Notes and Aphorisms
by Thomas Ligotti

(From notebooks circa 1976-82)

Abstract madness: protagonist who senses that he's insane yet cannot discover the exact nature of his insanity.

Conflict between the fear of death and the nightmare of immortality. Link to 'abstract madness' plot.

Character who is dying yet has no feeling whatever that he is confronting death. Paradoxical horror.

Detective writer who cannot bring himself to use the word 'corpse', replacing it in his fiction with entirely arbitrary terms. Readers amused by this quirk at first but soon begin to perceive more and more words as code words for 'corpse'. - The Literary Career of Ian Corman. -

A world forever reverberant with the horror of all who ever have lived and suffered.

Story in which the fantastic element is treated in an ambiguous way that seems neither to negate nor affirm the fantastic.

The unique way in which a first-person narrator can talk about his dream self.

Man meets vampire in a church. The vampire turns out to be a priest.

Conflict in modern supernatural fiction is not between good and evil in the traditional sense, but between sanity and insanity in both the personal and metaphysical realms.

Taking one's place among the monsters.

Title: 'The Rash'.

Stage performance that elicits from the audience a very strange sound. Horror of the ludicrous. Backstage: 'There, do you hear it.'

Someone ends up in a hell where his torment is to be perpetually on the brink of death without ever dying.

The horror of forms merging.

Much of fantastic literature is an exhibition that consists of kaleidoscopically manipulating concepts into patterns which are new and
perhaps a little strange, yet which lack any particular emotional or visionary foundation. True strangeness is a perspective, not a sequence of events.

Eternal cosmic vertigo.

Opening scene of a story: priest in bar ordering large quantities of alcohol.

Atmosphere in a horror story is supplied by narrative and descriptive signposts that point to an awesome otherworld beyond the story itself.

Madness as a place, a time, a dimension.

Narrator who is reliable because he is mad.

Short horror tale as an invasion of a reader's mind and an undermining of his normal categories of expectation, leaving him in a state of shock and wonder at his own comprehension of something so bizarre.

Some readers do not have much disbelief that they need to 'willingly suspend', easily comprehending from the experience of their lives the most strange and regrettable possibilities.

The horrors on which I hope to focus should not be symbolic of the objective horrors of society (nazis, mass murderers, disasters, etc.), but more of the inner horrors that necessarily confront all individuals.

First-person present-tense story about the possession of someone by something ('Why is X looking at me like that?') Chronicle gradual loss of identity and substitution by invading entity exclusively through stream-of-consciousness narrative.

If we could listen into another mind, in the process of conversing with itself, we would go insane. Overwhelmed by the reality of the other.

Perpetrate a revelation without content, showing the irrelevance of any particular revelation and the fact the power of this experience derives from withholding any secret or knowledge and then suddenly revealing it.

Horror tales transcending their unpleasant themes through strictly formal, aesthetic interest. What exactly does one do to accomplish this?

Narrator who openly states he is distorting the facts, with the implication that there is some reality, which will remain forever unknown, behind the surface narrative. Now, what is a damn good reason for the narrator to do this, and in what way exactly does he distort the truth? Obviously in some way that allows him to get at the truth more effectively and convey it more vividly, i. e. more sensationalistically, or at least with greater emotive effect.

Spirit form of large spider or other insectoid life form.

Use 'Cogito ergo sum' as an epigraph to a story but attribute it to some trivial speaker (someone at a cocktail party perhaps) in order to underline the inadequacy of this phrase -- and of all phrases and concepts of this type -- to explain the nature of human reality.

In my fiction I would most like to convey what it's like to live in a reality without the possibility of an ultimate salvation, a place where
horror and evil are the backdrop and principal players.

'The Clinic': patient systematically reduced to progressively -- regressively -- cruder forms of life.

The fascination, the potent mystery, of the second-rate, half-baked, run-down, dirty little back-room world.

The Zone: a dimension that is primeval and decadent at the same time -- a paleozoic jungle overlapping an urban slum.

Story of an anthropologist who looks to his own culture to find that sense of magic in the world which primitive peoples seem to possess. He discovers only horror and spiritual sterility. Man with an extremely cultured voice who thinks, or seems to think (perhaps trying to induce himself to think), like a savage.

Only caricatures can have a good solid reality. Everyone else is an impenetrable mix of qualities that ultimately add up to nothingness.

'Das Lied Deutschlands:' that sadness of something great gone insane.

The Sacred Abnormal: madman-pervert in primitive society who is seen as being in touch with transcendent realms. But what sort of realms, given their manifestations in madness and perversion?

'Life is what it makes you.'

Sorcerer who works according to a system of occult correspondences, yet fails to take into consideration the fact that these are correspondences only from a human perspective, while from another viewpoint (which he soon discovers) things are ... a little different, a chaos of infinite but meaningless interconnections.

Borgesian story of cloying sophistication concerning the infinite models of the universe that exist only in men's minds.

Fantastic fiction is justified if only as a means of arousing readers to the true incredibility (mostly in a nightmarish sense) of all existence.

Allegory may be redeemed by having certain of its elements as dual -- ideally contradictory -- in nature.

The physiology of enlightenment, physics of despair, biology of philosophical systems.

I love fiction that is enigmatic; I hate fiction that is nothing else. The enigma is not a literary genre.

I would like to reach the point where I can love my imagination for terrorizing me; love it in more than a naive sense, as the surrealists seemed to do.

Images from waking life are revived in dreams but from perspectives not consciously noticed before, ones which are thus not entirely recognizable, as when one sees a photograph or film of a familiar place which, due to the peculiar limits of a camera lens, looks unfamiliar.

The simplest fantastic concepts lend themselves to the greatest variety of interpretations (such as Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'). The more complications in a fantastic tale, the more limitations and restrictions are placed on its meanings.

Not power but absence of power makes 'being' possible and sustains it; not choice but its lack. The suicide, therefore, is not a paradigm of power but an example of disguised impotence. The paradox is that only those with their back against the wall can exercise the ultimate powerlessness, the lack to the limit. Could the life-force itself reach such an impass of 'might'?

Automatism is necessary to set in motion the unchoosable tortures of Being.

One can only truly negate life 'from the grave.'

If life is a dream, then only stories of the purest possible unreality may be accounted as realism.

All fear partakes of the supernatural, that is its nature: to go beyond the immediate.

All fear is fear of the unknown, for each moment in this life is, unfortunately, always new to us ... and remains forever unknown.

Since fear is driven, generated, by the imagination, it is always a bizarre, unreal experience. What pain does at the physical level, fear takes up on the metaphysical.

Since we are always threatened by something or other, give the imagination a little slack and it will tear off in the direction of fear.

All so-called affirmative attitudes toward existence depend on the absence or suppression of the imagination.

Fear and imagination are initiated in the 'real' world, but once born take off into an enclosed world of their own, where they are impervious to the logic of cause and effect, the 'practical' arguments for their demise. We say: 'I can't go on. This fear has to end.' But it doesn't end until it's good and ready to, that is, according to the obscure time zones of terror.

Healthy fears, those based on logic (fire on flesh = pain; therefore, no flesh in the fire) are not, properly speaking, fears at all. They are vacant of metaphysics. When a fear is unhealthy, that is, symbolic (don't go near that picture of fire, don't say the word fire), it claims a spiritual dimension and is truly fear.

The only progress mankind makes is its progressive acclimation to greater and greater horrors. Unfortunately, there is no end in this process, no foreseeable reward, no rest.

Everyone praises food, a few even praise the act of consuming it, but no one has a good one for hunger itself, that great and true benefactor of our belly. From here, one may form some rather corrosive extrapolations, since the only thing anyone ever wants to do with a desire is to extinguish it as soon as possible, or at least to be sure one has the means for doing so at one's 'pleasure'.

Let every happiness be haunted by a sneer, every pain by faint smile.

Doomed to search for answers when in fact nothing outside our own overactive brains has posed even a single question.

Pessimism, Cynicism, Skepticism -- terms that make sense only within a social context, conditions of pain forced upon us by our fellow man. On our own, a negative attitude would be irrelevant to our suffering, if it could even exist at all. In society, it is rewarded with a stigmatization that augments our other miseries, even surpasses them.

The truth about any given matter is always desolate or horrible if pursued beyond the point of the practical.

All life is strange. Perhaps we would be able to see this if we could only apprehend the norm of nullity.

What kind of superstition is it that causes you to believe that fear, or at least a display of fear, will appease what menaces you?

'It's an ill wind that blows no good.' Even folk adages, tested by ages of experience, argue for the chaotic relativity of things.

Integrated natures consider themselves their own masters, if the question even arises in their 'minds'. To actually feel that one is a puppet requires the pull of conflicting forces. Then you know about the wires that hold you together, and afterward you can never free yourself from the 'sense of strings.'

There's nothing in this world worth rejecting. Perhaps its most solid pretext is that it serves, and serves admirably, as a place well worth escaping from.

Lucifer rejected heaven, a position than which nothing could be more comprehensible to us. Unthinkable, however, to the earthly mind, that 'the king of this world' could ever reject hell. What a comment on our imagination and our 'nature.'

Absurd that you cannot be fully aware of your life unless you are fully aware of your death. Enlightenment always comes too late and under circumstances of the most inconvenient sort.

Regard life itself with such hate that you have none to spare for other people. The true liberal always blames the system.

The shuttling between anxiety and depression. When one is settled in one of these hells, the other looks like heaven -- an illusion that dissolves the moment you get there.

Optimism is a shield; pessimism a sword. Both have a deep crack in them.

The greatest power one may possess -- in any situation -- is simply not to care what happens. In fact, it's the only power, all others being a semblance and mockery of it. But you must also not care about possessing the power itself. So fuck it.

From the realm of reason, the irrational looks rather attractive, a naive viewpoint at best and one that can be maintained only as long as one is confined within reason's protected borders. This little pièce bien fait' could also be played with the roles of reason and the irrational reversed, depending on where one is 'forced' to begin.

Expression is always ten steps behind experience -- and it never catches up. In the end, you remain unknown.

If all individuals, all groups and societies, all human institutions reaped the fruits of their respective labors today -- tomorrow you could walk the earth and hear only the wind, the stupid sounds of nature. When did we forget that we deserve annihilation?

Anyone who has experienced a complete absence of emotion, say for a year or two, knows that the universe is entirely made up of our feelings about it. In fact, it's just made up, period.

To say that nothing matters, over and over again, is a therapy which is appropriate only in certain circumstances, ones that are the most resistent to the benefits of this philosophy. But how vivid this truth becomes at times when we neither intend nor desire to self-administer its 'remedies.'

The less you do, the less you dream about -- but the more often, and more intensely, you dream.

Horror concept: that characters in one's dreams are aware of being characters in a dream.

Inner and outer realities can never be successfully treated in isolation from each other. To speak of one is inevitably to invoke the issues of the other.

A fantastic element in a story may be merely symbolic of some psychological reality as understood by the conscious mind. But it should also have a degree of autonomy, some integrity and reality of its own to make the reader feel its otherness as well as its relationship to banal, known existence.

To write a story that did not depend on the reader for its existence.

Lovecraft claimed he was interested only in fantastic phenomena in his stories, when in fact he was supremely concerned with the sensitive perception of these phenomena, with the consciousness they induce.

Story idea: Man is followed by a faint mirror image of himself whose movements he is able to control. One day he reaches out to grasp something but cannot reach far enough. The mirror image reaches out a little farther and grabs the object, then turns and smiles. 'The other one smiled first, then he felt his own face smiling.'

Vampire as a elepathic slave of his 'victim', forced to rise from grave and relinquish his corpse-state.

Ideal horror tales: a thoroughly symbolic universe, its every aspect contemplated and expressed in the Symbolist manner, portraying the horrific essence of things and creating with the greatest possible intensity the dream-sense of the world's horror. Tales not told to reader, but overheard by reader, indirect tone, dreaming, narrating in your sleep. Everything transformed, mundane and exotic elements alike, the two often exchanging qualities. Remoteness: no waking morals, concerns, ideologies, philosophies, messages of any kind. Pure vision without judgements, inspiring only dread and awe, a sardonic exhuberance, grim exaltation. Metaphors drawn from the realm of dreams, death, disease. Behavior of characters always betrays their lurid knowingness anent the nightmarish nature of their world, although some are more knowing than others. The waking world requires a superficial sense of cause and effect, which occultism provides; dreams, the true occult realm, need no such ersatz rationalism, only the sensation of revelations that feel horribly true. Minimal dialogue. Plots make a kind of surface sense, as in 'Greater Festival of Masks' and 'Music of the Moon.' Maximum atmosphere -- focus on seemingly irrelevant background, often swamping the actors in the foreground. Objective, unemotive description as contrast to dominant metaphorical dreaminess. Vulgar, puppet-show melodrama and artificiality. World populated exclusively by vile creatures like Aubrey Beardsley's ideally grotesque world.

Those signs, symbols, portents, and omens that traverse the periphery of Villiers' tales. The cry of a bird, an oddly shaped patch of moonlight, each belonging to a separate realm of sound and space, each underlining the awesome presence of their opposites, which in these cases are silence and darkness. The faint emblems of the abyss.

Tales without a specific occult background or metaphysics, in which there is just a kind of insanity loose in the world or in someone's life.

The mind itself is the supernatural realm.

Anyone with a thorough understanding of existence is either silent or raving mad.

To know yourself to an excessive degree is to know the uselessness of knowing yourself, as if there were anything one could call a self.

The fantastic occurs in the gap between reality as we unconsciously assume it to be, or wishfully desire it to be, and reality as it is.

The fantastic is not subjective or objective but a twilight state created by some collision between these two realms.

The fantastic doesn't exist in an ideally routine world (which would be a fantastic reality in itself) or in an entirely unstable universe (equally unimaginable) but in an impure universe where the two are mingled.

Nothing is worth writing about except things sensed, however faintly, outside the visible universe.

Ghost story featuring a horrible, impotent creature that takes any amount of abuse and mutilation yet still remains, still haunts. Its power resides in its dual qualities of persistence and disgusting weakness.

The broken covenant of order.

There is no horror in total chaos. Horror is located in the entropic transition from a greater to a lesser state of order on the way to chaos, with all the little collapses pointing toward the big one.

The realization that there never was a covenant of order, only a devious document written in blood.

Connection between M. R. James's Count Magnus and the family of Erik Count Stenbock as delineated in 'Stenbock, Yeats and the Nineties'. Could James have known Stenbock?

To his credit, Poe goes out of his way to ruin the 'pure entertainment' value of his best stories. Example: undermining the picturesque, sublime effect in the intro section of 'Usher'. Lovecraft does something similar: the most charming New England settings in his tales are always a façade.

'Witches!' one rustic says to another, hefting a scythe. The trek through the super-haunted woods to a cottage where two old women live. Horrible turn of events. 'Witches,' everyone said.

Every rupture in routine, however slight, may become a chasm releasing the fantastic from its depths, a fracture opening on the incredible.

Supernatural horror is based on a sense of the world and not on an understanding of any system designed to explain it. The symbols and 'allegories' of supernatural horror refer directly to experience rather than a religious, philosophical, ethical, moral, psychological, or social interpretation of experience. Hence, the referents of these symbols, these allegories are often obscure -- even to the author's own mind -- because they are not articulated, not coded into a system. They are never obscure to the feelings, the viscera.

I hate to speculate on such things, but I have my suspicions that paradise itself is a nightmare.

Revelation of the whole 'scene' of existence leads a character to a self-mocking embracement of horror, an affirmation that this is the best and the worst of all possible worlds.

Not the how and why of the realistic supernatural tale, but simply the WHAT of the nightmare, source of all supernatural horror.

Someone leaves behind not his ghost but his vision of things to haunt a particular place, affecting the way others see it.

Consciousness breeding in some obscure place like a blue fungus.

What do creatures like Lovecraft's Brown Jenkin think and feel?

Everything is a trap, but it's only when one attempts to escape that this fact is realized. Vicious circles of circumstance, weird principles of identity, and self-dependent terms are the materials of this trap. The nausea of trying to break through, destroy these things.

The secret of the success of world religions lies in their genius for trivializing human suffering. Paradoxically, this is done by setting our agony on a cosmic stage.

Taste for violence, grandiosity, cataclysms: good mood. Distaste for the pain of violence, the vulgarity of 'grandeur', the terminal tragedy of cataclysms: bad mood.

The inability to love any particular thing as much as one hates life as a whole.

Interplay of forces bring about natural events. Are there particular forces always present in order to effect particular supernatural events? In fiction, that is.

Boredom, along with the fear of boredom, may serve as the fundamental explanation for all the horrors we inflict upon ourselves, both as individuals and as a species.

Seeing a mother holding an infant in her arms. How does one avoid imagining all the nightmares fermenting inside that tiny skull?

The horror tale: a crazy combo of charlatanry and the howl 'de profundis'.

On earth, we are all in the same mess. Nevertheless, it is the differences, not the identity, among us that constitute the basis for almost all our behavior.

Humor is not only a latent quality of horror, it is the mask of horror, just as horror is humor's secret face. Both are destructive; both have their inspiration in the corruptness of reality; and both seek a remedy in the annihilation of the animalistic values that motivate us.

Story idea: Man saves spider webs.

There is only one possible response to the prospect of living -- escape. Whether escape leads to other worlds or is a flight into the world itself is another matter.

With the disappearance of each individual, each generation, life is pardoned of its crimes, but only on a technicality. The witnesses of the deed, innocent bystanders all, can no longer come forth and give their testimony, which has been made inadmissable by death, however elaborately it has been recorded in second-hand form. No one hears them any more.

This maddening game in which one is always walking the edge of irony, hypocrisy, always speaking in tasteless double entendres between truth and appearances. 'Will you play again tomorrow?' you ask yourself before falling asleep each night. 'We shall have to see,' you answer, never knowing who or what else is included in this 'we.'

Wereworld: title for a bad popular horror novel.

Every joy an indirect, even a backward, joy.

Horror: refuge and revenge of the ultra-sensitive.

To hear the mocking laughter of your future self.

It's not that a fantastic story needs to draw its value and validity from the 'real' world -- that it ultimately must refer back to the everyday -- but that the real, everyday world refers to, or at least suggests, the realms which can only be portrayed in a fantastic story. At its deepest level, the world is always strange and frightening to us, as much as we are to ourselves.

Death is fantastic, unnatural. Its constant rearrangement of reality, its derangement of our minds and lives, is all but inconceivable. By contrast, immortality would be the most natural thing in the world.

Epigraph from Ludwig Tieck 'The Runenberg': 'In plants and herbs, in trees and flowers, it is the painful writhing of one universal wound that moves and works; they are the corpse of forgone glorious worlds of rock, they offer to our eye a horrid universe of putrefaction.'

Only in the unreal can we be saved. Reality ruins everything and everyone.

© Thomas Ligotti 1994
This text appeared first in DAS SCHWARZE GEHEIMNIS (ed. Dr Marco Frenschkowski) # 1 / fall 1994
Courtesy by Thomas Ligotti
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