A Fragment from My Book on Thomas Ligotti

Just to give people a sense of the depth I’ve been going into Ligotti over the past decade. I have accumulated notes, commentaries, philosophical and critical asides, and so much material that I’m slowly going back through it with the notion of editing out the repetitions and focusing on honing the various threads into a new stage which will incorporate Ligotti’s techniques, symbolism, thematic elements, philosophy, influences, didacticism, and personal life which permeates his oeuvre. Trying to compress a thousand pages of notes and commentaries into a work that can actually be published economically is my goal. Here is the opening fragment of one essay on Allan and Adelaide – An Arabesque (1989) an early work by Ligotti,

Harold Bloom once described Poe’s poetry as an “extreme mode of Platonic Idealism, with its valuation of mind (self and soul) over body and the external world. Poe dwells, with the rest of us, in Plato’s Cave but wants, more desperately than most do, to find his way out into the disembodied light.” Thomas Ligotti wants to believe in some form of transcendence but knows it’s a fools dream so instead his fables lead the wary reader down into the hell of silence, limitation, and solipsism.

This story opens with the subtle and ambiguous lines from Poe’s sonnet Silence which echo the dangers of isolation, reclusiveness, and self-limitation. Let’s read these lines again:

There are some qualities—some incorporate things
That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
—Poe, Silence – A Sonnet.

Aristotle observed this about qualities: “one and the selfsame substance, while retaining its identity, is yet capable of admitting contrary qualities. The same individual person is at one time white, at another black, at one time warm, at another cold, at one time good, at another bad. This capacity is found nowhere else… it is the peculiar mark of substance that it should be capable of admitting contrary qualities; for it is by itself changing that it does so”. He would attribute four types of qualitative opposites: correlatives, contraries, privatives and positives. In the epigraph above Poe tells us that certain things — substances that take a material form have a “double life” which brings together opposites and contraries from both the transcendent realms and the mundane. What is this “double life” that is neither wholly transcendent nor fully mundane?

Ligotti toys with the reader here, leaving us with only part of Poe’s poem which is suggestive and will introduce one of the abiding themes in his oeuvre — ambiguity. One is never sure whether what one is reading is dealing with inner experience or with some inner strangeness from beyond the pale. William Empson in his classic work Seven Types of Ambiguity describes his seventh type as “the most ambiguous that can be conceived, occurs when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind.” At the heart of Ligotti’s vision is a subtle and ‘fundamental division in the writer’s mind’ which permeates every tale he wrote.

One of Poe’s early admirers John Phelps Fruit said, “Poe was deeply impressed with the idea of Silence as the eternal voice of God, as the music of the spheres” — which we mortals cannot hear.”4[ Fruit, John Phelps. The Mind and Art of Poe’s Poetry: [1899]. Cornell University Library (June 25, 2009)] Ligotti never heard the voice of “God”, but there is another voice and power at the core of our universal degradation that he would know which emerges from many of his tales. In the current tale this monstrous thing at the core of existence goes by the nom de plume the Horror-Maker: “For the source of these questions was the very genius of demonic dread—that Horror-Maker known to me from a thousand dreams where sudden dread usurps all serenity like a panic cry of “Fire,” of “Murder,” of stealthy “Invader.” (AAA) He will go on to describe this monstrosity, which is worth quoting at length:

Its presence always permeates the dream: fog with a pallid face drifting in through an open window. It fuses its tormented spirit with dead objects, animating things which should not move or live, breathing a blasphemous life into the unliving. One glance at a design on the wall catches this Horror Maker engendering a world of writhing creatures there. It lives in all things, and they tilt and flutter with a menacing absence of purpose or predictability. Finally it melds with the slowly coagulating shadows, and now it is without limits as it spreads to command a domain of quivering darkness. The universe becomes its impossible body, its corpse. As the blackness of space is its corrupting blood, so the planets are multiple skulls of the freakish beast; the paths of doomed meteors trace the architecture of its labyrinthine skeletal frame; spasms of dying galaxies are its nervous tics; and strange stellar venues of incomprehensible properties are the chambers of its soul. Within this universe the dreamer is trapped, his dreams confined to the interior of a form other than his own. But finally this Horror-Maker moves from outside to inside the dreamer, subverting his heroic autonomy, and becoming one with him. Now it is he himself who generates those nightmares from that design on the wall. Every glimpse conjures universes of cavorting horrors, and ultimately even the crystal absence of the void becomes populated by every monstrosity that can or cannot exist. There is no refuge from the living void, the terror of the invisible. And the focus of my fear sharpened into hideous implications about my sister and myself. The interrogations of the Horror-Maker could not be evaded, unless I was willing to remain in that dream forever. [Italics Mine]

Ligotti’s vision is set within surreal, nightmarish landscapes, convey a consistently anticosmic or world-rejecting attitude toward existence and creation. Petra Mundik describing Cormac McCarthy which could as well be describing the work of Ligotti remarks: “The marked absence of divine intervention in the face of extraordinary depravity suggests, at best, total divine indifference to human suffering, or at worst, the presence of a malevolent demiurge.”5[ Mundik, Petra. A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy (p. 14). University of New Mexico Press. Kindle Edition.] The ancient Gnostics turned the Bible inside out and the Platonic mythology of the Demiurge on its head and created Evil as central to the ontological horror of existence. Although Gnosticism is a divisive term in the scholarly journals it is still a useful designation for my purposes. As another scholar relates it,

‘Gnosticism’ is still a convenient ‘label’ to represent an anti-cosmic tradition in which the Platonic Demiurge undergoes a radical transformation and in which the separation between the First Principle and the demiurgic one appears to reach its most extreme.6 

Ligotti himself says this of the ancient Gnostics “I liked the Gnostics because they cursed the same things I’ve cursed: the Boss of the Bible, the ways of the world, and so on. Of course, they always had their own absentee Boss way out there beyond contemplation or criticism, and I could never follow them to that place.”7[ Paul, R. F., and Keith Schurholz. “Triangulating the Daemon: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” Esoterra No. 8 (Winter/Spring 1999): 14–21.]

Matt Cardin another scholar of Ligotti’s work describes this malevolence along with the three primary themes that pervade his work, saying: “first, the meaninglessness—or possibly malevolence—of the reality principle behind the material universe; second, the perennial instability of this universe of solid forms, shapes, and concepts as it threatens to collapse or mutate into something unforeseeable and monstrous; and third, the nightmarishness of conscious personal existence in such a world.”8[ Cardin, Matt. What the Daemon Said: Essays on Horror Fiction, Film, and Philosophy (p. 21). Hippocampus Press.]

Robert M. Price in his classic essay The Mystagogue, The Gnostic, The Secret Book tells us that Ligotti’s characters are all “gnostic questers” seeking the “keys to an impossible kingdom”.9[ Schweitzer, Darrell. The Thomas Ligotti Reader. Wildside Press; First Soft Cover Edition (April 9, 2003) (p. 34)]

Yet, Ligotti himself describing ironically the underlying antics of such an impossible quest suggests that it is all a parody: “a self-parody of my erstwhile craving for “enlightenment in darkness,” which obviously never worked out.”10[ Bee, Robert. “Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” Thomas Ligotti Online. 11 April 2005 (originally published in 1999). http://www.ligotti.net/showthread.php?t=231 ]

There’s a double edge to this irony in which the “double life” described in Poe’s poem takes on a strange twist in Ligotti’s ironic fables of the weird. There was a time when Ligotti ambiguously sought the very thing which is unattainable an “enlightenment in darkness” – a dark romanticism that pervades many of the tales. The same goes for many of his readers as well, as Cardin will suggest,

“In true Ligottian fashion, perhaps his stories will always speak most vividly to those rare persons in whom the seed of darkness has already been sown. In their own half-conscious pilgrimage toward a dark enlightenment, these sensitive seekers will follow Ligotti willingly into the depths of the nightmare, and there in the echoing stillness of the silent, staring void they will find that they are looking into the radiant black reflection of their own shadowed souls.”11[ Ibid. (p. 24).] [Italics Mine]

So far, I’ve been tempting the threshold of this essay, a way into this early tale by Ligotti about twins. This is the difficulty of entering into any tale of Ligotti, it sends one off into a veritable history of the weird before one even has a chance to describe the tales themselves.

I’ll stop here since the essay is way too long for one post… just a teaser!

2 thoughts on “A Fragment from My Book on Thomas Ligotti

  1. Very Interesting.
    I am a friend of Tom’s and communicate with him regularly and have for many years. I also collaborated with him during the research portion of his early drafting of TCATHR. I am also a moderator on Thomas Ligotti Online (Ascrobius) as well as a collector of his works. If you ever felt so inclined, you can reach out to me if there is ever any way that I could be of assistance to you in any way as you continue this very worthy endeavor.


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