This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
It’s been a big year or two for Thomas Ligotti and his acolytes. Once upon a time Ligotti was so infamous for his reclusive nature that some believed that he didn’t exist, and that his fiction was written by some other post-Lovecraftian author or committee of authors in a really, really bad mood. Now his existence is increasingly accepted, and his heartfelt objections to that very existence enjoy an increasingly high profile.
Whilst True Detective author Nic Pizzolatto mostly drew on Robert Chambers and his followers when it came to the cosmic horror references in the series to the King In Yellow and Carcosa, these tended to be rather shallow nods; you could have happily replaced them with callouts to any other entity from the Call of Cthulhu core rulebook without materially changing the action or meaning of True Detective. The same is not true of his liftings from Thomas Ligotti; if you removed Ligotti’s hardline anticosmic antinatalism from Rust Cohle, you end up with a radically different character and a radically different character arc over the course of the series. As Ligotti succinctly puts it:
A: There is no grand scheme of things.
B: If there were a grand scheme of things, the fact – the fact – that we are not equipped to perceive it, either by natural or supernatural means, is a nightmarish obscenity.
C: The very notion of a grand scheme of things is a nightmarish obscenity.
From these building blocks, Ligotti has constructed all his fiction, but his unshaking belief in these precepts means that he does not confine this stance to the pages of his stories. In recent years a trickle of nonfictional material has come out of the Ligotti camp, material which makes it simultaneously clear that Ligotti is both deadly serious, and at the same time quite personable to actually talk to.
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
A philosophical monologue in book form, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race has Thomas Ligotti setting out the market stall for his particular strand of antinatalist pessimism, as well as highlighting the development of similar pessimistic views in philosophy and literature. Ligotti takes the position that the suffering intrinsic to life is such that there is no justification in forcing people to come into existence, when those who are never born neither suffer the pain they would have endured nor miss the pleasure they would have enjoyed, and that there is no particular purpose to human existence and peaceful, voluntary extinction is the only rational course we can take as a species. As a side order he offers up the concept that conscious self-awareness is a curse, may in fact be unnatural, and would certainly be something we were better off without.
In short, he does not believe that life is worth living. Those who believe it is are optimists; those who agree with him that it isn’t are his pessimists. Ligotti admits that the pessimistic position is a hard sell for those who are not already inclined to agree with it; indeed, he pretty much states that optimism and pessimism come down to whether you take “life is good” or “life is shit” as axiomatic, neither position really being something people adopt due to logical arguments so much as coming down to a gut feeling. As such, The Conspiracy is not really an attempt to persuade people around to the pessimist position so much as it is an explanation of it, partly to allow optimists to understand the pessimist minority and party to allow pessimists the small but not to-be undervalued comfort of knowing they are not alone.
This isn’t to say that Ligotti advocates suicide either – whilst on average life is a losing prospect to him and he would have rather not been born in the first place, at the same time Ligotti points out that the suffering and dread associated with death can be sufficiently great that there may be no particular need to seek it out any earlier than it comes. On the other hand, he wouldn’t be averse to pushing a button that’d take out all of us at once – a lonesome suicide solves nothing, but global human extinction saves countless future generations from the horror of existence.
Whether you regard Ligotti’s viewpoint as being obnoxiously negative or comfortingly familiar, the roots of much of his horror can be discerned in these pages. His use of puppet imagery, for instance, becomes all too horribly clarified here, when he talks about how horrible it is for gross matter to suddenly become conscious and walk around and do stuff, and suggests that the reason people find animate puppets to be a creepy prospect is that they remind us too much of our own dilemma, our consciousness and self-awareness so far as we can make out an emergent property of matter with no cosmic greater significance than a chemical reaction or a nuclear process, our minds and lives ultimately, like the universe itself MALIGNANTLY USELESS (as Ligotti puts it).
Born to Fear
Ligotti’s worldview as expressed both in his fiction and Conspiracy is downright intimidating, but it’s contextualised and humanised to a large extent by the interviews collected in Born to Fear. Although they give occasional (but carefully chosen) glimpses of Ligotti’s day-to-day life, we don’t learn very much about Ligotti the man from them, save for his disarmingly frank discussions of the various mental health issues that have plagued him, and which have played a large part in shaping not just the worldview expressed by his stories and the mode of his writing, but the very frequency of his work, his extended periods of inactivity corresponding to periods when his mental state simply will now allow for him to produce stories.
What the various interviewers over the years have managed to get out of Ligotti – and the full picture of this becomes most apparent when the interviews are all collected together like this – is an extended, in-depth discussion of his worldview, his philosophy of literature, what he seeks to accomplish in his own writing and what he seeks in that of others. To a certain extent, you can see here the ideas which form The Conspiracy Against the Human Race beginning to take form, and in his introduction to the volume editor Matt Cardin suggests that it can be seen as a companion volume to that. I’d even go further and say that this, more even than Conspiracy itself, constitutes a skeleton key to Ligotti’s work.
One thing that particularly stands out is how Ligotti contrasts two different approaches to writing – one in which the author tries to fade away and become a background presence as much as possible, often coinciding with a third person omniscient narrator, and one in which the author is extremely present in their writing, which acts as a means for them to present their worldview to the reader. Ligotti counts himself as being very much in the second school, which he asserts is the school of Poe and Lovecraft, and which he also feels dooms him to commercial irrelevance, since the first school (that of King and Koontz) sells far better.
It’s particularly appropriate that the book that drew Ligotti into the world of weird fiction was Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the basis of The Haunting, which is perhaps the most Ligotti-esque film Hollywood has ever produced. An antisocial misanthrope builds a house to reflect his conception of the world; another antisocial misanthrope is drawn to it and destroyed. Eleanor, our heroine, wants nothing more than for something to happen to her, but in a Ligottian universe there’s nothing to happen to her – at least, nothing pleasant.
At the same time, Ligotti’s unwavering philosophical commitment to fatalistic, deterministic, materialistic pessimism is leavened in these interviews by his thoughts on how people actually live with this. Some comments of his could be read as being ableist, particularly his thoughts on children born so deeply unwell that, by his lights, they may as well have never been born and it is a cruelty to keep them alive – though to a large extent this arises from him being vague where he draws the line on that; we all know that there are extreme medical conditions children can be born with which eliminate any hope of an independent life or survival beyond the extreme short term, where the question of whether we have a right to decide when they should die clashes with the question of whether we have a right to force them to live.
In addition, it is apparent that as well as great depression and misery, Ligotti also has issues with great anger; he readily confesses that My Work Is Not Yet Done was in fact partly inspired by a time in his life when he genuinely considered murdering some of his work colleagues, only to talk himself out of it when he realised that there was no way to do it whilst keeping the work colleagues he did like out of danger, and that people would both suffer needlessly as a result of his actions and misinterpret his actions after the fact. (Indeed, had he gone through with this it would be easy to see The Conspiracy Against the Human Race not as a studied contemplation of antinatalist pessimism, but a manifesto to sit alongside The Unabomber Manifesto and Elliot Rodger’s My Twisted World.) This is not an attractive feature of Ligotti’s character, though his ability to suppress and save himself from these dire actions is admirable in its own way, as is his honesty in admitting what he had been contemplating.
For the most part, though, there is an unexpected compassion to be found in Ligotti – as miserable as he so often clearly is, he also seems to have a keen ability to imagine and sympathise with the misery of others, and he regards the reduction of human suffering to be the best work for humanity. On the other hand, his identification of the ultimate source of suffering as being consciousness itself means that some of the more fantastic solutions he imagines for suffering may be unacceptable to the mass of humanity. It is clearly a lonely and difficult thing to be, as Ligotti describes himself, “Born to Fear”, but it is lucky for us that he is able to explain how it is to exist that way in such precise and evocative terms.
The Last Word
For those not yet aboard the Ligotti train, these two volumes represent a final chance to catch up before Penguin Classics’ threatened republication of his first two fiction collections Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works. I cannot promise there will be any future opportunities after this, or for that matter any future. The idea of Ligotti gaining as prominent and widespread a platform as Penguin are giving him is a nonsensical absurdity of a scale that rivals any in his fiction and I can’t 100% rule out the idea of a mass adoption of antinatalism and voluntary human extinction as a result of this turn of events.