Thomas Ligotti: An Introduction to his Life and Work

“This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige.”

—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

Thomas Ligotti (born July 9, 1953) emerged from a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. As he’d later quip: “I really have no special appreciation for the Detroit area that I’m aware of. As long as all the modern conveniences are available to me, I could live in a bubble city on the moon or in an underwater shopping mall.”1 He’d elaborate,

“I was born in Detroit, but I aside from my earliest childhood years I didn’t live there. I grew up in an upper-class suburb that bordered on Detroit. However, during high school in the 1960s I spent some time hanging out in dope houses in Detroit’s ghettos, and I worked in downtown Detroit for 23 years. I always enjoyed the spectacle of abandoned, decaying, and burned-out buildings and houses. … In many of my stories, I’ve tried to articulate an aesthetic of decay in both small towns and cities. I equate decline and decrepitude with a kind of serenity, a tranquil abandonment of the illusions of the future.”2

This sense of Decadence would come to dominate his writings and aesthetic vision. He told Neddal Ayyad in an interview that the “French already had a tradition of cynicism, morbidity, and pessimism from the eighteenth-century works of authors like Sade, Chamfort, and La Rochefoucauld. … This is the form of Decadence that has always interested me—the freedom, after thousands of years under the whip of uplifting religions and the tyrannical politics of the positive–which are nothing more than a means for crowd control—to speak to others who in their hearts could no longer lie to themselves about what they thought concerning the value, or rather lack of value, of human life.”3

Even as a child he was prone to various illnesses of mind and body. “I was often sick as a child. Often my illnesses were accompanied by fevers and deranged perceptions that they bring about  —   malignant faces on the ceiling of my bedroom, shadows in corners, shapes watching me from dark places, that sort of thing. When I was two years old, I was hospitalized and operated on for an abdominal rupture.”4 Later on as a teenager he would like many young men of the era go through a period of adolescent rebellion partaking in alcohol, drugs, and various other youthful practices. “As a teenager I had a tendency to depression. To me, the world was just something to escape from. I started escaping with alcohol and then, as the sixties wore on, with every kind of drug I could get. In August of 1970 I suffered the first attack of what would become a lifelong anxiety-panic disorder. Not too long after that I discovered the works of H. P. Lovecraft. I found that the meaningless and menacing universe described in Lovecraft’s stories corresponded very closely to the place I was living at that time, and ever since for that matter.”5

This sense of depression would lead to his lifelong pursuit of all things concerning morbidity, pessimism, and decadence in art and life. Darkness and Pessimism would become major themes in every aspect of his tales and philosophical speculations. He’d admit his seduction to the darker contours of thought, saying “everything I read always has some definite aspect of darkness and nihilism”.6 Between the eleventh and twelfth grades he felt compelled to stop taking drugs. “I hardly left the house, except to attend school, because my panic attacks and agoraphobia were very severe and frequent.”7 It was at this time during a visit to the local drugstore he discover in a book-stall the works of Arthur Machen: “I loved them immediately because they reminded so much of the Holmes stories. And even better–they were horror stories.”8

A few weeks after his introduction to Machen he discovered H.P. Lovecraft’s tales. From Lovecraft he would gain the first inklings of a way of thought and life that would guide and sustain him from that moment on:

“No one in the world of normal folks wants you to know that there is any other way of looking at the world except their way. I mean, drugs got my mind off the normal track from the time I was fourteen years old. I had already been drinking a lot for a couple years before that, but it wasn’t until I took drugs that I actually began to think about things in a serious way. This, of course, made me depressed, as thinking tends to do. So I knew what kind of lousy, nightmarish world I was doomed to live in. Some of this was bolstered by the whole hippie thing that was happening at the time. But this wasn’t the same as reading what Lovecraft had to say about the universe in his stories and letters. Now I had an authority, someone who was intelligent enough to be a writer, in which I found an echo of all the things that depressed and terrified me about being alive. The horror and nothingness of human existence–the cozy facade of a world behind which was only a spinning abyss. The absolute hopelessness and misery of everything. I loved it. Lovecraft really gave me a reason to carry on. And that reason was to communicate, in the form of horror stories, my outrage and panic at being alive in this particular world.”9

It’s this sense of “outrage and panic at being alive” and aware of that fact that would pursue him through insomniac nights. Later on in life he would discover the Norwegian philosopher and naturalist Peter Wessel Zapffe (December 18, 1899 – October 12, 1990) was a Norwegian metaphysician, author, artist, lawyer and mountaineer. He is often noted for his philosophically pessimistic and fatalistic view of human existence. His system of philosophy was inspired by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as his firm advocacy of antinatalism. His thoughts regarding the error of human life are presented in the essay “The Last Messiah” (Norwegian: Den sidste Messias, 1933). This essay is a shorter version of his best-known and untranslated work, the philosophical treatise “On the Tragic” (Om det tragiske, 1941).

Zappfe would develop a notion that evolution had led humans down a terrible path toward consciousness. Indeed, that consciousness was a mistake and one that had brought on all human ills and sufferings. In his commentary on Zappfe’s pessimism Ligotti would offer a gloss on the philosopher’s basic defense against too much awareness, saying: “we are zealots of Zapffe’s four plans for smothering consciousness: isolation (“Being alive is all right”), anchoring (“One Nation under God with Families, Morality, and Natural Birthrights for all”), distraction (“Better to kill time than kill oneself”), and sublimation (“I am writing a book titled The Conspiracy against the Human Race”). These practices make us organisms with a nimble intellect that can deceive themselves “for their own good.”9

Deception, lies, and deceit helped humans survive in a hostile world during its evolutionary growth and expansion. Robert Trivers says this of humankind’s long heritage in deceit and self-deception arises out of our need to deceive both ourselves and others: “self-deception evolves in the service of deception— the better to fool others. … Self-deception occurs because we all want to feel good, and self-deception can help us do so. … The general cost of self-deception is the misapprehension of reality, especially social, and an inefficient, fragmented mental system.”10 The point being that early on in human evolution we’d discovered that the pursuit of and feeling good might help us overcome the pain and suffering we knew all too well. So to assuage this pain and horror of existence we developed defense mechanisms against reality. Because of this our awareness of the real world is distorted and illusory. As Ajit Varki in Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind will suggest “our denial of reality, holding completely false beliefs about many things, even in the face of the cold, hard facts” has led humanity into a quandary: “If one were to fully and continuously contemplate one’s existence and the repercussions of its end, it would lead to constant anxiety, stress, depression, and paralyzing behavior in many ordinary circumstances.”11 So we developed mechanisms against our awareness of too much reality and the knowledge of mortality. Ernest Becker in his famed study on the denial of death says: “all culture, all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is.”12 This would be the bedrock foundation of Ligotti’s pessimism along with its central insight: “that the suffering of sentient beings absolutely negates the value of life”.13

*

In Hesiod’s Theogony we attain an informative and detailed description of how Metis came to be the first consort of the Olympian god Zeus and the mother of the goddess Athena:

“Zeus, king of the gods, took as his first wife Metis,
a mate wiser than all gods and mortal men.
But when she was about to bear gray-eyed Athena,
then through the schemes of Gaia and starry Ouranos,
he deceived the mind of Metis with guile
and coaxing words, and lodged her in his belly.
Such was their advice, so that of the immortals
none other than Zeus would hold kingly sway.
It was fated that Metis would bear keen-minded children,
first a gray-eyed daughter, Tritogeneia,
who in strength and wisdom would be her father’s match,
and then a male child, high-mettled
and destined to rule over gods and men.
But Zeus lodged her in his belly
before she did all this, that she might
advise him in matters of good and bad.”

Already trickery, guile, and deception surface as the kernel of a form of reason that seems to emerge not from the Mind but rather from the belly or the affective domain of the body and sense rather than the intellect and abstraction; and, that our notions of good or ill are from the affective regions of sense rather than cold harsh reason as well. One wonders if there is a darker materialism hiding in the shadows of ancient thought that has yet to be written? An undercurrent of cunning and naturalism forged in the dark folds of affective relations rather than in the intelligible regions of Platonic thought? Could it be that Plato’s long war against the poet’s and sophist’s is none other than this agon against Mêtis – cunning reason and natural intelligence?

For the Greeks and particularly for Plato, episteme and techne represented knowledge of an order completely different from mētis. Technical knowledge, or techne, could be expressed precisely and comprehensively in the form of hard-and-fast rules (not rules of thumb), principles, and propositions. At its most rigorous, techne is based on logical deduction from self-evident first principles. As an ideal type, it radically differs from mētis in terms of how it is organized, how it is codified and taught, how it is modified, and the analytical precision it exhibits.

Where mētis is contextual and particular, techne is universal. In the logic of mathematics, ten multiplied by ten equals one hundred everywhere and forever; in Euclidean geometry, a right angle represents ninety degrees of a circle; in the conventions of physics, the freezing point of water is always zero degrees centigrade. Techne is settled knowledge; Aristotle wrote that techne “came into being when from many notions gained from experience, a universal judgement about a group of similar things arises.” The universality of techne arises from the fact that it is organized analytically into small, explicit, logical steps and is both decomposable and verifiable. This universality means that knowledge in the form of techne can be taught more or less completely as a formal discipline. The rules of techne provide for theoretical knowledge that may or may not have practical applications. Finally, techne is characterized by impersonal, often quantitative precision and a concern with explanation and verification, whereas mētis is concerned with personal skill, or “touch,” and practical results. (Scott, James C. (1998-03-30). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St) (p. 319). Yale University Press., p. 320)

Aristotle singled out navigation and medicine as two activities in which the practical wisdom of long experience is indispensable to superior performance. They were mētis-laden activities in which responsiveness, improvisation, and skillful, successive approximations were required. If Plato can be credited, Socrates deliberately refrained from writing down his teachings, because he believed that the activity of philosophy belonged more to mētis than to episteme or techne. A written text, even if it takes the form of a philosophical dialogue, is a cut-and-dried set of codified rules. An oral dialogue, by contrast, is alive and responsive to the mutuality of the participants, reaching a destination that cannot be specified in advance. Socrates evidently believed that the interaction between teacher and students that we now call the Socratic method, and not the resulting text, is philosophy. (Scott, pp. 322-323). Let us begin speaking again, communicating in mutual and open dialogue rather than tracing the linguistic signs of an intelligible but dead universe of thought into its labyrinth.

In their great work Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne will provide a unique investigation into this form of reasoning in Greek culture, thought, and philosophy. It would be those early philologists like Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff who would begin the process of surfeiting out the meaning of this word from Homer’s time, and he would describe mêtis as a mere survival of poetic memory. Others would dig deeper into the linguistic roots of this term, refine it, explicate its history and uses, etc., and a careful image of this form of cunning intelligence would emerge. As they’ll describe it:

Mêtis as an intelligent ability comes into play on a widely varying levels but in all of them the emphasis is always laid on practical effectiveness, on the pursuit of success in a particular sphere of activity: it may involve multiple skills useful in life, the mastery of the artisan in his craft, magic tricks, the use of philtres and herbs, the cunning stratagems of war, frauds, deceits, resourcefulness of every king. (Detienne, Marcel; Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. University of Chicago Press (June 18, 1991), p. 1).

This association with trickery and deceit over strength is a core feature of mêtis throughout much of the history of Greek poetry and thought. In the Iliad when Nestor says: “The man who knows the tricks (kérde) wins the day…,” when speaking of a horse race of charioteers he exposes this sense of cunning as a knowledge that can surmount the strength of others through a certain kind of mastery of experience and sense rather than brute fact.(ibid., p. 3).

One could write a history of such nefarious subjects as pickpocketing that would show in another way the tricks of the trade, the nuances and ways of deceit and deception, subterfuge and displacement. Of magicians and slide-of-hand street magick, cards, levitation, disappearance, etc. How people’s senses can be manipulated by movement, sound, evasion – all forms and practices that lead back to cunning intelligence or mêtis. Cunning intelligence would later be displaced by such terms in Greek philosophy as phronēsis (“φρόνησις”), as “practical wisdom”, and sometimes (more traditionally) as “prudence”, from Latin prudential.

At the heart of mêtis as compared to the practical wisdom of “phronêsis” is this sense of overcoming physical dilemmas rather than theoretical or moral. The sense of facing strength and power and using cunning and trickery to reverse the order of natural outcomes by a form of intelligence that some would see as both treacherous, cowardly, and womanish (the Greeks were admittedly sexist) (ibid., p. 6). Yet, for others mêtis was a superior form that overcame force by sheer cunning and trickery that came from vigilance, alertness, experience, and a sense of kairós – sense-of-timing or rhythm that the more slow-witted man of strength and power lacked. If one has read the Odyssey and studied Ulysses one gains a vivid example of mêtis in action. As Detienne and Vernant will describe it:

Mêtis is impulsive, swift, but in no way does it act lightly. With all the weight of acquired experience that it carries, it involves thought that is dense, rich and compressed. Instead of floating hither and thither, at the whim of circumstance, it anchors the mind securely in the project which it has devised in advance thanks to its ability to look beyond the immediate present and foresee a more or less wide slice of the future. (ibid., p. 8)

This sense of speed, quickness, forethought, planning, momentary impulse based on deep knowledge of the environment and circumstances all portray cunning intelligence as part of our hereditary survival intelligence based on a combination of keen empirical sense of situation and place, as well as learning, craft, and technique. The crafty wiliness of Ulysses outsmarting the stronger Cyclops comes to mind. Quick witted and resourceful he was able to outwit his stronger opponent both through linguistic deceit, forethought, and planning along with the quickness and speed of foot, eye, hand or senses. This ability to overtake kairós, seize the opportunity, the momentary weakness in the opponent, the agon’s mark of time when the future must be seized in the present, effecting the transformation of an event against the odds is all part of this sense of mêtis as cunning intelligence.

Ligotti’s cunning intelligence and quick wit seizes the reader by the horns, guides her through the uncharted labyrinths of horror and existence, skillfully working rhetoric, stylistics, and genre bending forms both speculative and fantastical to present a message at once entertaining and instructive. His conceit and deceit provide not self-deception but the mechanism to disencumber the wary reader from her sleep in dull insomniac existence and reveal the dark awakening onto the weird and exemplary terror of life surrounding her on all sides. This dark enlightenment into madness, darkness, horror, and the ‘infernal paradise’ that is our cosmic universe of pain and suffering is at the heart of Ligotti’s daemonic vision. A man who is no one and everyone, a trickster who enters and leaves traces in the shadows of our mind, he drops little thought-bombs here and there to awaken us from our stupor and mindless psychosis; our deliriums and enthrallment to the world. Yet, unlike the ancients his is a writing against time, an agon with the darkness at the heart of existence. His is an art and philosophy showing forth a way to outwit the mental prison within which we live and have our being. His voyage into the darkness opens onto the abyss of nothingness where the light of nihil shines bright and intrepid. 

*

We have no in-depth biography of Thomas Ligotti whose reclusive and agoraphobic lifestyle shuns contact, and yet we do have a voluminous amount of information from is interviews over the years. It is from these interviews that one can gather most of what we know about his thoughts on life, art, philosophy, and his horror of existence. The central antagonist of all his writings is the culprit “consciousness”:

“Assuming that anything has to exist, my perfect world would be one in which everyone has experienced the annulment of his or her ego. That is, our consciousness of ourselves as unique individuals would entirely disappear. We would still function as beings that needed the basics — food, shelter, and clothing — but life wouldn’t be any more than that. It wouldn’t need to be.”14

Throughout my investigation into Ligotti’s oeuvre the pervading mood of darkness, nihilism, and pessimism have seeped in from the dark mirror of his tales and philosophy. Early on in life he became a member of the Catholic Church but didn’t care much for its God. “I was a fairly devout Catholic as a child, less so as a teenager, and not at all since my late teens. Then it was transcendental “this” or “that”, “this” or “that” sort of Eastern doctrine, one guru or another. I’ll get excited for a while with a new “spiritual” toy and then become bored or irritated, after which I lapse back into … nothing, really: television, my job, the daily routine.”15 He took “religion very seriously as a child but abandoned it in my late teens”.16

Asked why he writes, he responded at length,

“Since I was a child, I’ve used my imagination to escape from life. At the same time, my imagination has plagued me with both reality-based anxieties as well as anxieties based entirely in the imagination, such as the fear of Hell I was taught to have by the Catholic Church. Paired with a talent for literary composition, a talent that it took me over ten years to refine, I became a writer of horror stories. To my mind, writing is the most important form of human expression, not only artistic writing but also philosophical writing, critical writing, etc. … Writing is less limited in the consolations it offers to those who have lost a great deal in their lives. And it continues to console until practically everything in a person’s life has been lost. Words and what they express have the best chance of returning the baneful stare of life.”17

This need to “escape from life” is a persistent thread in his work, one that would even lead him to an almost Gnostic view of reality (but not quite!): “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.”18 His affinity to for the aphoristic style of E.M. Cioran shows this admiration for a gnosis without god: “E. M. Cioran, whose philosophical essays are an assault on the highest level of the pure crumminess of all creation, a position that has led some commentators to classify him as a latter-day Gnostic— minus any god.”19

The sense of darkness and pessimism deriving from such a godless anti-Gnostic gnosis would pull Ligotti into a maelstrom of physical and mental ailments:

“When I first began writing, I realized that my subject matter would necessarily derive from my own life. I’ve never been a worldly person. Thus, I never had at my command either much in the way of practical knowledge or a wide range of lived experiences. This has mostly been due to the psychological disorders from which I’ve suffered nearly all my life. More specifically, from the age of seventeen to the present I’ve been subject to clinical mood disorders. I can understand why someone would dismiss everything I’ve written as being nothing more than a symptom of my diagnoses relating to anxiety and depression, thereby making my literary output all but worthless.”20

Colin Feltham describes depressive realism as “a worldview of human existence that is essentially negative, and which challenges assumptions about the value of life and the institutions claiming to answer life’s problems”.21 I’ll take up Ligotti’s negative philosophy of darkness and pessimism in a separate chapter. In an extended comment Ligotti lays out the basic themes of all his tales [I quote at length]:

“It’s all a matter of personal pathology. Writing was not really difficult for me in the late seventies and throughout the eighties. There was a period from 1975 to 1979 when I was severely depressed, in addition to my panic-anxiety disorder. I was anhedonic all day every day. I thought my existence was over. But I was young, and it was during that period that I began to write in earnest. Years went by, and I wrote one bad story after another. Then I wrote “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” whose narrator is a depressive. It was very bad, but not so bad that I destroyed it. I kept it in an old beer case that I used to archive my writing. Every so often I’d read it over again, thinking how I could extract the good parts from the bad. In the meantime, I began writing stories that were published in small-press magazines. More than ten years after writing “Last Feast,” I was able to rewrite it so that it was no longer terrible. Around that time I was developing a case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome due to stress. If rolling on the floor of emergency rooms in spasms of intestinal agony sounds like fun, then ask your doctor if IBS may be the digestive disorder that’s right for you. That condition and my increasing panic-anxiety, along with getting older, really made writing an exercise in agony. It also became the basis for the stories of the “Teatro Grottesco” cycle. I still had other stories that I wanted to write, so I wrote them. But whenever I wrote, I would end up in a state of extreme agitation and my gut would be killing me. In 1991, I decided to call it quits as a writer. But I had to do something. So I started playing guitar again— I played from my teens and into the early seventies— thinking that this would be a less stressful activity. I became a complete guitar geek, and it wasn’t any less stressful than writing. This was around 1993 when the company I worked for was going through a reorganization, not its first. I think of 1993-1994 as the time when people working in offices realized their potential for being assholes. That second reorganization disturbed me so much with its blatant idiocies and pod-people mentality that I wrote “The Nightmare Network.” Now I was writing again and playing guitar on top of that. The situation at work kept escalating in its madness and pathos, and I wrote another corporate horror story called “I Have a Special Plan for This World.” By then, a number of my coworkers actually felt that I was going off my rocker and feared I would “do something.” I didn’t feel that I was to that stage yet. It wasn’t until 2000, several reorganizations later, that I began to lose it. I became obsessed by violent fantasies. These became the impetus for writing My Work Is Not Yet Done. I tried to give these stories a larger meaning than simply that of revenge, which is usually not a subject worth writing about as such. Then I wrote two more corporate horror stories, “My Case for Retributive Action,” and “Our Temporary Supervisor.” Labeling these stories as “Tales of Corporate Horror” was my way of organizing a reader’s perception of them but, I hope, not limiting them to the realm of working life. “I Have a Special Plan for This World” takes places in a corporate setting, but, like my other corporate horror tales, was intended to convey a broader perspective relating to themes that are important to me: the fiasco and nightmare of existence, the particular fiasco and nightmare of human existence, the sense that people are puppets of powers they cannot comprehend, etc. These themes just naturally come to the fore when I’m experiencing some especially intense or unpleasant episode in my life. Pain is my muse, so to speak. By 2001, my psychological status was that of bipolar depression. In 2002, my depression let up for a month, and I went into a hypomanic phase. During that time I wrote two more stories, “Purity” and “The Town Manager,” which were based on my enraged reaction to social and political developments in the U.S. at the time. The few things that I’ve written since were written in hypomanic states, for which I now take medication along with my other meds. So I guess there’s an observable pattern in that I write when something in my life pushes me to do so, specifically hatred and hurt. These act as a springboard for the themes of my stories, which I hope transcend my temporary experience and connect with my overall outlook on existence, which may or may not interest the reader but is the essential reason that I write.”22

This sense of “hatred and hurt” at the core of his need to write leads us to a deeper understanding of Ligotti’s notion of Darkness with its attendant feeling of “the fiasco and nightmare of existence … the sense that people are puppets of powers they cannot comprehend, etc.” (ibid.) Out of this maelstrom of emotion, turmoil, depression, anhedonia – and its phase shift into hypomania he would let loose the daemons of the mind and body, unleash the Muse of Pain (“Pain is my muse, so to speak.”) and let fly the bitter tracts of pessimal darkness into the black bilge of his tales.

Ligotti is at heart a didactic writer whose designs on us are a lesson in awakening to the madness of our existence in this world. “I’ve been a didactic writer to a greater or lesser extent from the beginning. It may be deluded to think that the world simply must hear what you have to say, but I think this delusion is necessary if one is to write anything at all, whether it’s poetry, fiction, or a sermon. So didacticism is inherent in every effort to spill ink on a page. It’s more a matter of the way that urgency to tell the world what you think about it is dressed up for the reading public.”23 His reasons for the short form and his didactic tactic is part of his expressionist aesthetic:

“I most identify with Expressionism. All of my stories have had their origins in a mood or attitude that I wanted to convey to the reader. When I first began writing, I realized that my subject matter would necessarily derive from my own life. I’ve never been a worldly person. Thus, I never had at my command either much in the way of practical knowledge or a wide range of lived experiences. This has mostly been due to the psychological disorders from which I’ve suffered nearly all my life.”24

Writing out of his inner experience and moods, knowing as he does that life is a nightmare, he would touch on every aspect of his own limited stance on existence: “My outlook is that it’s a damn shame that organic life ever developed on this or any other planet, and that the pain that living creatures necessarily suffer makes for an existence that is a perennial nightmare. This attitude underlies almost everything I’ve written.”25

*

The more I study the life and writings of Thomas Ligotti the less I know, and yet I feel as if his ‘voice’ is essentially my own, his ‘thoughts’ speak for me, give shape to the fears I, too, experience along with the moods and feelings that bring anxiety and agony, hatred and hurt. Where does one begin with such a writer? Is Thomas Ligotti someone or no one? Speaking of the interminable melancholy of depression he tells us: “In the recumbence of depression, your information-gathering system collates its intelligence and reports to you these facts: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know. Without meaning-charged emotions keeping your brain on the straight and narrow, you would lose your balance and fall into an abyss of lucidity. And for a conscious being, lucidity is a cocktail without ingredients, a crystal clear concoction that will leave you hung over with reality. In perfect knowledge there is only perfect nothingness, which is perfectly painful if what you want is meaning in your life.”

Lucidity and madness was once described by Antonin Artaud: ““My lucidity is total, keener than ever, what I lack is an object to which to apply it, an inner substance. This is more serious and more painful than you think. I would like to get beyond this point of absence, of emptiness. … I have no life, I have no life!!! My inner enthusiasm is dead. It has been years now since I lost it, since I lost this inner surge that saves me. … It is a fact that I am no longer myself, that my real self is asleep.”27 This sense of being no one and nothing, of not having a self, of being cut off from the past and future in a world of pure stasis – frozen in time where the solipsistic world of psychotic delusion is more real than real. It’s this of which lucidity sparks one to that non place of absolute madness. Kusters in his excellent study of madness speaks of it both personally and experientially as one who has undergone this very psychosis when he says,

“My examination of the philosophy of madness reached its apex in July 2007, when I finished a major paper on the philosophy of the experience of time in psychosis. In combination with other stress factors, the steady flow of philosophical deliberation on the subject of psychosis swept me away that summer and plunged me right into the heart of the object itself: a full-blown acute psychosis. It is this possible maddening effect of certain words and thoughts that constitutes the second thematic line of this book. I demonstrate how my own philosophical attitude led to psychotic praxis, and I argue that this is a more common occurrence; that is, a certain kind of consistent philosophizing may very well result in confusion, paradoxes, unworldy insights, and circular frozenness that is reminiscent of madness— which in fact is what happened to quite a few philosophers who are far from unimportant, such as Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Georg Cantor. I give examples of this, from myself and others, but I also demonstrate it by letting the controlled language of philosophical observation and reflection slowly but surely shift toward its object—“28 

This “psychotic praxis” in which Ligotti’s cosmopessimism arises out of his own inner experience, its expressionism of mood, style, and decadent splendor opens us up to both the terror and beauty of our decrepit world where everything tends toward delirium. But what if as in Artaud the object is empty yet full? What if the very thing we would reveal cannot be named or brought forward but only hinted at in the darkness and pessimal interstices of a psychotic praxis? Will we ourselves become mad in the process? Is there a dark gnosis to be attained in this deep dive into the abyssal mind of Thomas Ligotti? If as he tells us “the pain that living creatures necessarily suffer makes for an existence that is a perennial nightmare,” why should we want to suffer through reading his sordid lessons? What can Thomas Ligotti teach us other than the lessons of despair, horror, and a life without value or meaning? Why follow him into the darkness of this black light of pessimistic nihil?

*

Does one ever know another human being? Isn’t inner experience closed off in the circle of the personal and pathological? One can read many auto-biographies and biographies and never truly understand the inner life of the protagonist. Yes, the outer life of events and actions can be described which can at times give us the illusion that we are getting to know the subject, but what after all is a ‘life’ that its demarcations can be reduced to a few events and actions. Is the life of a human being something we can even know through words.

Maurice Lévy in his monograph Lovecraft A Study in the Fantastic suggested that we could not so much know the inner life of the author as such but that we might apprehend the intention “to capture and communicate his anguish”.29 To feel agony, distress, suffering, and rage in body or mind is at the core of such anguish. Thomas Ligotti told one interviewer that his Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a personal testament which gathered many of the philosophical and spiritual thoughts he’d had over the years: “I wanted to write something that might be titled Living with Despair or How to Embrace Hopelessness and Terminal Anguish.”30 The agony of despair in the face of life and existence. What brings a writer to the point that life is no longer worth living and the embrace of hopelessness and anguish become the only guiding star left. What brought Thomas Ligotti to that point where the horror of life became inextricably entwined with his singular consciousness? In the pages that follow I seek to address such anguish and agony, to discover in the tales and philosophy of Ligotti the dark message he affords us.  He’s been variously diagnosed with bipolar depression, given to agitation, anhedonia, agoraphobia and anxiety-ridden paranoia to some degree every day of his life with a few asides when his shift into hypomanic phases allows him to write and interact with others in a more equitable manner.

I do not think it serves any purpose to delve any deeper into these disorders beyond what Ligotti himself has already stated in many interviews over the years. It will not help us in our investigation into his writings which would produce some of the greatest horror tales and a philosophical tract of outstanding depth and richness. Ligotti himself puts it plainly and to the point: “I can understand why someone would dismiss everything I’ve written as being nothing more than a symptom of my diagnoses relating to anxiety and depression, thereby making my literary output all but worthless.” (Xavier Aldana Reyes) For many of us who have drawn nourishment from Ligotti’s tales and philosophy his biographical history is but a starting point in exploration, and rather than being worthless his writings spark an avid engagement and deeply felt acknowledgment that this man has entered an abyss most normal humans wouldn’t dare and survived. Not only survived but returned with a certain deft knowledge about himself and the world – one might even be tempted to say, a ‘gnosis’ or knowing that awakens in us if not wisdom then a like minded mood in which the horror of life can be assuaged if only for a moment.

*

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats said the closest a poet can come to knowing the truth about himself and the world is to turn to his daemon until he discovers his true self “in the place where the daemon is, until at last the daemon is with me.” But what if you are a horror writer who has come to the realization that the self and daemon both are just as illusory as any other rhetorical flourish one can dream up then you are left in the abyss of despair and anguish. Stefan Zweig in his excellent The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche once suggested that these and other like poets, playwrights, thinkers were driven by a power greater than theirs, one that was “working within them, so that they felt themselves rushing aimlessly through the void. In their rare moments of full awareness of self, they knew that their actions were not the outcome of their own volition, but that they were thralls, were possessed (in both senses of the word) by a higher power, the daemonic.”31

Zweig would go on to describe this daemonic power:

“Daemonic” — this word has had so many connotations imposed upon it, has been so variously interpreted, in the course of its wanderings from the days of ancient religious mythology into our own time, that I must explain the sense in which I shall use it in this book. I term “daemonic” the unrest that is in us all, driving each of us out of himself into the elemental. 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.” (Zweig, p. 11)

In “The Tsalal”, one of Ligotti’s most memorable tales the protagonist describes an apt moment in which he yearns to be broken on “the great wheel that turns in darkness”. In an interview with Venger Satanis, Ligotti puts it this way:

“The protagonist of that story, like those in other stories of mine, is a devotee of decay and desolation. To that could be added a masochistic-mystical ecstasy that is expressed as working “the great wheel that turns in darkness, and to be broken upon it.” This line suited the character’s ambition to go the whole distance of giving oneself over to a sort of Schopenhauerian Will-to-live force that really runs the show of existence. Rather than seeking to negate this force, which Schopenhauer called the Will-to-live and thought should be denied as much as possible in a rather Buddhistic manner, the character Andrew Manness wishes to be blasted by it, utterly pulverized in a perverse way. This desire goes against every normal human impulse to survive and conveys my own anti-life stance.”32

If one could reduce Ligotti’s stance toward existence and consciousness, then this is it: “anti-life”. The struggle against life and existence is at the core of Ligotti’s tales of horror and his philosophical preoccupations. If there is a sense of the daemon in Ligotti it’s this driveness against life itself, a Will-to-not-live force that runs through the darkness of existence. To be tempted by both a thirst for annihilation and the limits of the abyssal is what drives and fuels Ligotti’s dark nihilistic vision.

The great Italian poet Gicacomo Leopardi once described this darkness and nihilism at the heart of things which could only be assuaged through the power and strength of art and sensibility:

“…the feeling of nothingness is that of a dead and death-producing thing. But if this feeling is alive, as in the case I mean, its liveliness dominates in the reader’s mind the nothingness of the thing it makes him feel; and the soul receives life (if only briefly) from the very power by which it feels the perpetual death of things and of itself. Not the smallest or least painful effect of the knowledge of great nothingness is the indifference and numbness which it almost always inspires about that very nothingness. This indifference and insensibility is removed by reading or contemplating such a work: it renders us sensible to nothingness.”33 

The notion that reading can wipe away the indifference and insensibility we often feel in our daily lives, the numbness of sheer repetition of the mundane cycles of work and play is closer to Schopenhauer’s vision than Ligotti’s. Art for Ligotti is a form of escape and a “degenerate pastime” rather than some Aristotelian exercise in purgation: “I’m definitely not a believer in art as a curative catharsis.” (Ayad, Neddal, ibid.)  Instead as he suggested ironically to one interviewer who asked him ‘What is art?’, he laughed and said: “Distraction, escape, a way to transform the intolerable into the enjoyable, a booby prize that we give ourselves for continuing to exist.”(Angerhuber, E. M., and Thomas Wagner, ibid.)  Yet, there is in another sense a deep need in Ligotti to use art to convey a message. He is didactic in the simplicity in which he couches his philosophical speculations. “I’ve been a didactic writer to a greater or lesser extent from the beginning. It may be deluded to think that the world simply must hear what you have to say, but I think this delusion is necessary if one is to write anything at all, whether it’s poetry, fiction, or a sermon. So didacticism is inherent in every effort to spill ink on a page. It’s more a matter of the way that urgency to tell the world what you think about it is dressed up for the reading public.” ( Ibid. Realm of Nightmares)

In his speculative work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti pursues reflections more philosophical and literary in his pursuit of an epicurean pessimism. As a touchstone he uses the work of Zapffe in defining the limits of such a pursuit. Peter Wessel Zapffe (December 18, 1899-October 12, 1990) was a Norwegian metaphysician, author and mountaineer. The central tenet of Zapffe’s philosophy can be found in his short work The Last Messiah in which he describes humanity’s metaphysical quandary when faced with the paradox of being human. He discovers at the heart of our humanity a lack, a metaphysical need, an emptiness, a void that cannot be filled. And the tragic fate of all humans is to pursue through illusionary defense mechanisms a denial of this lack, this void. He uses a religious metaphor to describe this catastrophe, this dark severing “breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily- by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being. Its weapon was like a sword without hilt or plate, a two-edged blade cleaving everything; but he who is to wield it must grasp the blade and turn the one edge toward himself.” Human kind had discovered ‘consciousness’, an awareness of its separateness from the animal and vegetable life surrounding it, and this dark secret, this subtle distinction of mind and intellect would forever separate it from the foundations of its existence and produce the hallmark of our lives: the knowledge of pain and suffering that is organic existence. This knowledge and awareness has produced in humans a ‘relentless state of panic’, and that “such a feeling of cosmic panic is pivotal to every human mind.” (TCATHR)

Part Two: Thomas Ligotti’s Aesthetics of Horror: Atmosphere, Mood, and Darkness

Note: There’s a great deal more but the post would be too long… this is just the base opening. The next section opens into Ligotti’s Consolations of Horror… I’ve drawn from Ligotti’s interviews to let him speak for himself on his own views because I assume the most casual readers will not have access to the many and varied interviews and opinions he’s had over the years published in journals, books, and now out of print or no longer active sites. My own proclivities are to let Ligotti speak rather than to interject my own philosophical commentary except where appropriate to help in and understanding of more abstract concepts etc.  


1. Paul, R. F., and Keith Schurholz. “Triangulating the Daemon: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” Esoterra No. 8 (Winter/Spring 1999): 14–21.
2. Ayyad, Neddal. Literature Is Entertainment Or It it Nothing: An Interview With Thomas Ligotti By: Neddal Ayad nayad@nf.sympatico.ca (Originally appeared at Fantastic Metropolis, Oct. 31, 2004 – http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/ligotti/)
3. Ayyad, Neddal. The Ligotti Outtakes – From Correspondence 06/ 2004 – 09/ 2004 By: Neddal Ayad & Thomas Ligotti
4. Weird Fiction Review. “Thomas Ligotti and the Realm of Nightmares.” [Interview] Weird Fiction Review. 15 October 2015. weirdfictionreview.com/2015/10/interview-thomas-ligotti-and-the-realm-of-nightmares.
5. Angerhuber, E. M., and Thomas Wagner. “Disillusionment Can Be Glamorous: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” In Darrell Schweitzer, ed. The Thomas Ligotti Reader. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, 2003. 53–71.
6. Paul, R. F., and Keith Schurholz. Ibid.
7. Ayyad, Neddal. Ibid.
8. Ayyad, Neddal. Ibid.
9. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 42). Hippocampus Press.
10. Trivers, Robert. Deceit and Self-Deception (Kindle Locations 806-808). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
11. Varki, Ajit. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Twelve; First Edition ~1st Printing (June 4, 2013)
12. Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death (pp. 32-33). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
13. Reyes, Xavier Aldana. Thomas Ligotti and Xavier Aldana Reyes (June 2019) Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes is Reader in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-lead of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies.
14. Cardin, Matt. “Interview with Thomas Ligotti It’s All a Matter of Personal Pathology Conducted by Matt Cardin”, July 2006 Published in The New York Review of Science Fiction Issue 218, Vol. 19, No. 2 (October 2006) Collected in Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti, ed. Matt Cardin (Subterranean Press, 2014)
15. Paul, R. F., and Keith Schurholz. Ibid.
16. Event Horizon Chat with Thomas Ligotti Online Chat Transcript (December 3, 1998) Published by Thomas Liggoti Online 04-10-2005
17. Padgett, Jon. “Vital Realities: A Conversation with Thomas Ligotti Vital Realities: A Conversation with Thomas Ligotti Conducted by Jon Padgett”, July 2014
18. Paul, R. F., and Keith Schurholz. Ibid.
19. Ayyad, Neddal. Ibid. Literature is Entertainment.
20. Reyes, Xavier Aldana. Ibid.
21. Feltham, Colin. Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary perspectives. Routledge; 1st edition (March 7, 2018)
22. Cardin, Matt. Ibid.
23. Fusari, Luca. “Interview with Thomas Ligotti by Luca Fusari,” c/ o PRISMO, English Translation printed with interviewee’s permission Published by Dr. Locrian 06-09-2016 Interview with Thomas Ligotti by Luca Fusari c/ o PRISMO, English Translation
24. Reyes, Xavier Aldana. Ibid.
25. Bee, Robert. “Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” Thomas Ligotti Online. 11 April 2005 (originally published in 1999). http://www.ligotti.net/showthread.php?t=231.
26. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (pp. 115-116). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
27. Kusters, Wouter. A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking. The MIT Press (December 1, 2020)
28. Kusters, Ibid.
29. Lévy, Maurice. Lovecraft, A Study in the Fantastic. Wayne State University Press; 1st edition (March 1, 1988)
30. Fusari, Luca. Ibid.
31. Zweig, Stefan. The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche (p. 11). Plunkett Lake Press.
32. [Satanis, Venger. “Devotees of Decay and Desolation Thomas Ligotti interview by Venger Satanis,” Posted by Venger Satanis at 12:30 PM Sunday, September 27, 2020: Venger’s old school gaming blog: Devotees of Decay and Desolation (vengersatanis.blogspot.com)
33. Leopardi, Giacomo. Zibaldone. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (July 16, 2013)

Note: Please feel free to comment, I could use your input as I complete this rewrite on my book… thanks!

1 thought on “Thomas Ligotti: An Introduction to his Life and Work

  1. Please convey to Dr. Rinaldi my enjoyment of this long (sometimes repetitive, but that’s not bad) beginning to a book I look forward to reading. I only saw one “typo”, by the way. You have a “be” where a “we” should be in the paragraph beginning “This psychotic praxis”, a condition I must look up.

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