Perhaps the greatest living writer of “weird” or supernatural horror fiction, Thomas Ligotti is the ultimate heir to Lovecraft and Poe. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, first published in 1986 and 1991 respectively, has been reissued in a single volume this year, while The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is an enormously important and influential philosophical work, encapsulating a particularly bleak form of realism. Tank got to grips with Ligotti’s dark vision of human life.
Interview: Thomas Roueché / Portrait: Jennifer Gariepy
Thomas Roueché Our issue is concerned with ideas around the real. To what extent does your work grapple with ideas of the fault lines between reality and fiction? How does weird fiction, in your view, tread that line?
Thomas Ligotti Anyone who knows me or knows what I’ve written will tell you that I think the bottom-line reality for human beings is strange and awful – just absolutely horrific at base. At least that’s what I say I believe, whether or not I actually do. Of course, it serves me well to think that others believe the same thing, whether they know it or not. Then I can feel that I’m right, and few things are more gratifying to a person than to think that they’re right.
Weird fiction, without quibbling about terms, folds in nicely with my own views. In successful weird fiction, the protagonists cannot accommodate themselves to the weird element in the story. Quite often they go mad because they’re unable to do this. If they can do this, the weird element is lost and the story becomes a battle of opposing forces, material or not, that are integrated into reality. Thus, it fails to be weird. Only by retaining the sense of the strange and awful as inexplicable qualities of life can a story be truly weird. Read H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” or Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan for examples of the weird, par excellence.
Personally, I have no idea how I can be alive, except in a purely evolutionary way, which is fairly strange and awful if you think about it. How I can think that I’m alive and real is beyond me. And then there’s the business of suffering and death. Why is that necessary, because it certainly seems to be? The whole thing makes no sense. I can barely think about it, and I do all I can not to dwell on the matter. I could say that I don’t understand how other people can deal with this reality. However, I actually do understand how they can. But I can’t get into that, or what is the real in the first place, in the space allotted. I can only offer some opinions concerning the subject on which I’m purported to have some authority.
TR What are the importance of dreams in your fiction?
TL Quite a number of my stories have had their origins in dreams. Usually the dreams make little sense, but they have certain atmospheres and scenes in them that I find inspiring upon waking. I make up narratives after the fact. I dream every night and I hate it. I’d love to be able to sleep dreamlessly. It would be a real escape for me, better than drugs. I’ve had surgery a number of times, and coming back into consciousness subsequent to anaesthesia has made me realise just how great it is to lie in a black oblivion. I genuinely hope I die on an operating table.
TR To what extent does your fiction offer an escape from life and reality? Or does it, rather, draw attention to the nature of reality?
TL Fiction offers me an escape from reality because when I’m writing I think only about writing, not suffering or death. Sometimes I experience tachycardia and chest pains when I’m writing – not just fiction but anything, such as this interview. But I’m so intent on finishing the project that I don’t care if I die in the process. I’m quite intent on finishing what I start. I wish I could relax and enjoy the process of writing, but I can’t. I’m definitely the kind of person who likes the idea of having written rather than writing itself. It’s stressful and a lot of work, but there are some things that I have to get out of me. I’m very much an expressionist and didactic writer, so I have the illusion that what I write is terribly important. I think every writer needs to have that illusion in order to get anything done.
TR Your range of influences seems to go beyond the classic horror canon of Lovecraft and Machen, to people like Thomas Bernhard and Jorge Luis Borges. Can you say a little about how they in particular have influenced your work?
TL A lot of writers are concerned about being original and having their own voice. Then they read something and wish they had written or could write in that manner. I don’t see any problem with acting on that impulse. Plus, I know that few, if any, writers care to write about the things that I do, so I’m fairly confident that something in what I write will be original in some way.
TR Do you see yourself as writing in an American vein specifically? Weird fiction has a long American history, but many of your influences are European in origin.
TL I think that writing in an American vein means writing realistic novels. I don’t read, and wouldn’t want to write, a realistic novel. Europeans and other foreign readers are more accepting of short stories as a worthy genre of literature. Americans seem to think that only realistic novels count as real literature, and if you don’t write those then you’re not much of a writer.
TR I’m interested by how you have been influenced by E. M. Cioran. Do philosophers influence you as much as, or even more than, other writers?
TL I had thought practically everything that philosophers, by which I mean pessimistic philosophers, have written by the time I was a teenager. So I can’t say they’ve had much of an influence on me. I think a lot of people would be able to say the same thing. It’s just a matter of retaining those unsettling teenage revelations into adulthood. Adolescent angst, as it’s often termed, is almost universally derided. It makes all the sense in the world that it should be, given that it isn’t ultimately assuring that being alive is all right. Interestingly, far more suicides are committed by middle-aged and old people. I think that makes its own kind of sense.
TR Do you hold any truck with the idea of genre? How do you see the pigeonholing of various forms of literature?
TL I think so-called pigeonholing as a way of categorising types of writing is largely legitimate. Writers tend to produce the kind of works they love most, and if what they love has traditionally been pigeonholed, that’s likely to be the kind of thing they will write. There are obviously exceptions. To my mind, the biggest pigeonhole is that of novels of popular entertainment versus everything else.
Graham Greene made such a distinction between his “entertainments”, such as Our Man in Havana, which was adapted into a terrific film, and his more serious novels, such as The Power and the Glory. Greene was also a great film critic, so he had a genuine appreciation for popular works of entertainment and didn’t necessarily look down on them. In my own ventures as a reader, I’ve read almost nothing that falls into the category of “great works”. Most of the authors who have influenced me most are either classed as minor figures like Lovecraft and Bruno Schulz or eccentric geniuses like Vladimir Nabokov and Borges. I’ve read the works of writers from all the great periods of literature and studied their styles. They just happen to be, for instance, the French moralists of the 18th century rather than Henry Fielding, or William Burroughs rather than Saul Bellow.
TR How did you come to be a writer?
TL I had hardly read a book until I went to college. It was then that I found there were actually writers who produced works that addressed the difficulties of my life and echoed my own thoughts and feelings. Later, I found that I had a talent for writing and desired to become one of those writers. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know what would have become of me, since I’ve been a psychological mess from my teenage years and had nothing else that might have occupied my time otherwise. When it came time for me to get a job, I found myself well qualified to work as an editor at a reference-book publisher in Detroit, which is probably the last place people associate with the publishing of reference books. There was no question that I would ever lead anything like a normal life, and at some point I lost all desire to do so. When I first read that Lovecraft was once married I remember thinking what a great misstep that was in his life.
TR Have you done other work? You’ve spoken about how distress in the workplace inspired some of your stories; could you talk a little about that?
TL I paid my way through college, so I worked various jobs. You could do that then. I had worked at my father’s grocery store from the time I was 12. For most of my years in college I was a manager of paper routes in the circulation department of a small newspaper; an assistant teacher of math and English for a government programme; and a guitar teacher. After working for over two decades at the publishing company, I was pushed out of the job over the course of two years. My Work Is Not Yet Done was incited by that time, which I think accounts for its odd place in my literary output. As I said in an interview that appeared in Publishers Weekly, I regretted the impulse that led to the writing of that book. I had written some other “corporate horror stories”, as I called them, before then. When those were published in the early to late 1990s, I heard that some people were afraid I might come to work and commit some act of mayhem. I don’t know if those rumours were true. No one who knew me believed them. I had a number of good friends there, including the late prose poet Thomas Wiloch and Brandon Trenz, with whom I collaborated on a couple of film scripts. After I quit my job at the publisher, I became a freelance editor. In 2005, I cracked up pretty badly and haven’t worked since.
TR Gnosticism seems to be an important thread within your work. How does it influence your fiction, and your philosophy?
TL The tenets of Gnosticism were a perfect fit with my view of the universe. Woody Allen famously said, “If it turns out there is a God […] the worst you can say about him is that he’s an underachiever.” I’d say that’s the best you could say about him. And so did the Gnostics, who regarded the Old Testament creator entity as a false and self-deluded deity. However, they also believed there was a real God, and I couldn’t go there with them.
TR The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is a profoundly pessimistic book, but its pessimism seems to serve an underlying pedagogical purpose. It feels like your radical pessimism offers a way through the illusion of consensus reality to some form of utopian potential on the other side. Would you agree with this?
TL You’re right about my pedagogical intent with Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I also wanted Conspiracy to serve as a kind of book of consolation, and even a self-help book of sorts. Judging by some of the emails I’ve received, it has served this purpose for some people. I have a profound desire to be proud of the human species, but our history warrants only contempt or pity. There seems to be no greatness in us and nothing to suggest it might emerge in the future, if we have much of a future. For all the encomiums that we have lavished on ourselves, we have proved to be failures except in the arena of delirium. We are the losers of the galaxy and perhaps the universe. Even our dreams are a disgrace. We are successful only as savages. Our ambitions have a whiff of nobility about them but our achievements are those of a race of imbeciles. No evidence exists, nor ever could exist, to justify our continuation. Even our gods, hideous as they are, appear to have deserted the scene. Would that the most hideous of them might return for an encore of the Flood minus Noah. §
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, published by Penguin Classics, is out now. The portrait of Thomas Ligotti shows him standing in the doorway of a storage room in the Penobscot Building, where he used to work. Behind him is “a small, open-air enclosure from which one can leap over 20 floors down to the streets of Detroit”.