Forgive me if I seem … not myself. I’ve been traveling in dark realms, lurking in shadows, trembling in liminal spaces where the imagination turns on itself and consciousness seems more a burden than a blessing. I have glimpsed, however briefly, the invisible, the unspeakable, the unknowable. In short, I have been reading Thomas Ligotti.
If you haven’t heard of Thomas Ligotti, you’re not alone. Despite winning three Braham Stoker Awards and amassing a devoted following among fans of supernatural horror and weird fiction, the reclusive American author remains a relatively obscure figure in the contemporary literary landscape.
And when I say literary, I mean it: in 2015, Penguin Classics published a single-volume edition of Litgotti’s first two short story collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: His Life and Works, effectively elevating the author to the pantheon of “serious literature.” In his foreword to the combined edition, Jeff VanderMeer describes Ligotti’s stories as “transformative” and places them in the “same fixed, timeless position as those of Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka.” I’ll go a step further: In any coherent universe, Ligotti would be as influential as the canonical giants VanderMeer likens him to, and as widely read as pop-horror maestro Stephen King.
Did I say “coherent universe”? Ay, there’s the rub. Like the work of other conjurers of the horrific and weird, Ligotti’s stories aren’t bound by modes of realism that presume coherence and order. Quite the opposite. The author employs the supernatural like a surgeon wielding a scalpel, cutting away the soft tissue of our so-called “reality” to expose a more visceral existence lurking beneath.
Ligotti’s uncanny revelations take many forms. Often his stories feature isolated, somewhat eccentric narrators whose encounters with the supernatural push them to the edge of sanity, and beyond. Formally, these intimate monologues are indebted to Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, both acknowledged influences, though in subtlety, style, and craft, Ligotti’s best work rivals or surpasses his precursors. Sometimes the author flirts with a more realistic tone; sometimes he adopts familiar genre tropes, such as vampires, zombies, and demons. When he recruits these tropes, Ligotti cleverly subverts them: the half-breed vampire in “The Lost Art of Twilight,” who lusts for the nourishment of art, not blood; the zombies in “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” who dress up as the figure from Edvard Munch’s The Scream and willingly give themselves over to a mindless existence “liberated from the weight of life”; the murderous demon in “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story,” who deftly parodies a number of popular horror styles (“the realistic technique, the traditional Gothic technique, and the experimental technique”) before revealing his true nature in the form of a personal confession, which is itself a parody of yet another classic style. If Songs and Grimscribe consisted exclusively of such mash-ups, the collections would be no less worthy of note—and perhaps more accessible, or at least more welcoming to casual readers who turn to the genre seeking entertainment.
But, as Terrence Rafferty observed in The New York Review of Books, Ligotti’s stories “clearly obey impulses that have little to do with entertainment, and sometimes feel indifferent even to story.” The deeper one delves into these collections, the more it becomes apparent that the author’s impulses work against a fundamental expectation of the genre—namely, that the purpose of horror fiction is to “take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives,” as Ligotti himself writes in “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror.” Professor Nobody continues:
At first glance, Ligotti seems to concede the point. He acknowledges the paradoxical appeal of using horror to confront our deepest fears, what Ruthanna Emrys describes as a way of asserting control over a horrific world. Ligotti even grants Professor Nobody license to be poetic about it, while slyly referencing his own appropriation of certain aforementioned tropes. But in doing so, the author slips a dagger into the heart of the genre: if writers aim only to make readers “squirm or quake,” then they are missing the deepest horror of all, which Professor Nobody himself articulates a few paragraphs later: “Existence equals nightmare.”
It is here that Ligotti’s ambitions as a storyteller become clear. His goal is not to soothe our existential unease through catharsis or assurances that evil can be defeated; rather, it is to reveal the fundamental disorder of reality—what he described to Peter Bebergal in The New Yorker as “the derangement of creation.”
Ligotti’s vision of disorder is uncompromising. In a deranged universe, where mere existence is a nightmare, consciousness is a double curse, granting not only an awareness of one’s mortality but also the capacity to discover the utter insignificance of the self. What keeps us from going insane with terror is the collective illusion (Ligotti might prefer delusion) of “a reality ordered to our advantage.” And yet, for all the defenses we build to preserve this illusion, we can’t escape an innate sense of being surrounded by the unknown—what the author calls “the invisible.” In a deranged universe, true horror comes when our secret suspicions of disorder are confirmed, when we are forced to confront the unknown, when we suffer the misfortune of beholding even a fleeting glimpse of the invisible. Our illusions crumble, leaving us doomed and alone in a dark abyss. It is this horror—the horror of consciousness itself—that Ligotti’s fiction evokes without reprieve, and without equal.
One need not agree with Ligotti’s bleak worldview to be affected by his stories. The finitude of human bodies and human consciousness is not a matter of debate, nor is the fact that, to us, the universe will always be more unknown than known. Ligotti speaks to these truths without attempting to resolve the fundamental questions they pose. His fiction is not a philosophical search for answers, because in his reckoning, answers are irrelevant.
If your instinct is to step back from the brink, if you prefer to be entertained rather than to contemplate the horror of consciousness, Professor Nobody will not begrudge your choice to forego his lectures in favor of “stories that are just stories.” There are many writers in the genre eager to make you squirm and quake, and many who do it well. And for those who find themselves leaning forward to peer into the void, those who would travel in dark realms and lurk in shadows, those who would dare to be transformed by encounters with the unknown, there is Thomas Ligotti.