Thomas Ligotti's emergence from cult status is now part of the Ligotti legend: script references in True Detective; plagiarism allegations; Penguin Classics editions of his first two story collections, and the rest is history. It's about time. Ligotti published Songs of a Dead Dreamer in 1985, around the start of Ronald Reagan's second term, prior to the Clinton apogee of American power and the End of History. By that yardstick, it's taken Ligotti thirty years to rise from recluse to Penguin Classics status—and history thirty years to bring America face to face with his worldview. Has Ligotti's time come at last? What does that say about the current social and cultural climate? Should we be afraid?
For such a supposedly obscure writer, Ligotti—helped by his avid fans—has made it very easy to know exactly what is going on with him. Ligotti.net, to name but one online resource, hosts many interviews covering almost his entire career, in which Ligotti outlines his concerns, procedures, and motives for writing. Then there's his major work of nonfiction, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (2010), exhaustively detailing his position on the philosophical dimensions of horror (or the horrific dimensions of philosophy).
This Penguin Classics collection reaches right back to the early Ligotti, however: slightly more florid, a touch more Lovecraftian; more fin-de-siècle than corporate horror. Ligotti admitted to Neddal Ayad in his 2004 interview for Fantastic Metropolis, "Literature Is Entertainment Or It Is Nothing," to younger days "as a fanatic of decadent literature reading the early issues of the Yellow Book," and that's what we come closest to here. But his mature hallmarks are there at the start, the word games, the mordant graveyard humor, the wry and bleak observations on the human condition. If anything, Ligotti's early stylistic and imaginative flourishes give readers a better chance to appreciate just how far ahead he is of the rest of the horror field, taken purely as a writer, before he toned down these qualities just a little in his later, drier work.
Ligotti's prose plays with the kind of rhythms, internal rhymes, and half-rhymes that any Mallarméan follower of Symbolism would recognize. "Wait'll they get a sniff of that stiff" ("Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes" from Songs of a Dead Dreamer). "I like red drinks. Created this one myself. A Red Rum Ginny, I call it. White rum, gin, pale ginger ale, and ideally, cranberry juice." ("The Chymist," also from Songs.) Fin-de-siècle titles abound: "Les Fleurs," "The Music of the Moon," "Flowers of the Abyss." Symbolic names, ditto: Dr. Munck, Preston Penn, Mr. Grosz, Dr. Thoss. But anyone into the Decadent pose in literary fashion can get their fill from publishers like Dedalus Books, with their endless regurgitations of the likes of Octave Mirbeau and Gustav Meyrink. Ligotti is too ironic to do Gothick straight (just take a look at "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story"), and too caustic to see posturing and masks as anything more than flimsy consolation.
Ligotti's themes, though, demand good prose. Praising one of his favorite writers, E. M. Cioran, to Neddal Ayad in revealing terms, Ligotti writes: "Cioran is a consummate stylist, which is a vital quality for any writer whose essential attitude is that of negation. Readers will put up with the sloppiest, most puerile, and intellectually commonplace writer if only he brings them comforting lies. If you have nothing but bad news to offer, then you had better write in a sterling and entertaining manner."
For Ligotti is a pure horror writer: not a writer of weird or dark fiction, or strange tales, or dark fantasy, or any of the other current hybrids doing the rounds. "I never attempted any writing other than horror in its most generic sense," he said in his September 2015 Wall Street Journal interview. No other writer better and more explicitly projects the view that life itself is a frightful nightmare from which death itself may be no awakening. However, you don't have to buy into that worldview to enjoy the results. As Ligotti writes in "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror" from Songs of a Dead Dreamer, "supernatural horror, in all its eerie constructions, enables a reader to taste treats inconsistent with his personal welfare."
Jeff VanderMeer opines in his foreword to the Penguin Classics volume that Ligotti's work, like those of some of the other great writers he resembles, exists "in a unique space between horror and the surreal, between the visceral and the philosophical." He goes on to propose that "we pluck Ligotti from the clutches of weird fiction . . . not because weird fiction doesn't deal with complex issues and ideas, but because the weird fiction context places the emphasis squarely on the uncanny, obliterating our ability to see anything else." Ligotti's concern isn't that weird stuff is weird: it's that ordinary mundane existence is weird, horrible, threatening, and ferociously subversive of all we hold dear, and that fiction self-consciously posing as weird is just a thin and obscurantist overlay on that. On my side, I'd argue that true horror exists exactly in that space "between the visceral and the philosophical," which is what gives it its power. Think Frankenstein. Think Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Quintessential visceral horror—touching philosophy. It's hard to imagine weird fiction eliciting a philosophical accompaniment like The Conspiracy against the Human Race. British F/SF and sometime weird writer M. John Harrison described weird fiction in a recent Twisted Tales interview as "symbolism that doesn't quite mesh with—or even entirely admit to—its own subject matter . . . a kind of perverted or broken Imagism." That certainly chimes with Ligotti's debt to Symbolist and Decadent literature; but he, in contrast, seems completely ready to admit to his subject matter—whether or not anyone else, or even he, can stomach it.
Still, Ligotti's world-weariness and detestation of existence might itself be dismissed as posturing by some hostile critics—but if so, it's a pretty painful position to maintain. In his October 2006 interview with Matt Cardin for The New York Review of Science Fiction, "It's All a Matter of Personal Pathology," he said: "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." And reading? "The only reason I began reading at all, which I hadn't done much of before I was eighteen, was that I had a nervous breakdown following a bad acid trip and afterward couldn't take drugs any more," he told Tim Lehnerer in his Subterranean Magazine interview in 2005. That sounds more like a recipe for prescription medication abuse than a call to go read his dark creed. And that's exactly what Ligotti did for a long time before taking up fiction writing as his opiate. His horror is an actual report on his personal experience—imaginatively recast.
How far is that a shared experience? VanderMeer argues that Ligotti "is exploring the underbelly of modernity, personal and societal." I doubt Ligotti has any such sociological concerns, but his denial of all values and certainties chimes with an American social landscape (and especially cityscape) that has come unstuck from its moorings and founding convictions, in which the American Dream has become a nightmare, or a patent delusion through the cracks of which horrors are beginning to squeeze. No wonder Ligotti does urban decay so well, and no wonder his work often feels so European, in contrast to the Stephen King vein of American small-town/small-minds horror. Take the Introduction to "The Journal of J. P. Drapeau" from Songs: "Perhaps our writer's home would have to be an even older, more decaying Bruges in some farther, more obscure Flanders . . . the one envisioned by Bruegel and by Ensor." And contrast that with the weird little mythology of "gas station carnivals" in the story of the same name from Ligotti's later collection Teatro Grottesco: "only the remnants of fully fledged carnivals, the bare bones of much larger, grander entertainments," ruins and ashes of a King or Ray Bradbury story, ciphers for the collapse and decay of the American heartland.
Post-9/11, actual existential threat looms large and smoking on the American horizon, let alone the realization that the American Century and the Pax Americana might have drawn to a premature close. From Black Lives Matter marches to We Are the 99 Percent rallies, the walking dead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are up and shambling across the landscape of a national apocalypse, while climate change brings its own secular version of the Last Days—and with it the brutal refutation of one of President Obama's recent rallying cries: that America's possibilities are not limitless. Clearly, Ligotti has not been headline-chasing or self-consciously tapping into the zeitgeist—he's always been there. America has simply caught up. Even The Atlantic has concluded that right now, "Middle-Aged White Americans Are Dying of Despair."
Could Ligotti, then, end up on the blacklist of Make America Great Again patriots? There's plenty in his oeuvre to inflame tub-thumping advocates of national renewal. Ligotti described his readership to Neddal Ayad as "pretty much all maladjusted guys with advanced university degrees, although there are some outstanding female exceptions with advanced degrees and literary talents. They're not what people think of as nerds living in their parents' basements . . . In any case, I'd like to put in a good word for nerds living in their parents' basement—they're an undeservedly maligned subculture that I'm proud to count among my readers." Ligotti's fiction would probably crown any book-burner's pyre of decadent literature. But the existential dread he writes about is never likely to go away, no matter how triumphalist the civilization around it. As he also told Ayad, "no one can ever be certain of his own ontological status in this world, let alone that of gods, demons, prophetic nightmares, alien invaders, and just plain old weird stuff. Forget about whether or not all the bogeymen we've invented or divined are real, the big question is this: are we real?" This sort of perennial interrogation of the value of life and human being is one of the many reasons why Ligotti's work resurrects that long-moribund question of whether literature can actually do harm.
Does Ligotti's work and philosophy foster social or personal decay? Ligotti made it completely, explicitly clear to Matt Cardin what he regards as the best—or least bad in this worst of all possible worlds—existence for humans. "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." The closest he comes to a fictional rendition of that is perhaps the description of the mystic Ascrobius and his "uncreated grave" in "In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land" from Teatro Grottesco—a man who apparently succeeds in annulling his entire existence.
That story was part of his collaboration with the British experimental music group Current 93, but Ligotti hardly appears out to aggressively convert others to his point of view. As he said to Cardin in the quote that provided the title for his 2006 New York Review of Science Fiction interview, "It's all a matter of personal pathology." Others with a different pathology presumably wouldn't have quite the same outlook on life. And yet, despite its power to interest such people in his work regardless, Ligotti is not out to make any great case for the power of writing, including his own. Ligotti's jaded view of the power of fiction to do anything to make reality more endurable is summed up in the comment that provides another title—for his 2004 Fantastic Metropolis interview: "Literature is entertainment or it is nothing."
Could Ligotti's bleak pessimism harm individuals? Ligotti is hardly an apologist for suicide. "Even murder and suicide are very positive, very vital and affirmative," he pointed out in a 2001 interview for The Art of Grimscribe, "Disillusionment Can Be Glamorous." Might his work upset the mental balance of susceptible people, though? I ran the question past an old friend who has frequent brushes with clinical levels of depression. Her take was that the last thing a depressive sunk in depression wants to do is read. Could Ligotti's fiction kick off a depressive episode? Perhaps, but then such episodes come anyway, uninvited, with or without pessimistic literature. At least Ligotti is a powerful enough writer for that to be a genuine issue: you can't imagine anyone pondering the same about the stories of Stephen King. Ligotti's writing may be the unhealthiest around, but for those who need some kind of argument of well-being to justify their literary tastes, it's certainly a great vaccine against the worst life has to offer.
Which tale to shoot up with, then? Ligotti himself cited "The Spectacles in the Drawer" from Grimscribe in that 2001 interview as one of his key works on disillusionment, where, the narrator explains, "Having acknowledged the truth, however provisional, and the reality, if subject to mutation, of all the strange things in the universe—whether known, unknown, or merely suspected—one is left with no recourse than to conclude that none of them makes any difference, that such marvels change nothing: our experience remains the same. The gallery of human sensations that existed in prehistory is identical to the one that faces each life today." Personally, though, I'd favour "The Last Feast of Harlequin," also collected in Grimscribe, as the richest and most diverse summation of all the stylistic devices and themes that make up Ligotti's corpus: "O God, Harlequin, do not move like that! Harlequin, where are your arms? And your legs have melted together and begun squirming upon the floor. What horrible, mouthing umbilicus is that where your face should be? What is it that buries itself before it is dead? The almighty serpent of wisdom—the Conqueror Worm."
I hope this whole review, and all the quotes from the Grimscribe's mouth, can convince readers to keep on reading Ligotti's tales, no matter how bleak and horrible their conclusions—because, as literature, they succeed superbly well as entertainment. A creative imagination as rich as any funerary monument, prose as crisp as any inscribed epitaph, the drollest of graveyard wit—if you're going to be dead anyway, you might as well enjoy the artistic experience. "I couldn't possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists," Ligotti told Matt Cardin in 2006, but he's come close time and time again, with fantastic results—because the bitterer that pill gets, the sweeter the artistic coating it has to be wrapped in to be palatable.
If your worldview is fragile enough to be upset by Ligotti's pessimism, you probably shouldn't be reading horror stories in the first place. If it isn't, the experience of reading him is bracing and salutary, as well as a delight for any ear attuned to good prose. Ligotti may be indifferent-to-negative about such positive evaluations of his work, as well as his recent reemergence into the popular imagination; but they probably won't hurt him any worse than life already does.
Paul StJohn Mackintosh is a British poet, dark fiction writer, translator, and media pro. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, has lived and worked in Asia and Central Europe, and lives in Hungary. He has published two poetry collections: The Golden Age (1997) and The Musical Box of Wonders (2011). Website: www.paulstjohnmackintosh.com; Twitter: @pstjmack.