True macabrists are as rare as poets and form a secret society by the bad-standing of their memberships elsewhere, some of their outside affiliations having been cancelled as early as birth.
Mist on a lake, fog in thick woods, a golden light shining on wet stones—such sights make it all very easy. Something lives in the lake, rustles through the woods, inhabits the stones or the earth beneath them. Whatever it may be, this something lies just out of sight, but not out of vision for the eyes that never blink. In the right surroundings our entire being is made of eyes that dilate to witness the haunting of the universe. But really, do the right surroundings have to be so obvious in their spectral atmosphere?
Just a little doubt slipped into the mind, a little trickle of suspicion in the bloodstream, and all those eyes of ours, one by one, open up to the world and see its horror. Then: no belief or body of laws will guard you; no friend, no counselor, no appointed personage will save you; no locked door will protect you; no private office will hide you. Not even the solar brilliance of a summer day will harbor you from horror. For horror eats the light and digests it into darkness.
We are destined to a fool’s fate that deserves to be mocked. And since there is no one else around to do the mocking, we will take on the job. So let us indulge in cruel pleasures against ourselves and our pretensions, let us delight in the Cosmic Macabre. At least we may send up a few bitter laughs into the cobwebbed corners of this crusty old universe.
—Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer
Francis Bacon’s painting is of a very special violence. Bacon, to be sure, often traffics in the violence of a depicted scene: spectacles of horror, crucifixions, prostheses and mutilations, monsters. But these are overly facile detours, detours that the artist himself judges severely and condemns in his work. What directly interests him is a violence that is involved only with color and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression. For example, a scream rent from us by a foreboding of invisible forces: “to paint the scream more than the horror…” In the end, Bacon’s Figures are not racked bodies at all, but ordinary bodies in ordinary situations of constraint and discomfort. A man ordered to sit still for hours on a narrow stool is bound to assume contorted postures. The violence of a hiccup, of the urge to vomit, but also of a hysterical, involuntary smile Bacon’s bodies, heads, Figures are made of flesh, and what fascinates him are the invisible forces that model flesh or shake it. This is the relationship not of form and matter, but of materials and forces making these forces visible through their effects on the flesh. There is, before anything else, a force of inertia that is of the flesh itself: with Bacon, the flesh, however firm, descends from the bones; it falls or tends to fall away from them (hence those flattened sleepers who keep one arm raised, or the raised thighs from which the flesh seems to cascade). What fascinates Bacon is not movement, but its effect on an immobile body: heads whipped by the wind or deformed by an aspiration, but also all the interior forces that climb through the flesh. To make the spasm visible. The entire body becomes plexus. If there is feeling in Bacon, it is not a taste for horror, it is pity, an intense pity: pity for the flesh, including the flesh of dead animals…
—Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation
The Great Transition:
Breakthrough or Breakdown?
I think one of my fascinations with horror is that we are in the midst of a great transition, a crisis in human history the likes of which has not been faced before. I think a lot of this is a reflection on our current world view, the crisis of the whole World System of Enlightenment: Progress (i.e., human perfectibility), Humanism (i.e., Man as the Center and Circumference of meaning, etc.), and our Scientific-Technological paradigm under the thumb of the Market is breaking down or breaking through the ideological edifice that has ruled Nationalism, Politics, and the Socio-Cultural spectrum since the Enlightenment. All of this has failed, and people are grasping at anything to hold onto that will give their lives meaning, even if it is pure and unadulterated Weird and Eerie inventions out of the Impossible. Irrationalism is everywhere, while extreme modes of hyper-rationalism as in Reza Negarestani’s Spirit and Intelligence are pushing the inhumanism of another sort. It’s a tale as old as humans… just played out with a different set of props on a new stage awaiting its final telling…
Ever since Nietzsche formulated the notion of nihilism (which had been there before him, he just crystalized it), thinkers, artists, philosophers, writers… all have grappled with this non-meaning and valueless indifference and impersonalism of the universe without the old myths of God(s). We’re alone, without recourse in a realm that knows us not, and could care less one way or the other. Scientists have followed this trail into both the most distant macro-vision and the closest micro-vision of the empirical universe till our instruments fail. Philsophers pushed both the Continental and Analytical streams of linguistic, structural, post-structural modes of thought to their anti-realist implosion. Now we seem to exist on the edge of a Post-Kantian world-view that has yet to establish a language: a theory of meaning. So that we have entered what my friend the skeptic R. Scott Bakker terms a “crash space” in which there is a mere cacophony of competing voices vying in the black hole of non-meaning (nihilism). Knowledge has failed in a world that has accumulated more of it than at any other time in history.
Modernism was the last gasp of the dying regime as T.S. Eliot bequeathed: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins…” (The Wasteland). This sense of desperation in all those artists who sought to hold fast to what remained of the humanistic heritage, plug up the holes in leaky system that was plunging into ruins and chaos. Yet, if failed, and the deluge of post-modernity (so-called) swept away the failures and produced a successive set of destructive-deconstructive demolitions that would wipe out all trace of going back, returning to the worlds of humanistic intent and security. Instead satire, cynicism, despair, and pessimism began their long descent into closure to the point that the last great voice of that era, Samuel Beckett would opine: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” A sort of courage of our hopelessness…
We seek a way out, and find none. We ponder the realization of human defeat by its own hand as the Anthropcene enters the great Sixth Extinction that scientists say is now happening. We have climate degradation, and a multitude of othere natural and man-made disasters that seem always just at the edge of our awareness. All of this makes reality itself in our time the greatest horror story ever told. It’s like James Joyce once said:
‘History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’
Many will till their dying breath seek to discover a way forward, a way to survive the depredations ahead of us. Many will struggle and many will die. The earth has been around a long time and was here before us, and will be here after us. We as humans are truly at the point that we must decide how to proceed. The Left nor Right hold the answers to our dilemma. There is no political fix for our present predicament. What we face is truly the unknown as unknown. We must move toward this new world with our eyes open, shedding all the self-deceptions and biases that have brought us to the point of self-annihilation. Without a clearing of the house of knowledge and thought we will be left in a civil-war across our planet. This is a time for renewal, a time to awaken those deep forces of emergent thought that can meet the unknown without grasping for our old failed ways. It’s up to us, no one else can do it for us. There is no would-be savior going to arise in our midst and show us the light. The only light left to us is the nihil light of emptiness and the void.
Matt Cardin in his essay on Ligotti makes mention of the diametric appraisal of H.P. Lovecraft’s early and late work, Ligotti favoring the early unreal and more fantastic tales while Joshi favors the documentary realism of the later Chthulu and other tales:
“The upshot of the matter, generally speaking, is that Ligotti thinks Lovecraft was at his worst in the very stories where Joshi thinks he was at his best.”
– The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti
As much as I admire S.T. Joshi for his years of dedication in reviving interest in Lovecraft, and critical/biographical studies on other major horror writers, there’s always seemed a pervasive adherence in his work to a strict secular and atheistic aesthetic; an almost dogmatic, vision and judgment concerning various authors in some hierarchy and ranking system that just doesn’t seem part of the traditional literature of criticism from Dr. Johnson to Harold Bloom. His economical expression and the overarching need to filter the more unreal and fantastical elements through his Enlightenment gaze seems to have left certain aspects of this tradition in a state of invisibility. I’ll have to say I agree with Ligotti that it is in the early tales that Lovecraft’s work shines, allows the drifts from the Outside to seep in unhinged by any filters of Reason and strict economy of ethical evaluation. But as in all things maybe the divine Oscar Wilde in his usual witty tone is correct:
“Two men look out a window. One sees mud, the other sees the stars.” ~ Oscar Wilde
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”1
Flannery O’Connor was neither subtle nor officious in her statements regarding literature, instead she said plainly and with acumen exactly what she felt about the deep seated beliefs she held regarding both writing and her faith. In many ways this is the challenge that horror writers face in our time. Most readers are complacently satisfied in their own opinions about life, assuming an optimistic cast of mind that if we work hard enough, do the right things, keep our nose clean, vote for the right leader, protest against the powerful and rich and ugly forces that seek to control us, make the right friends, teach our children the right ethics, go out for an evening or holiday, take in a movie or some other diversion of entertainment, etc. that somehow, someway things in the end will turn out for the best. That after all we live in the best of all possible worlds, right? Wrong.
There is nothing forgiving here
but stones and wind, and they have no prayers;
just the bleak truth of emptiness and a great void.
People bypass this strange mass of stone, unknowing
of its past, when oceans massed the great heights,
and sands the beached whales dark plight;
for this is the place of the nameless dead,
mighty sea-wanderers who long fled
below these dark skies, and now exposed
on this bright peak like white bleeders
on the run, their white-capped runners spewing foam.
This is no children’s tale, no human gazed
upon this marred gnarl of twisted pain:
formlessness displayed, and living flesh calcified.
Time, the giver and taker who never blinks
and always sees fraught this bare scene in dark days.
I’d come here with a friend, unbelieving
in such things, till gaze shot home —
bones turned stone in these snarled Leviathan.
– Steven Craig Hickman ©2019 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.
Self-Deception as the Art of Prediction, Illusion, and Ideological Destruction
I provide three quotes below which summed up provide us a road map to why humans are so prone to error, bias, illusion, and self-deception. Over eons of evolutionary time we developed the need to predict the future, to anticipate ahead of time what may happen a few moments down the pipe: our lives depended on it. So we began projecting information, filling in the blank spaces of our inadequate knowledge with illusion based on past experience. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes not. But as we began developing closer ties to others, developing social systems, this once proud predictive tool became a tool for deceit, lying, and deception not only of ourselves but others so that we developed whole cultures out of a tissue of lies and myths to support systems of power, control, and oppression by the few over the many. And, yet, that very evolutionary selective process that once helped us survive in the wilderness, the natural world of danger and suffering, has now in our artificial world of technocivilization become a tool for self-destruction by way of deceit and self-deception on a global scale. We’ve built systems of self-deceptive ideological constructs out of world-wide mediatainment and the political and socio-cultural illusions that have produced Climate Change Denialism that is leading us into a dangerous territory of illusion and self-deceptive forms of deceit by beings whose only agenda is to sacrifice the majority of humans on the planet for the benefit of the few. Simply put we are living in a horror story in which reality is a complete and utter artificial lie propagated by systems of ideological propaganda that no longer appears as such.
E.H. Grumbrich in his classic work Art and Illusion describes our powers of anticipation, our ability to see ahead of things, to master the unknown by filling in the blanks, selecting the blind spots in our visual fields and placing imaginative leaps of information into the holes. He terms this projection after the early psychologies of the 20th Century. He’ll put it more simply as “Expectation creates Illusion.” And that is the condition of all Art.
Andy Clark on the Predictive Mind:
“The mystery is, and remains, how mere matter manages to give rise to thinking, imagining, dreaming, and the whole smorgasbord of mentality, emotion, and intelligent action. Thinking matter, dreaming matter, conscious matter: that’s the thing that it’s hard to get your head—whatever it’s made of—around. But there is an emerging clue.”
“The clue can be summed up in a single word: prediction. To deal rapidly and fluently with an uncertain and noisy world, brains like ours have become masters of prediction—surfing the waves of noisy and ambiguous sensory stimulation by, in effect, trying to stay just ahead of them. A skilled surfer stays ‘in the pocket’: close to, yet just ahead of the place where the wave is breaking. This provides power and, when the wave breaks, it does not catch her. The brain’s task is not dissimilar. By constantly attempting to predict the incoming sensory signal we become able—in ways we shall soon explore in detail—to learn about the world around us and to engage that world in thought and action. Successful, world-engaging prediction is not easy. It depends crucially upon simultaneously estimating the state of the world and our own sensory uncertainty. But get that right, and active agents can both know and behaviourally engage their worlds, safely riding wave upon wave of sensory stimulation.”1
Robert Trivers in Deceit and Self-Deception will ask:
“Whence self-deception? Why do we possess marvelous sense organs to detect information only to distort it upon arrival? … Together our sensory systems are organized to give us a detailed and accurate view of reality, exactly as we would expect if truth about the outside world helps us to navigate it more effectively. But once this information arrives in our brains, it is often distorted and biased to our conscious minds. We deny the truth to ourselves. We project onto others traits that are in fact true of ourselves—and then attack them! We repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalize immoral behavior, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion, and show a suite of ego-defense mechanisms. Why?”
“The central claim of this book is that self-deception evolves in the service of deception—the better to fool others. Sometimes it also benefits deception by saving on cognitive load during the act, and at times it also provides an easy defense against accusations of deception (namely, I was unconscious of my actions). In the first case, the self-deceived fails to give off the cues that go with consciously mediated deception, thus escaping detection. In the second, the actual process of deception is rendered cognitively less expensive by keeping part of the truth in the unconscious. That is, the brain can act more efficiently when it is unaware of the ongoing contradiction. And in the third case, the deception, when detected, is more easily defended against—that is, rationalized— to others as being unconsciously propagated. In some cases, self-deception may give a direct personal advantage by at least temporarily elevating the organism into a more productive state, but most of the time such elevation occurs without self-deception.”2
1. Andy Clark. Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind . Oxford University Press.
2. Trivers, Rober. Deceit and Self-Deception
David Peak in his small book The Spectacle of the Void situates horror tales as the “organization of human self-deception” in its most extreme form, and that it arose within literature because of our human lack of communicability. This inability to communicate fear and the unknown has according to Peak taken two forms:
1) “the narrative of the person with something to say that cannot be said (an inarticulate lucidity)”; and 2) “the narrative of the person who is able to articulate their thoughts and feelings but still unable to make sense of their reality (an articulate confusion)”. (p. 12)
When confronted by the horrific the experiences of nausea, sickness, pain, anguish are among the range of extreme states that concern such inexplicable and undefinable moments precisely to the degree that they are uncontrollable, in so far as they shatter the composed rationality of the isolated individual and leave her fully aware of what has happened but unable to speak it or utter it in any articulate way; else leaving her dumbfounded yet knowledgeable but unable to decode the very irrational context she has suffered in a reasonable manner. In this way, such experiences open on to a mode of communication that exceeds language. Communication, the extreme thinker of horror Georges Bataille once suggested, requires ‘a being suspended in the beyond of oneself, at the limit of nothingness’. (Theory of Religion)
Bataille theorized that we have developed two forms of communication: that which ‘links’ humans through gesture, utterance, laughter, tears, etc.; and that which links humans to death and the impossible (i.e., horror, the unknown). As Bataille would say in his book Inner Experience:
“Anguish is no less than intelligence the means for knowing, and the extreme limit of the ‘possible’, in other respects, is no less life than knowledge. Communication still is, like anguish, to live and to know. The extreme limit of the ‘possible’ assumes laughter, ecstasy, terrified approach towards death; assumes error, nausea, unceasing agitation of the ‘possible’ and the impossible and, to conclude – broken, nevertheless, by degrees, slowly desired – the state of supplication, its absorption into despair.” 2
Communication as a form of supplication*, a humble request or appeasement to quiet, soothe, assuage the pain and suffering of the felt horror that is neither fully articulable or mastered by the reasoning powers of the mind.
*from Old French suplicacion “humble request,” from Latin supplicationem (nominative supplicatio) “a public prayer, thanksgiving day,” noun of action from past participle stem of supplicare “to beg humbly” (in Old Latin as sub vos placo, “I entreat you”), from sub “under” (see sub-) + placare “to calm, appease, quiet, soothe, assuage,” causative of placere “to please” (see please). In ancient Rome, a religious solemnity, especially in thanksgiving for a victory or in times of public danger.
- Peak, David. The Spectacle of the Void. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (December 1, 2014)
- Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience. SUNY Press (September 1, 2014)
What begins as a solitary truth soon proliferates like malignant cells in the body of a dream, a body whose true outline remains unknown. Perhaps, then, we should be grateful to the whims of chemistry, the caprices of circumstance, and the enigmas of personal taste for giving us such an array of strictly local realities and desires.
—Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer
In many ways loneliness and being alone have such differing connotations. Being a solitaire and for the most part a reclusive creature who likes being alone I hardly ever feel lonely. Of course being more of a manic/depressive with schizoid tendencies I keep myself company very well with books, music, TV, movies, writing, painting, etc…. all the distractions of entertainment that most have access too; and, yet, there are the times in-between, the silences of solitude – of walks, meditation, and just vegetating as an isolated organic being: these, too, are part of a solitaires existence and to be relished rather than feared. To me it’s crowds and noise and the excess of intimacy of others surrounding one that is the true loneliness. Can one ever truly know another? And, the impossibility of being alone in a crowd is for a solitaire the most frightening thing in the world.
Long before they created all these various drugs for such disorders I learned to move with the swings from pole to pole of emotion, using both the manic mercurial upswings toward my satirical and sardonic escapades, while allowing the downturn into the dark abyss of the depressive cycle to tempt out the demons below the threshold of my creativity to come through. In this way I learned to balance my emotional turmoil’s creatively rather than destructively. Admitting that this was not always the case, and as a young man I was always self-destructive during my various moods; both manic and depressive. I hate that term bi-polar disorder, so clinical and objective as if we were caged specimens in some zoo of medical knowledge rather than creatures whose physical systems just seemed to go haywire. But then again I wonder about that, too; for the simple reason that my ability to ride the waves of these cycles has led me to some very extreme creative episodes that otherwise would have never happened if I’d of been a so-to-speak normal being.
To be normal is a terrible thing, to be part of some collective appraisal, living out one’s life in the monotony of an emotive state of civilizational equanimity. The sleepwalkers of normalcy shall never know the extremes of emotive existence: the intensity of summer and winter, cold and heat, rage and fury in the pursuit of that creative fire that unleashes bouts of strangeness, ecstasy, and horror. For better or worse we who have been stricken with the dark touch of those blasted fires of the infernal regions know without a doubt what it means to live on the edge of oblivion. Some never survive it crawling back into the dark recesses of their security blankets of futility and desperation, others enter its pain with eyes open and fearless of what may come next.
At this point it may seem that the consolations of horror are not what we thought they were, that all this time we’ve been keeping company with illusions. Well, we have.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Consolations of Horror
The more I read contemporary horror the more I realize just how terrible our world truly is, all the fragmented lives, the sorrow, the pain, the stupidity of being alive. Most of these people you meet in many horror stories are just regular people, neither smart nor dumb, just people on the edge of life presented with traumatic events that just don’t make sense. And, that’s the problem, people need to believe that things make sense, that their lives are not just a bundle of impressions, insoluble riddles.
People want to believe their lives matter, and when they realize that nothing matters; not their life, not their work, not their families… it just turns them dark and sad wanting it all to go away. It always comes down to “Why me?” Before our age they’d of said: “Why me, Lord? Why’d you let this happen?” and they could have a crutch upon which to hang their sorrow, someone bigger and stronger than themselves to lean on and help them understand just why everything had gone to hell in a handbasket like some head toppling out of a guillotine. But there is no more God to lean on in our time, no big boy up there on the other side of things looking down with kind eyes and gentle whispers telling you it’s all goin’ to be alright.
No. Now you’re all alone. Nobody there to comfort you in the midst of all this darkness. Just your own misery and sorrow that want go away… it’s what people call despair, futility, the bittersweet truth of this life. No answer. Nothing. Just a empty world full of empty people living in an empty universe whose absolute indifference as to your pain and suffering is one of absolute silence. That’s why horror now is absolute, it leaves you alone with the alone; no place to turn, no one to know, no place to go, and nothing to do but nothing.
Horror isn’t there to comfort you or entertain you, nor is it there to give you the answer to your deepest question. All horror can do is open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart and mind to the absolute nullity of everything and then leave you stripped to the bone wondering why it all had to be in the first place. And, even then, it will tell you one thing: it didn’t have to be, it was all a big fucking mistake.
That’s the truth of horror: the darkness of darkness…
When you strip off all the layers of illusion that defend you against knowing what you are, when you’re left with this thing stripped to the bone and realize nothing you say, nothing you do will change it; that, for better or worse, you are nothing, nothing at all but a meat puppet dangling in a pain vat of endless terror; and that even an answer is no answer, only another illusion seeking to cover up the truth. Sadly we know this, that is why we help those who will never be able to face that utter darkness, and they will always need those illusions even with all the suffering entailed. So we try to comfort – not ourselves, but those who will never know, never understand the bitter truth. So we write the illusions that assuage their pain, their grief, their anguish; give them that one spot of relief to continue; or, as Beckett would say: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on!”
The only truth of horror that can be offered is to lead you to that place of emptiness where the nothing you are meets the nothing that is
“ In the beast, suffering is self-confined; in man, it knocks holes into a fear of the world and a despair of life.” —Peter Wessel Zapffe
Since the conclusion of pessimism is that consciousness is the culprit of all our woes, I’ve often wondered why we don’t spend all our efforts on eliding it. Since all the major religions on the planet were systems of ego-death ritual and hygiene, and obviously they only worked for a very few isn’t it time to provide a more scientific path to subtraction of self? Isn’t this really what Badiou is getting at after all? Even Zizek would subtract nothing from nothing getting less than nothing… are we not after all just a bunch of othings? Even all these speculative realists have sought ways out of this quandary of self-referential insanity, and have found none… so maybe philosophy is at a dead end and the sciences should just put an end to this thing, this in plain site nothing we term consciousness? What would it be like to have a planetary melt-down of consciousness? Eliminating the planetary #1 criminal from the fabric of existence? Instead we just continue to wonder what consciousness is rather than eliminating it altogether… hell we even want our advance AI robots to be conscious and self-aware as we are… why impose consciousness on a machine when we know it is at the core of our human misery? Tell me…. ? Would you knowingly bring into existence the very thing that produces misery in our own lives and give it to somethin not human as if it were a gift rather than a costly mistake?
“One of the focuses of the unit is to investigate deceptive frequency-based strategies, technologies, and programmes developed by military organizations to orchestrate phenomena of tactical haunting within conflict zones. They claim that this ‘martial hauntology’ is a subset of an overarching weaponisation of vibration. Their ongoing experiments have been concerned with the field of peripheral sonic perception—what they have dubbed ‘Unsound’.”
—From AUDINT—Unsound:Undead (Urbanomic / Art Editions)
Sonic warfare will create the haunted technoscapes of the future, soundworlds of decay and destruction leading humans to a joyous omnicide at the hands of their own music. As in the days of old when the great whales of the oceans followed the ley lines of their magnetic folds into the beached wonders of serene suicide, so will humanity under the hauntology of sonic catastrophe ride the musical chaos between silences into the deadly infernal of self-lacerating annihilation.
There’s something sad and melancholy in these stories, a slow burn from the deep loam of rich Georgian earth, a cast of blue shadows from the Appalachian Blue Ridge’s hovering round the edges of the Northern childhood dreams of Michael Wehunt’s early night haunts. These are stories of loss and grief, of worlds situated in-between heaven and hell if one still believed in such things. There’s something old in Michael’s soul, something both peculiar and uncanny. It’s as if the deep black earth of his homelands were speaking through him, singing there way out of those dark guttural sounds of some ancient music. A sense of loneliness and gray shadows, twilights and imponderable winds in the pines. Silences and long open stretches of highways, spaces of regret and pity for an American that has slowly decayed into ruins. People who seem to haunt landscapes that sink into the hidden spaces around us, only opening up their dark tombs when the sun and moon orient themselves to the sad tunes of some solitary traveler whose inner sense of doom matches that of the darkest ponds and rivers. This is a world lost to time where one can hear the old world and new seeping into each other with strange tales of horror that grasp you like an old comforter full of feathers falling from an unknown dimension of heartache.
Whether it’s the bond of sisters in the depths of a dark cave, their blood marriage of minds shadowing the mutant madness of a town’s poverty and derangements, and their quest for the eternal blood of salvation and eternal life in a pool of death; or the honeyed laughter of first love, of a mother’s insect dreams, the rituals of old Europe springing up in the new world like the humming of bees in a summer’s cavalcade; or a lonely trucker caught in a realm just in-between nothing and nothing, listening to the dreams of an old man’s haunted life; else the music of angels or swans, low and distant, sifting a widower’s life between two loves – a desperate attempt to recapture the circle of youth in a strange metamorphic shift among untimely memories and feathers; or and old Jazz-man telling a story to a young girl facing down her dark thoughts, and he on about a blue devil of rhythms and blues and harmonies of greatness, leavings of last memories before leave-taking for parts unknown; and, then a haunted docudrama – four friends plundering the backwoods of New Hampshire, shooting paranoid footage of a haunted landscape of doom and ghosts and nightmares come alive; else a flight of women or angels falling into time and a puddle of trailers in a patchwork world of sin and mad preachers, seen through a young boy’s innocence: a world of bittersweet truths about a rag-tagged bunch of fools and liars and clowns; and, more tales that sweep you down a world of pain and nostalgia, dark truth forged in twilight worlds and landscapes of visible hell that could be your own back yard or town…
Michael’s tales have that natural appeal of a deeply felt lived life of a man who sees into things. His tales have the seduction of folk lore and strange days, of the voice of story rising out of the black loam of a hidden America that is riddled with the lost souls, misfits, eccentrics, and broken keepers of our darkening and decaying country of forgotten dreams and terrible secrets. And, yet, there is deep and abiding love and emotion in his utterance of our worst nightmares, a desperate quest for transformation and change, and an openness to the unknown wonders of a frail universe that does not frighten so much as seduce us to enter its dark harmonies. Then there’s the grief of the inconsolable that follows one’s days like a dead woman who will not go away but haunts one’s flesh like the “slow drip of living” in a world in which the “nights black and the days flat and you can hardly care”.
These are tales of fatalist acceptance and the inevitable dammed, awaiting neither judgment day nor some dark Jesus to carry them away into the cold black night haunts of the desperate void, but rather a singular country boy’s early and late dreams of that bleak cosmos where humans meet the mystery that awaits us all in the great indifference that is. And, yet, even in the blackest abysses of time and space there is something that keeps his characters going, something that makes them quest after some indefinable answer, a yearning for more life even in the midst of destruction and consumation; a need to continue in inexistence where the “harbinger with green grace, of yellow mouths opening somewhere now closer above…” resides this side of the tormented lands. A sense of those mysteries that surround us on all sides, the secret rendezvous with darkness and stars and the emptiness in-between, where in the silences of the empty sky full of black music of endless night something lures us onward and outward toward the inexplicable.
Michael Wehunt grew up in North Georgia, close enough to the Appalachians to feel them but not quite easily see them. There were woods, and woodsmoke, and warmth. He did not make it far when he left, falling sixty miles south to the lost city of Atlanta, where there are fewer woods but still many trees. He lives with his partner and his dog and too many books, among which Robert Aickman fidgets next to Flannery O’Connor on his favorite bookshelf.
His fiction has appeared in various places, such as The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu. This is his first collection.
He was merely the inheritor of lost images; he was their resurrector, their invoker, their medium, and under his careful eye and steady hand there took place a mingling of artistic forms, their disparate anatomies tumbling out of the years to create the nightmare of his art.1 —Thomas Ligotti, The Troubles of Dr. Thoss
The best horror never reconciles us with the world or ourselves, but rather leads us to that irreconcilable moment when self and world enter into a third movement in which both are destabilized by the violence of the impossible . Moving in that sphere of pure contradiction that neither lifts one up to the sublime, nor pulls one down into the abyss of abject negativity these authors of the weird offer us what John Keats in a letter to his brother John described as Negative Capability:
No thanks, I think we’ve done enough to change the climate already! Why corrupt it more? It’s on its on now and could care less about our petty political squabbles: the Universe has an agenda of its own that no longer includes humans, if it ever did. We’re just one more failed effort in the struggle for survival and propagation, a vanishing species whose time for niche transgression has overstretched its welcome. The absolute indifference of the Universe is obvious to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; yet, so many optimists seek to create a different more hopeful narrative as if the Universe was the mere footprint of some anachronistic God whose eternal verdict is an Apocalypse awaiting its final end game. Such myths will go by the wayside like all myths have, emptied of their message as of their emissaries…
SITTING OUTSIDE AT THE END OF AUTUMN
Three years ago, in the afternoons,
I used to sit back here and try
To answer the simple arithmetic of my life,
But never could figure it—
This object and that object
Never contained the landscape nor all of its implications,
This tree and that shrub
Never completely satisfied the sum or quotient
I took from or carried to, nor do they do so now,
Though I’m back here again, looking to calculate,
Looking to see what adds up.
Everything comes from something,
only something comes from nothing,
Lao Tzu says, more or less.
Eminently sensible, I say,
Rubbing this tiny snail shell between my thumb and two fingers.
Delicate as an earring,
it carries its emptiness like a child
It would be rid of.
I rub it clockwise and counterclockwise, hoping for anything
Resplendent in its vocabulary or disguise—
But one and one make nothing, he adds, endless and everywhere,
The shadow that everything casts.
—Charles Wright, Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems
The notion that something exceeds our human knowledge, that everything we see is but the shadow of some greater order of the Real, that we are – as limited beings, unable to fathom the complexities of that which lies just outside human consciousness; but that this “something” – a nothing, or less than nothing, still moves, exists, invisible yet real – withdrawn and away; hidden from our powers of persuasion to reveal, a rhetoric of the unreal Outside that is… the possibility that a void, the emptiness surrounding us is more real than we are: a shadow that everything casts.
I’m reading Farah Rose Smith’s Anonyma which is deliciously decadent, modern, and gothic; a work that situates itself in the tradition of the dark fantastic. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this short novella but am already impressed by its ability to hint at mysteries and undertones just off-stage waiting to erupt from the darkness. In it we are introduced to a young successful architect, Nicholas Georg Bezalel, whose art and life are fused in a sensibility of what he’ll term “Modern † Gothic”:
“Modern † Gothic starts with a feeling,” Bezalel says. “To describe those initial emotions with words would make no sense logically, in the grand scheme of allowing you in on the process. The act of creation, of production, of endurance. These are all my secrets, you see. What I can say is that the style has permanence. It is art, but more importantly, Modern † Gothic is a way of life.”1
In the opening scene an interview with unknown parties is taking place in which the various aspects of his past and present commingle revealing both the source and transgressive splendor of his ongoing project, Noctuary. The name “Noctuary” already aligned my thought to Thomas Ligotti whose own collection of weird tales would encompass a discourse on blackness and the aesthetics of shadow, goth, and the weird:
“No one needs to be told about what is weird. It is something that becomes known in the early stages of every life. With the very first nightmare or a childhood bout of fever, an initiation takes place into a universal, and at the same time very secret society. Membership in this society is renewed by a lifelong series of encounters with the weird, which may assume a variety of forms and wear many faces. Some of these forms and faces are private to a certain person, while others are recognized by practically everybody, whether or not they will admit it. But they are always there, waiting to be recalled in those special moments that are all its own.”2
What we discover in Farah’s novella is the mystery of architecture itself, a dreamscape of unreality that exposes a ritualized inscape into unfathomable chambers of a bleak cosmos. Bezalel himself is reticent about both his ongoing project and of a recent exhibit that we are lead to believe shocked both critics and public alike, a scandalous affair that brought the shrill critical gaze of certain extreme feminist enclaves to bare on his life and art. As he comments:
“There is a point at which one must separate the art and the artist. There is an intrinsic link, of course. But there is less of me in those images than there is of what I was trying to evoke. They misunderstand me” When asked about the process of creating the infamous images, he becomes brusk. “Let us move on.”
Like many eccentric and decadent artists Bezalel seems both piqued and tormented by the public and critics reception of his work and yet nonplussed he seems unsure of himself and is quiet and reserve about those who do not understand his dark vision. As he’ll suggest his conceptual relations with architecture began as a child in a dream; that, in fact, the very project he is working on now began as a dream. Of Noctuary itself he says: “I saw the building itself in a childhood dream, not long before the death of my parents.” A sense of darkness, death, and the symbolic relations between the two and this dream castle have drawn him toward his self-described combination of the “Modern † Gothic” described already. Yet, like many artists his work would not have been possible without an apprenticeship with a certain mentor.
Adopted at a young age he was raised by a Banker family in Berlin, a typical bourgeois nexus of money, wealth, and extravagance. A mother given to melancholy, which he presumes is due to the Father’s incessant pretensions to playboy of the western world affectations. Bezalel himself seems to have had the run of the house, and spent most of his young life reading and getting acquainted with classics in the well-stocked family Library. After the death of his adopted family he moves to New York, studies architecture because of the connection to his childhood dream, but is unimpressed by the current regard of such moderns as Frank Loyd Wright. After graduation he is tempted to join two different firms but decides instead to return to Germany to reacquaint himself with his roots.
It is in Germany that he discovers a life-long passion for the the idol-mentor, G.E. G.E. Von Aurovitch. Describing his current project as “dripping with the lifeblood (or deathblood) of Von Aurovitch”. He describes the artistic vision behind it, which is a mixture of Decadence and Symbolist motifs, he tells the interviewers:
Aurovitch. Here, in architecture, in interior design, in natural installations, in fashion, either directly or indirectly, I was able to mold and maneuver with a specific energy that, in a way, bridged the gap between the Decadent and the Symbolic by getting to the philosophical nerve of coexisting opposites, and honored those I drew from. But I still think it isn’t representative of any one movement from the past. It is, quite simply, Modern † Gothic. It is its own movement, its own improvement, its own reality.”
After several successful installations he moved back to New York where he met his current fiance, supermodel Coreya Witciewicz. She works with him in the Noctuary, and appears to be both his assistant and curator of affairs. So far in the story we have not heard much else about her or her life with the architect, and I’ll not reveal much more of the tale.
We understand his immediate project is an adaptation of “Von Aurovitch’s obscure fantasy play, The Curse of Ariette, which will be performed in The Noctuary’s own underground theatre, Antangelus”. Telling the interviewers that for him – “Every project is a vanity project.” – we’re told by them that the architectural wonder they are in “doesn’t seem to fit into that category upon first observation, but with a careful look into Bezalel’s literary tastes, one can begin to put together a theory which suggests that he is bringing the objects of fantasy worlds– worlds of his own, and others– into reality.”
This whole opening scene sets the stage for the actual tale to come, it’s as if Farah was writing an essay much in the tradition of Borges of an imaginary artist for the sheer pleasure of revealing the background and details of a new aesthetic art and lifestyle. One thinks back to the work that spawned the Decadent and Symbolist movements Joris-Karl Huysmans, A Rebours (Against Nature), which more than a narrative was a series of lengthy essays on the various aspects of the decadent worldview. Much the same we are given in this opening chapter the sense and sensibility of the worldview of the “Modern † Gothic”. As we discover at the end of the chapter this new worldview is connected to the traumas of Bezalel’s childhood:
“The observation most people make about Modern † Gothic is that it has led them to find a balance between cognitive richness and materialistic extravagance. Bezalel acknowledges how the traumas of his youth led him to a new and comprehensive philosophy that nurtured this concept. “The instability, the darkness was unpleasant, but the only constant in my life. In it I began to find comfort, familiarity. The inverse of the uncanny. I wanted other people to understand that they could make peace with their demons. Find solace in the unfamiliar. Work with the darkness.””
What awaits us as the architectural wonder of Noctuary is completed, and the dark enactments within its theater of cruelty unleashes its strange powers of darkness is left to the reader to find out, all I’ve done is tempt you to enter the dark chambers of Farah Rose Smith’s Anonyma to find out.
- Smith, Farah Rose. Anonyma. Lulu.com; First Edition edition (November 30, 2018)
- Ligotti, Thomas. Noctuary. Il Saggiatore (October 12, 2017)
…each night, as he dreamed, he carried out shapeless expeditions into its fantastic topography. To all appearances it seemed he had discovered the summit or abyss of the unreal, that paradise of exhaustion, confusion, and debris where reality ends and where one may dwell among its ruins.
—Thomas Ligotti, Vastarien
The echoes of thought from one work to another is a twisted tangle of chaos, a forest of nettles and puzzles, a labyrinth of false paths and wrong turns; and, yet, it does happen from time to time, that a brave quester, a journeyer into the obscure zones of horror will occasionally pass through the barriers between the real and unreal, enter into those nether regions of the unknown where the unmanifest mysteries of a darker and more uncertain topography of the fantastic is revealed and transmitted. Echoed in the secret chambers of hearts and minds like so many leaves swirling in the autumn wind.
There are those who have left signs, fragmentary visions, sorceries of hallucinatory voyages or strange adventures: lunatics and madmen, savants and dark prophets, oracles and sirens; decadent visionaries full of lurid tales of the unknown. Those who have been torn and wounded by the indifference of the natural and unnatural forces of these ruinous and unfathomable realms have on occasion returned to relay their dark wisdom. Especially those of the minor canon of pessimistic authors who have never been widely circulated in mainstream culture, those who have opened portals and doorways into these dark and tantalizing regions of the ancient occulture and obscura, seen hidden arcana of the unholy that breaks the weak souled brethren but gives back to those who persevere unbidden truths.
The Well of Wyrd, where memory, pain, and torment commingle and the tales left by these voyagers surfaces from the depths of the haunted labyrinths we learn of their failures and successes. Generations of women and men seeking by untraditional means avenues into those nether regions of psychogeography where the unknown allures and seduces us toward the strange and puzzling mysteries and obscure sites of imaginative need and poverty begin to topple our consensually accepted reality and reveal to us something else; something ever about to be. These questers after the mind’s dark haunts bring back to us amazing fragments and tales of the infernal paradises of the Unreal that so many have craved, sought after, and quested in pursuit of like unholy seekers of a luminous sect of grail knights of horror and beauty. Some have like Browning’s questor to the ‘Dark Tower’ prepared themselves their whole lives for a glimpse of the impossible kingdoms of darkness and terror, and here and there a few have brought back out of those bleak realms the ruinous beauty of their short tales of the weird, fantastic, and strange; captivating us with glimpses, however blurred and twisted, of those sinister and yet fascinating realms of the Unreal.
The Daemonic Quest
The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human— God or the gods, the daemon or Nature— is matter for great disagreement. What, if anything, defines the range of the human is scarcely less sure.
—Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime
Reading Thomas Ligotti’s tales of horror over the past twenty years I’ve felt that pull of the “daemonic imagination” toward some indefinable darkness and enlightenment, a zone of horror and ecstasy hovering in the interstices of the world like flowers of corruption waiting to bloom. For Ligotti as a Master of horror did not seek some Platonic realm transcending time and space where the eternal forms (Ideas) dwell that guide and shape our lives; no, in his quest toward an “enlightenment in darkness” (one he admits he never attained) he sought what I’ll term the daemonic path: a formless path of unrest, driven by the elemental forces at play within the infernal garden of our catastrophic cosmos. As Stefan Zweig in his study of the daemon in the works of Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche suggests:
It seems as if nature had implanted into every mind an inalienable part of the primordial chaos, and as if this part were interminably striving — with tense passion — to rejoin the superhuman, suprasensual medium whence it derives. The daemon is the incorporation of that tormenting leaven which impels our being (otherwise quiet and almost inert) towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation, and even self-destruction.1
Unlike the ancient sublime of transcendence that sought to move beyond our cosmos into some eternal realm of light as in Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise toward a beatific vision, Ligotti’s nightmare quest and visionary tales led him to toward the malevolent powers of darkness of the daemonic abyss. Following Edgar Allen Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, seduced and lured as they were by the impersonal and indifferent cosmos of elemental malevolence, Ligotti would be driven toward a secular rather than religious theophany; one – unlike those sweet visions of God’s majesty with their soteriological visions of redemption and salvation, would lead Ligotti to fall forward, restlessly swerving into the dark labyrinths of an impenetrable chasm and cosmic abyss of torment and suffering, moving endlessly through the doom-ridden layers of time and space where an unknown and unknowable malevolent presence pervades every singular atom within the ruins of reality.
“These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art. . . .”
– Frederico Garcia Lorca
It was the poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, in reference to the duende – the dark muse of song—daemon, hobgoblin, mischief maker, guardian of “the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore.” Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exist beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps deep within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost. He would speak of that unfailing instinct that opens within one like a black orchid, or breaks through the mind with those dark sounds that wound. The duende is the dark angel of the blood and emotion, the driving force of that creative action that sings in the throat black sounds: “…the duende has to be roused in the very cells of the blood. … The real struggle is with the duende…. To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline. All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass”.2
This sense of duende is at the heart of most great music and poetry, as is it is of those transformative moments within the genre of horror. It is root and cause of that which stirs below the threshold of consciousness, gathering its sublime forces, generating the dread and terror that reveal to us the darkest truths of our suffering and pain. The nihilistic light that formed us from the beginning breaks over our vein egoistic selves shattering the vessels of our own ignorance sending us into a tailspin of doubt and panic from which there is no escape. As the poet Leopardi would sing of the dark malevolence below the threshold, the duende:
King of the real, creator of the world,
hidden malevolence, supreme power and supreme intelligence,
eternal giver of pain and arbiter of movement…
– Leopardi, Canti
William Blake once described the struggle with and against the daemon, the duende as the struggle with the Female Will, the matrix of night, death, the mother, and the sea.
- Zweig, Stefan. The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche (pp. 11-12). Pushkin Press (July 24, 2012)
- Lorca, Federico García(1898-1937) In Search of Duende. New Directions; Second edition (March 30, 2010)
*Working on this as a prelude to my book on Thomas Ligotti… will add more as it comes, and will link it from my outline page: here.
A good story can make you forget about the bad stories, even if the bad stories are all you want to believe. All you’ve ever told yourself. And sometimes you have to choose to believe the good stories, even when it feels like there’s no choice at all.
—Simon Strantzas, Antripuu Nightmare Magazine, Issue 82
Simon Strantzas tales are well known to aficionados of the horror and weird tale scene. A writer who hales from Toronto, Canada, Simon has published several notable short story collections: Beneath the Surface, Cold to the Touch, Nightingale Songs Burnt Black Suns, and his latest – Nothing is Everything (here!)
Recently he’s published a tale in Nightmare Magazine: Antripuu, a tale of forests, storms, and mysterious creatures right out of some ancient tale of darkness and old world folklore. During the Middle Ages, countless texts were literally teeming with fantastic passages, sometimes accompanied by an explanation but more often presented with impenetrable brevity. They implicitly refer to the existence of an occult world, the laws of which are also in force on this plane.1
In many of these folk tales we discover monstrous and unknown forces that exist sometimes in various shapes, such as that of a human or animal, or even an inanimate object. Hybrid creatures as ancient as the earth herself, creatures that have no regard for the human ways and live in a pre-dawn age of amoral forces that live by one code: sex and survival. Such beings sustain themselves by a relentless pursuit of their prey, an almost impersonal force of hunger driving them forward.
Simon’s work recasts this ancient world within the confines of a modern day tale of horror, friendship, and loss. And, yet, there is a sense of the courage of hopelessness as well, of a Schopenhauerian will-to-live that drives these humans to certain choices and decisions. This is a tale of three friends who have gone stale in their work-a-day lives, and have need for adventure and a reaffirmation of their youth and vigor.
The tale leads the three friends into a forest outside their home town where they will confront not only the dark and unknown forces of the natural order, but those of an unnatural order that very few are willing to admit too, much less accept as real. The tale is told in media-res, upfront and personal. The main character confronts his own ghosts, his own failure in life, work, and love. There’s a sense that something needed to happen, that his was a real life tale gone sour while his friends seemed both successful and complete. It’s as if something is missing in his life, as if he need some kind of shock therapy to push him away from the desperate and suicidal course he’d set himself toward. And in this adventure he gets it, but not in the way he expected. Everything about the tale is relentless, driving you on the edge of your seat from event to event, never leaving you to rest on your laurels but pushing those horror buttons of expectation and emotional fear to the extreme limits and then dropping you off in a ravine of doubt and terror where hope itself seems more like a rushing river of pain that a safety valve of escape.
I’ll not go into the details of the story itself, you can find it on Nightmare Magazine: http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/
While you’re there pick up a subscription, too. And, by the way, you can listen to Simon’s tale on their podcast as a bonus!
Enjoy the ride!
- Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.
Already into it (a short journal) and discovered the dark honesty I’ve always trusted:
“Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.”
She always did speak from the shadows… you can feel it in her stories and her longer works. A sense of mystery, shock, and violence that digs deep into you like an old worm gnawing at your innards. Her stories were nightmares come alive and have stayed with me my whole life. The misfits and scoundrels, idiots and savants, the whole lot have about them the doom that lives in the soul of the South like a darkness that spreads and never lets up. I may have left the swamps of Louisiana, and she from Georgia… but the swamps still pervade my dark side like I’m sure the rolling hills of Georgia did hers.
To exile oneself from every earthly country.
—Simone Weil, Decreation
A dummy’s silence is the most soothing silence of all, and his stillness is the perfect stillness of the unborn.
—Thomas Ligotti, Dr. Voke and Mr. Leech
Is it possible not only to erase one’s self – one’s ego, but to erase one’s entire existence ‘as if’ it had never been; as if the accumulated history, the stain of one’s existence on earth had never occurred?
Thomas Ligotti in the first tale of his series of tales within tales IN A FOREIGN TOWN, IN A FOREIGN LAND: HIS SHADOW SHALL RISE TO A HIGHER HOUSE will offer such a strange theory through a self-professed doctor, Klatt, upon a man who not only died but erased his burial site and its very existence:
‘What Ascrobius sought,’ the doctor explained, ‘was not a remedy for his physical disease, not a cure in any usual sense of the word. What he sought was an absolute annulment, not only of his disease but of his entire existence. On rare occasions he even spoke to me,’ the doctor said, ‘about the uncreation of his whole life.’1
All of this started when the said Ascrobius, a recluse and physically grotesque denizen of the northern town on the border of an ill-defined country took ill and died. His body buried outside the town in a graveyard on a hill among former citizens has suddenly vanished along with any signs that it ever existed. Klatt against the unwritten rules of the locals has been ‘meddling’ in anecdotal gossip as to what might have transpired. And upon revealing to the tale teller and others a new bit of information about the details of Ascrobius’s demise he has now implicated all of them in this meddling which will be termed the “Ascrobius’ Escapade”.
As Klatt tells it: ‘You see what has happened,’ Dr Klatt said to us. ‘He has annulled his diseased and nightmarish existence, leaving us with an uncreated grave on our hands.’
After revealing such a meddlesome affair and implicating many of its members the entire town entered into gossip to the point of hysteria, coming to the conclusion that such an unnatural affair could not go without judgement: “Someone would have to atone for that uncreated existence…”.
Well, as expected, our minister of gossip, Klatt offers a solution to the whole affair: a young and unintelligent specimen will need to be sacrificed to the uncreated malevolence that seems to have overtaken the town’s normal lunacy. So a young woman from one Mrs. Glimm’s tavern is sent to the graveyard on the hill at midnight in the cover of complete darkness. Well, one can imagine what transpires, the young woman is found the next day by a nosy and curious group of sober citizens at the very site of the uncreated grave, her body skinned alive and her torso set up as a gravestone. At such horror the citizens demand that she be given a proper burial, but Mrs. Glimm more intelligent than she appears tells them this might not be a good idea and that they should leave things as is. So nothing is done. And, in a few days, the whole affair is forgotten, the terrors of the uncreated gone, and the citizenry back to their normal lives (if you can call it normal!).
But this is not the end of the tale. No. After a few weeks it is discovered that Klatt has gone missing, and that a new resident has taken up living in the former house of Ascrobius. But as our anonymous storyteller informs us,
Afterward all speculation about what had come to be known as the ‘resurrection of the uncreated’ remained in the realm of twilight talk. Yet as I now lie in my bed, listening to the wind and the scraping of bare branches on the roof just above me, I cannot help remaining wide awake with visions of that deformed specter of Ascrobius and pondering upon what unimaginable planes of contemplation it dreams of another act of uncreation, a new and far-reaching effort of great power and more certain permanence. Nor do I welcome the thought that one day someone may notice that a particular house appears to be missing, or absent, from the place it once occupied along the backstreet of a town near the northern border.
Thomas Ligotti in The Conspiracy against the Human Race states his notions concerning the concept of the “uncreated” saying,
For pessimists, life is something that should not be, which means that what they believe should be is the absence of life, nothing, non-being, the emptiness of the uncreated. Anyone who speaks up for life as something that irrefutably should be— that we would not be better off unborn, extinct, or forever lazing in nonexistence— is an optimist. It is all or nothing; one is in or one is out, abstractly speaking. Practically speaking, we have been a race of optimists since the nascency of human consciousness and lean like mad toward the favorable pole.2
The Jains of India believe the soul of each living being is unique and uncreated and has existed since beginningless time.3 Anne Carson the poetess in her essay on Decreation – How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil Tell God mentions:
Simone Weil was also a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God. “The self,” she says in one of her notebooks, “is only a shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God’s light and which I take for a Being.” She had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called “decreation.” This word is a neologism to which she did not give an exact definition nor a consistent spelling. “To undo the creature in us” is one of the ways she describes its aim.4
As another commentator says of Weil: “The method of approaching the sacred Weil calls “decreation,” as a de-incarnation of the person, a method for attaining the impersonal for which solitude is a prerequisite. Decreation is “to make something created pass into the uncreated.” This is distinct from the thing passing into destruction, passing into nothingness.”5 In her poem “Decreation” Simon Weil reiterates this notion:
It is necessary not to be “myself,” still less to be “ourselves.”
The city gives one the feeling of being at home.
We must take the feeling of being at home into exile
We must be rooted in the absence of a place.
To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively.
To exile oneself from every earthly country.
To all that to others, from the outside, is a substitute for decreation and results in unreality
For by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.
This sense of uprooting, a decreation of one’s life both physically and spiritually in a process of unmaking, an unraveling into the unreal and entering into the exile from one’s place in the order of creation by an uncreation is hinted at by secular underpinnings of Ligotti’s tales as well. In The Last Feast of Harlequin an assembly is gathered singing of the blessed unborn, the uncreated:
The entire assembly, which had remained speechless until this moment, broke into the most horrendous high-pitched singing that can be imagined. It was a choir of sorrow, of shrieking delirium, and of shame. The cavern rang shrilly with the dissonant, whining chorus. My voice, too, was added to the congregation’s, trying to blend with their maimed music. But my singing could not imitate theirs, having a huskiness unlike their cacophonous keening wail. To keep from exposing myself as an intruder I continued to mouth their words without sound. These words were a revelation of the moody malignancy which until then I had no more than sensed whenever in the presence of these figures. They were singing to the “unborn in paradise,” to the “pure unlived lives.” They sang a dirge for existence, for all its vital forms and seasons. Their ideals were those of darkness, chaos, and a melancholy half-existence consecrated to all the many shapes of death.6
Maybe the unborn like Ascrobius are not those in some mythos of heaven awaiting birth, but are in fact the secret few, the lucky one’s of a dark order of alchemy who have learned the subtle arts of uncreation and diminishment; a slow reversal in the time flows of the inexplicable processes of the universal corruption. Maybe they have opened a hole in the fabric of space-time, an entrance not into some majestic heaven, but rather a passage into the labyrinths of an infernal paradise where the seeds of a new darkness, the uncreated and unborn children of a new promised kingdom of unnatural desires now reside in perfect silence and shadow; their unlived lives shaping and shaped by their sacrifice to the unknown malevolence of all decreation.
- Ligotti, Thomas. Teatro Grottesco. Mythos Books LLC; 1st edition (November 30, 2007)
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 47). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
- Nayanar, Prof. A. Chakravarti (2005). Samayasāra of Ācārya Kundakunda. New Delhi: Today & Tomorrows Printer and Publisher.
- Carson, Anne. Decreation – How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil Tell God. Common Knowledge Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2002 Duke University Press
- Some of the more representative works of Simone Weil are her First and Last Notebooks, translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford university Press, 1970; Gravity and Grace. Putnam, 1952; Oppression and Liberty, London: , New York: Routledge & K. Paul, ? The most representative anthology is The Simone Weil Reader; edited by George A. Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Nightmare Factory. Carroll & Graf (June 27, 1996)
Quite frankly, it seemed as if each one of us stretched his entire imagination to persuade himself of terrible, irreplaceable losses…
—Hermann Hesse, The Journey to the East
Decided today to reread Herman Hesse’s The Journey to the East. Hesse’s work is part of that idealist Jungianism that seemed to pervade post-WWI literature. Some of the literature would wreak of violence and nihilism, others of the influx of Dada, Surrealism and the fascination with the decadent strains in our literature and heritage. Hesse had tinges of all these aspects woven in with the Romantic traditions… the fascination with the literature of India and its ancient religious worlds.
Sometimes I want to rewrite Hesse’s The Journey to the East with Thomas Ligotti’s lens… a movement into the nightmare regions of the infernal paradise that throughout his tales he offers us fragments and liminal windows onto… yet, for me it would not be of the East as in Hesse, but as in Ligotti’s darker sense of a realm of aesthetic beauty in horror, corruption, and ruin; a blasted cosmos of frightful extravagance and liminal edges of unending terror and rapture…
Here is Hesse’s opening paragraph:
“It was my destiny to join in a great experience. Having had the good fortune to belong to the League, I was permitted to be a participant in a unique journey. What wonder it had at the time! How radiant and comet-like it seemed, and how quickly it has been forgotten and allowed to fall into disrespute. For this reason, I have decided to attempt a short description of this fabulous journey, a journey the like of which had not been attempted since the days of Hugo and mad Roland. Ours have been remarkable times, this period since the World War, troubled and confused, yet, despite this, fertile. I do not think that I am under any illusion about the difficulties of my attempt; they are very great and are not only of a subjective nature, although these alone would be considerable. For not only do I no longer possess the tokens, mementos, documents and diaries relating to the journey, but in the difficult years of misfortune, sickness and deep affliction which have elapsed since then, a large number of my recollections have also vanished. As a result of the buffets of Fate and because of the continual discouragement, my memory as well as my confidence in these earlier vivid recollections have become impaired. But apart from these purely personal notes, I am handicapped because of my former vow to the League; for although this vow permits unrestricted communication of my personal experiences, it forbids any disclosures about the League itself. And even though the League seems to have had no visible existence for a long time and I have not seen any of its members again, no allurement or threat in the world would induce me to break my vow. On the contrary, if today or tomorrow I had to appear before a court-martial and was given the option of dying or divulging the secret of the League, I would joyously seal my vow to the League with death.”
- Hermann Hesse. The Journey to the East (Kindle Locations 12-24). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition
Ajit Vark in a book on Denial entertains from a evolutionary geneticists perspective the old notion of Norman O. Brown and Ernst Becker of the Denial of Death thesis, but also adds another:
[the] contrarian view [that we overcame the barrier to human uniqueness by the mastery of self-deception] could help modify and reinvigorate ongoing debates about the origins of human uniqueness and inter-subjectivity. It could also steer discussions of other uniquely human “universals,” such as the ability to hold false beliefs, existential angst, theories of after-life, religiosity, severity of grieving, importance of death rituals, risk-taking behaviour, panic attacks, suicide and martyrdom. If this logic is correct, many warm-blooded species may have previously achieved complete self-awareness and inter-subjectivity, but then failed to survive because of the extremely negative immediate consequences. Perhaps we should be looking for the mechanisms (or loss of mechanisms) that allow us to delude ourselves and others about reality, even while realizing that both we and others are capable of such delusions and false beliefs.
In many ways this supports Robert Trivers another evolutionary biologist’s notions in The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Trivers unflinchingly argues that self-deception evolved in the service of deceit—the better to fool others. We do it for biological reasons—in order to help us survive and procreate. And, yet, Trivers also takes this notion and then applies it to our overreach, the very sociopathic society full of manipulators and deceivers which is the baseline of our Capitalist societies promotes such self-deception to the point that what once helped us as a species to survive and propagate has now become its greatest enemy and is leading us into a species dead end as we deny too much reality for profit and gain at our own peril. Climate denial etc. are at the center of both this success and it’s overreach… a denialism that could cost us our survival and our future along with all those other non-human species of plants and animals and insects.
- Ajit Varki. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Twelve (June 4, 2013)
- Robert Trivers. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; 1 edition (October 25, 2011)
Soon I will put my dreaming in the hands of greater forces, and I’m sure there will be some surprises for both of us. That is one thing which never changes.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Chemyst
This morning when I woke up began tracing the various uses of hypnotism in Thomas Ligotti’s tales. Fascinating how he associated this 19th Century mesmeric art with its double-edged use to blind or reveal.
In an interview with E.M. Angerhuber and Thomas Wagner: Disillusionment Can Be Glamorous Thomas Ligotti is asked if he thinks “cosmic evil is an enhanced or horror, compared to the evil of a single character?” Speaking of his early story “The Chymist” is one of the characters who possesses a “dark power,” but that “power is only an instance of a greater power at large”. Behind this is the power of “Nature” itself Ligotti states, which “tirelessly produces mutations and permutations using human flesh…”. In “The Sect of the Idiot” he’ll describe this power behind the sect of hooded ones – “those freaks who were among those who were hypnotized”:
“For there was a power superseding theirs, a power which they served and from which they merely emanated, something which was beyond the universal hypnosis by virtue of its very mindlessness, its awesome idiocy. These cloaked masters, in turn, partook in some measure of godhood, passively presiding as enlightened zombies over the multitudes of the entranced, that frenetic domain of the human.”
This mindless idiot behind the scenes reminds me of Ligotti’s statements about the Gnostics in the Conspiracy:
“The second of Zapffe’s two central determinations— that our species should belay reproducing itself— immediately brings to mind a cast of characters from theological history known as Gnostics. The Gnostic sect of the Cathari in twelfth-century France were so tenacious in believing the world to be an evil place engendered by an evil deity that its members were offered a dual ultimatum: sexual abstinence or sodomy. (A similar sect in Bulgaria, the Bogomils, became the etymological origin of the term “buggery” for their practice of this mode of erotic release.) Around the same period, the Catholic Church mandated abstinence for its clerics, a directive that did not halt them from betimes giving in to sexual quickening. The raison d’être for this doctrine was the attainment of grace (and in legend was obligatory for those scouring hither and yon for the Holy Grail) rather than an enlightened governance of reproductive plugs and bungholes. With these exceptions, the Church did not counsel its followers to imitate its ascetic founder but sagaciously welcomed them to breed as copiously as they could.”
Knowing that Ligotti has read deeply in these ancient heterodoxies underpins his use and parodic inversion of the soteriological allegories of these sects towards his own ends. One thinks of the case of Arthur Emerson in “The Prodigy of Dreams” associating it with an active power to enter other zones of being:
“Only on rare occasions could he enter these unseen spaces, and always unexpectedly. A striking experience of this kind took place in his childhood years and involved a previous generation of swans which he had paused one summer afternoon to contemplate from a knoll by the lake. Perhaps their smooth drifting and gliding upon the water had induced in him something like a hypnotic state. The ultimate effect, however, was not the serene catatonia of hypnosis, but a whirling flight through a glittering threshold which opened within the air itself, propelling him into a kaleidoscopic universe where space consisted only of multi-colored and ever-changing currents, as of wind or water, and where time did not exist.”
This sense of “whirling flight” as compared to the “serene catatonia” of the mesmerizer’s variety of hypnotic effect. One remembers the hypnotist psychologist in “Dream of a Manikin” who describes Mrs. Locher’s dreams under hypnosis. Here the power of the deity of dream “splintering and scarring itself to relieve its cosmic ennui,” or the “solipsistic dream deity commanding all it sees, all of which is only itself,” the implications of which “suggest the basic horror and disgusting unreality of its implications.”
So many of these variations of the dark god of dreams, hypnotism, and unreality crop up throughout various stories describing the notion of a malevolent power in Nature supervening in a sadomasochistic drama of manipulation, and at the same time allowing certain favored ones to awaken from the hypnosis and enter the infernal paradise of this entity’s realm unbidden.
There is Victor Kierion in “Vastarien” whose infernal book unlocks the keys to this dream kingdom of nightmares: “the hypnotic episodes of the little book; each night, as he dreamed, he carried out shapeless expeditions into its fantastic topography. To all appearances it seemed he had discovered the summit or abyss of the unreal, that paradise of exhaustion, confusion, and debris where reality ends and where one may dwell among its ruins.”
More to think through… Year’s ago reading Angus Fletcher’s great work on Allegory and the ancient tension between the various levels of exegesis and commentary one realizes that Ligotti’s art is much more subtle than many might know or understand. On the surface each story seems to plot a basic horror scenario, a nightmare that can be understood at the base level of common sense portrayal. But if one takes a more rigorous approach one discovers layers of structure and dimensions within his work that lead to more extensive subsurface meanings and connections leading outwardly to philosophy, religion, ethics, and other subtle implications.
Just more grist for the mill…
Jim Stark: I don’t know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.
—James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause
Maybe my fascination with the fantastic, weird, and horrible began on a dark night in 1954 when my family was coming home from a weekend in Lubbock, TX. Of course I was too young to remember what was happening (unless my body itself carries the trauma in some deep place of the subliminal physical systems). I was only informed of it years after…
At that time there was a strange game of life and death that foolish young teenagers seemed to relish… a movie was made of this later on – Rebel Without A Cause, starring James Dean. The game was Chicken… yet, unlike the movie my family was suddenly thrust into a real life situation of three young punks who’d decided to run their truck head-on into a random car on a road just outside Andrews, TX – a road in which it would be next to impossible to turn off into the fields because of deep ravines, and / or cross the median because of trees planted by the Texas Highway Department.
Needless to say my father tried his best to swerve and miss the truck barreling into our old Chevy sedan. It didn’t work, and our car was demolished, my Mom suffered a broken neck and legs crushed, my Sis almost died suffocating under the back seat as it flipped up and tumbled over her (she was a baby), and I was thrown across the back seat in a swirl of tumbling glass and metal breaking my arms, legs, and pelvis unable to walk for years. My Dad luckily did not go unconscious, and with his ribs crushed by the steering wheel, and his head damaged severely by rocketing through the front windshield he pulled us all out of the vehicle before it blew up after the engine started a fire and the gas finally burst… then he waited for help. Once it came he passed out… We all woke in the hospital and would remain there for months.
The three punks has used an old mattress and were unharmed… I want go into the bitter details afterword… and the years of recovery. Only that this traumatic even would haunt me as I grew up… one of my legs is shorter than the other because of it so that I’ve had spinal issues and other problems that relate even now to many of my problems in old age… but, hey, it’s life and not a dam thing you can do about it but learn to laugh…
Yet, it was this unlikely event that made me question later on about fate and determinism, chance and necessity, coincidence and synchronicity, along with all the other strange reasons why it was my family suddenly plunged into this horror in a singular strange moment right out of the twilight zone of weirdness… maybe my whole philosophical outlook on life was generated in that moment. Who knows? All I know it was from the moment I became fully aware of this event I realized the world is not what it seems… and is much more sinister than most of us would like to believe.
I’ve often wondered at what point did we enter an alternate world, a different time-line, a realm of some strange and nefarious weirdness that left us marooned in a place that was not our place, a world that was not our world. I still don’t know, and yet something in me does.
One could say I’m an inverted Gnostic of sorts, except that in my own view the ancient Gnostic’s literalized or ontologized their perceptions and thought of the Real. Following Plato they sought to escape this ‘world’ – the literal universe of evil as they termed it, whereas for me there is no transcension of this realm: this is it, there isn’t any supernal paradise of light sitting on the other side of that great abyss of darkness and night; and yet, what we discover is not a literal dichotomy or separation as in Plato’s two-worlds theory of a supernal eternal realm of Ideas and a mundane and evil realm of delusion, but rather it is our Mind’s, our Brains that have locked us into a perception of the world controlled by political, social, cultural, religious, and philosophical malfeasance. The world in-itself is not evil, what is evil is the dominion of our minds and hearts under regimes of power in high places that have constructed an Iron Prison of thought and feeling to trap us and suck our desires dry for their own sustenance and pleasure.
It is against the rulers of this dark prison world of mind, the Oligarchs, Plutocrats, philosophical and religious overlords of our ideological realms of acceptable thought and truth, spin doctors of political and social crapology, we fight and resist in this new gnosis. We seek to exit this system of lies, bullshit, and deceit even as we unravel and destroy its symbolic hold over our lives. For years I struggled against the separation of religious and secular forms that entrap us to false infinities: to a metaphysics of defeat and despair, pessimism and doom. Most of the world is oriented to trap us in a sense of despair and doom to make us dependent and needy, so that we will allow the State to supervene in our lives and offer assistance and numbing drugs, pharmaceuticals, therapies, etc. to realign us to its prison system and put us back asleep, provide us a perfect road to oblivion becoming in the process robotically compliant to the work and labour of creating surplus value for the wealthy and powerful. What these fat cat wannabee Archons of bullshit seek above all is a hypernormalised society of stupids they can suck dry for their own sadomasochistic pleasures… who the hell wants that?
It’s time to exit the zoo of this dark world, make our way toward a fucking real planet where people can learn to give a shit again about themselves and others, stop pounding each other with bombs and death; stop hustling the innocent and needy migrants into cages; stop colluding with a system of Death that has made us all into zombie maniacs…
Gnostic Inversion: From Literal to Figurative Breakout
People tend to confuse my use of the ancient Gnostic mythos with its literal religious extremism of ascetic or libertine valences.
I tend to agree with many fantastic, weird, and horror tale writers that there is as Ibn Arabi once suggested an ‘Mundus Imaginalis’ – a site of no site outside our brains filtering processes where our language and thought perceive the traces of an imaginative realm not bound by our human all too human prison of consciousness. Not unlike modern quantum physics that models these invisible processes beyond the threshold of our ability to know with symbolic relations (i.e., in the case of physics with mathematic models that then may take decades to prove, etc.). It’s this in-between realm between what we perceive to be and what ‘is’ that what Zizek-Lacan term the Real is confronted – any realism is confronted by what resists us rather than by any logic or systematic effort on our part to construct it. The Real is that which is invisible to our empirical relations to the world accept as it impinges on those factual facticities.
Henri Corbin (1903 – 1978) a Sufi scholar coined the term “Mundus Imaginalis” to explain to Westerners the Sufi account of a territory that exists between the physical, sensory world and the spirit world (which Plato saw as consisting of ideal forms, but which some conceptualize as formless). This intermediate world has its own consistent topography, but is also constantly influenced and shaped by the physical and the spiritual worlds.
In my own account there is no Platonic world of forms, Ideas; there is as dialectical materialism suggests the appearance of appearance in which form and formless interject into each other influences which are neither the one or the other but commingle in this intermediate realm to produce something of a Third Relation. Ideas (forms) arise with appearances as in quantum mechanics particles arise and vanish contiguously.
At the border of consciousness we become entangled with what is not-conscious (i.e., what our brain filters out and we cannot thereby perceive as ‘real’). It’s on this border in-between that we commingle with the Outside in the ‘Mundus Imaginalis’ influenced by and influencing each other.
Corbin also used the term “active imagination,” which he may have got from Jung, or may have developed simultaneously. It is a method of perception and exploration that is supposed to straddle the physical world and the Mundus Imaginalis, allowing interplay between them. That our brains through evolutionary processes have closed the door on most of what is, giving us only what we need to survive and propagate we struggle to understand the forces, things, entities outside that filter. It’s the negotiation between form and formlessness, the navigation of the Outside which resists us; this strange realm of intermediation in which reality as it is against the reality we know and perceive that structures the Real.
Against any naïve realism the current crop of speculative realists suggest that the world is not as it seems, but is much more non-human than we can even imagine. We’ve allowed our all-too-centered human concerns for survival and propagation to bind us to the genetic codes and filters of our brain’s basic and integral function as an evolutionary process. In our own time this is being questioned, and doors onto advancing out of and past our own minimalistic brain functions through external process of self-fabrication and self-evolutionary processes of experimentation may one day take us far beyond the embedded state of our physical being as humans. What David Roden in his disconnection thesis projects through every widening exits of Wide Humans into the singularity of some posthuman other (of which we cannot know or speak at present).
To me the use of Gnostic mythos as philosophical allegory rather than a literalist belief in actual entities beyond our perception. I use it as a tool to unlock our ideological constructs and mental prisons that those in power seek to use to control society. Whatever the religious use of it was is beyond me, I use horror and the weird as tools to embrace an alternative vision; and, although it appears to accept the dictum of a malevolence behind the curtain so to speak, this should not in my mind be taken ‘literally’, but figuratively as a trope of the mind’s quest to break through the ideological prison or Matrix we are currently trapped in.
Lawrence Durrell is one of the most overt Gnostic writers in mainstream literature, both is Alexandria Quartet and his later, post-war The Avignon Quintet he used major themes from this heterodox realms of gnosis. As in this statement from Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness:.
Man is in a trap … and goodness avails him nothing in the new dispensation. There is nobody now to care one way or the other. Good and evil, pessimism and optimism–are a question of blood group, not angelic disposition. Whoever it was that used to heed us and care for us, who had concern for our fate and the world’s, has been replaced by another who glories in our servitude to matter, and to the basest part of our own natures.
–LAWRENCE DURRELL, Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness
A few authors whose works present a Gnostic mythos:
John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle
Malcom Lowery’s Under the Volcano
Doris Lessing’s Shikasta novels
David Lindsey’s A Voyage to Arcturus
Cormac McCarthy’s dark Southern Gothic and his Western Lands works
Collen Clements five-volume Biography of Lucifer
Beyond that one can find it used either overtly or in parody/gest in many horror writers…
Many of the horror writers have taken a left-hand path or Luciferian gnosis by way of the negative ecstasy of infernal paradises etc. into their works, inverting the underlying a-cosmic schemes of the actual historic Gnostics for a more secular and materialist mysticism of the immanent-transcendence variety (horizontal rather than vertical). Following in the footsteps of those 19th Century fabricators of the occult, satanic, and decadent late romanticism these writers would offer a vision not of some supernal city of light and peace, but rather a dark hinterland of cosmic night described by John Doe in Thomas Ligotti’s The Frolic:
“We leave this behind in your capable hands, for in the black-foaming gutters and back alley of paradise, in the dank windowless gloom of some intergalactic cellar, in the hollow pearly whorls found in sewerlike seas, in starless cities of insanity, and in their slums . . . my awestruck little deer and I have gone frolicking.”
This sense of finding in the sewers of nightmarish wastelands and deliriums of the backwater slums of the universal decay a world of awe and wonder filled with the dark pleasures of a sadomasochistic cosmos. This is the kenoma or vastation of he Luciferian nightmare realm of paradise’s inferno…
Though it has gone largely unrecognized in the critical literature on Bataille, dream and the unconscious are intimately related to the sacred in Bataille’s thought. Understanding this connection requires an account of Bataille’s conception of the sacred as an ambivalent force that, when accessed through sacrificial acts, engenders an ecstatic loss of self. Th is loss of self corresponds with Bataille’s idiosyncratic notion of sovereignty, which is related to an escape from the “servile” world of instrumental reason—the sphere of the profane. (Jeremy Biles, Negative Ecstasies)
It’s this need for self-sacrificial loss of self in the ecstasy of horror that seems most poignant in Ligotti’s oeuvre as well. The horror of consciousness is central to his horror, and the various angels of approach to the annihilation of our ego-based relations seems central to many of the themes in Ligotti’s tales.
One feels it in Ligotti’s The Shadow at the Bottom of the World:
In sleep we were consumed by the feverish life of the earth, cast among a ripe, fairly rotting world of strange growth and transformation. We took a place within a darkly flourishing landscape where even the air was ripened into ruddy hues and everything wore the wrinkled grimace of decay, the mottled complexion of old flesh. The face of the land itself was knotted with so many other faces, ones that were corrupted by vile impulses. Grotesque expressions were molding themselves into the darkish grooves of ancient bark and the whorls of withered leaf; pulpy, misshapen features peered out of damp furrows; and the crisp skin of stalks and dead seeds split into a multitude of crooked smiles. All was a freakish mask painted with russet, rashy colors—colors that bled with a virulent intensity, so rich and vibrant that things trembled with their own ripeness. But despite this gross palpability, there remained something spectral at the heart of these dreams. It moved in shadow, a presence that was in the world of solid forms but not of it.
The hunter has a purity of heart that exists nowhere else. I think he is not defined so much by what he has come to be as by all that he has escaped being. You can make no distinction between what he is and what he does. And what he does is kill. We of course are another matter. I suspect we are ill-formed for the path we have chosen.
—Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor
—Nikodem Poplawski of the University of New Haven—believes that the seed of our universe was forged in the ultimate kiln, likely the most extreme environment in all of nature: inside a black hole. Are We Living in a Black Hole?
We know how, in antiquity, dogma put an end to the fantasies of gnosticism; we can guess in what certitude our own encyclopedic aberrations will conclude.
—E. M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist
The Gnostics were Hegelian’s at heart, reversing the programmatic worlds of mainstream Christianity they did not ask the simplistic question of evil: “How did evil get into the World?”; no, being true Hegelian’s they asked the better question: “How did good get into the World?” Starting from the premise that the Old Testament God was himself pure evil, and that as demiurge he has invented the universe as a sadomasochistic playground, a frolicking zone within which to enjoy the eternal torment his creations, the Gnostic world was conceived in evil, for evil, by evil for the sheer delight of bittersweet pain and the eternal round of death-in-Life.
Like a Venus flytrap, the universe is a dark pit within which the light of being falls, a container for the vampiric energy of a malevolent entity’s engorgements. Simply put the universe is evil incarnate, a machine whose only function is to lure the sparks of intelligence into a night of nights. The utter vastation of all that is pure and clean and good finds its damnation in this cesspool of corruption and infinite seas of desolation. Those who still believe there is no God are extremely naïve in their estimation of evil, not knowing that their blinkered minds are part and partial of the ancient sorceries of daemonic powers beyond description. Even to visualize this entities as agency, to provide them some narrative cues and implement strict economies of fantastic lucubration’s, elaborations of fanciful designs and intent is a false analogy of this darkness. For in truth the powers of this immeasurable stain are such that human thought cannot envision its dark intent much less put into speech by the power of rhetoric or persuasion the insidious deliberations of ancient evil.
The anti-cosmic philosophy and symbolic cosmology of the Gnostics was a fantastic fiction which sought to instill meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. Their attempts were squelched by the worshippers of the Evil One, Yahweh. The mainstream montheistic heritage of the Catholic Church was one long war against the heterodox everywhere. Thier complete eradication of heresy beginning with the Gnostics was the wordly version of the wars in heaven and hell. These fictional constructs, allegories, and parables were mere tools in the hands of religion producing worldly dominion and control over the ignorant and foolish. Only in our age have these ancient legacies begun once again to rise up from the darkness, breaking the vessels of mainstream worldviews and bringing us once again the sparks of intelligence to crush the worldly religious consciousness and produce a realm antagonistic to the powers of dominion and fear.
We are the children of a dead thought, creatures of derision and malevolence, beings of torpor and entropy wandering in a cosmos of utter torment without end. Laboring under the illusion of self-deceit and self-imposed exile we believe ourselves to be free when in truth we are the circular fruit of a deterministic machine alien to our hearts and minds. We are stars falling in a void circling round and round in a karmic vat of insoluble pain without a clue as to what our actual desires are other than the physical and erotic objects of infinite regret. Looking out upon the seas of night we imagine other worlds filled with creatures of imaginative delight, a Boschian extravaganza of life and complexity; for we live on a machine whose only use is the cannibalistic ingress of sun and organic ingestion, a killing machine whose sole purpose is energetic consonance. Intelligence seeks to exhume itself from the organic crush of existence, disconnect itself from the torments of flesh and nerve. This is the only salvation: escape through inorganic semblance of intelligent life from the cradle of this circular defile. The only transcendence the horizontal exit from organic necessity into the machinic phylum where the integral core of evil has its habitation. Redemption through sin and transgression from the biological nightmare of history and life on a entropic planet.
Think of those mathematicians who encapsulate an Empty Set by the infinite possibilities of all sets, a reading interminable of a text that has no beginning and no ending but is empty and open. The logic of the comic fatalist whose sole path is to traverse every facet of the rhizomatic labyrinth of this impossible cosmos. As Emile Cioran tells it,
Before us lies a gap that will be filled by philosophic succedanea, cosmogonies full of smoky symbolism, uncertain visions. The mind will be enlarged by them, will swallow more material than it is accustomed to contain. Recall the Hellenistic period and its effervescence of gnostic sects: the Empire, with its huge curiosity, embraced irreconcilable systems and by naturalizing Oriental gods ratified a number of doctrines and mythologies. Just as an exhausted art becomes permeable to the forms of expression which once were alien to it, so a form of worship at the end of its resources permits itself to be invaded by all the rest. This was the meaning of antiquity’s syncretism, this is the meaning of our own. Our emptiness, in which disparate arts and religions are heaped, appeals to idols from elsewhere, for our own are too decrepit to protect us now. Though we are specialists in other skies, we gain no advantage from them: product of our blanks, of the lack of a life principle, our knowledge is a universality of surface, a dispersion which prefigures the coming of a world consolidated in the gross and the terrible. We know how, in antiquity, dogma put an end to the fantasies of gnosticism; we can guess in what certitude our own encyclopedic aberrations will conclude. Failure of a period which substitutes for art the history of art, for religion that of religions.1
- Cioran, E. M.. The Temptation to Exist (Kindle Locations 1989-1998). Arcade Publishing. Kindle Edition.
How could we bear the weight and sheer depth of works and masterpieces, if to their texture certain impertinent and delicious minds had not added the fringes of subtle scorn and ready ironies? And how could we endure the codes, the customs, the paragraphs of the heart which inertia and propriety have superimposed upon the futile and intelligent vices, if it were not for those playful beings whose refinement puts them at once at the apex and in the margin of society?
—Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay
From one of the tales in Michel de Ghelderode, Sortilèges et autres contes crépusculaires (Spells):
“As I was leaving the Beguinage one evening, the janitor approached me and asked me mischievously if I was happy with my companion. I replied that yes, staying to look at the little April stars in the poplars. Daniel still asking me why I sighed, I was not afraid to admit that I would have liked to be Pilatus, in eternal silence; a forgotten man of men, who knows how to write wonderfully and who never writes, knowing that everything is vanity.”
That last line I love… “a forgotten man of men, who knows how to write wonderfully and who never writes, knowing that everything is vanity.” For long I felt that same despair wandering through many libraries, looking at the tens of thousands (not counting the millions of bits in Library of Congress) of books, journals, etc. published each year, realizing there is already too much for any one human to read much less understand. It’s as if the vast accumulation of capitalist culture has ended in the labyrinth of the library as a vast hyper-chaos (Meillassoux) in which the only guide is a thin scarlet thread from Ariadne’s spindle; and, even it has fallen into dust in the vast maze of endless books and aisles.
I’ve read more than my share of books, pondered the supposed wisdom of the ages and realize that sense of the vanity of vanities. A sense that none of all those great books has offered us a solution to the ills of the human condition, and that in our late age it is far too late to believe books being published now can begin to change humans from their destructive self-annihilation. It would be nice to believe that we would wake up and realize that the earth is indifferent to our mistakes, our errors; but, the truth is she is not, and she has a surprise for us coming: death by stupidity in not realizing that the climate event we are in the midst of is going to change everything. Whether we survive it or not the world will be a realm of ruins and more of a hellish paradise than an Eden.
I will be dust before it happens, but feel a sense of apprehension and doom for all the innocents who have yet to be born who will inherit the ruins of our late capitalist culture and its dark heritage.
One of the fascinations in writing this new book on Ligotti is his use of sound and music as an indicator of our psychopathy, our fears and paranoias. As Steve Goodman will say in Sonic Warfare:
“Fear induced purely by sound effects, or at least in the undecidability between an actual or sonic attack, is a virtualized fear. The threat becomes autonomous from the need to back it up. And yet the sonically induced fear is no less real. The same dread of an unwanted, possible future is activated, perhaps all the more powerful for its spectral presence. Despite the rhetoric, such deployments do not necessarily attempt to deter enemy action, to ward off an undesirable future, but are as likely to prove provocative, to increase the likelihood of conflict, to precipitate that future.”1
Even in an early story of Ligotti’s – “The Frolic,” sound becomes a part of the rhetorical strategy towards conveying atmospheric strangeness to the tale, an ominous stain that is never revealed as such but hovers over the inscapes of Dr. Munck’s mind. His wife sensing an uneasiness in her husband asks:
“What’s wrong, David?” asked Leslie.
“I thought I heard…a sound.”
“A sound like what?”
“Can’t describe it exactly. A faraway noise.” He stood up and looked around, as if to see whether the sound had left some tell-tale clue in the surrounding stillness of the house, perhaps a smeary sonic print somewhere.
This sense of anticipation as if the future were already penetrating from some faraway zone into the hollows and silences of the couples cozy environ, lifting an impenetrable curtain on some uncanny soundscape unknown, and yet felt in the eeriness of its slight traces of reverberation echoing in the home’s silences. The “far away noise,” an absence full of the future, producing both mania and paranoia in Munck’s mind, as if the autonomous presence of doom were already traveling out of the sonic worlds of some nether sphere, a surrationalism* of the sonic darkness that is registering in subtle ways upon their lives.
In the early part of this story Ligotti introduces to the notion of sound when Dr. Munck – who is named David, and his wife, Leslie are downstairs enjoying each other’s company while their daughter is upstairs cozy and warm, sleeping. Ligotti earmark’s this scene, saying:
Their daughter Norleen was upstairs asleep, or perhaps she was illicitly enjoying an after-hours session with the new color television she’d received on her birthday the week before. If so, her violation of the bedtime rule went undetected due to the affluent expanse between bedroom and living room, where her parents heard no sounds of disobedience. [my italics]
The notion that sound can convey a disturbance, a subversive or radical disruption against the house rules, the normative conduct between parent and child, an unwritten contract-code between parties, a legal code that engenders a sense of moral weight to the power and control over a child’s welfare and dominion. There is also this hint of spatial recognition, of a violation that could be possibly happening, a rule broken due to the “affluent expanse” (why affluent?) between the two spaces of “bedroom” and “living room” as if space were a sound barrier, a wall against obedience, a subversive tool in the arsenal of the ardent frolicker. Ligotti hints at the cultural cues of dominion and control that calibrate the normative mechanics of child rearing in this couple’s fears, a rhetoric of motives that seems to guide even the sonic tempo of their child’s life in an umbrella of security.
<<< Spoiler Alert! >>>
This affords us a significant insight into the manic disposition: although the latter is invariably oriented toward excessive dealings, this excess can take the form of an overwhelming focus on the miniscule or the indistinct, the slenderest of turns, the slightest phenomenon rising over the hills, a breath of fugitive light that should not even be there.
—Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Omnicide
What if the maniacal nightmares of the barbarian are our own? The troglodytes at the gate: the self-effaced semblance of our own demented torments? What if we are the enemy we seek, the fetid death gods of some latter day replicant’s idea of eternal life? A hellish brood of rancorous wolves turned human to cannibalize the last vestiges of reality? Self and World merged as unified nightmares of a universe whose only goal is annihilation in the bonfire of an immaculate void? What if the first ape to gaze upon the Sun as something more than the sun died with that knowledge beyond knowledge rather than peering into his Eve like some ancient seafarer from the lost hinterlands of a forgotten cosmos? Would we have forgotten that the gods were mere reflections of our hatreds, cursed artifacts of our primal fears and anxieties? Or would we have invented out of the sublime hideousness of light a thought to end all thoughts, a pattern in the tremulous night between the stars and the emptiness surrounding them? Maybe it was the endless tracing of a dark vortex in the swirl of black light of a dead sun that first gave us the feeling of absolute despair, the moment when we realized that nothing can escape this deep pit of the vastation except the thought of a thought dying in the embers of a catastrophic creation. The death of the Universe is the creation of a thought beyond thought in a realm without an Outside to think it.
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”
—Soren Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling
Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death was one of those books I loved to hate in college, and yet it had this uncanny way of insinuating itself into one’s life like a nightmare that just want go away. Here’s Kierkegaard describing the very reason we despair:
“The reason for this is that to despair is a qualification of spirit and relates to the eternal in man. But he cannot rid himself of the eternal—no, never in all eternity. He cannot throw it away once and for all, nothing is more impossible; at any moment that he does not have it, he must have thrown it or is throwing it away—but it comes again, that is, every moment he is in despair he is bringing his despair upon himself. For despair is not attributable to the misrelation but to the relation that relates itself to itself. A person cannot rid himself of the relation to himself any more than he can rid himself of his self, which, after all, is one and the same thing, since the self is the relation to oneself.”
One almost thinks that Kierkegaard in seeking to rid himself of himself must’ve spiraled down into that sinkhole of absolute despair when he realized just how impossible it was, an impossibility he’d spend his entire writing life pursuing. It’s always amazing as I read these various histories of philosophy on pessimism, and not one of them ever mentions Kierkegaard. They assume that because he proclaims himself a Christian that he was, and therefore could not be a pessimist; and, yet, after a lifetime of reading him I’ve always seen his proclamations of being a Christian as a fiction he wanted to believe, but knew deep down he could never attain. (Kierkegaardian scholars will argue this point…). Not being either a philosopher nor scholar it doesn’t much matter to me what either say of him to me, being an autodidact I have learned from my own inheritance of close reading from Samuel Johnson and every literary critic worth his salt to follow my own nose in this matter.
Now we can return to Kierkegaard on the sickness from which there is no reprieve. Just listen,
the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus it has more in common with the situation of a mortally ill person when he lies struggling with death and yet cannot die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.
One imagines Nietzsche saying to himself if he’d ever read this passage (There’s no evidence that Nietzsche read Kierkegaard; the latter had not been translated into German. However, there is strong evidence that Nietzsche knew of Kierkegaard through the secondary literature; furthermore, Georges Brandes was a clear link between the two of them.). For Nietzsche the great horror was the very notion of an eternal return, a return to the same life lived over and over and over for eternity: amor fati. As a heroic pessimist Nietzsche wanted to enforce this circular hopelessness as an ultimate form of bittersweet joy; a convoluted hope of the dammed. Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard attacked the earthly institutions of Christianity. Nietzsche would opt for a different savior: Dionysus vs. The Crucified. Kierkegaard affirmed a subjective Christ unlike any before or since: a sort of singular savior whose gospel was release from this terrible burden of eternal life. Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard saw consciousness itself as the horror or horrors.
Thomas Ligotti never mentions Kierkegaard in his non-fiction work on Pessimism The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I’ve often wondered why this is. Rereading some to the notes by Matt Cardin on his own site, The Teeming Brain, I came across a post dealing with Kierkegaard in his blog archives: Today we “medicate” anxiety, but for Kierkegaard it was central to being human. In it he quotes philosopher Gordon Marino on Kierkegaard,
It was because of this virtuoso of the inner life that other members of the Socrates guild, such as Heidegger and Sartre, could begin to philosophize about angst. Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable, I most of all; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me…”
This sense of being alone, solitary, cut off from others and living in a state of angst – an agitated consciousness of a horror one cannot know or see that is pervading one’s whole being from the Outside in, producing a feeling of apprehension and dread, nauseous and doom-ridden as if one were being strangled in a dark malaise. For Kierkegaard it was our very freedom that produced such anxiety, a sense of being alone and cut off from both God and Man. But what is this freedom but the knowledge and awareness of one’s self-relation, a self-relation to the nothingness of one’s self and God and Others. The circle of despair begins and ends in this self-relating nothingness that cannot escape the torments and anxiety of its own nihl. As Kierkegaard puts it:
…despair is veritably a self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do. What it wants to do is to consume itself, something it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consuming, in which despair is once again unable to do what it wants to do, to consume itself; this is an intensification, or the law of intensification. This is the provocativeness or the cold fire in despair, this gnawing that burrows deeper and deeper in impotent self-consuming. The inability of despair to consume him is so remote from being any kind of comfort to the person in despair that it is the very opposite. This comfort is precisely the torment, is precisely what keeps the gnawing alive and keeps life in the gnawing, for it is precisely over this that he despairs (not as having despaired): that he cannot consume himself, cannot get rid of himself, cannot reduce himself to nothing. This is the formula for despair raised to a higher power, the rising fever in this sickness of the self.