Thomas Ligotti: The Frolic and the Wyrd (Weird)

frolick

…you get the horrors you deserve.
………  – Thomas Ligotti

“The accursed one may thus be understood as someone outside the law, or beyond it.”
………..– Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacre

Michael Arnzen in his post of (2008) on “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti mentioned a small film adaptation of this story that was part of a limited edition bundled with a DVD — a 24 minute adaptation of that story directed by Jacob Cooney. I never knew about this particular filmic adaptation. It seems (as a commenter suggests) it is on Vimeo: here. Either way the story itself was the first one I read in the original The Nightmare Factory, and its uncanny infiltration and contamination invaded my mind channeling that ancient power of cosmic strangeness we associate only with the weird tale.

In the carnal act, in desecration – and in desecrating himself – man crosses the limit of beings.
……..– Georges Bataille, The System of Nonknowledge

How many of us would admit to being accursed? I don’t mean living outside the law of man, or even if one did believe – outside the law of God; no: I mean the law of one’s own being, the law that keeps one safe and sound, the wild things at bay locked out in the dark hinterlands of the mind devoid of their terror and despair. What if one had been thrown not into the world – as Heidegger would have it, but rather into the void beyond one’s own inaccessible life, a life that continues sleepwalking through existence without you? What if that part of your being wandered beyond the hedge separating wilderness from civilization, sanity from insanity: beyond the civilizing sociality of your everyday self-subjectivation – that avatar mask you present to your wife or husband, or your children – who depend on the kindness of your gentle ways; as well, your boss, your friends, your social partners and after hours consorts; all these of which the self that meets the world, that masks its dark intent within the circle of sanity of this dog day world we all share? What if that self found its way back into the wilderness of beginnings, in the realm of myth and terror where the wild things live? What then?

I was beginning a etymological drift upon words used by Thomas Ligotti in his horror short stories. The word “frolic” comes up in many places throughout his work. A word that has a unique history all its own. Associations with playfulness, foolishness, prancing, skipping, dancing, merrymaking, and happy – as in German fröhlich “happy.” Yet, one will never forget the story “The Frolic” with its otherwise normal and staid, almost antiquated story of the anonymous mad man who will bring such sorrow and misery to a young married couple and their beautiful young daughter. The uncanniness of the tale is what it leaves out, what it only hints at rather than what it discloses: the notion of unknown cosmic forces outside both our knowledge and our reasoning capacity, a realm of cosmic horror that we seem perilously glib about and filter out with all our progressive strains of Enlightened rhetoric. But it is a cosmic realm of terror that keeps returning from the Outside in to remind us of its dark intent beyond the limits and capacities of our oh so – reasonable minds, our staid and trustworthy illusions in science and philosophy.

We live in realm of pure terror amid perilous and impersonal forces that co-habit this universe with us and from which we spring like so many monstrous forms ourselves. We love to tell ourselves tales of harmony and bliss, yet it is the dark tales of fright and lust that line the newsstands, that fill the airwaves, that cling to our desperate and lonely hearts as we in solitude watch the civilization we so highly esteem slowly decay and rot into a new dark age. Like so many solitary ghosts we wander the modern apocalypse of civilization in search of escape, exit, and a new world beyond the present one of corruption, political decay, and debt. Yet, in the end we find ourselves alone with a nihilistic universe bare of meaning, filled only by the strange relations of science and philosophical fictions, while at the edge of our supposed irreligious worlds we see the rise of old and terrible forces of religious hatred, ethno-nationalist racism, and the power of exclusion and fear emerging in the vacuum of power left by a global capitalist regime that cared more about endless profit and greed than about the human condition.

Rereading Ligotti’s story is itself an unnerving and conventional experience, one that leaves me wondering about that word – “frolic“: What was there about this word that seemed both appropriate to the anonymous figure who haunted the tale, while at the same time leaving one with a sense of the uncanny strangeness surrounding this word and figure who would long haunt my own nightmares. (And, yes, that night I remember waking up with the vague feeling that I’d been visited by something strange and evil. Why?) Why do certain texts – that in themselves seem so basic, normal, and almost banal leave us with a sense of the uncanny familiarity of its power in our lives and minds?

I happened recently to be listening to Franz Schubert’s song, the “Erlkönig,” based on a text by Goethe. The dark pounding octaves and the roiling base line in the piano expressing the song’s terrifying tale of a desperate father, his deathly ill son in his arms, riding furiously on horseback to bring the boy to safety, and chased by the Erlkönig, the Elf King, the figure of Death, who sings beguilingly to the boy in a voice that only the child can hear:

Darling child, come away with me!
Such beautiful games I can play with you,
So many colorful flowers on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.

The music grows in intensity as the father speeds for safety, but Death’s seductive song is faster, his blandishments richer, and the boy is so desirable. The child cries that the Elf King has grabbed him, the anguished father arrives at his destination, and . . . “in seinem Armen das Kind war tot” (“ in his arms, the child was dead”). In one stroke of youthful genius, the richness and decadence of Dark Romanticism or Gothicism in music had begun.1

This notion of the Erl King, the King of Fairies as the personification of Death seems to lie within ancient folk lore, myth, and forgotten legends. Of course the term fairy itself lies in the Old French faerie “land of fairies, meeting of fairies; enchantment, magic, witchcraft, sorcery” (12c.), from fae “fay,” from Latin fata “the Fates,” plural of fatum “that which is ordained; destiny, fate,” We know the Latin sense evolution of Fate and Fata Morgana (mirage) is from “sentence of the Gods” (Greek theosphaton) to “lot, portion” (Greek moira, personified as a goddess in Homer). The sense “one of the three goddesses (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) who determined the course of a human life” is in English by 1580s. Often in a bad sense in Latin: “bad luck, ill fortune; mishap, ruin; a pest or plague.” The native word in English was wyrd.

Wyrd came with a sense of the three sisters who weave the fate or ørlǫg (from ór “out, from, beyond” and lǫg “law”, and may be interpreted literally as “beyond law”). According to Voluspa, the three Norns “set up the laws”, “decided on the lives of the children of time” and “promulgate their ørlǫg”. Frigg, on the other hand, while she “knows all ørlǫg”, “says it not herself” (Lokasenna 30). ørlǫglausa “ørlǫg-less” occurs in Voluspa in reference to driftwood, that is given breath, warmth and spirit by three gods, to create the first humans, Ask (“Ash”) and Embla (possibly “Elm”).

The notion that humans are outside the law (ørlǫg-less), lawless, criminal, creatures of the wyrd, werewolves – wargs or vargr in old Norse and had a double significance, it signified a wolf, and also a godless one: drifting on the sea of Time, fated to collide with the dark forces that seem locked in some infinite battle for our souls is seated in this ancient mythos. It’s this sense of the wyrd as an irrepressible and relentless force that “snatches the earls away from the joys of life,” and “the wearied mind of man cannot withstand her” for her decrees “change all the world beneath the heavens” that seems to follow from such uncanny powers that vie for our lives, hearts and minds; our sanity. Powers that intervene from within and without almost without precedent, beyond the known laws of nature, and bring with them a contingency – a power to circumvent conventional wisdom, a power or force that cannot be reasoned with nor reduced to our superficial understanding of the universe.

Of ancient the vargur: the ‘stranglers in the temple’ were seen as skinwalkers from the Wolf’s Time – time of ruin and catastrophe. Many cultures have seen a mobile time, a time moving toward us like a an unstoppable wave, a volcanic surge of alien force and intensity. The Salic Franks carried before them the ‘wolf’s head’ the bleeding emblem of sacred power, the protection from chaos and death which encompasses all civilized societies. They knew the truth, knew that outside the gate a power more ancient than time itself lived, waiting, pondering its chance to put an end to the terror of man.

That Freud and his disciples would reduce these forces to psychology (internalize them following Kant) and drives, bring us to a point where the ancient mythologies could be reduced to reasonable explanandum that could be interpreted and controlled by experts and pseudosciences; or, now with our neruosciences that tie it all to the physical substratum of our brain’s internal wiring is part of that ancient need to control the unknown, the shape of Wyrd and fate. As humans we think we can control the fates, the destinies of our kind by reducing it to a set of scientific or philosophical principles and prospositions; else some mathematical theorem; or, some visual algorithm of an neuroimaging device. But our tales keep bringing us to naught, reinserting the ancient uncanny strangeness that surrounds us, the unknown unknowns that cannot ever be uncovered, slayed like dragons and scientifically controlled by logic or machinic labor. As in this tale by Ligotti there will always be that which escapes our reasonable worlds of science and philosophy, our modern psychologies, our labors of reasoning… that will intrude into our daylight worlds with its inescapable frolicks and uncanny wisdom of laughter.

It’s as if in such Weird Tales we come face to face with the hidden forces behind our emergence: good and evil, Heaven and Hell, God and Satan. A Manichean universe of supreme horrors on a cosmic scale where we are but the infinitesimal flea upon which these vast forces weave their games, their “frolicks”.  Out of this primal conflict emerges our yearning for dramatic narrative and the daemonic in art (“ daemonic” in the sense of uncanny or supernatural) — signposts pointing the way toward the meaning of life that science (which rejects the daemonic) cannot provide, if only we pay attention and follow where they lead. (Kl 272)

Even in our own time we’ve seen materialism become immaterial through science itself as it has reached into the largest (Macro) and smallest (Micro) aspects of our cosmos and discovered that there is something incomplete, something we cannot reduce to our theoretical notations in math or language. We are seeing into a realm of dark matter and dark energy, a realm where energy is in excess of our expectations; that instead of discovering a dead universe of lifeless and anorganic matter we’re discovering that the ancient substance philosophies had it all wrong. Matter is not dead, but very much lively and vibrant. It’s not alive like we are, it’s not some pantheistic realm of thought; but is instead a realm of contingency, lawlessness, and disharmony rather than harmony and mathematical or musical spheres. We live in a chaotic and vibrant universe of change and process that can at any moment change. We seek to control what cannot be controlled, and we at times unleash the very source of this chaos in atomic energy that brings with it havoc and destruction. Horror.

Transhumanists, H++, posthuman biomechanical hybrids, etc. are these not visions of the blanks: the black holes in our own rhetoric of the past returning? Or, better yet: Are these historical wavering’s between the phenomenal and noumenon, civilization and wilderness signs from the wastelands of the future, invasive infestations that were already at work within our ancestors? Their patterned rituals slowly melded into pagan dance and enunciations as iconic testimonies of alien inscription and subsumption? We seek illumination in a broken world and find only the darkness of our Promethean desires and ambitions, seeking nothing more than an escape hatch into unbidden futures where the inhuman is our unholy grail. Shall we open the wound wide, let the flowers of the abyss spring forward in our accelerating minds? Are not the far shores of futurity but a gate to be unlocked, a portal to be opened, a mental construct or metamorphic template to be unfurled, a map and its cartography to be unleased by our fearless gaze? Where are the Icarus’s of the mind? Who shall dream our collective dreams forward? Shall we remain locked in the cold dark prisons of our political high-priests? Or shall we discover the gate is open, the keys lost among the assemblies of night, the guardsmen trembling that we might discover their secret lie?

As Ligotti himself would attest too in his Consolations of Horror:

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. And we’ll continue to do so, continue to seek the appalling scene which short-circuits our brain, continue to sit in our numb coziness with a book of terror on our laps like a cataleptic predator, and continue to draw smug solace, if only for the space of a story, from a world made smug and simple by absolute hopelessness and doom. 2

What if the past few hundred years of the progressive Enlightenment which was based on Science and Reason and its eternal battle with religion and myth were itself blinded to the powers it has sought so vainly to escape? What if in its need to escape the powers of language, myth, and religion it only exasperated those uncanny and uncontrollable powers instead? That instead of escaping them it had in fact deepened and awakened their inner consistency – a logic of dream and nightmare beyond our mathematical laws of harmony and calculation?  What if the visions of that dark lair of horror that seemed like some sewer infesting the bright halls of Enlightenment Progress that surfaced from the darker worlds of Romanticism, Decadence, Symbolists, Dadaist, Surrealist and ultra-nihilist tales, paintings, music, etc. were trying to remind us of what will not go away? What if our so called liberal Western Enlightenment Civilization was based on a tissue of lies? What if it was itself based on illusion and self-imposed exile into a hyperreality of its own making that is itself the cause of our current global catastrophism?

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…
……..–  Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness

What if we are seeing in our time the revenge of language, myth, and religion in a new guise as we see the emergence of these new convergence technologies of nanotech, information and communications, genetic manipulation, neuroscientific control, transhumanist and posthumanist ideologies and their attendant needs to create, engineer, and master something beyond the human: to bring about the ancient dream of a homunculus of the hermetic philosophers, or the immortal dreams of the Monotheistic religions of a superior being of Light in the guise of AI, Robotics, and Transcendence. Eternal metamorphosis, mutation, and transformation is the name of this old Game.

Yet, along with the official storyline has always come the darker narratives of witchcraft, demons, sorceries, and djinn; alternate or “other worlds”. Realms of hellish paradises where eros and thanatos, love and death rule like benefactors of a sensualism that far surpasses the simplistic narratives of salvation and messiahs. Rather these are the narratives of sacred pain without end – a difficult pleasure that brings with it a sensual and elaborate ecstasy of flesh and infernal metamorphosis and chimaerian delights. A realm of pure excess and exuberance internal and immanent to experience itself, not some transcendent abode but rather a realm as close as your own breath. A place of pure nightmare and infernal delights where only your imaginal mind can unlock the obsidian truth of this Pleroma of pure darkness – a Abyss of Eternal Energy.

Becoming impersonal, fatal, amoral, and contemptuous: freed of the safety nets of this dying civilization. Do you fear what you are becoming? Is the inhuman in you terrifying to your fated self? Do you have an inkling of what awaits you? It has a name, you know… Nietzsche, Freud, Baitaille, Land… each of these foresaw it, and engendered its embers, awakened its alien intent, gave it sustenance with the deep blood of their thought, a flesh-thought, a thought that is full of the labor of pain and pessimism. Brothers and Sisters of the night,  vaurgr, rippers of reality’s hedge who have all ventured beyond the cage. Will you not follow?

What if in our bid to escape religion, myth, and language (Subject, Self) through machinic, scientific, and technological transcendence and ideology we’ve only blinded ourselves to the fact that it has awakened itself in a new guise, a new Sublime of technocratic command and control? What if the more we try to escape our fate, our Wyrd, the more it comes rushing toward us? What if after all the Erl King, the frolicking creature of myth that escapes our reasonable gestures of scientific know-how were to enter your house, your families personal habitation, take one of your loved one’s – a child, daughter, son – and leave a message something like this one behind:

We leave this behind in your capable hands, for in the black-foaming gutters and back alleys of paradise, in the dank windowless gloom of some galactic cellar, in the hollow pearly whorls found in sewerlike seas, in starless cities of insanity, and in their slums … my awe-struck little deer and I have gone frolicking. See you anon.  (Ligotti, 15)

As with all sacrifices what is at risk is nothing more and nothing less than our inhuman core:

In this way the sacrificial gift puts the being of man partially at risk and allows it to be united with the divinity’s being, which is also at risk.”

(Georges Bataille: The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge)


  1. Walsh, Michael (2015-08-11). The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West (Kindle Locations 256-259). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory. (Caroll and Graf Publishers, Inc., 1996)

*I changed the last sig to this.

9 thoughts on “Thomas Ligotti: The Frolic and the Wyrd (Weird)

  1. “What if our so called liberal Western Enlightenment Civilization was based on a tissue of lies? What if it was itself based on illusion and self-imposed exile into a hyperreality of its own making that is itself the cause of our current global catastrophism?”

    Great thoughts! I think you’re really onto something; but, that’s just my intuition. Mr. Spock tells me I’m being illogical…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure what it would mean for our Civilisation to want something. Without being facetious, are we talking about a kind of distributed conspiracy (against the human race)? I’m increasingly thinking that thought. We have a schizoid civilisation. It plunges head long into multiple catastrophes whilst it has conservatives and reactionaries attempting to produce stability, traditional leftists trying to recover a previous image of stability and well-being, whilst other visions of leftisms want us to plough forward into destruction. My own leftism is, as I’ve said, more born out of palliation than revolution (in this way even accelerationism might be a kind of morphine synringe driver, rather than an ampetamine).

    The evidence is staggering. If people aren’t trying to survive they are trying to kill or die. Reading Schopenhauer, whatever one thinks of the literal truth of his metaphysics of the will it certainly seems like an apt metaphor for the ongoing descent. In Schopenhauer’s account of things we are much like as in Bookchin’s. For the latter we are self-conscious nature, whereas for the former we are the Will that comes to know itself. What does nature or the will or whatever other “level/descriptor x” of reality find when it sees itself? How does it react?

    All our projects for bettering ourselves or destroying ourselves amount to the same thing: a hatred of what we are. An inability to be as we are.

    What if our civilisation were our own highly distributed suicide attempt? Or in the phrase that Ligotti uses so often, reflecting the everyday casualness of this suicidal bid… we are trying “to make an end of it”. Although not without some hesitation.

    Like

    • Nietzsche said we are the “sick animal”: nihilistic, death-driven, collapsing into a final torpor: the last men. Of course his last works fell into reactionary overtones with the rise of some master species that would rule over humanity like new gods, etc. AI, androids? I doubt it. Yet, as you say (Freud) we seem to be in a civilization hooked to the death-drive (Thanatos) at the moment hell-bent of active destruction of everything and everyone… but in the end it’s up to the remnant of people who can rise above this crap to make war for a new order of Life and Creativity. Should we exit? Withdraw? Just unhook ourselves from the stupidity? Form some kind of new secular monasticism and leave the dead and dying culture to its own demise? But how? How can a saving remnant be found? The old religions were either based on Action or Inaction: Christ or Buddha? Or shall we follow Nietzsche with Dionysian destruction and a new creation… a new revaluation of values, etc. ?

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      • I have literally no idea. This is partly why I cant focus myself on research/reading. Each path seems the most likely or better at various times. Pessimism or Accelerationism. Or, as I said before, the Landian combination. The horror, the horror.

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  3. Amazing post. I feel as though the questions, as you and AJ rehearse them, leave us with the same old affective impulse of what to willingly believe (Dewey), and how to make a life of any of it, post-nihil. We must choose our pharmakons darkly, and make praxis of sensitive experimentation. Just all so much adapting…

    Liked by 1 person

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