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Thomas Ligotti and the Horror of Existence

Meet the writer whose stories suggest there is nothing to hope for, nothing good around the corner.
by Bill Ryan
October 7, 2021
Thomas Ligotti and the Horror of Existence

The first Thomas Ligotti story I ever read was “The Red Tower.” Originally published in The Nightmare Factory (1996), a collection of new and selected horror stories by Ligotti, I discovered it in a different, later collection called The Shadow at the Bottom of the World (2005). Both books had the same goal: to get the word out about this horror writer embraced by his peers and by critics (Douglas E. Winter called him “the best kept secret in contemporary horror fiction,” and the great literary critic Michael Dirda has been championing him for years), but whose prior collections at that time were not being snapped up by ravenous horror fans.

Ligotti’s first collection of horror fiction, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, was published in 1985, during the decades-long horror boom in publishing that began with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), continued with Thomas Tyron’s The Other (1971) and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (also ’71), before finally being flamboyantly confirmed by the arrival of Stephen King in 1974. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is now considered one of the modern masterpieces of the genre, and “The Red Tower” is an instructive sample for curious readers. Told by an unnamed narrator who has no direct relationship with or impact on the story, “The Red Tower” describes a company, or factory, that produces functionless but unsettling consumer goods. Ligotti writes:

These were a gruesome array of goods that could perhaps best be described as novelty items. In the beginning there was a chaotic quality to the objects and constructions produced by the machinery of the Red Tower, a randomness that yielded formless things of no consistent shape or size or apparent design. Occasionally there might appear a peculiar ashen lump that betrayed some semblance of a face or clawing fingers …

Later, after the factory has become more controversial due to its products, it becomes more extreme, creating what the narrator calls “hyper-organisms”:

To state this matter in the most lucid terms: each of these hyper-organisms, even as they scintillated with an obscene degree of vital impulses, also, and at the same time, had degeneracy and death written deeply upon them.

There are no individual or named characters in “The Red Tower,” only two groups: the townspeople, and who- or whatever exists within the Tower. This, while not Ligotti’s exclusive mode, is nevertheless not uncommon among his fiction. Ligotti’s own crushingly black view on existence itself leads him to a style that suggests the society of man—no matter what it does or how it deludes itself—is forever up against an essential uselessness, an essential horror, inherent to real life from which one can only find distraction through fantasy. In “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horrors” from Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Ligotti describes the act of birth as “having been stolen from nonexistence.” In that same piece (though found in a story collection, it really is an essay), he writes of the horror genre itself: “The vampire may symbolize our horror of both life and death, but none of us has ever been uprooted by a symbol.”

To Ligotti, the vast majority of horror fiction is no less of a comforting fantasy than escapist thrillers meant to be read on a beach, in the shade of an umbrella.

The authors Ligotti has named as his primary influences range from H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe to fatalistically philosophical Europeans like Thomas Bernhard and Bruno Schulz. In an interview with Thomas Wagner (it can also be found in editor and writer Matt Cardin’s unfortunately scarce collection of Ligotti interviews, Born to Fear), Ligotti says of such writers, and his chosen genre:

Except as a form of popular entertainment, I don’t think that horror fiction ever had a future. In my view, it has been only pure accident that joined the tastes and temperament of someone like Poe or Lovecraft to a talent sufficient to express these tastes and this temperament, which, as Lovecraft pointed out many times, are the province of very few individuals. Let’s say it once and for all: Poe and Lovecraft—not to mention a Bruno Schulz or a Frank Kafka—were what the world at large would consider extremely disturbed individuals. And most people who are that disturbed are not able to create works of fiction. These and other names I could mention are people who are just on the cusp of total psychological derangement. … That’s where the future development of horror fiction lies—in the next person who is almost too emotionally and psychologically damaged to live in the world but not too damaged to produce fiction.

This describes Ligotti himself: reclusive, deeply pessimistic, a brilliant author, and, by his own admission, mentally ill. And befitting such an artist, for a long time his books were hard to come by. Though his first three collections—after Songs of a Dead Dreamer came Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991), then Noctuary (1994)—were published by a mass market publisher, when they went out of print they didn’t come back. Several of his books are now back in print, but at the time this, combined with the fact that his peers almost instantaneously recognized his brilliance, meant that getting your hands on a copy of one of his books for anything close to a reasonable price was a matter of sheer luck. (I bought my copy of The Nightmare Factory at a thrift store for fifty cents. No big deal.) So he was, and is, a horror writer’s horror writer, eschewing the graphic violence (his serial killer story “The Frolic” is terrifying precisely because of what is left out) that has marked so much of the genre since the 1980s in favor of baroque language describing existential, cosmic, weird terror.

One of the quintessential Ligotti stories is “Vastarien.” In it, Victor Keirion dreams of the titular city, filled with towers and “grotesquely configured streetlamps” and silhouettes that moved “like shadow-puppets in the fever of some mad dispute.” Where even the stars are foreboding, and “seemed to be no more than silvery cinders which showered up from the mouths of great chimneys.” Keirion learned of this dream city from a book of the same name that he obtained from a mysterious bookseller, and with the help of a small crow-like man. Later, the bookseller reveals to Keirion that the “human crow” said “The book has found its reader.” Keirion is the ideal reader because Vastarien, the dream city, offers its visitors “miracles of aberrance and marvels of miscreation.” And while the city contained horror, “it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or a thwarted search for the good. … If Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.” And this exact world is one Keirion has been seeking his whole life. It is more real to him than the real city he sees from his bedroom window.

This could also be read as a statement on the genre, horror often dealing as it does with rote and insincere “feelings of lost joy” and “thwarted searches for the good” and other general ridiculousness. Criticizing his contemporaries, either obliquely or not, is not unusual for Ligotti. One of his stranger stories (which is saying something), “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story,” involves a horror writer working on a story about a haunted pair of pants. Of course, it has much more to do with Ligotti’s theme, which asserts that real life is a nightmare that just barely masks a greater nightmare. But at least that nightmare is more honest. At least it’s the truth.

This is ultimately why Thomas Ligotti’s fiction is so disturbing: he believes there is nothing to hope for, nothing good is around the corner; that when you feel at your worst, that is how it always is and will be. And he doesn’t pretend that he believes otherwise, even for the sake of plot development. When Ligotti was first being published, there was a movement in the horror genre called Splatterpunk. The idea was that pushing the extreme boundaries of violence would, I don’t know, reveal deeper truths about society and the human race or something. Yet none of the extreme violence I’ve read can compare to the moment in Ligotti’s “Sideshow, and Other Stories” when the narrator sees grotesque pale creatures at the bottom of a stairwell, “the place, I had been informed, where I might confront the source of all existential phenomena.” The narrator then realizes the sounds the creatures were making reminded him “of the tiny voices of things which, however imperfect their form, have only been newly thrust into the world of phenomenal existence.” Ligotti is a genuine antinatalist (he even wrote a book of philosophy on the subject, called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race), and his darkness is something the Splatterpunks couldn’t imagine.

Last week, Vox published an essay in which the writer argued that the new Netflix horror miniseries Midnight Mass (a show, for the record, I feel confident Ligotti would have no truck with) let them down because it was not sufficiently atheistic, and therefore didn’t flatter the writer’s own worldview. Horror, the article says, is meant to discomfort, but here the writer is missing a blatant irony about their own reaction to the show. They wanted the comfort of being able to agree completely with the show’s point of view, and for those of a different mindset to feel that discomfort. Ligotti, meanwhile, offers genuine discomfort. It’s not that no one’s philosophy matters to him but his own; those other philosophies rarely even come up. And when they do, they’re quickly dismissed as part of the cruel torture of existence. I myself do not share Ligotti’s view of life as essentially catastrophic, existence as immoral. But it’s not necessary to “agree” with art in order to appreciate it, to even love it.

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.