Literature Is Entertainment or It Is Nothing
An Interview with Thomas Ligotti
Thomas Ligotti is North America’s pre-eminent writer of weird horror fiction. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. In 1997, his collection The Nightmare Factory won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection. “The Red Tower,” a story in The Nightmare Factory, won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction. His novella “My Work Is Not Yet Done” won the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction and the 2002 International Horror Guild Award, Long Form category.
His most recent works are the screenplay Crampton (2003), the chapbook Sideshow and Others (2003), and the poetry collection Death Poems (2004). An intensely private person, Mr. Ligotti usually lets his work speak for itself. This interview was conducted throughout July, August and early September 2004.
Neddal Ayad: Do you read much non-fiction? If so, what sort of non-fiction appeals to you?
Thomas Ligotti: I’m completely indifferent to what genre I read provided that I feel in sympathy with how a writer perceives being alive in the world. For instance, I just finished reading an essay called “The Last Messiah” by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. It was written the 1930s and is the only work by Zapffe to be translated into English. In Zapffe’s view, human beings in general and human consciousness in particular are a mistake of nature and that the human species should stop reproducing as soon as possible in order to put an end to the tragic horror of our lives as conscious beings who spend all our time deceiving ourselves that life is worth living. This is a very concise statement of the sort of attitude that I find in authors who have most attracted my interest, including Schopenhauer, Lovecraft, E. M. Cioran, and certain Buddhist writers.
Neddal Ayad: In an interview with Thomas Wagner for The Art of the Grimscribe website, you stated that, “Let’s say it once and for all: Poe and Lovecraft — not to mention a Bruno Schulz or a Franz 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. Sometimes they cross over and fall into the province of “outsider artists.” 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.”
Who, in your opinion, are some modern (say post-WWII) writers that fall into that category?
Thomas Ligotti: I can’t think of any post-World War II writers in the horror genre that fit that description.
Neddal Ayad: I wasn’t thinking in terms of horror writing in particular. I meant fiction in general. I’m sure that a lot of writers not considered “horror” writers now, will be retroactively assigned to the category.
Thomas Ligotti: I can’t think of a case of an author being retroactively demoted to the genre of horror. Poe was solidly in the Gothic tradition that was more than 50 years old before he was born.
Neddal Ayad: Do you consider yourself a horror writer? I see your writing and the writing of some of your contemporaries, D.F. Lewis and Mark Samuels come to mind, as forming part of a continuum of the weird, but not necessarily what most people think of as horror writing that has its roots in (on this side of the pond) in Poe and Lovecraft.
Thomas Ligotti: It’s interesting you should mention the above two authors, because I had considered mentioning them with respect to this question. However, I don’t know enough about either of them to pronounce them as troubled in the sense that Poe and Lovecraft were. Lewis has a family, something that pretty much disqualifies him from the degree of alienation required to be included in the group of authors I mentioned, none of whom were breeders.
As for whether or not I consider myself a horror writer, I would assert, for better or worse, that I’m one of the few living individuals who actually is a horror writer — and nothing else!
Neddal Ayad: What is it about novels that turns you off? That novels need morals?
Thomas Ligotti: Something like that. People will accept a short horror story that ends badly. They won’t accept this in a horror novel… not after they’ve read so many hundreds of pages. Horror stories in the short form are like campfire tales or urban legends that are just a way of saying “Boo.” They have nothing to do with the real world in the minds of most readers. Nevertheless, I think there’s a great potential in horror fiction that isn’t easily available to realistic fiction. This is the potential to portray our worst nightmares, both private and public, as we approach death through the decay of our bodies. And then to leave it at that — no happy endings, no apologias, no excuses, no redemption, no escape.
Some horror writers have done this consistently, but not very many. I’ve been entertained by the works of these writers — it’s all show business after all — and beyond that I’ve felt a momentary satisfaction that someone could be so audacious as to speak ill of the precious gift of life when we’re all brainwashed from childhood never to utter a discouraging word. Of course, it’s not really possible to avoid affirming life, even when you’re writing a horror story defaming it. The act of writing is an affirmation, as is the act of suicide. Both are vital and idealistic gestures. Joseph Conrad said that he shunned the supernatural because it wasn’t necessary to depict the horror of existence. I wish he hadn’t. Because the supernatural is the metaphysical counterpart of insanity — the best possible vehicle for conveying the uncanny nightmare of a conscious mind marooned for a brief while in this haunted house of a world and being slowly driven mad by the ghastliness of it all. Not the man’s-inhumanity-to-man sort of thing, but a necessary derangement, a high order of weirdness and of desolation built in to the system in which we all function. Its emblem is the empty and inexplicable malignity that some of us see in the faces of dolls, manikins, puppets, and the like. The faces of so many effigies of our own shape, made by our own hands and minds, seem to be our way of telling ourselves that we know a secret that is too terrible to tell. The horror writer has the best chance of expressing something of that secret. It’s really a lost opportunity, or perhaps a blessing, that so few take advantage of this potential that lies in horror fiction. Instead, they do the opposite: they discover all the secrets… and how trivial they are. A stake through the heart. A silver bullet. An exorcism. We win. All is well. Nighty-night.
Neddal Ayad: Do you see your writing as necessarily subversive?
Thomas Ligotti: Fiction can’t be subversive. If the reader feels threatened, then he’ll stop reading. The reader will only continue reading if he is being entertained. Subversion in any art form is impossible. Even nonfiction can’t be subversive. It may be used to serve some person or group’s preconceived purposes, usually to gain power, but its ideas will be recast and deliberately skewed. Freud, Marx, and all religious doctrines are obvious examples of this.
Neddal Ayad: I ask because the view has been put forward that horror writing is necessarily conservative.
Thomas Ligotti: Best-selling horror fiction is indeed necessarily conservative because it must entertain a large number of readers. It’s like network television. I’m your local cable access station.
Neddal Ayad: Have you read any science fiction at all? Philip K. Dick seems like someone whose work would appeal to you.
Thomas Ligotti: From what I had read about Dick’s fiction, I wanted to like it and so I read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which seemed a good place to start. I think it would make a great movie, as a number of Dick’s books and short stories have, but I couldn’t stand Dick’s pulpy prose style. There’s no doubt that the man had a formidable imagination, but so do a lot of writers.
As for science fiction in general, my only other experience with the genre was in a college course devoted to it. The first thing we read was a story called “Affair with a Green Monkey” by Theodore Sturgeon, which turned out to be a sociological fable about an alien with a really large penis. The next thing we read was Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. That was also a sociological fable. I got to about page twenty of Le Guin’s novel and decided that if I wanted to read sociology I would take a class in it. So I dropped the science fiction course.
Neddal Ayad: Has your move to Florida had any influence on your writing?
Thomas Ligotti: Not at all.
Neddal Ayad: I seem to call that in another interview you said that the idea of being anywhere “south” repulsed you. You really can’t get much further south in the U.S. than Florida. What changed your mind?
Thomas Ligotti: Personal circumstances. I still loathe warm climates and the societies, not to mention the sickening flora and fauna, that breed in such places. When the German filmmaker Werner Herzog was filming Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon, he commented on the location by saying, “There is a harmony here, but it is the harmony of collective murder. Even the stars look like a mess.”
Neddal Ayad: Looking back at your time in Detroit, how much of an impact did the city have on your work? Has there been anything that’s jumped out at you since leaving that you might not have noticed or may have taken for granted during your time there?
Thomas Ligotti: I was born in Detroit, but I aside from my earliest childhood years I didn’t live there. I grew up in an upper-class suburb that bordered on Detroit. However, during high school in the 1960s I spent some time hanging out in dope houses in Detroit’s ghettos, and I worked in downtown Detroit for 23 years. I always enjoyed the spectacle of abandoned, decaying, and burned-out buildings and houses. In my first horror story to see publication, “The Chymist,” I tried to express my fascination with this world of ruins. This also applies to a lesser extent to my short novel “My Work Is Not Yet Done”, which is set in an unnamed city patterned after Detroit. The wallpaper on my computer is a photograph of an abandoned house on Detroit’s east side. In many of my stories, I’ve tried to articulate an aesthetic of decay in both small towns and cities. I equate decline and decrepitude with a kind of serenity, a tranquil abandonment of the illusions of the future.
Neddal Ayad: What’s your writing process?
Thomas Ligotti: If I’m writing, I start work as soon as I wake up, and really before I’m fully awake.
Neddal Ayad: In his book Fiction author/editor Michael Seidman wrote that he thought younger writers were shortchanging themselves by not doing longhand or typewritten drafts and then retyping them into the computer. Any thoughts?
Thomas Ligotti: There’s a lot of truth to that. I found that I edited myself as I wrote in longhand, and then I edited myself again when I typed or keyed the manuscript. The latter was an important step in learning to edit my own writing that’s lost if you start off keying your work directly to the computer.
Neddal Ayad: You’ve stated that several of your stories had their beginnings in dreams (or nightmares). You’ve also stated that you have taken antidepressants. Certain classes of those drugs have been known to amplify, intensify, or alter dreams. Did they have that effect on you and if so, do you think it had any influence on the stories.
Thomas Ligotti: I’ve had vivid nightmares for as long as I can remember. Some of the antidepressants I’ve taken have intensified my dreams and some of them have dulled them. It depends on what chemicals in the brain they’re designed to affect. In general, I would say that taking a significant daily dosage of any antidepressant is more likely to diminish one’s creative urges, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Aside from myself, I know people who take these drugs, and I’ve read posts from people in the depression and suicide newsgroups, who have said the same thing. It’s not that antidepressants have a normalizing or emotionally beneficial action that accounts for this phenomenon — would that this were true. The anti-creative effect is primarily due to the fact that antidepressants flatten out one’s emotions and scramble one’s thought processes. You lose the concentration and impulse required to write or draw or play an instrument. This is true of people who are genuinely depressed. A lot of people who don’t really need to take antidepressants — and the drug companies wouldn’t be raking in the money if there weren’t plenty of these — feel energized by taking relatively small dose of an antidepressant.
Neddal Ayad: You’re extraordinarily frank in your discussion of depression and its effect on your quality of life. It’s something that a lot of people still seem to consider taboo.
Thomas Ligotti: Mental illness will remain taboo until it becomes universal. Not that it isn’t already universal from a certain perspective. But the very existence of the mentally and emotionally perturbed is a genuine threat to the socioeconomic system in which we are imprisoned. If you’re going to be crazy, your craziness better take the same form as that of your boss, the law-enforcement authorities, and the president of the United States. Otherwise, you are screwed.
Neddal Ayad: Have you ever written anything that you consider too dark or too heavy to publish?
Thomas Ligotti: No, but I’ve conceived of stories that were just too disturbing for me to write. If you can write something, then it’s only so disturbing. Anything truly disturbing can’t even be written. Even if it could, no one could stand to read it. And writing is essentially a means of entertainment for both the writer and the reader. I don’t care who the writer is — literature is entertainment or it is nothing. Some readers would object and point to someone like Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. If they want to see it that way, it’s fine with me. Who am I deny someone their demonic heroes? No one has that much credibility in the history of humanity, nor ever will.
Neddal Ayad: You started using light drugs at a relatively young age. What was the attraction?
Thomas Ligotti: That seems like such a strange question to me. Essentially you seem to be asking, “Why would someone want to feel better than they normally feel?” I can understand why some people might have an aversion to drugs and alcohol due to unfortunate experiences in their childhood with drug-using or alcoholic relatives… or because they have a fear of losing control… or even because they’re lucky enough not to feel the need to alter median emotional state. But none of these was the case with me. Nor do they seem to be the case with the human race in general. There seems to be an inborn drive in all human beings not to live in a steady emotional state, which would suggest that such a state is not tolerable to most people. Why else would someone succumb to the attractions of romantic love more than once? Didn’t they learn their lesson the first time or the tenth time or the twentieth time? And it’s the same old lesson: everything in this life — I repeat, everything — is more trouble than it’s worth. And simply being alive is the basic trouble. This is something that is more recognized in Eastern societies than in the West. There’s a minor tradition in Greek philosophy that instructs us to seek a state of equanimity rather than one of ecstasy, but it never really caught on for obvious reasons. Buddhism advises its practitioners not to seek highs or lows but to follow a middle path to personal salvation from the painful cravings of the average sensual life, which is why it was pretty much reviled by the masses and mutated into forms more suited to human drives and desires. It seems evident that very few people can simply sit still. Children spin in circles until they collapse with dizziness.
Through art, either as creators or consumers, people are transported into other realms of consciousness. This seems harmless enough… until the art is taken away. Everyone takes it for granted that they can always fall back on art. But talk to a writer who can no longer write. Or witness the spectacle of a musician or a music lover who suffers from chronic pain or depression and is no longer capable of escaping into their beloved world of sound. Then there are infirm athletes who can no longer avail themselves of the adrenalin rush they once received on a regular basis. And all these methods are mere candy when it comes to getting high. As the saying goes, candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. Drugs, of course, are the quickest of all. The fact that they, too, are more trouble than they’re worth as much due to legal and societal sanctions against them as it is to their primary effects.
Neddal Ayad: Had you not suffered the panic attacks, do you think you would have continued to use street drugs?
Thomas Ligotti: That’s almost a certainty. After the initial onset of my panic-anxiety disorder, there was a period of several years in which I recovered sufficiently to be able to drink alcohol, and during my early college years I got blasted almost every night, and many days, while working two jobs and putting myself through school. Then I crashed into a four-year depression and a roaring return of my anxiety-panic disorder. This was possibly as much due to the stress of work and school as it was from alcohol. Since then I’ve lived the chemical life only in the form of prescription tranquilizers and antidepressants. These allow me to function as a taxpaying citizen but not much more.
Neddal Ayad: If so, do you think it would have altered your career path?
Thomas Ligotti: I’ve never had a career path. After I stopped taking drugs and drinking, I turned to literature as my escape. I gained enough skills from this pursuit to land a job at a publishing company where I worked for twenty-three years, but I never sought an editorial career. It came along quite by chance.
Neddal Ayad: You mentioned earlier that a bad drug-related experience was a forecast of your anxiety-panic disorder. Do you think your drug use precipitated the onset of your panic/anxiety disorder and depression?
Thomas Ligotti: That’s possible. Then again, there’s a definite history in my family of these conditions.
Neddal Ayad: What’s your take on artists (in the general sense) who play up mild cases of depression and use it as an excuse for acting out?
Thomas Ligotti: It does seem that every writer who has ever been the least bit wacky in the head has written an essay, sometimes even a bestselling book, about their experience. This is just what writers do, and these days there’s a demand for this genre. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Crack-Up”, and Tolstoy wrote A Confession. These probably wouldn’t go over very well in today’s market because they’re not exotically cute in the manner of the book on which the movie Girl, Interrupted was based. The author of that book started a campaign against benzodiazepines — tranquilizers — that continues to this day. Without tranquilizers, I would exist in unending nightmare, as would millions of other people who have panic-anxiety disorder, a condition that is often comorbid with depression.
Neddal Ayad: Can you write during a depressive episode?
Thomas Ligotti: I could in the seventies. I can’t now. It beats me how I did it back then. I was both dysphoric and anhedonic. I do remember that I really wanted to write about what it was like to be in that state. But most of it is just a blank.
The first story I wrote that I thought was good enough not to throw away, “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” was inspired by my depression of 1975-78.
Neddal Ayad: Were you surprised by the reaction to My Work Is Not Yet Done
Thomas Ligotti: I was gratified that I won two awards for the book and that the first edition sold out as quickly as it did. But the book really wasn’t widely reviewed because it was published by a small press, so I’m really not aware of what the reaction to MWINYD has been in terms of readers’ opinions. For all I know, everyone who read the book hated it. Certainly a number of people, including the guy who interviewed me for Publishers Weekly, saw it as my attempt to appeal to a larger audience. How much larger — a thousand people as opposed to a couple hundred? Geez, if I really wanted to cash in on that book, I would have made it three times as long and not had the protagonist kill himself at the end. I would also have left out the esoteric philosophical aspects of the story, which to my mind were what justified its writing in the first place. Furthermore, it was on Thomas Ligotti Online, where anyone could read it for free, for six months before it came out in book form.
Neddal Ayad: Did you get any response from your coworkers or employers?
Thomas Ligotti: I had published “The Nightmare Network” years before “MWINYD,” and, so I’m told, this story made some of my coworkers, as well as my boss, a bit nervous. Unfortunately, by the time My Work… was published I had quit my job and so I wasn’t around to appreciate any reaction to it. I understand that people at my old work place were reading it as a roman à clef and trying to figure out who in the company the characters were based on. In fact, none of them were based on my coworkers, although the narrator was based on me.
Neddal Ayad: Are there any plans for a trade paperback version?
Thomas Ligotti: Not at the moment.
Neddal Ayad: You’ve professed an admiration for Raymond Chandler. Are you attracted to any other crime writing?
Thomas Ligotti: No. I liked Chandler because his prose style kept me from falling asleep. There aren’t many writers about whom I can say that. I couldn’t care less about detective or noir fiction.
Neddal Ayad: What’s the status of the Crampton and Last Feast of Harlequin screenplays?
Thomas Ligotti: They were officially released to potential buyers over the past year or so by the agency representing Brandon Trenz and me. There was some interest. Brandon even made a trip to LA to talk to some people. This is pretty standard, so I’m not holding my breath or anything. Recently our agent sent out a number of copies of My Work Is Not Yet Done. Again, no breath holding. I’m not being pessimistic, but everyone has a sense of how Hollywood works. It’s not like publishing. If you write a good story or poem, someone is sure to publish it because it doesn’t cost that much to do so and it’s easier to judge how a story or poem is going to be received by an audience than it is a screenplay, which is really just a sketch of an idea for a movie.
Neddal Ayad: Given the choice, who would you like to see direct?
Thomas Ligotti: I don’t follow directors. Actors interest me, but not directors or screenwriters or even director-screenwriters. I think the craft of filmmaking is 90% acting. I just finished listening to the commentary track on the DVD of Catch-22. Steven Soderbergh was chatting with the director Mike Nichols. Neither of them seemed to know or care anything about the story, probably because that was Buck Henry’s job as screenwriter, or rather adaptor, of Joseph Heller’s novel. So many, if not most, good movies have a book behind them. Anyway, Soderbergh just kept saying, “That’s a really nice shot.” And Nichols kept talking about the guy who photographed the movie. Nichols gave some credit to the actors but was not as concerned about them, by his own admission, as he was about cinematic technique in that particular film. Damn, that movie probably had more terrific actors in it than any other in film history.
Neddal Ayad: Do you have to get into a different headspace to write for the screen?
Thomas Ligotti: There are obviously differences between film and fiction, and to some people these differences mean everything. But it seems to me that film is just another form of fiction, just as comic books are another form of fiction. The images in both film and comic books exist primarily to orient the reader or viewer to the setting and to let him know which character in the story is speaking at any given point. Without those basic elements of location and dialogue, movies aren’t movies, which is to say that they’re not fiction. Then they become pure images and function more or less as documents in the manner of photography. So I think that while movies may have aspects that distinguish them from fiction — preeminently acting and music — there aren’t in any important ways in which they differ from fiction.
Alfred Hitchcock thought that movies resembled short stories rather than novels. I think that this is a brilliant observation that has largely been ignored by critics and movie fans. The first thing a screenwriter needs to do when adapting a novel is to strip it down to its plot and major characters. In the case of popular novels, this is always a good thing because it saves the consumer of the story from having to suffer through all those boring patches that pad out a thriller, a horror novel, a spy novel, or whatever. In the case of more sophisticated novels, the movie has to settle for being a different creature entirely from the book, which it can’t hope to render as well as genre novels. But movies can potentially deliver an excellent rendering of a short story, specifically that long short story known as a novella. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that screenplays and novellas are in the same range as far as word count is concerned — something around 20 to 30 thousand words. An outstanding example of novella-to-screen is Apocalypse Now, which comes as close as any movie I’ve seen to rivaling its source material, Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Of course, without Heart of Darkness there would be no Apocalypse Now. And, when it comes down to it, Apocalypse Now suffers upon subsequent viewing because, like all films, its images grow overly familiar and lose their effect, whereas this doesn’t occur with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or any other classic literary work.
None of this is to argue for the artistic superiority of literature over film, since both ultimately function as a means of passing time for their consumers and of making a living or a name for their creators. As Blaise Pascal wrote, all human troubles derive from our inability to sit still and alone in a room. But, of course, we live in a world where this is impossible except in rare instances. We’re born into a society that encourages us to distract ourselves with such things as movies and books, then we have them forced upon us in schools and by other people, and we’re never allowed to have a clue that there might be some other way to exist other than having our brains constantly stimulated and operating like popcorn machines even when afforded the leisure to function, or at least try to function, in a way that would bring us face to face with the inescapable troubles of existence and perhaps enable us to deal with those troubles by more effective means than those offered by the entertainment industry.
I see no necessary reason for humanity not to have followed this path, so I have to assume that we never had any idea where our best interests lay. Individually, as well as in superficially diverse yet tediously similar groups, humans are just not the whip-smart life form that we suppose ourselves to be. I don’t think that Pascal meant that we should sit still and alone in a room every second of our lives. After all, someone had to build that room, and the person sitting in it needs to eat. But beyond attaining food and shelter, our species has pursued a range of activities every one which always comes back to bite us in the ass. Let’s just say it — human beings are the most retarded organisms on planet Earth. So put another movie in the DVD player and pass the popcorn.
Neddal Ayad: In another interview you mentioned that you liked stills from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari better than the film itself and that you like Lovecraft’s description of the King In Yellow better than the actual story. Is this something that happens a lot?
Thomas Ligotti: Of course. Just think of all the trailers you’ve seen for upcoming movies that are so much better than the movies themselves.
Neddal Ayad: Have you ever had any trouble switiching between your editorial work and your writing?
Thomas Ligotti: Not until I started making a living as a freelance editor. Now there’s no switching to speak of. After finishing the work I do to earn a living, I don’t have much energy or motivation to do anything but sleep. I’ve never worked harder in my life. But at least I don’t have to work in an office under insane rules of management. That’s a big plus in this modern world. I don’t think I could make it through an interview for an office job — or a job of any kind — without breaking out in mad laughter. I’m simply no longer fit to be part of the American working world.
Neddal Ayad: Have any recent works, in any media, influenced or impacted your writing?
Thomas Ligotti: No. A couple years ago, I tried to imagine how I could replicate in language the effect of certain music. But I found that it just isn’t possible. At least not for me.
Neddal Ayad: Who are some of your favorite artists?
Thomas Ligotti: You mean visual artists? I have what I would call a tin eye for the visual arts. I appreciate the talents of certain artists like Alfred Kubin or horror illustrators like Harry Morris or Jason Van Hollander. But I can look at visual images for only about thirty seconds before I get bored.
Neddal Ayad: Have you attempted other modes of writing other than horror or weird fiction?
Thomas Ligotti: Absolutely not.
Neddal Ayad: Is there something tangible about a writer’s style that holds your interest or is more of an instinctual thing?
Thomas Ligotti: Style in literature is incredibly misunderstood. Most people think of it at the level of pure language and view the poles of literary style as ranging from the dry, impersonal narratives of popular novelists to the juicy, lyrical style of experimental and “artistic” writers like Nabokov, Lovecraft, Bruno Schulz, and so on. I’m really interested in style exclusively as an expression of a peculiar kind of consciousness as opposed to the mere gaudy use of language. I mean, Ronald Firbank and James Branch Cabell wrote with tons of what people usually consider style — with verbal flourishes and curlicues all over the place — but I don’t care about their works because I don’t share their rather whimsical, even if sometimes cynical, view of the world. Style is the intersection between an author’s choice of subject matter and what he does with that subject manner. This is what reflects a writer’s consciousness and therefore his style. For example, compare two examples of novels of possession — The Exorcist and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. In the world of Blatty’s novel, certain characters are set up for doom and others for salvation. In the end, good wins the battle over evil. The two priests die good deaths while trying to save Regan’s soul, so that’s okay. The film director who is murdered by the demonically possessed Regan is a not a terribly sympathetic character, so it really doesn’t matter what happens to him. He serves the function of a killable character that won’t upset the reader too much. This is the sort of style that readers prefer. After some scary things happen, they want to be reassured that ultimately everything is all right with human life.
In Lovecraft’s autobiographical novel, the whole universe is in the hands of forces that are indifferent to human life, just as it is in the real world. Good and evil have no objective reality, just as it is in the real world. And the idea of human beings as creatures with souls, whatever those are, is ludicrous. Everyone, especially the hapless protagonist of the book, exists in the shadow of a world that is pure nightmare through and through.
Lovecraft doesn’t want to take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride, at the end of which he tells you to watch your step as your car slows down and you settle back onto steady ground. He wants to shoot your brain into the blackness of the void, whence it will never return. The interesting part is that both Blatty and Lovecraft are perfectly sincere about the worldview that underlies their individual styles. The difference is that Blatty really believes in the supernatural powers on which he based his novel, and so do most readers, not to mention most people in the Western world. This allows him to write in a way that will appeal to a wide audience. He doesn’t need to strain the bounds of language to draw readers into his story. Everybody already lives there. In fact, his readers would be put off by any excellence in the use of language or breaking of the rules of mass-market fiction.
On the other hand, Lovecraft can’t avoid the demands of expressive language and the shattering of conventional thought because his is a rare vision — which, of course, has nothing to do with the supernatural — that is shared by very few people. And in order to give that vision power he must use words in a powerful and inventive manner. And that is why The Exorcist bored me and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward didn’t. It’s a matter of the reader’s style as much as it is the writer’s.
Neddal Ayad: Has the internet had any impact on your writing?
Thomas Ligotti: The online Merriam-Webster dictionary makes it easier to look up words that I want to spell correctly. Otherwise, no.
Neddal Ayad: Were you surprised when fan sites started popping up?
Thomas Ligotti: Writers are egoists. The only thing that surprises them is when they don’t command the attention of fans or win awards or have editors begging to publish their work.
Neddal Ayad: Do you read the academic work that’s been done on your stories?
Thomas Ligotti: It doesn’t take long to read what’s been written about my horror stories, and indeed I’ve read it.
Neddal Ayad: Do you ever get the urge to write something pseudonymously about your own work?
Thomas Ligotti: No. Why would I?
Neddal Ayad: Curiosity. Contrariness.
Thomas Ligotti: I think I see what you mean. It would be a chance to say things about my own stories that wouldn’t occur to other people
Neddal Ayad: By the way, I have you on the “never tried other modes of writing” thing. I would say that “Masquerade of a Dead Sword” is definitely a fantasy in the vein of Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock.
Thomas Ligotti: That was the only story I was commissioned to write. I had just started getting published and Jessica Salmonson asked me to write a story for her sequel anthology to Heroic Visions. Otherwise, I would never have written that story. Since then, I’ve been asked to write stories for theme anthologies but I’ve always turned down the offer.
Neddal Ayad: I saw a line from one of your notebooks on the The Art of Grimscribe site where you wrote something like, “I wonder what creatures such as Lovecraft’s Brown Jenkin think and feel.” I’d like to see a story written from the point of view of a Deep One.
Thomas Ligotti: “The Shadow over Innsmouth” approaches that toward the end and leaves it to the reader to feel it as a horrific or a happy ending. “The Outsider” also provides a “monster’s” perspective. If a corpse can tell a story, I don’t see why a Deep One couldn’t.
Lovecraft never really gave them any motivation for wanting to mate with humans.
I assumed that it was to give the Deep Ones the ability to walk on land and, ultimately, take over the world. That sounds kind of hacky, but Lovecraft could be quite hacky sometimes, as can we all.
Neddal Ayad: You mentioned that “The Chymist” was your first published story. How long had you been writing before your first publication?
Thomas Ligotti: About six years with the unceasing fever to learn my craft, and a few years of dabbling before that.
Neddal Ayad: Have your thoughts on horror literature changed since you wrote “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” and “The Consolations of Horror?”
Thomas Ligotti: Not in the least. My thoughts on life in general haven’t really changed since I was a teenager and first began to reflect on the world.
Neddal Ayad: One of your stories that rarely gets mentioned, but strikes me as one of your creepiest is “The Troubles of Dr. Thoss.” How did that story come about?
Thomas Ligotti: The main character is hypochondriac, as was I at the time I wrote the story. I based the character’s artwork on that of Harry Morris. His first name, Alb, short for Alban, was used because Harry lives in Albuquerque. The rest of it is based on my own fears and sickness and delirious dreams of a cure that will be worse than the disease, which in this case was my panic-anxiety disorder. I also wanted the main character to be pursuing a form of horror art, a pursuit that is the path to his undoing. I’ve never really had any faith in the imagination or creativity as means of purging oneself of demons but more as a degenerate pastime. I’m definitely not a believer in art as a curative catharsis.
I also expressed my atheism in the imagination as salvation in my story “The Spectacles in the Drawer.” Some people call me a nihilist, but my story “The Illusion of Order” makes it clear that I don’t believe in nihilism either.
Neddal Ayad: I believe that both “The Cocoons” and “The Bungalow House” had their genesis in dreams? Are they related in any other way?
Thomas Ligotti: Actually, both “The Cocoons” and “The Bungalow House” are related by their being set in my imaginary version of Detroit. I was living in a place with a lot of cockroaches at the time. I really don’t mind cockroaches except when they run at you out of nowhere. Nevertheless, I find the lower life forms in the collective a constant reminder of the grotesque nature of this world. It’s more their mechanical behavior as feeders, fuckers, and fighters than their appearance. They’re really a perfect parallel to human beings, except that they act without all the illusory rationalizations. This is what makes them so hideous — the fact that they are us. I’ve had many dreams in which humans are reduced, or reduce others, to insectoid creatures and then consume them. I don’t know what the hell that means.
Neddal Ayad: If you believe some of the psychiatric literature, it means that you’re deeply disturbed.
Thomas Ligotti: I’ve never put much stock in dreams, even though it might seem that I do. And what could be more disturbed than the twisted theories that psychologists have proffered for over a hundred years now? Jorge Luis Borges said that philosophy should be classified as a branch of fantastic literature. I would say the same about psychology.
Neddal Ayad: This is verbatim from my notebook, “Themes: Loss of control. Loss of control through/of dreams. Dreams as a backdoor. Dreams usurped. Skyscrapers. Mobs. Why so many Dr.’s, Ms.’s, Misses, Mr.’s? The colour yellow.” Comment please.
Thomas Ligotti: I never notice any of that stuff until someone points it out to me. It was years before I realized how many of my characters were named Dr. Something. Like most people, I’ve had dreams in which I can’t control my body, whether I’m trying to run from something or simply throw a ball. I’m not aware of my use of the color yellow. Now that you mention it, yellow does feel to me like the color of disease and decay. Maybe that’s a holdover from my days as fanatic of decadent literature reading the early issues of the Yellow Book.
Neddal Ayad: Did you keep your early, not-ready-for-publication, stories?
Thomas Ligotti: No. I destroyed them all. Dozens of them. They were pretty bad.
Neddal Ayad: Do your stories share a common geography? For example, I get the feeling that “I Have a Special Plan for This World”, “The Night School”, and The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” all take place in the same region with “The Night School” and “I Have a Special Plan…” being set in different parts of the same city and “The Shadow…” being set in a farming community in the area just outside the city.
Thomas Ligotti: I’ve been obsessed with the settings of my stories since I began writing. I knew that I didn’t want to use actual places and place names for the most part. At the same time, I didn’t want to invent fictional settings that paralleled actual places or worlds that were wholly fantastic and scrupulously detailed like those of Mervyn Peake or James Branch Cabell. But I especially didn’t want the burden of trying to emulate reality. I don’t know much about reality in the conventional sense anyway — I can’t remember things the way realistic writers seem so adept at doing. I’ve been agoraphobic since I was 17, so I haven’t seen much of the world. And I really deplore research as stage in writing fiction. What I wanted, ultimately, was to set my stories in places as I saw them in my imagination rather than describing them from personal observation. So, in the sense that my stories are set in my head rather than in any detailed world either real or fantastic, I suppose they are all part of the same geography.
Neddal Ayad: Many of the characters or presences in your stories have striking names, Dr. Locrian, Miss Plarr, Dahla D., etc… Where do you look for inspiration when naming your characters? I’m going to take a wild guess that “Locrian” comes from the locrian mode?
Thomas Ligotti: You got it. The “darkest” mode. I took two years of music theory in college, which demonstrates that these names can come from anywhere. Plarr is borrowed from the surname of the 1890s poet Victor Plarr. Dahla D. is a typical Nabokovian name. A lot of the names I use signify the nothingness of the character who bears the name and have the word “no” buried in them. That’s stolen from Beckett. Dr. Thoss was used in two stories and is taken from the abbreviation of my own name.
Neddal Ayad: You’ve done some translations. From what to what?
Thomas Ligotti: One short story and several poems from French. The short story was based on the Ripper murders and was possibly one of the first on that subject, having appeared in the Mercure de France in 1888, although it was supernatural. The poems were from obscure French decadent poets in obscure French decadent journals.
Neddal Ayad: Your story “Alice’s Last Adventure” features one of your rare female narrators. Do you have any difficulty writing from the point of view of a female character?
Thomas Ligotti: “Alice’s Last Adventure” was a special case. The character wasn’t presented as significantly female, just as my male characters aren’t presented as significantly male in a socially conventional manner. She was an elderly, alcoholic writer of spooky children’s stories. I thought this was the best way to approach a story inspired by Carroll’s Alice books. It never occurred to me before or since to write a horror story from the viewpoint of a female character. Anyway, I don’t think there are too many writers who would have a problem doing a story from the perspective of someone outside their personal experience, especially if it’s just a genre story.
Neddal Ayad: Incidentally, do you notice much of a gender split in your readership?
Thomas Ligotti: It’s pretty much all maladjusted guys with advanced university degrees, although there are some outstanding female exceptions with advanced degrees and literary talents. They’re not what people think of as nerds living in their parents’ basements. The ones with whom I’ve been in contact over the years live far more normal lives than I do. In any case, I’d like to put in a good word for nerds living in their parents’ basement — they’re an undeservedly maligned subculture that I’m proud to count among my readers if they’re out there.
Neddal Ayad: Finally, I’m going to give you a list of authors who you have stated were influential on your writing or whose work you admire. I wonder if, for each, you’d talk about one work that you either consider their best, or if not their best, the most influential on your own work…
H. P. Lovecraft…
Thomas Ligotti: So many writers have alluded to the insignificance of the human race in a dizzyingly inscrutable universe ruled by forces incomprehensible to our species. They make these allusions, whether they’re to the fates or the gods or whatever, and then move on to tell their story on the level of a soap opera. For example, Macbeth has a moment of revelation that life is a tale told by an idiot. This realization, however, in no way prevents him from moving on with the plot of the play, which is simply the story of an up-and-coming gangster who kills his boss and takes over the business, only to be brought to justice in the end. But for Lovecraft, unlike Shakespeare, the revelation of life as an idiot’s tale is the alpha and omega of his work. He doesn’t just pay passing lip service to what is the most profound and obvious fact of life — he makes it the core of his work. At the heart of it all is a blind idiot “god,” whether it’s designated as Azathoth or the Colour Out of Space or the groaning blackness looming beyond the Rue d’Auseil in “The Music of Erich Zann.” To me, it was in “Erich Zann” that Lovecraft came up with the perfect model of horror story.
The subjective world of the nervously afflicted narrator becomes blurred with the objective world of the musician Zann, who seems to be battling to keep at bay unfathomable forces that would destroy the tenuous order of an already crooked, creaking world as represented by the decayed and architecturally unsound Rue d’Auseil. It is suggestive horror at its best. To some extent “Erich Zann” resembles Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” where the menacing forces are as nameless and overwhelming as they are in Lovecraft’s story. However, Blackwood can’t help but have one of the characters in “The Willows” offer possible explanations for the supernatural incidents in the story, referring, I believe, to the “fourth-dimension” or some other realm of reality in which everything would make sense if one could only attain that perspective. Laughably, this character, the Swede, is described as an unimaginative individual. Lovecraft offers no such comfort in “Erich Zann” but only a world of “weird notes,” which only work in a literary form — no film could duplicate these harmonic or melodic impossibilities — and a battle that will always be lost against the nightmare that is our lives if we should be so unlucky as to confront it in the tilted, twisting streets that form both our minds and the world in which they are tossed about until they break.
Neddal Ayad: Edgar Allan Poe…
Thomas Ligotti: In his Marginalia, Poe offered a simple guideline for any writer who wanted to be renowned, revered, and revolutionary — write a book called My Heart Laid Bare and be true to the title. At the same time, he acknowledged the impossibility of writing such a book because the attempt to do so would destroy the writer. Nevertheless, I believe that underlying Poe’s most important works is the mania and the mission to write this book. And no one before or since has come as close as he did to accomplishing this self-destructive feat.
The mere attempt in this direction did gain Poe the reputation and worldwide influence that he so desperately sought, even if he didn’t see it in his lifetime. The problem, of course, is that not only did writing My Heart Laid Bare present a threat to the balance and being of the author, it did the same to readers… if they would only read the works as Poe meant them to be read. But almost no one has. With a few exceptions, Poe’s works have been viewed from a distance that keeps readers safe from their incendiary power.
His morbidity has been dismissed as vulgar or domesticated as ironic. Respectable writers — writers that students and critics unapologetically relish; Henry James, for example — keep their subject matter at arm’s length, writing as if through a microscope about the soap opera the spins about them like a merry-go-round. Poe, on the other hand, was his own subject — not merely in an autobiographical sense but in a profoundly emotional and psychological sense. I don’t think that it’s overstating the matter to say that Poe was a true literary, and perhaps even evolutionary, mutant. He also encouraged similar mutant qualities in the French Decadents and Symbolists before that generation died out and left us with the tedium of Modernism.
For a time, Lovecraft raised Poe’s black and tattered flag, but even Lovecraft’s contemporaries never quite caught on to what he was about, let alone the horror writers of subsequent generations. At this point, let me pause a moment and acknowledge the obvious, namely, that my celebration of Poe and Lovecraft, and my derogation of writers who are unlike them, is a pure outpouring of personal temperament… and nothing more. I strongly identify with the viewpoint of these two men, which is no excuse for pontificating on their singularity or their genius. The same could be done — and is done all the time — for writers who are quite the opposite of those whose camp I see myself, for better or worse, as inhabiting. Poe and Lovecraft were among the most alienated authors of all time. They were sick and isolated and well outside the mainstream of any society. And they were both well aware of this fact.
As evidence of this assertion, I refer you to Poe’s poem “Alone” and Lovecraft’s poem “Alienation.” To a significant degree, these poems are rather pitiable lamentations of these authors’ inability to fully belong to the common mob of humanity. It is an irrational regret, given the nature of any society throughout world history, but who hasn’t felt it at some time or another? So I suppose that if Poe and Lovecraft stand out as anything special in course of literature, as well as society, it is as specimens of a deep conflict between the desire to lose themselves in the world, on the one hand, and, on the other, to smash its illusions to tiny, twitching bits.
Neddal Ayad: Vladimir Nabokov…
Thomas Ligotti: The unique thing about Nabokov is that he practiced the writing of fiction as a form of sorcery. His novels and stories draw you in with their language and their humor, not to mention his troupe of demented narrators who seem to be descendants of Poe’s band of madmen. But behind the language and the humor there is another dimension, a world of a terrible desperation where Nabokov works like a wizard to make the impossible happen right before the readers eyes — specifically, to defeat the limitations of time and space, to recover the losses brought about by the ravaging vicissitudes of one’s life and by the course of history itself, and, ultimately, to defeat death.
This is the underworld of Nabokov’s works, and it’s most obvious and moving in his masterpiece, Lolita, wherein the principal characters, who are declared as dead in the preface to the book, are all brought back to life in quite spectral ways by the writing of the book itself. Of course, the magic doesn’t really work, except from a strictly aesthetic perspective, but perhaps that’s the deepest meaning of Nabokov’s fiction. In commenting about the taboo subject matter of Lolita, which has since become even more taboo, he mentioned two others that at the time were off limits to American writers: that of a successful black-white marriage and that of an atheist who lives a good and purposeful life and dies in his sleep at an advanced age. Nabokov was himself enough of an atheist not to believe in magic of any sort. Lovecraft argued that only a non-believer in the occult could successfully create the thrill of the fantastic and the supernatural — the feeling that all common sense and the apparent order of the world have been overturned — because such a thing was so alien to their view of the world as wholly materialistic. This was a self-serving remark, since Lovecraft himself didn’t believe in any form of the supernatural.
In his book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto contends that horror stories provide a kind of low-level spiritual experience, a pale and primitive hint of a full-fledged encounter with the divine as a terrifying and otherworldly force. But Otto was a professional theologian and a Christian, so his ideas, interesting though they are, are as self-serving as Lovecraft’s.
Nabokov’s statement that portraying an atheist as a decent person is a taboo subject in literature betrays his stance as someone who felt atheism to be an unjustly persecuted intellectual posture. On the other side, believers have made frequent declarations to the effect that they are being shoved aside by what they perceive as the dominant forces of secular humanism.
There’s a Canadian scientist who has modified a football helmet so that the brain of its wearer is affected by adjustable magnetic fields that induce a variety of strange sensations, including supernatural experiences. Atheists have used this as evidence to support their position that anyone’s sense of the supernatural is purely subjective, while believers have written books claiming that the magnetic-field emitting football helmet proves the existence of a god who has “hard-wired” itself into our brain.
A whole field of study called neurotheology has developed around this and other laboratory experiments. It really seems that whichever side of the question you come down upon, you’re doomed to be discredited by the other. The value of this dispute for writers of supernatural horror is that it insures the large part of humanity will remain in the state in which it’s always existed — permanent fear. Because no one can ever be certain of his own ontological status in this world, let alone that of gods, demons, prophetic nightmares, alien invaders, and just plain old weird stuff.
Forget about whether or not all the bogymen we’ve invented or divined are real, the big question is this: are we real? This is presently being determined by neuroscientists, who will no doubt contest the answer until the day that human beings cease to walk the earth like so many ghosts in the making.
Neddal Ayad: Thomas Bernhard…
Thomas Ligotti: Bernhard’s fiction is captivating for two reasons. First, he uses repetition. Along with metaphor, repetition is the true mark of the literary. It’s also inherently funny. Repetition has this effect in some of the major works of Gertrude Stein, and it’s the same with Bernhard. Second, repetition in Bernhard, unlike in Stein or any other author I can recall, heightens the expression of his intense rage and the creation of his persona as sort of a literary madman. From book to book, Bernhard harps on a particular set of hatreds, including the malign stupidity of doctors, the malign stupidity of the Catholic Church, the malign stupidity of the Austrian government, the malign stupidity of the Austrian people as stand-ins for people everywhere, and the malign stupidity of life itself. Even in his autobiography, especially in his autobiography, he swings his verbal blade at these targets. The wonderful thing is that he never makes the mistake of trying to argue a case against anyone or anything. He and his narrators just spit bile — for example at Heidegger for being a complacent moron or the relatives of his narrators for being complacent morons — and then moves on to another target. You’re either with him on a specific point or you’re not.
He knows that arguments are useless and pathetic. If you’re not fortunate enough to be above having opinions, and almost no one has this luxury, then the only course available to you, the only source of satisfaction, is to attack what inspires hate in you. You could also celebrate what inspires admiration or even love, but this doesn’t happen very much in Bernhard. In this sense, he very much resembles E. M. Cioran, whose philosophical essays are an assault on the highest level of the pure crumminess of all creation, a position that has led some commentators to classify him as a latter-day Gnostic — minus any god.
Like Bernhard, Cioran is a consummate stylist, which is a vital quality for any writer whose essential attitude is that of negation. Readers with put up with the sloppiest, most puerile, and intellectually commonplace writer if only he brings them comforting lies. If you have nothing but bad news to offer, then you had better write in a sterling and entertaining manner. Both Lovecraft and Poe have been criticized for writing badly, which in their case means writing in an overly melodramatic style. It’s true that their prose is high-strung to hysterical. It’s also true that if they had not written in this way, nobody would be reading them today. The quality of their writing is precisely the reason that their works have endured. The darkest vision of life requires the most dazzling pyrotechnics of language. Of course, neither Lovecraft nor Poe is in the same literary class as Shakespeare, but Shakespeare’s plays are more tricked up soap operas than a vision of… anything. This qualifies in the eyes of some as that wise man of no opinions mentioned above or at least in a league with Stephen Dedalus’s artist-god who stands above creation paring his fingernails. How lofty and yet how human! It must be nice.
Neddal Ayad: Bruno Schulz…
Thomas Ligotti: As opposed to Bernhard’s repetition, Schulz exemplifies the other major road to stylistic distinction — that of metaphor. Like Nabokov, he uses metaphor in a way that is magical, even when the stories he’s telling are as banal as a greasy rivulet of drainage flowing beneath the rotten boards of a backyard fence. That metaphor, or one very much like it, was the first thing I read of Schulz’s when I happened upon his book The Street of Crocodiles and opened it somewhere in the middle pages. This was one of those rare occasions when I knew I had struck gold. I didn’t need to read another sentence — I just bought the book. Along with Poe and Lovecraft, Schulz is another of the great sick men of literature, if that’s the sort of thing that attracts you. There’s a word used to describe Schulz’s writing that turns up occasionally in Lovecraft’s writing. That word is “febrile.” This quality seems to me essential for all literature of nightmare, especially horror fiction.
Neddal Ayad: William S. Burroughs…
Thomas Ligotti: Definitely febrile. Even more than Poe or Lovecraft, Burroughs is the one whose writing provides that measure of fever, nightmare, and the grotesque by which all other American writers who aspire to representing these qualities in their work should be judged. Even in his last novel, The Western Lands, he writes of the smell of rotting metal. That’s sick genius if there ever was such a thing. Now, this whole business about febrility and sickness and negativism might raise the question in some people’s minds: if that’s the sort of thing you like, then why don’t you just read case histories of psychos and psychotics, suicide notes, and books like Memoirs of My Nervous Illness? As I mentioned earlier, it’s principally a matter of style, of entertainment, and of expression. I know that a lot of people are very interested in real life misery. The evening news is testimony to that. I don’t care for the evening news.
Real life misery is a mess or a bore or simply too heartbreaking to tolerate. And there’s no coherence to it — no vision. As Mark Twain said, “Life is just one damn thing after another.” I don’t want to be a spectator to this any more than I must be. I want to attend to the words of someone who will stand up and say, “Life is just one damn thing after another,” not some grinning idiot who presents this fact as a kind of pornography because corporate knows they can use this kind of stuff to sell advertising minutes. Everyone knows that this is the case. Everyone knows that this is an abomination. Everyone is, more or less, a scumbag. As for Mark Twain, forget Huckleberry Finn and read Letters from the Earth.
Thomas Ligotti will explore some of these themes in greater depth in a long essay entitled The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: Notes on Horror, to be published by Mythos Books in 2005.
Copyright © 2004 by Neddal Ayad.