Thomas Ligotti: The Vignettes of Horror

There really is no way to escape being pulled into the machine of human existence.
……– Thomas Ligotti

Julia Kristeva would once describe abject horror as that strange power in which “the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object“:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.1

In his short story collection Noctuary Thomas Ligotti explores in a series of vignettes certain of his well known themes, in a literary form that one would almost be tempted to call prose poems of abjectness – if it were not their seeming mixture and blend of the mundane and fantastic which brings shock rather than aesthetic distance and repulsion; rather, these vignettes bring one closer to that realm of  jouissance wherein the delights of some infernal paradise, alluring us deeper into its contorted and twisted environs rather than frightening us into some stupor of pure abjectness. These short fragments seem to float out of some infernal region of mind or the Real where we begin to glimpse unfathomable adventures in daemonic delight and jouissance calibrated to twist our being beyond recognition and deliver us to the demons of our own darker nature. In one of his interviews he’ll remind us that Lovecraft’s fiction can be attributed to a certain “adventurous expectancy” that ultimately has its “origin in something terrible, and not the child’s picture-book wonderland you find in the work of a lot of writers of fantastic fiction”.2 Lovecraft himself, expanding on this very notion in his  Notes on Writing Weird Fiction says:

My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.

This sense of needing to create “nature-defying illusions” out of one’s deepest cosmic fears as an apotropaic charm against the shattered worlds of natural law and cosmic alienage loom deep within both Ligotti and Lovecraft. As Ligotti will tell it in that same interview: “My focus has fairly consistently been on what I have thought of as an “infernal paradise,” a realm where one wallows in something putrid and corrosive that lies beyond exact perception.” For Ligotti our everyday lives are built of illusions that hide or defend us from the truth of that darker lair of corruption so vividly emerging during out nighttime visitations. We’ve built up a screen against the truth of this infernal paradise. For most of us it only appears when things go wrong, when the everyday semblance of reality breaks down, and we seem to see flashes of the irrational realms surrounding us flare up in ordinary objects that seem to take on a life of their own.

In the short vignette The Spectral Estate he’ll describe an ordinary home in delicate tones that shatter us into this infernal paradise:

Every object and surface of the house seems darkly vibrant, a medium for distant agitations which are felt but not always seen or heard: dusty chandeliers send a stirring through the air above, walls ripple within patterns of raised filigree, grimy portraits shudder inside their gilded frames. And even if the light throughout much of the house has grown stale and become a sepia haze, it nevertheless remains a haze in ferment, a fidgeting aura that envelops this museum of tremulous antiquities.3

This “fidgeting aura” seems to explode with hidden powers seeping out of some gap in reality. What’s always fascinating in both writers is that they try desperately to make the invisible visible, to let what seems dark and foreboding within each particular object surface and reveal itself in all its negative energy. I remember Graham Harman deriding the empiricists whose reliance on sense would as he says lead them to “hold that we encounter individual qualities and then link them together through the gullible myth of an underlying thing”. 3 Instead he’d opt for the phenomenological idealism of Husserl and his heirs, saying they “more on the mark in saying that we first confront the calliope as a whole, so that the eerie underlying style of the object imbues all of the isolated songs and notes that emanate from it” (CP, 35).

So when I read those sentences by Ligotti telling us that one “may not believe there is an exchange of influence between the house and the world around it. And still there is a presence that pervades each as though there were no walls to divide them” (ibid., KL 2220), I feel the uncanny suddenly jut up in such descriptions. As Freud in his famous essay on The Uncanny iterates, the “uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”.4 In fact he’d see in this concept a “compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character”: the compulsion to repeat (ibid. KL 87590).

Do we not sense this compulsion as the force or presence that appears hidden, yet influencing things in and between the house and the world? As Ligotti describes it:

From the moment one arrives at such a house there seems to be something moving in the background of its scenes, a hidden company whose nature is unknown. No true peace can establish itself in these rooms, however long they have remained alone with their own emptiness, abandoned to lie dormant and dreamless. Throughout the most innocent mornings and unclouded afternoons there endures a kind of restless pulling at appearances, an awkward or expert fussing with the facade of objects. In the night a tide of shadows invades the house, submerging its rooms in a darkness which allows a greater freedom to these fitful maneuverings. (ibid. KL 2222)

This is a world unknown and antagonistic, a realm of the void where things exist in dormancy, lying fallow in a dreamless world just beyond the senses, yet effecting things nonetheless. “The gap that separates beauty from ugliness,” Zizek writes in The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime , “is the very gap that separates reality from the Real: what constitutes reality is the minimum of idealization the subject needs in order to sustain the horror of the Real.” Ligotti will admit in the interview: “I was a pathological Catholic as a child, and one might make a connection between my early life and my later writings on that basis.” How many writers of the decadent movement that influenced much of Ligotti’s work were either Catholics (Huysmans), or atheists who’d been raised Catholic (Baudelaire). I think of  many of those French Intellectuals who would influence our postmodernist world who were also scarred by their childhood horror of Catholicism. Some would later return to some form of the Sacred even in parody and contortion. Ligotti even admits in another essay that he was influenced by the Gnostics, saying, “The tenets of Gnosticism were a perfect fit with my view of the universe. Woody Allen famously said, “If it turns out there is a God […] the worst you can say about him is that he’s an underachiever.” I’d say that’s the best you could say about him. And so did the Gnostics, who regarded the Old Testament creator entity as a false and self-deluded deity. However, they also believed there was a real God, and I couldn’t go there with them.”5

So like Borges who would dabble in a skeptical and playful incorporation of gnostic motifs, Ligotti will follow that subtle master who “described a similar feeling of the imminence of a revelation that never occurs as the definitive aesthetic experience” (1). Many of Ligotti’s tales hinge on just that “immanence of a revelation that never occurs”. How many of his anonymous personas wander various unknown cities and streets, seeking secret wisdom and knowledge in theatres, book shops, unusual pubs, unexpected meetings; wandering alone, slightly paranoid, yet fully awakened to the slippery worlds of shadowed ambience that seems to guide them slowly and steadily toward some ultimate revelation, but in the end revealing certain mental or physical horrors that seem to open up more questions than answers. These are stories that haunt us even as we put down his books, that seem to follow us like certain dreams; or, like K and Kafka’s tales or the Castle seem to lead to new strange worlds that forever elude us.

As in this tale of Ligotti’s Spectral Estate when we are left not even with a human, not even the usual anonymous person who usually wanders through his stories:

For in this constricted setting, echoes emerge which only a void of supernatural dimensions could create. Yet at first they may sound like the reverberant groaning of those clouds in which a storm slumbers. And then they may seem to mimic the hissing of the ocean as it swirls about the broken land below. Slowly, however, the echoes distinguish themselves from these natural sounds and attain their own voice—a voice that carries across incredible distances, a voice whose words come to lose their stratum of sense, a voice that is dissolving into sighs and sobs and chattering insanity. Every niche, every pattern, every shadow of the room is eloquent with this voice. And one’s attention may be distracted by this strange soliloquy, this uncanny music. Thus, one may not notice, as afternoon approaches nightfall, that something else is present in the room, something which has been secreted out of sight and waits to rise up in the shape of a revelation, to rise up like a cry in one’s own throat. (N, p. 2236)

In the above the sense of an immanent revelation about to be revealed, that nonetheless never will be pervades the ominous atmospheric movement or dance of the underlying rhetoric and its objects. The compulsion to repeat is the story itself, the story drives Ligotti to repeat under a 1001 variations the gestures of the fantastic, to reveal by not revealing, by conveying and alluring this hidden presence or void out of its lair as if in the next paragraph or sentence the very real material Thing that exists just this side of paradise will open its infernal wings and finally give us the solace of total absolution in pain and cruelty.

But instead “we are like the man who, by some legacy of fate, has come to stay in another old house, one very much like our own. After passing a short time within the cavernous and elaborate solitude of the place, he becomes a spectator to strange sights and sounds.”(N, KL 2251)  And after years and years he begins to go crazy in this solitude. Then one day his faith is restored, a faith in his “mental soundness has been triumphantly restored: it is the house itself which is mad.(N, KL 2263)”

There is a sense in our time that we are coming to know that objects have a life of their own without us, an inhuman or non-human world of things that act, react, and influence, allure, and carrying an existence just beyond the reach of our illusions. Harman in his Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy will remind us that deprived “of the real objects that lurk just beneath perception and all other contexts, we produce our own real objects in the midst of them…”.6 The conservative wisdom would tell us do not go too far, do not try to penetrate the horror that lurks behind the fragile order in which we live, since you will burn your fingers and the price you will pay will be much higher than you think… (Zizek). But the truth is much closer to those who push into the boundaries without return, and like the dreamer is awakened when the Real of the horror encountered in the dream is more horrible than the awakened reality itself, so that the dreamer escapes into reality in order to escape the Real encountered in the dream. (Zizek, 21)

This reversal in which reality becomes our escape route seems to pervade Ligotti’s fiction, which over and over follows this dialectic of the real/unreal from story to story. Ultimately we discover it is the dream that is luring us in, seeking to entrap us in its illusory world of strange and uncanny powers and objects. As Ligotti’s story teller will remark:

…If the spectral drama could be traced to definite origins, and others have been audience to it, this is not to prove that all testimony regarding the house is unmarked by madness. Rather, it suggests a greater derangement, a conspiracy of unreason implicating a plurality of lunatics, a delirium that encompasses past and present, houses and minds, the claustrophobic cellars of the soul and the endless spaces outside it. For we are the specters of a madness that surpasses ourselves and hides in mystery. And though we search for sense throughout endless rooms, all we may find is a voice whispering from a mirror in a house that belongs to no one. (N, KL 2257)

And, one might add, that the voice itself is no one but the empty presence of the Void. Or, as Zizek will state it: “What we get are strangely de-realized or, rather, de-psychologized subjects, as if we were dealing  with robotic puppets that obey a strange, blind mechanism…” (Zizek, 35) Ligotti speaking of puppets and determinism in another interview will tell it his way:

I have impulses to do things, but I don’t know how those impulses formed or why they make me do a particular thing and not some other thing. Whether we’re puppets or real human beings, whatever the latter may be, we go on thinking and acting in certain ways because we’re moved to do by certain forces we’re not aware of. You could argue with this perception, but it’s my perception and the whole thing would come down to I say, you say. To me, determinism just seems common sense, but I couldn’t tell you why it does. (The Hat Rack)

 In another interview he reminds us of another influence, Peter Wessel Zappfe whose essay “The Last Messiah” he first read in the March/April 2004 issue of the British journal Philosophy Now. It was here that Zapffe “beat the stuffing out of the theory on which Arthur Schopenhauer expatiated for thousands of pages — that everything in the universe is activated by a “Will-to-live,” a transcendental force that works the world like a cosmic puppet show.” Ligotti goes on to say:

 Schopenhauer’s Will does have its appeal, because if you accept it, then everything that once seemed mysterious makes perfect sense. If you ever wondered why things are the way they are or why people do the things the things they do, it all goes back to the Will, which is pulling all the strings. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s very satisfying. The problem is that Schopenhauer’s system only works on paper and can’t be detected as being part of existence any more than a creator-God.

Yet, as we’ve seen previously in the recent Negarestani post this notion of Will (hidden God/Force) is subsumed within a long discourse on voluntarism. We can even see in Ligotti’s admission that such a resolution to his dilemmas is aesthetically appealing (i.e., “Intellectually and emotionally, it’s very satisfying.) Yet, even this is handled as untrue for Ligotti, because it cannot be “detected as being part of existence any more than a creator-God”.

Ligotti will remark that Zappfe’s philosophy leads us to the conclusion that the “whole endeavor of being human is reduced to trying not to be human, which is very messed up. This allows Zapffe to go all the way and make the pessimist’s signature pronouncement — that instead of continuing to carry on, we should be getting down to giving up on life”. During this phase of his life he kept waiting for something terrible to happen, and what ultimately happened to him was that he fell into a deep depression:

Aside from its other effects, depression has a philosophical effect to it that other kinds of pain do not, and its implications very much changed my sense of what it was like to be alive in the world. In depression, everything is just what it seems to be: a tree is just a tree and not something that arouses symbolic meanings or affective associations. Life itself becomes very transparent in all its aspects to a depressive. There aren’t any mysteries left, since all mysteries come from within us. We’re mystery-making machines, and we project a sense of mystery onto a world that has no such thing behind or within it. Certain questions remain that may one day be answered or may not be answered. Either way it doesn’t matter to a depressive.

One of those anti-utopian moments that haunts him is this deep need within humans to end suffering and pain. As he says it if we were to invent a cure for human suffering, either by way of some transhuman or posthuman transcendence of the meat machine into an impervious body of steel etc., what would transpire? As he relates it,

Paradoxically, should the efforts of those who want to annihilate suffering succeed, it could be the end of us as a species. We would be returned to paradise. And reproduction would be irrelevant in a paradisal landscape where all dreams have been satisfied and all fears quashed.

A neutered race of angelic beings of steel and liquid quantum energy that feel nothing, and yet incarnate pure Intellect and intelligence. Is this our dream or nightmare? For Ligotti the answer was simple if complex: “the whole point of Conspiracy is that pessimism as a resolute life-stance is not welcome to the minds of very many people, even when it’s laid out as entertainingly as possible, which I’ve tried to do. But pessimistic works have never been well received as a rule. And I’m not naïve enough to think that it could ever be any other way”.7

If as in the quote that begins this essay we realize that human existence is something we were all lured into, a machinic existence both determinate and without end, an eternal round of pure death-drive, an interminable realm of utter madness in which we were duped to participate in the Demiurgic madness of suffering and jouissance: What options of escape or exit do we have; or, do we? The illusive illusions of Religion has always been offered up as one alternative, the madness of pure transcendence: Buddhism of the self-transparent emptiness of Mind and Things; or, the monotheistic realms of Sheol, Paradise, or Hellish delights; else the polytheistic realms of dominion and chaos; or, finally, the gnostic acceptance of fatalism, of Archons who rule the dungeon of Time under the tutelage of a Blind God. Else one chooses atheism and seeks solace among tributary thoughts of men and things, follows the path of Parmenides and his progeny into the realms where “thought is being” (Idealism), or Leucippus/Democritus and their progeny – after Lucretius; and, enter into the wars of Time and Mattering (Science, Materialism). Or, as in our time when things begin to go topsy-turvy and the worlds of ancient thought give way to inexistence and the realms of speculative madness of either anti-realist or realist views onto that which is. Or, finally, one can always ride the infernal joys of Ligotti’s pessimism that posits an aseptic, drab, everyday reality alongside the “fantasmatic Real of a nightmarish jouissance” (Zizek), where the infernal paradise of the Unreal breaks through in sparks of wonder and trepidation:

For we are the specters of a madness that surpasses ourselves and hides in mystery. And though we search for sense throughout endless rooms, all we may find is a voice whispering from a mirror in a house that belongs to no one. (Noctuary)



  1. Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. (Columbia, 1982)
  2. Interview: Thomas Ligotti and the Realm of Nightmares. Weird Fiction Review. Oct 15, 2015 (see here)
  3. Ligotti, Thomas (2012-06-25). Noctuary (Kindle Locations 2211-2215). Subterranean Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Harman, Graham (2010-11-26). Circus Philosophicus (pp. 34-35). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
  5. Sigmund Freud. Freud – Complete Works (Kindle Locations 87181-87182). Ivan Smith.
  6. Interview: Thomas Roueché / Portrait: Jennifer Gariepy. Tank Magazine. (See here)
  7. Graham Harman. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. (Zero Books, 2012)
  8. A Conversation with Thomas Ligotti by Geoffrey H. Goodwin (07 October 2007). (See here)

4 thoughts on “Thomas Ligotti: The Vignettes of Horror

    • Yea, Ligotti is worth reading. He’s heavily influenced by many threads of literature. Of course he’s works are -as you say, not for all. It’s like anything else, either the author speaks to you or he doesn’t. I have a lot of books on my shelf recommended that I’ve never been able to finish because of that one dictum: if it doesn’t speak to me its dead.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll put him on my wish list on amazon and when I come back to the US this fall, I will check him out at The Strand. The Wish List is to remind me to look for him in a bookstore so I can skim through to see if he, as you say, “speaks” to me..

        Liked by 1 person

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