Thomas Ligotti is arguably the preeminent living writer of horror fiction. This reputation has grown up around him over a period of twenty years, during which time he has remained paradoxically obscure in the mainstream literary consciousness, and even, astonishingly, among some segments of horror fandom. Probably more people are acquainted with him unawares through his editorial work for The Gale Group (the company for which he has worked for the past twenty years, and which publishes such library mainstays as the Contemporary Authors series) than are acquainted with his stories. Nevertheless, he has produced a substantial body of fiction that has generated a passionately devoted fan base, and his work has been soundly praised by critics and readers alike. Reviewers have written glowingly of his books, and his publisher has mined these reviews for blurbs.
(From The New York Review of Science Fiction: "Ligotti is probably the genre's most committed
purist. He perfectly expresses the 'disorienting strangeness' that is the hallmark of the weird;" from The New York Times Book Review: "If there were a literary genre called 'philosophical horror,' Thomas Ligotti's
[GRIMSCRIBE] would easily fit within it...provocative images and a style that is both entertaining and lyrical;" From The Philadelphia Inquirer: "Thomas Ligotti has had one of the most quietly extraordinary careers in the history of horror fiction;" From The Washington Post: "Thomas Ligotti is the best kept secret in contemporary horror fiction...the best new American writer of weird fiction to appear in years;" From Interzone: "Ligotti is wonderful and original; he has a dark vision of a new and special kind, a vision that no one had before him.").
His admirers are wont to call him the best author the horror genre has ever produced, and while such sweeping statements are always questionable at best, it has become
increasingly difficult to deny at least the possible validity of the claim. At a bare minimum, it seems undeniable that Ligotti has secured for himself a unique and lasting position of importance in the world of horror fiction, and probably in the wider world of literature in general. His career as a professional horror author dates back to the early 1980's, when his stories first began appearing in such small press mainstays as NYCTALOPS,
GRIMOIRE, ELDRITCH TALES, FANTASY MACABRE, and DARK HORIZONS. These stories spoke with a shockingly distinct voice, and their subject matter was, to say the least, unique. For example, "The Chymist," first published in 1981 in NYCTALOPS vol. III, no. 2, speculates about the cosmic forces underlying the world of matter itself -- "The Great Chemists," as the narrator calls them -- and offers a glimpse of what happens when these forces decide to "dream" an individual into new and nightmarish shapes.
"Dream of a Mannikin," first published in 1982 in ELDRITCH TALES vol. 2, no. 3, offers a horrific take on the eastern philosophical idea of multileveled selfhood. "Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech," first published in 1983 in GRIMOIRE no. 5, poses disturbing questions about the nature and possible consciousness of puppets, dolls, mannikins, and other effigies of the human form, and also about the relationship of these effigies to their makers and manipulators. "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story," first published in 1985 in DARK HORIZONS
no. 28, offers exactly what the first part of the title would seem to indicate: a series of notes on how to write horror stories. But then the narrative pulls an ingenious roundabout on the reader by revealing that the narrator is not as safely removed from the subject matter of his notes as he has led himself and his reader to believe. The profoundly dark philosophical slant of these early stories had the inevitable effect of creating a cult following for Ligotti. His outlook was despairing, even nihilistic, and this proved to be a point of contact with many readers who, while they may not have explicitly shared his outlook, still found within themselves a resonance of the black truths about which he so powerfully wrote. Quite a few such readers had the unsettling (and somehow exhilarating) impression that Ligotti was expressing in his stories their own deepest, darkest insights. He also brought to his stories a distinctive literary style to match the distinctiveness of his themes. In his own words, he was for a time a "fanatical student of literary styles, the more bizarre and artificial the better" (cf. Robert Bee, "Interview with Thomas Ligotti," 1999, found at http://www.longshadows.com/ligotti/bee.html).
An example of this stylistic obsession can be seen in the fact that when he conceived the maniacal narrative voice of most of his early stories, he was consciously emulating the style of Russian-born writer Vladimir
Nabakov (cf. R.F. Paul and Keith Schurholz, "Triangulating the Daemon: an Interview with Thomas Ligotti." ESOTERRA 8 (Winter/Spring 1999): 17). In spite of this imitation -- or perhaps because of it -- his stories were in the end wholly original. When his first book of collected stories, SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER, was published in a mass market edition in 1989 (having been published three years earlier in a limited small-press edition), readers encountered no less a genre heavyweight than Ramsey Campbell saying in the introduction, "Despite faint echoes of writers he admires,...Ligotti's vision is wholly personal. Few other writers could conceive a horror story in the form of notes on the writing of the genre, and I can't think of any other writer who could have brought it off." In the same introduction, Campbell wrote that the book "has to be one of the most important horror books of the decade," and with these words the proverbial cat was let out of the allegorical bag. Ligotti's readership still remained relatively small compared to the Kings and Koontz's of the world (as should have been expected, considering that his fiction was highly literary and idiosyncratic,
and was most certainly not written for a mass audience), but his early reputation as the reigning dark magus of the horror world began to precede him, and more and more genre fans began to realize that this was a writer
they simply had to read. In one of the more bizarre and amusing incidents of his literary career, Ligotti's innate reclusiveness, combined with the mysterious reputation he had gained from his fiction, gave rise to
the rumor that he did not really exist but was instead a pseudonym for some more famous author. When Poppy Z Brite asked in her introduction to Ligotti's 1996 omnibus collection THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY, "Are you out
there, Thomas Ligotti?" she echoed thousands of readers who were asking the same question, readers who wondered what the man was really like, or whether he even existed.
At the time of this
writing (April 2000), Ligotti has five more collections of stories to his credit after SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER. In chronological order, these are GRIMSCRIBE: HIS LIVES AND WORKS (1991), NOCTUARY (1994), THE AGONIZING
RESURRECTION OF VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN AND OTHER GOTHIC TALES (1994), THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY (1996), and IN A FOREIGN TOWN, IN A FOREIGN LAND (1997). This last book was written in conjunction with the experimental music
group Current93, and was released with an accompanying CD of music to supplement the book. (Since the exact relationship of the book and CD have never been specified, it is also theoretically possible to view the
former as supplementing the latter.) Ligotti's story "The Nightmare Network" was published in editor John Pelan's 1996 anthology DARKSIDE: HORROR FOR THE NEXT MILLENNIUM, and in late 1999 he gained his widest exposure yet when his story "The Shadow, The Darkness" was published in editor Al Sarrantonio's
high-profile anthology 999: NEW TALES OF HORROR AND SUSPENSE alongside works by such genre icons as Stephen King, Peter Straub, and William Peter Blatty. In February of 2000, Current93 released a CD titled I HAVE A SPECIAL
PLAN FOR THIS WORLD in which the narrated text was written entirely by Ligotti. (For the only complete bibliography of Ligotti's work, see Thomas Ligotti Online at http://www.longshadows.com/ligotti).
For the uninitiated who are thinking of delving into Ligotti's work, or for those who have not yet made up their mind, or even for those who have already read some of his work but are wondering where to go next, there are a number of
pertinent factors to consider. Firstly, it should be mentioned that Ligotti has repeatedly cited Lovecraft and Poe as being the two most important influences on his life and work, respectively, and many fans of these
authors have discovered in Ligotti a kindred spirit. In particular, the Lovecraft connection has continued to bring Ligotti a steady stream of new readers. He is very open about the fact that it was Lovecraft who
originally inspired him to try his hand at fiction, and although he has said that Lovecraft's influence on him is more personal than literary, most readers find a very strong Lovecraftian element in many of Ligotti's
stories. An example of direct Lovecraftian influence can be found in GRIMSCRIBE in "The Last Feast of Harlequin," which is the earliest-written of Ligotti's stories, and which is dedicated "To the memory of H.P. Lovecraft." Another direct influence can be found in SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER in the story titled "The Sect of the Idiot," where Ligotti mentions Lovecraft's "blind idiot god" Azathoth. Perhaps the most important and pervasive Lovecraftian influence in Ligotti's fiction is found in his repeatedly reworked idea of a mystical, ontologically absolute evil -- in e.g. "Dream of a Mannikin," "Masquerade of a Dead Sword," "Nethescurial," "The Tsalal," "The Shadow,
The Darkness" -- which bears at times a similarity to Loveraft's mythology of certain monstrous extracosmic entities or forces that continually impinge upon the little world of human interests and emotions. While there are
significant divergences between the two men's literary styles and personal visions, many Lovecraft fans have felt that, in a way, Ligotti "takes up" where Lovecraft left off -- that is, that Ligotti is saying what Lovecraft might have said if he were alive today -- and it may not be too far off the mark to consider the bulk of Ligotti's fiction as a kind of distillation and expression in contemporary terms of what was best in Lovecraft. In short, those who appreciate Lovecraft will almost certainly find something to appreciate in Ligotti.
Secondly, when approaching any writer for the first time, there is always the question of which book
or books one ought to read first. Fortunately, in Ligotti's case the answer is obvious. THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY, as mentioned above, is an omnibus of his work, reprinting most of the stories from the previous collections
(with the exception of AGONIZING RESURRECTION) and adding to them six new stories in a section titled "Teatro Grottesco and Other Tales." As such, it forms an ideal introduction to his work. The only drawback is that some of his best and most cherished stories from past collections have been omitted. Gone are his two metafictional explorations from SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER, "Notes on the Writing of Horror" and "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror." Gone also is the entire final section of NOCTUARY, titled "Notebook of the Night" and consisting of a series of nineteen prose poems or vignettes which in the opinion of this author represent some of Ligotti's most powerful work. Completely unrepresented is the wonderful THE AGONIZING RESURRECTION OF VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN AND OTHER GOTHIC TALES, which consists of a series of vignette-length reworkings of classic literary and cinematic horror tales, and which may in fact be Ligotti's best book when measured against his other books purely in terms of their literary success as collections. Having said this, THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY is still the single best book for the Ligotti neophyte to purchase. It presents a sweeping overview of his perennial thematic and stylistic obsessions, and the new stories in "Teatro Grottesco and Other Tales" represent him at the height of his powers. The book also contains a valuable introductory essay by Ligotti titled "The Consolations of Horror," in which he considers the question of why readers read and writers write such things, and why it is that horror, "at least in its artistic representations, can be a comfort." He considers and rejects several alternative answers to this question, arriving finally at the conclusion that artistic horror offers only a single valid consolation: "simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and -- like it or not -- peculiar set of experiences to appreciate."
A final consideration that ought to be borne in mind by the prospective reader is that Ligotti's stories tend to have a profound emotional impact. His vision is exceedingly dark, and it is possible for his stories to infect the reader with a mild-to-severe case of depression. It is even possible for them to effect a change in the reader's self-perception and view of the universe. This warning is not meant to be sensationalistic, nor is it meant to turn new readers away. It is simply a statement of fact based upon the experiences of actual readers. Ligotti writes about the darkest of themes with an amazing power, and he means what he says. Often his stories seem to communicate a message below their surface, a sort of subliminal statement that should not rightly be able to traverse the barrier of verbal language. This has not gone unnoticed by his fans and peers in the horror industry. For example, Brian McNaughton, winner of the 1998 World Fantasy Award for his collection of stories THE THRONE OF BONES, dedicated his story "ystery orm" to Ligotti, and in the story (which can be found in Pelan's DARKSIDE anthology) he describes Ligotti's literary power thusly: "To translate dreams into plain prose, into the bald speech of post-literate America, seemed impossible until he read the tales of Edward F. Tourmalign [a fictionalized Ligotti]. In Tourmalign's stories, wind-blown leaflets, clinking light-stanchions in empty streets, neon signs with missing letters -- such banal images assumed, in waking life and in cold print, the horrific significance they so often radiated in nightmares. It had been said of many pathetic hacks that they should never be read at night, but it made no difference when one read Tourmalign, for his work was a poison that infiltrated the bloodstream and changed the structure of the brain."
To illustrate the point from one of Ligotti's own works, let the reader consider the following long passage from "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," in which the communal narrator of an unspecified rural town experiences strange dreams during an unnatural prolongation of the autumn season: "In sleep we were consumed by the feverish life of the earth, cast among a ripe, fairly rotting world of strange growth and transformation. We took a place within
a darkly flourishing landscape where even the air was ripened into ruddy hues and everything wore the wrinkled grimace of decay, the mottled complexion of old flesh. The face of the land itself was knotted with so many other
faces, ones that were corrupted by vile impulses. Grotesque expressions were molding themselves into the darkish grooves of ancient bark and the whorls of withered leaf; pulpy, misshapen features peered out of damp furrows; and the crisp skin of stalks and dead seeds split into a multitude of crooked smiles. All was a freakish mask painted with russet, rashy colors -- colors that bled with a virulent intensity, so rich and vibrant that things trembled with their own ripeness. But despite this gross palpability, there remained something spectral at the heart of these dreams. It moved in shadow, a presence that was in the world of solid forms but not of it. Nor did it belong to any other world that could be named, unless it was to that realm which is suggested to us by an autumn night when fields lay ragged in moonlight and some wild spirit has entered into things, a great aberration sprouting forth from a chasm of moist and fertile shadows, a hollow-eyed howling malignity rising to present itself to the cold emptiness of space and the pale gaze of the moon."
In this passage one can clearly feel Ligotti's magic at work. His careful choices of rhythm, sound, and vocabulary work synergistically to produce an oneiric effect, so that the "fairly rotting world of faint growth and transformation" which hints at a spectral presence that is a "great aberration sprouting forth from a chasm of moist and fertile shadows" becomes identified in the reader's mind with the world of dreams and nightmares. Here and elsewhere, Ligotti is remarkably successful in his attempt at using language to convey this most elusive of moods.
On a more philosophical note, we can discern three primary themes (although they are certainly not the only ones) emerging from a survey of Ligotti's oeuvre: first, the meaninglessness -- or possibly malevolence -- of the reality principle behind the material universe; second, the perennial instability of this universe of solid forms, shapes, and concepts as it threatens to collapse or mutate into something monstrous and unforeseeable; and third, the nightmarishness of conscious personal existence in such a world. The stories in the "Teatro
Grottesco" section of THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY provide a good example of these themes at work. In many ways these stories are the most personal of Ligotti's works, and as such they provide the literary equivalent of
an intravenous dose of his mood. "The Bungalow House" is especially notable in this regard, for in it the narrator states what might be taken for a Ligottian philosophical and artistic credo, if such a thing were possible. Upon discovering a series of performance art audio tapes in the form of "dream monologues," the narrator is surprised and gratified, and also somewhat disturbed, to discover that another person shares his own love for "the icy bleakness of things." He reflects: "I wanted to believe that this artist had escaped the dreams and demons of all sentiment in order to explore the foul and crummy delights of a universe where everything had been reduced to three stark principles: first, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was no one for you to know. Of course, I knew that this view was an illusion like any other, but it was also one that had sustained me so long and so well -- as long and as well as any other illusion and perhaps longer, perhaps better."
This passage recalls Nietzsche's assertion in THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY that "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified." In a universe reduced to those "three stark principles," the only pleasures one can safely enjoy -- that is, the only pleasures one can enjoy without
the threat of disappointment and painful disillusionment -- are purely aesthetic. At the same time, the narrator is aware that this attitude is itself an illusion, and that he holds to it merely out of its proven utility. But ultimately even this painfully worked out maze of psychic defenses is not enough to shield him from utter despair. After a series of disturbing events, he finds himself unable to take any more pleasure from the works of this new artist, and is left only with a desperate need to find release from "this heartbreaking sadness I suffer every minute of the day (and night), this killing sadness that feels as if it will never leave me no matter where I go or what I do or whom I may ever know."
This idea is foundational to Ligotti's fictional universe: there is simply no solace to be found anywhere in this or any other world. Nor is this merely a literary affectation; Ligotti is using the vehicle of horror fiction to express his actual experience of life. When questioned by one interviewer about the relationship between his writing and his personal outlook on life, he replied, "My outlook is that it's a damn shame that organic life ever developed on this or any other planet, and that the pain that living creatures necessarily suffer makes for an existence that is a perennial nightmare. This attitude underlies almost everything I've written" (cf. Robert Bee, "Interview with Thomas Ligotti," op. cit.). The close connection between Ligotti's personal outlook and his stories holds true for even his most extravagant fictional creations. In "Nethescurial," for example, he writes of an ancient
pantheistic religious cult whose members discovered at some point in prehistory that their deity was evil, and that their religion was in truth a sort of "pandemonism." As commentary to this idea, Ligotti has said, "It seems to me that living beings on this planet suffer at the hands of an insatiable and wildly creative force--which has variously been referred to as Anima Mundi, Elan Vital, the Will (Schopenhauer)--that does not have our interests at heart, or the interests of any particular species for that matter, since it has extinguished more forms of life than it has created. From the point of view of individuals existing in this luxuriant world, this force must necessarily be viewed as inimical to our comfort and sanity, although almost no one holds to this attitude" (cf. interview with Thomas Ligotti in the commentary on "Nethescurial" at Thomas Ligotti Online).
In the end, it is this direct connection between Ligotti's personal outlook and his fictional world that lends his writing such power. His technical literary skills are truly marvelous, but without the strength of his vision to empower them, they would amount to nothing more than a literary sound and light show. He has devoted himself to a career of nightmares, a career of expressing
in literary form the demons that have afflicted him for most of his adult life. In interviews he has spoken candidly of his own "erstwhile craving for 'enlightenment in darkness'" (Bee, Interview with Thomas Ligotti, op. cit.), and the fruit of this craving can be seen in the fact that through his fiction he provides an aesthetic approximation of this very enlightenment for his readers. Christine Morris, writing in DAGON 22/23,
said, "Receptive reader, be forewarned -- if you read for more than escapist entertainment, if you read to be challenged or enlightened, if you read to explore not only daydreams but nightmares, Thomas Ligotti's stories
may transform you, too." For those readers who already possess "the insight, sensitivity, and -- like it or not -- peculiar set of experiences" to appreciate Ligotti's vision, this transformation may already be well underway by the time they encounter the master's books. In such a case, his fiction will act as a catalyst. Perhaps Ligotti's stories will always speak most vividly to those rare persons in whom the seed of darkness has already been sown. In their own half-conscious pilgrimage toward a dark enlightenment, these sensitive seekers will follow Ligotti willingly into the depths of the nightmare, and there in the echoing stillness of the silent, staring void they will find that they are looking into the radiant black reflection of their own shadowed souls.
© Matt Cardin, 2000
This essay appeared first in April 2000 in "The GrimScribe in Cyberspace" (a tribute to Thomas Ligotti)
special issue of TERROR TALES by John B. Ford.
Courtesy by Matt Cardin.