Interview with Thomas Ligotti by John B. Ford
April 2000

JBF: Welcome, Mr Ligotti. It's quite dark and cold in here. In fact I've a feeling that we've just stepped into the darkest area of cyberspace that anyone could ever hope to find. It's quite an eerie feeling when you think this meeting of intelligences is going to be frozen here indefinitely, that people will be viewing this interaction of our minds long after we've moved on to focus on other affairs. I suppose it's analogical of leaving footsteps in the sand, though in this case it might be more fitting to say on the dark side of the moon. One thing I've experienced for quite a few years now is a deep-rooted fear of death, and so it fascinates me that your fiction often indicates that you actually crave annihilation. It's as though an extremely complex and talented intelligence wants to be nothing more than a cloud of steam which will shortly evaporate into nothingness. Why does this physical existence of ours cause you to dislike it so much, and don't you believe that there's a spiritual existence once the human body has fallen cold?

TL: I discovered a long time ago that it's impossible to convince someone that they would be better off not having been born. If they don't see things that way, there's nothing anyone can say to alter their perspective, and it's a fool's game to attempt to do so. As for a postmortem spiritual existence, I guess I would first have to believe that there was such a thing as a spiritual component to the human entity, which I do not. I can't even conceive of an existence after death that would be any less of a nightmare, and possibly far more of one, than the present-tense, hard time that we're doing now. So why don't I just kill myself now? Anyone who asks a question like that wouldn't understand the answer.

JBF: Authors such as Lovecraft and Hodgson were the first to drive home the message about the sheer indifference of the universe towards mankind. I'd like to know your thoughts as to whether you believe there is one omnipotent intelligence (call it God if you will) behind the universe? I'm sure Lovecraft would have been fascinated by incidents such as Roswell and more recent incidents, do you believe mankind is alone upon this big ball of colour in all the darkness, or do you believe there are other intelligent lifeforms out there?

TL: I think Lovecraft would also have made fine fictional use of the rash of suicide cults in recent decades, not to mention the nightmares of technology. As for the God thing, it seems bizarre to me even to be asked such a question. I know that there are states of mind in which anybody is capable of believing in anything, such as an afterlife or a soul or a god, but I haven't experienced such a state of mind for some time now. Even in those days when I did believe in a god,or at least believed that I believed in one, I never felt that there was anything very real about it. On the subject of intelligent lifeforms existing in other precints of the universe, I just don't care one way or the other. I can't bring myself to feel that it makes any difference. I remember my youngest brother saying something funny about this subject. He's a big sports fan and as a way of expressing his devotion to football he remarked that if an alien landing were being televised on one channel and Monday Night Football was on another channel, he would watch the football game and tape the alien landing. I think that I'd probably watch the alien landing because I'm not a football fan and there aren't any decent tv shows on Monday. I do remember being disheartened to learn that there might exist some form of organic life below the glacial surface of one of the moons of Jupiter. "There's goes another perfectly good wasteland pure of the agitations of creaturely existence," I thought to myself in a mood of relative detachment.

JBF: I'd find it interesting to learn the process you employ for writing a short story. My method is to look upon a story as being a series of visions, almost like a film being projected inside my head. I wondered if it was like that for you? Do you take notes and make an outline of the story you are working on, or do you just let it flow from your mind?

TL: Of course to some extent I do see mental images of what I'm writing about, but it's not the kind of "movie in my mind" that I think most fiction writers experience. I prefer still images to moving ones--photographs rather than films. I find it difficult as a reader to "play" a book in my head, which is one of the reason that I never read conventional novels: everything comes out rather vague and blurry -- especially if there's any kind of action being described. I know that many fiction writers strive to make their words transparent, so to speak, in order to give their narratives a heightened illusion of the lifelike. But that just doesn't work for me at all. If there's nothing interesting about the way words are being used, then there's nothing there for me as a reader. I do make notes before I write a story, as well as during the course of composition. But I tend to look at a story more as an essay than a work of fiction. I think of a narrative as a series of propositions marshalled to make a point. I would feel lost if I just let my mind meander through a story, although I know that this approach works very well for a lot of writers. It does seem like it would be a fun way to write.

JBF: How much influence do you think a story has over the human mind while a person is in the act of reading? I know that you look upon someone reading a book as though they are escaping, losing themselves from all the grimness of life for a while, (and I agree) but for that amount of time does the author really have full control over the thoughts a reader has and the emotion they experience? Or does the author's vision lose the true potency needed to do this during the transference to another mind?

TL: Although the experience of reading has been very important to me, I don't think that anything has ever been written that can exercise the kind of power that I think you're talking about. For me reading acts as a sort of a mild recreational drug, a diversion and not much more. Attempting to read your favorite author when you've got a bad headache or the flu is good way to verify the limits of literature. It's really not much help--just a way for people who are in reasonably good health to pass the time. In other words, I am definitely not a believer in literature as a form of magic or means of personal salvation.

JBF: Over the years I've known quite a few examples of incidents happening that I can't explain. Perhaps I'm talking about the supernatural here, but I don't like to use that word because people tend to immediately think back to the Conan Doyle era, and all the feigned practice of spiritualism which took place during that time. But what would you think if someone told you they genuinely experience things like lightbulbs exploding when they're not switched on, fresh flowers in a vase dying in the space of one night, and things of that nature. Do you think this results from something buried within the human mind itself, or perhaps something external and not yet understood by us? Have you experienced unaccountable 'happenings' yourself?

TL: I once took a class in something called Silva Mind Control. This was back in the early 1970s. The object was to develop your so-called psychic potential. Everybody in the group successfully performed some kind of paranormal feat. I myself diagnosed the illnesses of several people whom I had never met. It was kind of fun and I think I may have been mildly amazed, but it didn't change my life. I know that such experiences can be created by non-paranormal means, which doesn't necessarily disqualify the validity of the paranormal entirely. I'm sure that very weird and inexplicable things happenall the time. So if somebody told me about exploding lightbulbs and fresh flowers dying in a vase, I would probably take them at their word that these things did in fact happen and move on. These are not weird occurences of a very high order. The world is definitely a strange place, and there are a lot of things about it that are unknown. Everybody knows that. Suppose all of the paranormal and supernatural phenomena that you've ever heard were all proven to be true--alien abductions, ghosts, what have you. Then they wouldn't be paranormal or supernatural anymore--they'd just be more stuff happening in the world. I know that a lot people think that it really makes a big difference whether or not any of these things are real or not, but it really doesn't. You still have to haul you're body around this world until you die. And if you live on after your death, then you'll just be living in another world. . . andwhen it comes down to it, one world's pretty much the same as another. Just try to imagine another reality that's anything more than a copy of this one. You can't do it. If you could, it would make for some very interesting weird fiction. But all weird fiction is based on creating a subjective sense of strangeness. It never describes hitherto unimagined orders of being, although it often hints at such things. But that's all it can do is hint.

JBF: It's obvious that much of your fiction has it's roots set deep in your personal nightmare experiences. Are your dreams ever lucid or are you just carried along as a spectator of yourself?

TL: I had only a few lucid dreams when I was a kid but nothing since then. I had an out-of-body dream some years ago after accidently drinking two cups of caffeinated coffee before falling asleep. I fell asleep on the couch and my dream body was floating around the living room. Hey, maybe it was an actual out-of-body experience. Coffee as the gate to another world--just like LeFanu's "Green Tea."

JBF: It's said that within twenty years time we will have the technology to record the dream (or nightmare) experience and play it back to other people. Perhaps this seems far-fetched at the moment, but when you think how people are already using mobile phones and computers almost as an extension of their own bodies, then maybe it really isn't. Technology is moving incredibly fast and the public are embracing everything it comes up with. Do you envisage a time when today's dreamers will be tomorrow's internal 'movie makers'?

TL: I've never given it a thought. But now that you mention it, I bet a videotape of someone's dream would make more sense that most of the movies being released these days.

JBF: Will people ever be able to access a virtual library of dreams and plug into one as a means of entertainment?

TL: If things ever do reach that point, I'm sure we can expect to have product placements and advertisements inserted among our dreams of flying or being chased by monsters.

JBF: "I've noticed how many horror writers die early and in tragic circumstances. To name just a handful: Schulz, Hodgson, Lovecraft, Poe, Maupassant, Grabinski, etc. It worries me quite a lot because I'm aware I'm producing fiction at least as dark as these people did, I think there *may* be a danger in it. I'm speaking from the point of view that I'm already dosing myself with beta blockers and anti-depressants in order to be able to face life. Do you believe that there is a danger in creating intense horror fiction of this mould, or do you think it is a matter of having to get something out of the system -- passing it on to the world and letting them deal with it instead?

TL: (putting the answer to this question on hold for a second) I've never taken beta blockers. Do you find them very effective?

JBF: Yes, they're a drug mostly used to lower blood pressure in people, but they also have the effect of lowering the pulse rate. My heart beats too fast because of the intense anxiety I often suffer, and so I use beta blockers to prevent this. They're very effective, but I can only take them in combination with anti-depressants. If I take them 'neat' my stomach is thrown into total chaos.

TL: How do they interact with the AD's?

JBF: They work in harmony in my case, otherwise I think I would have started pushing up flowers in the local churchyard about four years ago. There must be some ingredient in them to stimulate hunger, and in my case this also reverses the adverse stomach problems caused by the beta blockers.

TL: I find that tranquilizers and a very low dosage of anti-depressants are the best combination for anxiety-panic disorder. AD's alone are bad news, at least for me. But to respond to the question, I think that any kind of writing is both physically and psychologically harmful, but I don't think writing horror fiction is anymore debilitating than other kinds of writing. No one should write, or perform any kind of intense mental labor, if they can possibly help it. I know that this sounds perverse, but consider that most of what we're driven to do as human beings--especially activities that we consider "fun"--take their toll upon us. Writing invariably leaves me in an incredibly agitated and exhausted state, as well as causing me digestive troubles. There have been occasions when I've wanted to commit some act of violence but instead wrote a horror story fueled by my violent impulses. But afterward I didn't feel any less violent. I've never felt that I've gotten anything out of my system by writing a horror story. If anything, I think writing aggravates the emotion that inspired it in the first place.

JBF: Tell us a little about your latest collaborative project, there's a buzz of excitement going round at the moment because we've all heard that you've written a film script of 'The Last Feast of Harlequin'. I've heard the imagery is even more bizarre than that of the story, is this true?

TL: I hope so. The imagery in "Last Feast of Harlequin" isn't all that bizarre -- just the screaming clown face creeps and the crooked-looking town. Plus the worms. But there aren't any worms in the screenplay. That element was to support the thematic material in the story and would look kind of silly in a movie.

JBF: Did you enjoy the experience of working on a film script, or do you prefer to work on your own fiction?

TL: I co-wrote the script with Brandon Trenz, with whom I had previously collaborated on the X-Files episode that was on the TLO website some time back. There's definitely a lot of fun to be had in writing a screenplay with someone else, whereas I never found writing stories much fun. And when collaborating on a screenplay isn't any fun, at least you've got someone else suffering right along with you. But neither of us has been through the whole experience yet. . . and we may never will get to that point, since we wrote the screenplay on spec, and it remains to be seen whether or not the production company that optioned "The Last Feast of Harlequin" will find the film adaptation a financially and artistically viable project.

JBF: "I know that you greatly admire authors such as: Lovecraft, Schulz, Grabinski, Campbell, and Borges, but I'd be interested to learn your thoughts on other legends of the genre. Chambers' most potent work 'The King In Yellow' is often compared to your fiction, and so it makes me wonder if any influence actually came from him.

TL: I was never that big a fan of Chambers' "The King in Yellow." I like Lovecraft's description of the book in Supernatural Horror in Literature more than I like the book itself. I absorbed a lot of the 1890s aura that's associated with "The King in Yellow" from reading other authors of that period like Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Machen, and so on.

JBF: Hodgson's 'The House on the Borderland' is possibly the closest anyone's ever come to capturing the nightmare experience in a novel, I wondered if you've ever read that novel and if you agree with me?

TL: I'm really going to have to read that book again, because I could barely make it through the thing the first time I read it. I apologize for seeming so contrary about this, since I know that so many afficianados have such high regard for this novel. I readily admit that my taste as a reader is very screwy and should be dismissed by anyone who disagrees with me.

JBF: Have you read authors such as Shiel, Blackwood, and Machen, and does their work have appeal for you?

TL: I remember admiring Shiel's horror stories very much when I read them over twenty years ago, but the rest of his work doesn't hold any interest for me. I read all of Blackwood's short fiction around the same time and of course appreciated its power and imagination, although I'm generally put off by the paganist worldview that pervades much his work. I really came to appreciate Blackwood all over again when I read Michael Ashley's selection from his work entitled The Magic Mirror. I actually read Arthur Machen before I read Lovecraft--around 1971--and was first attracted to his fiction because it seemed to me so reminiscent of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Later I came to appreciate Machen's wonderfully vile subject matter and his magic as a prose stylist.

JBF: "I believe you have just had an audio collection called 'I Have A Plan For The World' released. Was this another venture featuring David Tibet?

TL: It's a twenty-minute or so CD performed by Current 93, with words by yours truly: twelve short pieces that's on the theme announced by the CD's title

JBF: What are your plans for the future, Mr Ligotti? Will there be another dark treat for us in the shape of a new collection before too long?

TL: I have no idea. I never had any idea. I have no control over that. Sorry.

JBF: Finally, how would you like the world to remember you when the time arrives and the black curtain eventually descends before your eyes?

TL: Eventually descends? I want that black curtain to come down so fast that I won't feel or hear it. "He never knew what hit him." That's how I want my epitaph to read.

This interview appeared first in April 2000
in the special issue "The Grimscribe in Cyberspace" (a tribute to Thomas Ligotti)
of John B. Ford's free e-mail magazine TERROR TALES.
Courtesy by John B. Ford.
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