolar depression. In 2002, my depression let up for a month, and I went into a hypomanic phase. During that time I wrote two more stories, “Purity” and “The Town Manager,” which were based on my enraged reaction to social and political developments in the U.S. at the time. The few things that I’ve written since were written in hypomanic states, for which I now take medication along with my other meds. So I guess there’s an observable pattern in that I write when something in my life pushes me to do so, specifically hatred and hurt. These act as a springboard for the themes of my stories, which I hope transcend my temporary experience and connect with my overall outlook on existence, which may or may not interest the reader but is the essential reason that I write.
MC: Does writing still give you pleasure at all? You’ve said that when you first started doing it, it made you high like the drugs you used to take, only without their negative effects. Is that still the case? Or is it more of release valve for negative inner pressure these days? Or is it a combination of both?
TL: Writing has always brought me more satisfaction than pleasure. I’ve always enjoyed the planning stage of a new story more than writing the story itself. That’s when the story seems to have unlimited possibilities. I try not to work out the elements too quickly because each idea, character, setting, etc. erodes those possibilities. Due to this effect, I deliberately didn’t outline beforehand how the characters in My Work Is Not Yet Done would be done in. This enabled me to look forward to how each of them would get it and how each method would work with other aspects of the story.
MC: So many modern-day pop fiction authors emphasize the old saw that “story comes first.” I think of Stephen King, for example, who has said this many times. Even a lot of literary writers agree with it. “With me,” Bernard Malamud once said, “it’s story, story, story.” I recall once in the past when you were asked about the near absence of plot in some of your stories, you said you had never understood what your readers were talking about when they mentioned this, since you had always thought your stories contained as much plot as anybody else’s. Personally, when I think of the many vignettes you’ve written, and also your more overtly experimental pieces (such as “Notes on the Writing of Horror”), and also such pieces as “Ghost Stories for the Dead,” in which you foregrounded the horrific philosophical speculation and presented the actual story or plot in an oblique and almost subliminal fashion—I have to admit that I understand what your many readers have been asking about. And I certainly don’t consider this submergence of plot to be a detriment. I think all those writers who offer a one-size-fits-all recommendation based on the “story first” approach are simply making an adage out of their private preference. I think they’re probably the type of readers who revel in story, and so when they go to write their own fiction, this is how they approach it. What’s your take on all this?
TL: I agree with your analysis. It seems natural to me that people who like to read stories will, if they are writers, like to write stories. For my part, I don’t care for stories that are just stories. I feel there’s something missing from them. What’s missing for me is the presence of an author or, more precisely, an author’s consciousness. In most literary novels, the author is there in the spaces between the characters and the scenery, but I like to see the author out front and the rest in the background. Aside from the stories you mentioned in your question, I believe my own stories to have story galore within them. But these are only pretexts, coat racks on which to hang what’s really important to me, which is my own sensibility. That’s all I really have to work with. Most writers adore observing other people and the lives they lead, then making up a story about them. They really pay attention to the world around them. This is something I literally can’t do. I just don’t care about what makes people tick, and, as Sherlock Holmes said, I see but do not observe. It just seems completely trivial and useless to pay attention to these things. I’m no more interested in the physical universe, which sends scientists into raptures of rhetoric but doesn’t impress me in the least. I can’t fathom why anyone should care about how the universe began, how it works, or how it will end. More triviality and uselessness. At the same time, I’m in awe of writers who are adept at telling stories, just as I’m in awe of people who speak foreign languages or play a musical instrument really well. But that doesn’t mean that I want to read their stories or listen to them talk or make music. As Morrissey says in the Smiths’ song “Panic”: “Because the music that they constantly play says nothing to me about my life.” The work of writers such as Malamud, William Styron, Saul Bellow, et al. not only says nothing to me about my life, but it says nothing to me about what I’ve experienced or thought of life broadly speaking. By contrast, writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, H. P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Bernhard say plenty of things about both my life in particular and life in general as I have experienced and thought of it. I can take an interest in the writing of these authors because they seem to have felt and thought as I have. William Burroughs once said that the job of the writer is to reveal to readers what they know but don’t know that they know. But you have to be pretty close to knowing it or you won’t know it when you see it.
“I couldn’t possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists. Assuming that anything has to exist, my perfect world would be one in which everyone has experienced the annulment of his or her ego. That is, our consciousness of ourselves as unique individuals would entirely disappear. We would still function as beings that needed the basics—food, shelter, and clothing—but life wouldn’t be any more than that. It wouldn’t need to be.”
MC: How much conscious effort do you put into the poetic quality of your prose? I’m talking about its prosody—meter and sound and all that. I think I recall Raymond Carver recounting how when he was a student of John Gardner’s, Gardner would analyze his prose in painstaking detail, going through it line by line and performing scansion on it like poetry. Do you do anything like that with your own writing? Do you intentionally write and/or revise with an eye (and ear) to creating effects through the artful deployment of language techniques? Or do you just forage around for the right general feeling?
TL: Unless I’m emulating the style of another writer, such as Bruno Schulz or Thomas Bernhard, I follow a tone of voice that I have in my head. This supplies the rhythm and pace I want, the music of the story, and makes the narrative accommodating to any poetic devices I might want to use, principally metaphor. I can’t imagine scanning another writer’s prose. But Gardner was a scholar of Middle English literature, so his guidance as writing teacher was probably useful to Carver, who wrote short in a sort of blank verse style. The trouble in being too preoccupied with how your work sounds in English is that this has little bearing on how it’ll sound in translation. This is going to sound monumentally egotistical, but at an early stage in my writing I became conscious of using wordplay that I knew wouldn’t translate well into another language. That came out of my obsession with the works of Vladimir Nabokov. So I stopped doing too much of that, which is difficult because wordplay comes fairly natural to me. And the problem with wordplay that’s too abstruse is this: if a reader doesn’t get it, then it was a waste of time to do it in the first place; if a reader does get it, it’s not really that much to get. I’ve analyzed the double entendres and multilingual puns in several of Nabokov’s books. That’s not what’s of most interest about him as a writer. What is interesting is his idiosyncratic persona and his obsession with death, harm, loss, and all those bad things which are at the core of literature in general but which, for a major big shot writer of the modern era, are especially pronounced in Nabokov.
MC: I recall from prior interviews that your earliest introduction to horror fiction came through Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft. Do you think any of these initial reading experiences strongly affected the type of fiction you wanted to write? I’m not talking so much about content as authorial approach. I know your breakdown at age 17 provided the emotional and philosophical foundation for all of your writing. But in tandem with the question about plot and story above, I’m wondering if you think your stylistic approach was in part determined by your experiences as a reader, or if it was less a matter of determination and more a matter of confirmation.
TL: Shirley Jackson shouldn’t be included in this group. I read The Haunting of Hill House because I had seen and liked the movie and, in those days without video, couldn’t see it whenever I wanted. So I read the novel when I came across it by chance and was stuck somewhere without anything else to do. It didn’t make me want to write about similar subject matter or in the style of Shirley Jackson, but it did make me want to read other works of horror fiction, even though at the time I didn’t know if there were any or what they were like. Practically the only fiction I had read at that time was the Sherlock Holmes stories. I enjoyed those quite a bit because I identified with the neurosis of Holmes, as well as his use of drugs. The next horror writer I read was Arthur Machen, who wrote very much about the same milieu as the Holmes stories: foggy London streets and creepy countryside settings. Then I read Poe and Lovecraft for the first time and found what I didn’t know I was looking for: writers who put themselves on every page of their work, who wrote like personal essayists and lyric poets. Every fiction writer I’ve ever admired wrote in this manner. I say “wrote,” in the past tense, because they’re all dead now. Any other type of fiction writer doesn’t exist for me.
MC: Have you ever gotten stuck while writing a story? As in, you didn’t know your way ahead?
TL: No, I’ve never gotten stuck. I’ve always had to know enough about the story I’m going to write and be enthusiastic about it to make it worth the bother to write the thing in the first place. So I meditate on it, make tons of notes, ask myself if there is something missing from the story that should be there or something that’s there and shouldn’t be, and rack my brain to take the idea of the story to the farthest limit it will allow. Satisfied that the story will be worth writing, I start writing it. In the process, I usually come up with better ideas than I had originally planned. If that didn’t happen, the story would only be adequate, as a number of my stories have been. It’s not possible to plan every metaphor and structural aspect ahead of time, of course. I’ve had to trust that my abilities in these areas won’t let me down.
MC: That leads me to a separate but related question: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I mean as a condition distinct from simply being stuck in the middle of a story. The best description of what I’m talking about comes from poet Thom Gunn: “There are certain times when you are absolutely sterile, that is, when words seem to mean nothing. The words are there, the things in the world are there, you are interested in things in the same way and theoretically you can think up subjects for poems, but you simply can’t write. You can sit down at your notebook with a good idea for a poem and nothing will come. It’s as though there is a kind of light missing from the world. It’s a wordless world, and it’s somehow an empty and rather sterile world. I don’t know what causes this, but it’s very painful.” When I first encountered these words they gave me a literal shiver, because they describe an experience that has hounded me for years. It feels distinctly different from the so-called “fallow period” in the creative process. It’s more like inner death. I was amazed when you told one interviewer that you had never experienced writer’s block, because I would have thought your painful subjective life, and especially yours bouts with anhedonia, would have elicited this experience many times. Or am I using the term in a different sense than you meant when you gave that answer?
TL: Whenever I’ve wanted to write something, I’ve always been able to write it. The problem for me is not being unable to write, but not caring at all about writing . . . or anything else. In a state of anhedonia, everything is revealed in its true purposelessness and inanity. You can argue with my use of “true” in the last sentence. But you’d also have to argue with spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, which have no use for anything, let alone short stories. Buddhism isn’t my point of departure, but I’m in a similar place. I’m completely detached from anything, including myself and anyone around me. Doing anything just seems plain stupid, which in my opinion it ultimately is. This is the lesson of anhedonia, which is an eminently rational state. But if you’re going to do anything, you must be in an irrational state of emotion, and without this irrationality your life is just numbers: how long, how much, how many, how far. Emotion gives an illusory focus and meaning to our lives. When the feeling is gone, so is that sense. This sense is a motivator yet it also fools you into thinking that something is important when it’s not in the least important, except as an engine for your meaningless life. But I don’t feel that anhedonia is “painful” in the way that Thom Gunn is saying that writer’s block is painful. That is, I’m not agonized that I want to write and can’t. Also known as “melancholic depression,” anhedonia is painful, but that pain has nothing to do with not being able to respond emotionally to anything. The anhedonic can’t even conceive of wanting to have his emotions back. That, too, seems stupid and empty and useless. All you want is for the hurt to stop. But even suicide seems pointless. One would have to become emotionally energized past the anhedonia in order to conceive of suicide as a solution. I know that all of this is not possible for non-anhedonics to understand. I could say that it’s like being emotionally blind, deaf, dumb, mute, and totally paralyzed, but such similes aren’t effective unless you’ve gone through the experience yourself. But as bad as anhedonia may be, it’s a cakewalk compared to panic-anxiety disorder. Okay, enough bellyaching about my disorders. Everybody’s got their own shit to deal with.
MC: Then let’s veer away towards some other types of questions, although not before I enter my opinion that you’ve done a great job of talking about panic-anxiety disorder in your fiction, which delivers a potent dose of the horrific sense of reality that characterizes the condition. I’ll also add that I know what I’m talking about from the way my personal experiences of such states have locked hands with the warped world of your stories. But moving on: For well over a year now you’ve been laboring on your nonfiction philosophical magnum opus, The Conspiracy against the Human Race. I recall that when some of your ideas from that one made their way into the excellent interview that Neddal Ayad conducted with you for Fantastic Metropolis last year, you were criticized by a couple of people at online venues for what they took to be your overinflation of your personal opinions into blanket judgments of value. Specifically, I remember somebody taking you to task for comparing Lovecraft to Shakespeare and evidently judging Lovecraft the greater of the two when you said that “for Lovecraft, unlike Shakespeare, the revelation of life as an idiot’s tale is the alpha and omega of his work. He doesn’t just pay passing lip service to what is the most profound and obvious fact of life—he makes it the core of his work.” You have also told me that at least one acquaintance of yours who read an early draft of The Conspiracy against the Human Race simply couldn’t get a handle on the fact that in its dark and despairing diagnosis of life, you’re talking about the way the world seems, and has to seem, to you as a specific individual, as opposed to advancing its outlook as objective truth. Would you care to say anything about all this, maybe to try and set the record straight?
TL: Well, I never said that Lovecraft was better writer than “honey-tongued Shakespeare,” as one contemporary described him. But Shakespeare was a playwright. Today he would be the kind of novelist whose work I’ve described in response to an earlier question. His characters say things that appeal to me, and they say it well, but that’s not Shakespeare talking. Hamlet’s gloomy ramblings were cribbed by Magpie of Avon from Girolamo Cardano’s De Consolatione, which has since come to be known as “Hamlet’s Book.” So I don’t know who Shakespeare was, and I can’t tell from his works. One can form a good idea of who Lovecraft was from his fiction alone, and I definitely feel closer to him than to Shakespeare. This is something that doesn’t matter to most readers, who just want to escape to someplace outside their world and yet at the same time want that other world to be in a significant way like their own, that is, where things happen that they can understand. Shakespeare didn’t write anything that even the dullest imagination can’t understand. It’s all soap operas and romantic comedies, just the kind of thing that people enjoy today. Lovecraft doesn’t write for the same audience. He wrote for the sensitive few rather than the happy many. As for my Unabomber-style essay The Conspiracy against the Human Race, this is by no means a philosophical work, let alone a magnum opus. It’s a synthesis of ideas I’ve formed over my life and of other people’s ideas that rhyme with mine. The disconnect that anyone may perceive in this work between what I think and the way I’ve articulated it is something they can know nothing about. To me, there is no disconnection. 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. I know that’s exactly how I am myself. If I weren’t, I would be in worse shape than I already am. I certainly wouldn’t be doing this interview. I wouldn’t even have written TCATHR. If someone says that I’m stupid and wrong, then there’s nothing I can say in response except maybe, “Am not.” It’s really a pain in the ass living in a world of people, including myself, who can’t just stop thinking.
MC: Then perhaps even lighter fare, relatively speaking, is in order. Word recently came down the pipeline about a planned series of comic books based on The Nightmare Factory. This was quite a pleasant surprise. Can you reveal any details?
TL: No, I can’t. I know only what everyone knows from reading the publicity releases. Fox Atomic, the movie studio that’s doing these comics in conjunction with Harper-Collins, doesn’t have to consult me about any products they create that are derived from the stories they optioned in The Nightmare Factory.
MC: Even as we speak, the short film adaptation of your story “The Frolic” has entered postproduction. You’re reportedly very happy with what you’ve seen of it so far. Can you tell us anything more?
TL: The lastest word is from the producer of “The Frolic,” Jane Kosek, is that she contacted the head guy at Fox Atomic, and he wants to see the short film as well as an outline for a feature film from Brandon Trenz and me. We did an outline in April 2005, so that’s not a problem. The short should be ready in a month or so.
MC: Can you share any new information about the development status of the screenplays for Crampton and The Last Feast of Harlequin?
TL: They were sent out to a lot of production companies by a talent agent, the same one who made the deal for me with Fox Atomic. Some of the companies showed an interest, and Brandon Trenz went to Hollywood. But nothing came of those meetings as far as the two screenplays you mention. They are officially dead.
MC: And that news officially sucks. What a disappointment. Well, then, what about your current writing projects? Do you have anything underway besides TCATHR? And when can we expect to see that one published?
TL: I have no idea when or if TCATHR will be published.
MC: What books and authors are you reading at present, if anything? Awhile back you said you were probably pretty much done with reading, since you had read most of what interested you. How does this stand currently?
TL: These days I read only nonfiction, if I read anything at all. I recently reread all of E. M. Cioran’s works. That took a while. I’ve read a number of works relating to consciousness studies and, of course, mental illness. Those are very technical and hard on the brain, so I often search out video or audio lectures or interviews by the authors of these works on the Web. In the past year I read On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death by Jean Améry and Persuasion and Rhetoric by Carlo Michelstaedter. Both of these authors killed themselves, but their books would still be interesting if they hadn’t. I still read works by and about Buddhists.
MC: I find your move toward nonfiction to be fascinating for personal reasons, since I moved in that direction myself a few years ago. But it wasn’t voluntary. I simply began to notice that I was unable to read fiction a great deal of the time. It was as if some force within me were operating a valve and periodically shutting off my responsiveness to fiction. I encountered a mental fog, a kind of affective and even cognitive blankness, when I tried to make sense of fiction or respond to it in any way. It just seemed meaningless to me. Does this ring a bell with you?
TL: It sure does ring a bell, a tolling bell. I can no longer emotionally respond to fiction or poetry. That’s the reason I read nonfiction, and very cerebral nonfiction at that. One doesn’t need to respond emotionally to that kind of writing, which is just for the brain and not the emotions or imagination. Strangely, I find that my experience is the same with movies and TV shows. These don’t seem to require emotion or imagination on the viewers’ part to be diverting. The anhedonic thing could change in a second, literally, and I wouldn’t remember the lesson I learned from it. It has let up several times over the past five years. At these times, as I previously mentioned, I go into hypomanic states in which I want to do all kinds of things and have the impetus to do them. But for me these last only a matter of weeks or maybe a month. When these periods are over, however, the depression comes back worse than ever. I take a drug called Lamictal, which is an anti-convulsant that psychiatrist have using instead of lithium on bipolar disorders and treatment-resistant depression. The way this drug works, ideally, is to put a floor on how bad you can feel and a ceiling on how good you can feel. That’s the zone I’m now in. The only reason I’m going into detail about any of this is on the chance that someone reading it will know what I’m talking about and perhaps take an interest in it. My apologies to the rest of you.
MC: What about movies? Have you loved any lately? Or hated any?
TL: Some notable movies that I’ve recently hated have been Spielberg’s Munich and Woody Allen’s Match Point. Also, Mission Impossible III. To that list you can add the French film Caché, which is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I haven’t seen Lady in the Water, but I know it sucks because the writer-director is just no good: his best effort, The Sixth Sense, was a cheat from start to finish. Plus there was that scene in which the mother leaves the kitchen where the kid is eating breakfast and returns a few seconds later to find all the cupboards and drawers are open. For some reason, she just takes this in stride, and it doesn’t come up again in the story. Usually the movies I like are trashed or ignored, like Man on Fire with Denzel Washington and Don’t Say a Word with Michael Douglas. Lately, I’ve just been renting or taking out of the library movies I’ve seen a dozen times. Horror movies: Wolf Creek, sucked; Hostel, sucked; The Devil’s Rejects, very funny and clever; remake of The Hills Have Eyes, sucked. This may sound stupid to some horror movie aficionados, but I really thought well of the two Final Destination movies. I rented the third installment, which was done by same ex-X-File guys Morgan and Wong who did the first FD. It sucked. I like movies in which everyone is living a doomed existence, which is why I find George Romero’s zombie movies so appealing. From the very beginning of the Dead trilogy, everything is hopeless.
“I’m completely detached from anything, including myself and anyone around me. Doing anything just seems plain stupid, which in my opinion it ultimately is. This is the lesson of anhedonia, which is an eminently rational state.”
MC: How about music? Are you listening to any lately? Awhile back you told me you were encountering some of the best music in the most unlikely places, such as television commercials. Is this still happening?
TL: The reason I hear the best music on television is that I don’t listen to music anywhere else, just as I’m not reading fiction or poetry. So music in TV commercials, programs, and movies is all I hear. The exception is the music sent to me by certain people who have recorded their own compositions. I feel that I can still judge whether or not a piece of music is good, even if I don’t go spasmodic over it. Presently, I like the theme songs of Cold Case and The 4400, even though the latter show blows. It had promise in the first season, very much like TheX-Files, but then it turned into a soap opera.
MC: Speaking of The X-Files, I think life in America and the West is pervaded by an apocalyptic feeling right now. How about you?
TL: At the moment, I’m not very emotionally responsive to anything. My medications only add to that non-responsiveness. In the last session I had with my psychiatrist, he started to talk about the situation in the Middle East heating up toward something apocalyptic. In the past, I would have had something to say on this subject, because what I talk about with my psychiatrist is mostly politics and movies. However, this time I had to say that I just wasn’t interested in what was going on in the world. I can’t feel anything for what’s happening now. About three years ago, I was completely enraged by the whole American scene. I’d go out of my way to watch people like Ann Coulter, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and aggravate myself over the evangelical brood. A lot of that is in TCATHR. I might get exercised about this stuff in the future, but it doesn’t penetrate me at the moment. Maybe if somebody nuked someone I’d watch the news stories about it. Short of that, or another 9/11, I don’t find current events very diverting. Also, I’ve had a sense of personal apocalypse for decades due to my psych disorders. I’ve thought that I was dying literally thousands of times during my panic attacks. The end of the line for me has felt imminent for so long that the real-world version of it would just be another occasion of “Oh, lordy, what’s going to become of us.” Anyway, all apocalyptic phenomena take place on a personal level. It just seems scarier when it’s on a larger scale.
MC: I know you’re familiar with Hubbert’s Peak and the theory of peak oil. It’s an issue that I’m following closely myself. Do you have any thoughts about it?
TL: Yes. I would like to see a total depletion of oil occur as soon as possible . . . just for fun. This might be the best thing that could happen to this world, socially and politically speaking. Of course, it could also be the worst. In either case, I am slightly interested in which way it would go. It might go the latter way for a while and then change course. The whole oil thing brings to mind two of my favorite movies in which the fight for natural resources plays a role: The Formula with Marlon Brando and George C. Scott and Three Days of the Condor with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Ultimately, I don’t have any investment in the future, so I can’t get too het up about what’s going to happen after I die.
MC: Let’s close this out with another question of global scope. What would a perfect world be like for you? That’s of course assuming that you and a world would have to exist at all. You’ve made it perfectly clear in numerous stories and interviews that you’re a fundamental pessimist who thinks it a crying shame that there’s something instead of nothing. But given the (supposed) necessity of existence, what would be the best life and the best world for you personally, if you had absolute freedom of choice?
TL: Assuming that anything has to exist, my perfect world would be one in which everyone has experienced the annulment of his or her ego. That is, our consciousness of ourselves as unique individuals would entirely disappear. We would still function as beings that needed the basics—food, shelter, and clothing—but life wouldn’t be any more than that. It wouldn’t need to be. We would be content just to exist. There’s only one problem in this world: none are content with what they have. We always want something else, something “more.” And then when we get it, we still want something else and something more. There is no place of satisfaction for us. We die with regrets for what we never did and will never have a chance to do. We die with regrets for what we never got and will never get. The perfect manner of existence that I’m imagining would be different than that of most mammals, who feed on one another and suffer fear due to this arrangement, much of it coming at the hands of human beings. We would naturally still have to feed, but we probably would not be the omnivorous gourmands and gourmets that we presently are. Of course, like any animal we would suffer from pain in one form or another—that’s the essence of existence—but there wouldn’t be any reason to take it personally, something that escalates natural pain to the level of nightmare. I know that this kind of world would seem terribly empty to most people—no competition, no art, no entertainment of any kind because both art and entertainment are based on conflict between people, and in my world that kind of conflict wouldn’t exist. There would be no ego-boosting activities such as those which derive from working and acquiring more money than you need, no scientific activity because we wouldn’t be driven to improve the world or possess information unnecessary to living, no religious beliefs because those emerge from desperations and illusions from which we would no longer suffer, no relationships because those are based on difference and in the perfect world we’d all be the same person, as well as being integrated into the natural world. Everything we did would be for practical purposes in order to satisfy our natural needs. We wouldn’t be enlightened beings or sages because those ways of being are predicated on the existence of people who live at a lower epistemological stratum.
MC: What you’re saying reminds me of some things I’ve read in the writings of Schopenhauer, U.G. Krishnamurti, and a few others—all of them authors I know you’ve read. I’m also strongly reminded of Ramesh Baksekar’s “euphoric nihilism,” as an interviewer for What Is Enlightenment? magazine described it, which envisions the perfect world as one populated by “body/mind organisms” that act in a completely preprogrammed manner with no hint of free will, no trace of any “doers” in the form of self-conscious “I’s.” The interviewer referred to Balsekar’s imagined utopia as “planet advaita.”
TL: I looked at Balsekar’s Official Web Site. He seems like the perfect example of what U. G. would consider a spiritual huckster. His whole operation seems to be a real racket, and not a particularly distinguished one. Then again, I’m given to snap judgments, and perhaps I’m being unfair in this instance. But I doubt it, especially since he was featured in Andrew Cohen’s What Is Enlightenment? and from what I’ve read, Cohen is the worst guru of all time. Anyway, the phrase “euphoric nihilism” reminds of an electronic book that I downloaded called Conscious Robots, which expostulates very much the same idea. My own perfect world comes from an amalgam of sources, including Skepticism, Nihilism, Buddhism, and accounts of persons who have actually experienced ego-death, including U. G., as you pointed out. Not many people are interested in living in this world, so there is little motivation to work towards it. As much as we complain about life, we’re pretty much satisfied, or think we are, with the ways things are from here to eternity. To me, this is definitive proof that human beings don’t deserve to live in a perfect world. Even in fables wherein people lived in a paradise that is supposedly without ego or unnatural desires—Adam and Eve, Pandora—someone always does something to fuck things up so that the world can become the one we already know and, in our depraved way, love.
MC: Thanks again for taking the time to answer some questions, Tom. It’s been a pleasure.
TL: Same here, Matt.
JANUARY 27, 2016
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 is the author of Gamelife. He teaches at Case Western Reserve University.