The horror story, by obeying the terms of the nightmare, is a way that, deviously, some people use to think about the unthinkable, to face what we otherwise would not choose to look upon, and, more importantly, to control and give meaning to that which can neither be controlled nor harbors any meaning. It is a perverted mode of defending ourselves from what would demean and destroy us, from what cannot be helped and should never have been—life itself in all its inane grotesquerie.
– Thomas Ligotti, The Shadow at the Bottom of the World
Now that you mention it, yellow does feel to me like the color of disease and decay. Maybe that’s a holdover from my days as fanatic of decadent literature reading the early issues of the Yellow Book.
Interviewer: How much of an influence did the Decadents have on your work?
TL: The Decadents were an extension of Poe. He was the writer who, through the translations of Baudelaire and others in France, really legitimized morbidity as a literary subject as well as a worldview. The French already had a tradition of cynicism, morbidity, and pessimism from the eighteenth-century works of authors like Sade, Chamfort, and La Rochefoucauld. I believe that this made them receptive to Poe’s anti-life-affirming genius. He not only appealed to the negative spirit in French writers, but he did it with consummate artistry and technique, which are essential to transmitting one’s attitudes. If Poe had been a bad writer, nobody would have taken notice of him. Even though there already existed a philosophical tradition of morbidity and pessimism going back to the Greeks in the Western tradition, it wasn’t until Poe came along that poets and fiction writers could feel free to express these feelings in literary works. Take the first couple sentences of “Berenice”–” MISERY is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform.” Who in earlier Western literature would have dared to open a short story in this manner except perhaps for the purposes of parody? Poe’s authority in the literary sphere inspired others throughout the world to align themselves with him under the same black flag. In the United States, it wasn’t much of leap from Poe’s declaration in “Berenice” to Lovecraft’s opening of “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”–” Life is a hideous thing . . . .” 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.
Here You Go
Death is frightening,
and dying just as bad.
Say what you will,
we don’t take it well.
Then how can we live,
with all that ahead?
Something must be
fooling us constantly.
Our brains are tricked
so that we don’t believe,
for whatever reason,
we won’t go on and on.
Our thoughts are clouded
so that we can’t conceive
the exact process
that’s waiting for us.
Or perhaps we think that
when the moment comes
someone else will arrive
to take over—we’ll survive.
Where logic is concerned,
we’re all thumbs.
How couldn’t we know
we were born to go?
Ligotti in an interview would say of Nabokov,
To exile oneself from every earthly country.
—Simone Weil, Decreation
A dummy’s silence is the most soothing silence of all, and his stillness is the perfect stillness of the unborn.
—Thomas Ligotti, Dr. Voke and Mr. Leech
Is it possible not only to erase one’s self – one’s ego, but to erase one’s entire existence ‘as if’ it had never been; as if the accumulated history, the stain of one’s existence on earth had never occurred?
Thomas Ligotti in the first tale of his series of tales within tales IN A FOREIGN TOWN, IN A FOREIGN LAND: HIS SHADOW SHALL RISE TO A HIGHER HOUSE will offer such a strange theory through a self-professed doctor, Klatt, upon a man who not only died but erased his burial site and its very existence:
‘What Ascrobius sought,’ the doctor explained, ‘was not a remedy for his physical disease, not a cure in any usual sense of the word. What he sought was an absolute annulment, not only of his disease but of his entire existence. On rare occasions he even spoke to me,’ the doctor said, ‘about the uncreation of his whole life.’1
All of this started when the said Ascrobius, a recluse and physically grotesque denizen of the northern town on the border of an ill-defined country took ill and died. His body buried outside the town in a graveyard on a hill among former citizens has suddenly vanished along with any signs that it ever existed. Klatt against the unwritten rules of the locals has been ‘meddling’ in anecdotal gossip as to what might have transpired. And upon revealing to the tale teller and others a new bit of information about the details of Ascrobius’s demise he has now implicated all of them in this meddling which will be termed the “Ascrobius’ Escapade”.
As Klatt tells it: ‘You see what has happened,’ Dr Klatt said to us. ‘He has annulled his diseased and nightmarish existence, leaving us with an uncreated grave on our hands.’
After revealing such a meddlesome affair and implicating many of its members the entire town entered into gossip to the point of hysteria, coming to the conclusion that such an unnatural affair could not go without judgement: “Someone would have to atone for that uncreated existence…”.
Well, as expected, our minister of gossip, Klatt offers a solution to the whole affair: a young and unintelligent specimen will need to be sacrificed to the uncreated malevolence that seems to have overtaken the town’s normal lunacy. So a young woman from one Mrs. Glimm’s tavern is sent to the graveyard on the hill at midnight in the cover of complete darkness. Well, one can imagine what transpires, the young woman is found the next day by a nosy and curious group of sober citizens at the very site of the uncreated grave, her body skinned alive and her torso set up as a gravestone. At such horror the citizens demand that she be given a proper burial, but Mrs. Glimm more intelligent than she appears tells them this might not be a good idea and that they should leave things as is. So nothing is done. And, in a few days, the whole affair is forgotten, the terrors of the uncreated gone, and the citizenry back to their normal lives (if you can call it normal!).
But this is not the end of the tale. No. After a few weeks it is discovered that Klatt has gone missing, and that a new resident has taken up living in the former house of Ascrobius. But as our anonymous storyteller informs us,
Afterward all speculation about what had come to be known as the ‘resurrection of the uncreated’ remained in the realm of twilight talk. Yet as I now lie in my bed, listening to the wind and the scraping of bare branches on the roof just above me, I cannot help remaining wide awake with visions of that deformed specter of Ascrobius and pondering upon what unimaginable planes of contemplation it dreams of another act of uncreation, a new and far-reaching effort of great power and more certain permanence. Nor do I welcome the thought that one day someone may notice that a particular house appears to be missing, or absent, from the place it once occupied along the backstreet of a town near the northern border.
Thomas Ligotti in The Conspiracy against the Human Race states his notions concerning the concept of the “uncreated” saying,
For pessimists, life is something that should not be, which means that what they believe should be is the absence of life, nothing, non-being, the emptiness of the uncreated. Anyone who speaks up for life as something that irrefutably should be— that we would not be better off unborn, extinct, or forever lazing in nonexistence— is an optimist. It is all or nothing; one is in or one is out, abstractly speaking. Practically speaking, we have been a race of optimists since the nascency of human consciousness and lean like mad toward the favorable pole.2
The Jains of India believe the soul of each living being is unique and uncreated and has existed since beginningless time.3 Anne Carson the poetess in her essay on Decreation – How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil Tell God mentions:
Simone Weil was also a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God. “The self,” she says in one of her notebooks, “is only a shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God’s light and which I take for a Being.” She had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called “decreation.” This word is a neologism to which she did not give an exact definition nor a consistent spelling. “To undo the creature in us” is one of the ways she describes its aim.4
As another commentator says of Weil: “The method of approaching the sacred Weil calls “decreation,” as a de-incarnation of the person, a method for attaining the impersonal for which solitude is a prerequisite. Decreation is “to make something created pass into the uncreated.” This is distinct from the thing passing into destruction, passing into nothingness.”5 In her poem “Decreation” Simon Weil reiterates this notion:
It is necessary not to be “myself,” still less to be “ourselves.”
The city gives one the feeling of being at home.
We must take the feeling of being at home into exile
We must be rooted in the absence of a place.
To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively.
To exile oneself from every earthly country.
To all that to others, from the outside, is a substitute for decreation and results in unreality
For by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.
This sense of uprooting, a decreation of one’s life both physically and spiritually in a process of unmaking, an unraveling into the unreal and entering into the exile from one’s place in the order of creation by an uncreation is hinted at by secular underpinnings of Ligotti’s tales as well. In The Last Feast of Harlequin an assembly is gathered singing of the blessed unborn, the uncreated:
The entire assembly, which had remained speechless until this moment, broke into the most horrendous high-pitched singing that can be imagined. It was a choir of sorrow, of shrieking delirium, and of shame. The cavern rang shrilly with the dissonant, whining chorus. My voice, too, was added to the congregation’s, trying to blend with their maimed music. But my singing could not imitate theirs, having a huskiness unlike their cacophonous keening wail. To keep from exposing myself as an intruder I continued to mouth their words without sound. These words were a revelation of the moody malignancy which until then I had no more than sensed whenever in the presence of these figures. They were singing to the “unborn in paradise,” to the “pure unlived lives.” They sang a dirge for existence, for all its vital forms and seasons. Their ideals were those of darkness, chaos, and a melancholy half-existence consecrated to all the many shapes of death.6
Maybe the unborn like Ascrobius are not those in some mythos of heaven awaiting birth, but are in fact the secret few, the lucky one’s of a dark order of alchemy who have learned the subtle arts of uncreation and diminishment; a slow reversal in the time flows of the inexplicable processes of the universal corruption. Maybe they have opened a hole in the fabric of space-time, an entrance not into some majestic heaven, but rather a passage into the labyrinths of an infernal paradise where the seeds of a new darkness, the uncreated and unborn children of a new promised kingdom of unnatural desires now reside in perfect silence and shadow; their unlived lives shaping and shaped by their sacrifice to the unknown malevolence of all decreation.
- Ligotti, Thomas. Teatro Grottesco. Mythos Books LLC; 1st edition (November 30, 2007)
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 47). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
- Nayanar, Prof. A. Chakravarti (2005). Samayasāra of Ācārya Kundakunda. New Delhi: Today & Tomorrows Printer and Publisher.
- Carson, Anne. Decreation – How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil Tell God. Common Knowledge Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2002 Duke University Press
- Some of the more representative works of Simone Weil are her First and Last Notebooks, translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford university Press, 1970; Gravity and Grace. Putnam, 1952; Oppression and Liberty, London: , New York: Routledge & K. Paul, ? The most representative anthology is The Simone Weil Reader; edited by George A. Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Nightmare Factory. Carroll & Graf (June 27, 1996)
Soon I will put my dreaming in the hands of greater forces, and I’m sure there will be some surprises for both of us. That is one thing which never changes.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Chemyst
This morning when I woke up began tracing the various uses of hypnotism in Thomas Ligotti’s tales. Fascinating how he associated this 19th Century mesmeric art with its double-edged use to blind or reveal.
In an interview with E.M. Angerhuber and Thomas Wagner: Disillusionment Can Be Glamorous Thomas Ligotti is asked if he thinks “cosmic evil is an enhanced or horror, compared to the evil of a single character?” Speaking of his early story “The Chymist” is one of the characters who possesses a “dark power,” but that “power is only an instance of a greater power at large”. Behind this is the power of “Nature” itself Ligotti states, which “tirelessly produces mutations and permutations using human flesh…”. In “The Sect of the Idiot” he’ll describe this power behind the sect of hooded ones – “those freaks who were among those who were hypnotized”:
“For there was a power superseding theirs, a power which they served and from which they merely emanated, something which was beyond the universal hypnosis by virtue of its very mindlessness, its awesome idiocy. These cloaked masters, in turn, partook in some measure of godhood, passively presiding as enlightened zombies over the multitudes of the entranced, that frenetic domain of the human.”
This mindless idiot behind the scenes reminds me of Ligotti’s statements about the Gnostics in the Conspiracy:
“The second of Zapffe’s two central determinations— that our species should belay reproducing itself— immediately brings to mind a cast of characters from theological history known as Gnostics. The Gnostic sect of the Cathari in twelfth-century France were so tenacious in believing the world to be an evil place engendered by an evil deity that its members were offered a dual ultimatum: sexual abstinence or sodomy. (A similar sect in Bulgaria, the Bogomils, became the etymological origin of the term “buggery” for their practice of this mode of erotic release.) Around the same period, the Catholic Church mandated abstinence for its clerics, a directive that did not halt them from betimes giving in to sexual quickening. The raison d’être for this doctrine was the attainment of grace (and in legend was obligatory for those scouring hither and yon for the Holy Grail) rather than an enlightened governance of reproductive plugs and bungholes. With these exceptions, the Church did not counsel its followers to imitate its ascetic founder but sagaciously welcomed them to breed as copiously as they could.”
Knowing that Ligotti has read deeply in these ancient heterodoxies underpins his use and parodic inversion of the soteriological allegories of these sects towards his own ends. One thinks of the case of Arthur Emerson in “The Prodigy of Dreams” associating it with an active power to enter other zones of being:
“Only on rare occasions could he enter these unseen spaces, and always unexpectedly. A striking experience of this kind took place in his childhood years and involved a previous generation of swans which he had paused one summer afternoon to contemplate from a knoll by the lake. Perhaps their smooth drifting and gliding upon the water had induced in him something like a hypnotic state. The ultimate effect, however, was not the serene catatonia of hypnosis, but a whirling flight through a glittering threshold which opened within the air itself, propelling him into a kaleidoscopic universe where space consisted only of multi-colored and ever-changing currents, as of wind or water, and where time did not exist.”
This sense of “whirling flight” as compared to the “serene catatonia” of the mesmerizer’s variety of hypnotic effect. One remembers the hypnotist psychologist in “Dream of a Manikin” who describes Mrs. Locher’s dreams under hypnosis. Here the power of the deity of dream “splintering and scarring itself to relieve its cosmic ennui,” or the “solipsistic dream deity commanding all it sees, all of which is only itself,” the implications of which “suggest the basic horror and disgusting unreality of its implications.”
So many of these variations of the dark god of dreams, hypnotism, and unreality crop up throughout various stories describing the notion of a malevolent power in Nature supervening in a sadomasochistic drama of manipulation, and at the same time allowing certain favored ones to awaken from the hypnosis and enter the infernal paradise of this entity’s realm unbidden.
There is Victor Kierion in “Vastarien” whose infernal book unlocks the keys to this dream kingdom of nightmares: “the hypnotic episodes of the little book; each night, as he dreamed, he carried out shapeless expeditions into its fantastic topography. To all appearances it seemed he had discovered the summit or abyss of the unreal, that paradise of exhaustion, confusion, and debris where reality ends and where one may dwell among its ruins.”
More to think through… Year’s ago reading Angus Fletcher’s great work on Allegory and the ancient tension between the various levels of exegesis and commentary one realizes that Ligotti’s art is much more subtle than many might know or understand. On the surface each story seems to plot a basic horror scenario, a nightmare that can be understood at the base level of common sense portrayal. But if one takes a more rigorous approach one discovers layers of structure and dimensions within his work that lead to more extensive subsurface meanings and connections leading outwardly to philosophy, religion, ethics, and other subtle implications.
Just more grist for the mill…
In his discussion of Roland Torpor’s horror novella, The Tenant, Thomas Ligotti will compare the division of Insider/Outsider. The Insider believes herself to be substantial and of value, and has the right to impose their egotistical power over all those they deem Outsider’s. The main character of this novella Trelkovsky has moved into an apartment just vacated by a dying woman, and over the course of the tale is hounded by the daemonic citizens of a private hell who live in the apartment building and believe him, unlike themselves to be no one and nothing. Ligotti describes this feeling of being an Outsider:
“Anyone who is marked as being outside of the group is fair game for those who would assert their reality over all others. Yet they, too, are nobodies. If they were not, their persecutions would not be required: They could pass their lives with a sure mindfulness of their substance and value. But as any good Buddhist … could tell you, human beings have no more substance and value than anything else on earth. The incapacity to repose alongside both the mountains and the mold of this planet is the fountainhead of the torments we wreak on one another. As long as we deny a person or group the claim to be as right and as real as we are, so long may we hold this dreamlike claim for ourselves alone. And it is the duty of everyone to inculcate a sense of being empty of substance and value in those who are not emulations of them.”1
Colin Wilson once described the Outsider as a social problem, a “hole-in-corner” man. Describing the anti-hero of Henre Barbusse’s L’enfer he says of the Outsider:
He has ‘no genius, no mission to fulfil, no remarkable feelings to bestow. I have nothing and I deserve nothing. Yet in spite of it, I desire some sort of recompense.’ Religion…he doesn’t care for it. ‘As to philosophic discussions, they seem to me altogether meaningless. Nothing can be tested, nothing verified. Truth—what do they mean by it?’ His thoughts range vaguely from a past love affair and its physical pleasures, to death: ‘Death, that is the most important of all ideas.’2
The ancient Gnostic’s of certain sects would through a form of negative devaluation reverse Socrates’ credo of “Know Thyself”, and begin a process of unnaming, of slowly and methodically erasing all the names within oneself that others seemed to attach to one’s Self as substantive and having value. This was the central dictum of those ascetic and libertine creatures of the gnosis: a knowledge not of what is, nor of what is not; but rather of the nameless and unknown that remains when all names have been erased. This emptiness – a vastation of horror and awareness not of being or self, but of that silence that is greater than all thought of self or value.
In his Theory of Religion Bataille once stated of this impossibility:
“Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion. Of course the isolated opinion is also the shortest means of revealing what the assemblage essentially is-the impossible. But it has this deep meaning only if it is not conscious of the fact. This powerlessness defines an apex of possibility, or at least, awareness of the impossibility opens consciousness to all that is possible for it to think. In this gathering place, where violence is rife, at the boundary of that which escapes cohesion, he who realizes cohesion realizes that there is no longer any room for him.”3
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 198). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
- Wilson, Colin. The Outsider (Kindle Locations 250-256). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.
- Georges, Bataille. Theory of Religion. Zone Books (June 29, 1992)
Over a period of years the works of Thomas Ligotti have pervaded my thought and life. I’ve decided to spend time writing on the art and philosophy of Ligotti in a new book, one that I will hopefully finish by the end of fall. Not sure when it will be published, but I’ll keep you informed. I may not be as active on the site as I’ve been but will still pop my head up from time to time as I progress.