Perhaps Ligotti’s 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.
Pessimistic, determinist, and inhuman Ligotti’s fiction is replete with the gothic metaphoric of darkness. A devotee of decay and dissolution he affirms 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. We’re all going to perish anyway, so why not do it in style?” One remembers the ancient Greek myth of Ixion who was expelled from Olympus and blasted with a thunderbolt. Zeus ordered Hermes to bind Ixion to a winged fiery wheel that was always spinning. Therefore, Ixion was bound to a burning solar wheel for all eternity, at first spinning across the heavens, but in later myth transferred to Tartarus. Only when Orpheus played his lyre during his trip to the Underworld to rescue Eurydice did it stop for a while. This is the mad wheel of Time itself, the darkness of existence in which we all turn and return in a wheel of torture, pain, and suffering. We are all bound to the “wheel of darkness” where in the eternal nocturn(e)ty of Tartarus (hell) we live out our deaths.
He tells us that he wasn’t even aware that he was using “shadows, darkness, and blackness as an overarching metaphor for the puppet show of the world” until he read “Brian Stableford’s sketch about my stories in a reference book titled, I think, Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers. So much for my self-conscious, postmodern brain.”
In many ways we are all asleep in hell, a hell of our own choosing, a personal vastation, an eternal emptiness or – kenoma (Gnostic) in which we wander alone or with others in a realm of absolute darkness where there is nothing to do and nowhere to go because we are not. We are nothingness exemplified as pain and suffering without end, bound to a vicious circle without outlet or ending. Suicide is only a retreat back into the circle, another round of unending immiseration without any hope of salvation or redemption. This is the state of the unreal as Real. Asked if he believed in an “All-Consuming Darkness” Ligotti replied:
“Well, “all-consuming darkness” kind of suggests that there’s something going on in the universe. That’s not what I would wish. I don’t want a universe in which even nothing could be going on.”
For Ligotti the use of “darkness as a device and practically a character throughout a number of the stories” he’s written pervades this sense of deterministic fatalism in his view of existence. As he’d say to one interviewer of this bleak darkness: “there it was, as big and ugly as life. And it seems to have been there from the beginning. I just wasn’t quite as didactic in those days.” Brad Baumgartner offers a reading of Thomas Ligotti’s horror tales as part of the apophatic tradition of the unsayable darkness much in the dark negative mysticism of John of the Cross:
“In “Thomas Ligotti: The Poetics of Darkness,” we show how horror fiction deploys apophatic techniques in order to describe negatively the indescribable. In so doing, this chapter will consider Ligotti’s horror fiction, especially the logic of negation found in Noctuary (1996), in relation to the horror of reality—a horror effectuated by our alienation from absolute unreality, horror’s analog to the medieval mystic’s God. Ligotti’s characters are forever banished to wander the world in a state akin to John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul,” never to find oneness with their own unreality. He sees in human consciousness not only “a vortex of doleful factuality” (Conspiracy 41), but additional fodder for existential suffering because the horrors we cannot yet comprehend are rooted within us. In Ligottian horror fiction, we find a perverse darkness mysticism: always already living in immanent darkness, a state of, we might call, noct(e)rnity, there is nothing to “wake up” to, and even if there were, it wouldn’t be worth waking up for it.”1
If as Ligotti says in an interview that the “supernatural is the metaphysical counterpart of insanity,” then is the mystical a form of insanity and madness, a psychosis of melding dream and reality, of breaking through the gap between reality and the Real and entering the frozen world of mad Time? Is this the surreal dream from above, or the counter-surrealism of Bataille of the nightmare from below in base materialism? The poet Federico García Lorca once suggested that “All that has black sounds has duende.” —commenting, “there is no greater truth. Those black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art.” Maybe in the end this is Ligotti’s style, the style of the duende’s black sounds that reverberate in the dark void like the clamor of nothingness.
“Ligotti is not concerned with a Bataillean sense of communication, one in which “the impossible” takes us into the mystical, but rather with positing an ungrounded pessimo-mystical discourse, a negative and deictic mode of discourse designed to invoke the very darkness it describes. As such, what readers encounter is less of a worldview and more of a modern, skewed form of apophasis designed to speak away the absolute elements of unreality, evoking a stark sense of dread.” (36)
I’d say that Ligotti’s dark mysticism if one wants to use such a term is concerned with the absolute dissolution of self and consciousness, world and cosmos. He is concerned neither with creation nor destruction of the cosmos since for him it’s all unreal. In this sense rather than a metaphysics of Being his is a non-metaphysical thought of unbeing and nothingness. He posits nothing – not even the possibility of distinctions for or against something since nothing is not and we are not. Instead of invoking darkness he would rather dissipate everything in absolute darkness. Baumgartner keeps seeking some positive mode in Ligotti’s thought which is not there. Even in the statement above the notion of invoking darkness is a positive act that Ligotti himself would not see himself doing. Baumgartner sees Ligotti’s thought as a “skewed form of apophasis designed to speak away the absolute elements of unreality, evoking a sense of dread.” I see Ligotti undoing all names, all thoughts, all elements of absolute and un-absolute alike leaving the reader in that ultimate state of frozen solitude and self-emptying kenosis in which nothing is and nothing is not. Neither thought nor being, and especially not the merger of thought and being as in Parmenides. No. Ligotti undoes and unbinds the unreal by way of the Real and leaves us in the “enlightenment of darkness”.
The morbidity in Ligotti’s work is there for a reason, he’s a writer that delves into his own subjective moods and perceptions and expresses them through his art and thought. As he puts it: “From my side, I can’t take seriously literary works that haven’t in some distinctive way emerged from what purportedly normal people would call an unhealthy affect. It’s not possible to appreciate what doesn’t jibe with who you are by genetics, nurturing, and everything else that happens throughout your life. In my opinion, it’s tragic that we can’t fully appreciate one another as artists as well as persons. This is simply one of the sorry facts of life.” To understand his work is to delve into the various mood disorders that have troubled his life from the age of seventeen:
“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.”
As he’d put it in another interview: “my moods are only slightly regulated by medication. This means that I’m agitated, anhedonic, and anxiety-ridden to some degree every day, aside from periods of lesser hypomania when I become sufficiently activated to do things like spend money I don’t have because, to give an example, I get it into my head that I absolutely need to replace the rug and linoleum in my condo with all-wood and slate floors. Before then, I never in my life had the least impulse to redecorate my living space except with shelves of books. Anyone who has read interviews with me has already been subjected to my true tales of emotional derangement, so this is information I regret repeating for their non-enjoyment.”
Ligotti affirms his subjectivist stance many times as in: “Among the major schools of literature from Romanticism to the present, 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.”
German Expressionism’s emphasis was laid not on the outer world, which is merely sketched in and barely defined in place or time, but on the internal, on an individual’s mental state; hence, the imitation of life is replaced in Expressionist drama by the ecstatic evocation of states of mind. The leading character in an Expressionist writing often pours out his or her woes in long monologues couched in a concentrated, elliptical, almost telegrammatic language that explores youth’s spiritual malaise, its revolt against the older generation, and the various political or revolutionary remedies that present themselves.
Ligotti would take hints from this but add his own unique perspective and oneiric negations, turning in rather than showing forth any political revolt he’d follow Kafka in the sense of being cast adrift in a cosmos of impersonal forces whose purposeless purpose was neither good nor evil but just there. He’d portray a Gnostic cosmos without its saving god of the abyss, a realm of absolute emptiness and darkness. This sense of a “haunting emptiness” behind the facade of existence comes in one interview where he’s asked about his story “The Medusa”:
“I appreciate your reading “The Medusa” as a reflection of some superior consciousness on my part, but I assure you it’s not the case. I’ve been fascinated by mysticism in various forms for some time, probably because my temperament is so alien to the non-dualist mind, or no-nmind or whatever, to which you allude. Obviously, human beings are very devious and complicated, and certainly one has the sense at times that we are in some way wonderful and bizarre creatures. But I think the whole spiritual aspect of humanity is pure self-promotion on our part, and I don’t think there’s anything behind the curtain of our flesh. Yes, the universe is very strange, but its strangeness seems to me based on a haunting emptiness where one might expect, unwarrantedly, something to be.”2
- Baumgartner, Brad. Weird Mysticism (Critical Conversations in Horror Studies) (pp. 3-4). Lehigh University
- Paule, R.F. and Schurholz, Keith. The interview was “Triangulating the Daemon An Interview with Thomas Ligotti Interview,” by R. F. Paul and Keith Schurholz.