Interview: Thomas Ligotti and the Realm of Nightmares
Weird Fiction Review, 2015
While Thomas Ligotti has been cited by authors as the greatest living writer of the Weird, mainstream recognition of his work has seemed to lag behind. However, this month Penguin is publishing a new work in its series of classics that combines two of Ligotti’s earliest collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works. With Penguin adding Ligotti’s work to its classics lineup, it would seem that Ligotti might finally be getting the long overdue exposure he deserves for his seminal contribution to dark fiction. The following interview was done on the occasion of the publication of Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead and Grimscribe in the Penguin Literary Classics series.
Were there any particular events in your life that pushed your imagination to contemplate horror?
I think the first and foremost source of horror that preoccupied my mind were nightmares. I’ve been a professional at bad dreams all my life. Hamlet had nothing on me as far as that’s concerned. Nightmares are the only realm in which we are without help and absent of all hope of being saved from the worst and most unnatural fates. But that’s all very abstract, and I don’t think it’s the response you’re looking to get from me. No doubt I did have more than my share of nightmares. There were other things, though, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on what they were or how much any one of them might be blamed or credited for my obsession with the artistic expression of horror. I was often sick as a child. Often my illnesses were accompanied by fevers and deranged perceptions that they bring about — malignant faces on the ceiling of my bedroom, shadows in corners, shapes watching me from dark places, that sort of thing. When I was two years old, I was hospitalized and operated on for an abdominal rupture. In my reading on authors of supernatural writing, I came across an article on childhood surgical procedures, focusing on one in particular that had been undergone by Bram Stoker. The person who wrote the article had a theory on what effect this may have had on the man who would later write Dracula and other tales of things that did not exist and could not exist in our so-called normal world, the real and orderly world where the substance of our lives is assumed to be played out. And of course H. P. Lovecraft recorded at length in his letters the journeys he made to a world without any rules concerning what should be and what should not be. I have to say that my destinations were more mundane but it’s the emotions aroused by nightmares affects us most. They have no counterpart in intensity and suggestion in our daylight lives.
Throughout my youngest days I used to think that if I had a bad dream the night before it was less likely I would have another on the next one. I’m not claiming to be unique in the nightmares and traumas of my early life, or even that they were material to my later preoccupation with horror movies and literature. They just happened. So did night terrors, which have continued to this day, in which I feel myself awake but am paralyzed in body. Those may account for what is possibly my worst fear: the syndrome of being “locked in” your body and unable to give a sign that you’re aware of what is happening. It’s that sort of disorder that I believe alone makes anyone’s continued existence not worth the risk. Like many other potential sufferings, at least for me, it’s simply too awful to contemplate. A bestselling book was written by someone in that condition. This sort of heroic accomplishment is supposed to assure us all that we have reservoirs of strength that can get us through the most strange and terrible ordeals. That may be true for some people. But I can’t help trembling when I think of those for whom it is a lie. So many lies are told in order to keep us from collapsing into a heap should we give too much attention to the thousands of potential nightmares that threaten us both day and night.
Could you talk about your religious background?
I attended Catholic school from grades one through three and remained a theist throughout my teenage years. No incident or study on my part that I can name led to my becoming an atheist around the age of nineteen. To my recollection, I became aware of my lapse from religious belief while doing homework for a college history class. It was not a momentous occurrence to say the least. Looking back, I would have to say that my Catholicism, which was rather elaborate and obsessive for a child, was a matter of observance of ritual and private practice without being directed by emotional or spiritual feeling. Even in grade school I realized that I lacked any sentiment positive or negative for my creator. This didn’t seem strange to me. I think I assumed that everyone felt, or failed to feel, the same way. I found Jesus Christ singularly uninspiring as a messiah or useful in any way to me in my life. What I did feel was a profound sense of sympathy for others. The sound of an ambulance siren always inspired a prayer from me, though at some point this became a knee-jerk or superstitious response. Later, the sound of an ambulance siren aroused nothing but fear in me. I’ve made a number of trips in such a vehicle for problems ranging from a broken leg to emergency surgery for diverticulitis in 2012 in the early hours of April Fool’s Day. You can’t make this stuff up, as they say. While suffering an ego-annihilating pain just before I underwent anesthesia, I did experience a confused awareness that my death during surgery would not be a bad thing. This became a lucid thought and a hope without ambivalence prior to subsequent surgeries to repair my guts.
The essay “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures” reads like an early attempt at addressing the themes you would later explore in your nonfiction book “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.” Why did you feel it needed to be included in a collection of fiction?
I’ve been a didactic writer to a greater or lesser extent from the beginning. It may be deluded to think that the world simply must hear what you have to say, but I think this delusion is necessary if one is to write anything at all, whether it’s poetry, fiction, or a sermon. So didacticism is inherent in every effort to spill ink on a page. It’s more a matter of the way that urgency to tell the world what you think about it is dressed up for the reading public. Should a work of fiction be poorly garbed in its technique and manner of telling, its didactic undergarments will show through. That’s about the worst thing that can happen to a fiction writer, at least from viewpoint of readers who want to “get lost” in a narrative and not in what ideas and emotions a writer wants to express in so many words. Personally speaking, my own favorite literary forms are designed for the expression of their authors’ thoughts and feelings. As a reader, I’ve devoted myself almost entirely to essays, lyric poetry, expressionistic stories and dramas, aphorisms, moral tales, and any other form in which a writer stands at a podium or on a soapbox. It’s not really that I prefer short forms as much as I’d rather hear what someone has to say about their experience of being alive — what they like, what they hate — than listen to them spin a yarn. I like to feel close to a writer’s character more than I do to a made-up character maneuvering within a set of circumstances that is neatly resolved in the end. Admittedly, I also like those things. I can get lost in them as much as any Harlequin Romance-reading schoolgirl. But with few exceptions, I’d rather see those stories on my TV or DVD player. Reading them, especially when they reach toward the thousand-page mark, is a chore I can’t perform. There have been exceptions in my life as a reader. The detective novels of Raymond Chandler particularly stand out. Then again, the first-person voice of Philip Marlowe definitely leans toward didacticism, and one can’t avoid feeling that it’s the voice of the author speaking through him. Certain literary critics and linguistic philosophers would chortle contemptuously over such a perspective, but who really cares what they think except their colleagues and students? As far as I’m concerned, school’s out as long as my veins are still coursing with blood and not formaldehyde.
You wrote of the paradoxical nature of supernatural horror fiction, how it grants us a reprieve from the true horror of existence while also affirming it. Do you see a point where the everyday horror reaches the point of absurdity that would make supernatural horror irrelevant?
I really don’t see such a point in future. However, I don’t think that position may be argued any more than its antithesis. At present, however, it certainly seems that supernatural horror is more relevant than ever and everyday horror is more prevalent, or at least more in our minds, than it has been in some time. I definitely would argue that.
How has your style changed/evolved over the years? What have you explored more recently that you didn’t early in your career, if anything?
To revisit the matter of my didacticism, I think I evolved more in that direction than in any other. Of course, this tendency appears most conspicuously in my nonfiction book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. However, even though this is a late work, it’s actually the culmination of themes and thoughts that had been developing in one way or another throughout my writing life. In my chronologically first story that I thought worth preserving, “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” I portrayed a depressed narrator who discovers a cult of supernatural anti-natalists—avant le lettre, of course, but anti-natalists all the same — who inhabit a small Midwestern town. I wrote the first draft of this story, which was longer and more detailed than the published story, in the late 1970s. The story didn’t appear in a polished form until ten years later, but it was in every thematic respect the same story. I simply removed some narrative details. Something else was also there in my work beginning with “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and it later played a leading role in my purported career. In a word it was Darkness. I won’t give away the finale of “Last Feast of Harlequin,” but I will say that the darkness which is the prominent symbol and motif of the story predominates in the end, as one might expect in one of my stories.
I continued this use of darkness as a device and practically a character throughout a number of the stories I’ve written. Now, between the emphasis on pessimism in “Professor Nobody’s Lectures on Supernatural Horror” and the prominence of depression, darkness, and the rest of it in “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” which is easily my best-known story, you might think that readers would take me seriously on these matters. Yet that doesn’t seem to have been the case until I wrote The Conspiracy against the Human Race. It was as if they couldn’t wholly bring themselves to believe that the dark nature of my fiction reflected a corresponding turn of mind and set of sentiments in their author. But there it was, as big and ugly as life. And it seems to have been there from the beginning. I just wasn’t quite as didactic in those days.
What do you see as the distinction between your work and that of Lovecraft?
There are a few ways I could answer this question. One of them is that in Lovecraft’s defining stories, meaning such later works as “The Shadow out of Time” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” there is a sense of adventure. In his letters, Lovecraft often wrote of experiencing moments of what he called “adventurous expectancy,” by which he meant feeling oneself on the brink of some weird and hyper-exciting revelation that is always held in suspension and never known in its particulars. This is patently an aesthetic perception of existence. Borges described a similar feeling of the imminence of a revelation that never occurs as the definitive aesthetic experience. In Lovecraft’s work, unlike that of Borges, the origin of his feeling of adventurous expectancy derives from something terrible that is associated with the inconceivable spatial and temporal nature of the physical universe. I think that a great many people experience the same thing in their lives. I have myself. But it never occurred to me to express this feeling as a source of adventure in my stories.
My focus has fairly consistently been on what I have thought of as an “infernal paradise,” a realm where one wallows in something putrid and corrosive that lies beyond exact perception. In his stories, Lovecraft’s adventurous expectancy ultimately has its origin in something terrible, and not the child’s picture-book wonderland you find in the work of a lot of writers of fantastic fiction. But it’s still thrilling in its own way. It isn’t purely hellish, as is the case with my stories. Lovecraft was an astronomy buff as a child and so this feeling probably stemmed from that time. I was a pathological Catholic as a child, and one might make a connection between my early life and my later writings on that basis. Ultimately, the difference I’m trying to articulate between Lovecraft’s adventurous expectancy and my infernal paradise may seem superficial. I would say as much myself. But it seems to me that what captivates a reader’s interest in one writer’s work as opposed to another’s is quite often based on superficial qualities, even when there are deeper likenesses. Anyone can think of examples among both popular and literary writers. Lovecraft’s defining works portray a variety of monsters. Mine seldom do. What’s the difference? Not much on the deepest level. But monsters are a great literary hook and there is necessarily a surface adventure in dealing with them. If asked to name the definitive image in Lovecraft, one might likely say its tentacles flailing from the body of a monster. For me it would be probably be puppets, manikins, and clown-like things, even though these are more often a matter of metaphor than a literal presence of a monstrous type. Nevertheless, if Lovecraft’s tentacle monsters and my puppets and so on fought each other, I think the monsters would win.
How did you feel when Conspiracy Against the Human Race started to draw more readers and buyers over the past year or so? Are you concerned that some readers otherwise unfamiliar with your work will only know you as the author of CATHR?
I’ve said for quite a while that I’ve been luckier in the publication of my writing than I’ve had any reason to expect. I think this may be an instance of that. Either way I’ll take it, as I always have. I don’t know if it matters whether I’m ultimately known for the stories or the notorious breviary of nihilism. Oddly enough, I’ve always thought of The Conspiracy against the Human Race as a kind of inspirational, quasi-self-help book. Seriously. And for my pains, a number of readers and reviewers have blithely said that having written The Conspiracy Against the Human I would be a hypocrite and all around inauthentic being not to kill myself. Something similar was said about J.-K. Huysmans following the publication of his novel A rebours. I believe it was Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly who, in a newspaper review of A rebours, wrote that Huysmans had but two options after publishing that book: the muzzle of a gun or the foot of the cross. Huysmans choose the foot of the cross, but not until he published a novel focusing on Satanism. Barbey d’Aurevilly wrote the same thing about Baudelaire in an earlier essay, but the author of Fleurs du mal didn’t make a move either way. Naturally, plenty of critics and biographers have asserted a deathbed confession of Catholic faith by Baudelaire. They were wise to the fact that no one could prove them wrong, of course. In nineteenth-century France, Catholic writers were given considerable latitude in purveying what otherwise might be consider fairly degenerate subject matter. They were Catholic, after all, so they had license to depict the ravages of the most titillating sinfulness. Of all the French Catholics, I admire the horror writer Petrus Borel, also known as The Lycanthrope, who said he was a papist because he couldn’t be a cannibal. I’m not sure if those who said that as the author of Conspiracy I should commit suicide knew that such a statement was long famed. However, I did know the game, so their observation or demand failed to faze me.
What was your reaction upon finding out that you had joined a small cadre only ten living authors included in the Penguin Classics U.S. lineup?
I didn’t know that was the case. Now that I do know, I can’t help thinking of Steven Millhauser, whose work I admire very much for its weird imagination and superfine writing in which I hear echoes of familiar voices, including those of Vladimir Nabokov and Bruno Schulz, that moved so many of my own stories in the direction they took. I remember reading about the day he was informed in the middle of a course he was teaching that his novel Martin Dressler had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The anecdote continues that he told his class a terrible mistake had been made and that needed to excuse himself to put things right. I’m fairly sure that I have neither the reason nor the right to be nonplussed as Millhauser was that day.