Xavier Aldana Reyes and Rachid M’Rabty

NB. This essay is reproduced in a fuller version in William Hughes and Andrew Smith (eds), Suicide and the Gothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).


Ligotti’s Gothic horror is one where the claustrophobia so often external in first wave Gothic fiction, with its emphasis on, for example, female captivity, is interiorised, but not necessarily in the psychological landscapes well-developed by Victorian and fin-de-siècle fictions. In the latter, psychosis or other illnesses may stand in for pervasive hauntings of the mind. Instead, Ligotti’s Gothic horror is internal because consciousness is inescapable and, worst of all, the source of all our discontents. It has led us, most dramatically, to the knowledge of the certainty of our death. Unless severely mentally impaired, humans are conscious of the inevitable end that awaits them, and, if pessimists, of the fact that any joy or pleasure derived from this world is ultimately transient and must succumb under the duress and strain of pain and fear as one comes closer to death.[1] In the introduction to The Conspiracy against the Human Race, Ligotti posits the idea that consciousness is, in fact, the ‘parent of all horrors’, a concept explored via the work of Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe – especially his ‘The Last Messiah’ / ‘Den sidste Messias’ (1933) – who proposed that human existence is essentially a tragic incident in the development of organic life.[2] This key evolutionary change estranged humans from the rest of organisms, condemning them to a search for meaning in a chaotic universe. Pain and fear of death, as well as survival and procreative instincts, have kept human beings alive thus far, so it is natural that they are inherent parts of the process of living.

According to Ligotti’s readings of Wessel Zapffe, the realisation that these two negative constants in human life – pain and the fear of death – are the only two universal principles by which human existence is organised is ultimately too crushing for most people to uphold constantly or seriously, so societies have found coping strategies that either ignore the problem (entertainment, hedonism) or else counterbalance its negative aspects (religion, belief in a better afterlife). These are, however, little more than illusions belying what, for Ligotti, is an unimpeachable truth, namely, that ‘[h]uman life moves in only one direction – towards disease, damage, and death’.[3] Hence the ‘biological paradox’ of humanity: ‘beings that cannot live with [their] consciousness and cannot live without it’, their tragedy that of seeking transcendence from the petty and visceral baseness of life.[4] Because ‘we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die’, we are forced into the quixotic position of ‘striving to be unself-conscious of what we are – hunks of spoiling flesh and disintegrating bones’.[5] Coping mechanisms thus include anything from substance abuse and its literal alteration of consciousness, to the negation or occlusion of reality in ideology. The best example of the latter is the focus on the positive aspects of existence and the decision that overall, life is worth the suffering, or that it is definitely better than not having existed at all. For Ligotti, this state of affairs places humans in an intermediate stage between living and not living, and is what leads him to present us as live dummies or puppets, as believers in self-possession bloated with a laughable sense of self-importance. Relying on work in neurophilosophy by the likes of Thomas Metzinger, Ligotti also backs up the theory that achieving a sense of self is essentially impossible and just as chimerical and pointless a process as teleological thinking or the search for humanity’s origins.[6]

The parameters outlined above allow Ligotti to divide up the world into optimists, who decide to hang on to the positive aspects of life and think that it is all worth the trouble, and pessimists. At the heart of pessimism lies the horrific proposition, a philosophical truism in essence, that, all things considered, it would have been better not to have been, since existence is ‘basically undesirable’ and the world ‘MALIGNANTLY USELESS’.[7] The logical reasoning behind this, and one that cannot be totally proven or disproven, is that, because life involves suffering on a constant basis – from the pangs of hunger to illness – it is indefensible. Ligotti’s is not a vindictive position, but a mostly rational and intellectual one; as a pessimist his ‘primary concern is eliminating suffering’, rather than further entrenching it.[8] Nobody cannot be and have been or be at the same time, so arguments will differ on whether life is worth the hassle. David Benatar, for example, has been very vocal in his belief that it is not worth the hassle. Even then, because nothingness means no pain, non-being appears a much healthier and honest option in purely philosophical terms.[9] How or why this should be transposed into a series of actions is less clear, for direct suicide – a recurring suggestion and the only real way out of consciousness – is not an option most pessimists would consider. Not only is fear of death not overcome through suicide, but the prospect of the pain the process may cause, as well as its utter pointlessness (it does not change the fact that existence continues to be essentially nonsensical), makes it less appealing than those opposing fundamental pessimism might otherwise entertain.

Insofar as Ligotti has a ‘special plan for this world’, his answer is antinatalism, the conscious decision by the entire human race to stop reproducing, which would lead to its extinction.[10] Let us consider this proposal as he has presented it:

Antinatalism is based on the principle that suffering of whatever kind or degree should not be caused or perpetuated, and that human existence necessarily entails suffering that we can neither escape nor justify, least of all by experiencing pleasures. Thus, the only way to end all suffering is to cease producing beings who suffer. In the abstract, I hold to that principle and believe that those who do not hold to it are simply of a different mindset. In everyday life, I live for the most part as a deluded individual except when I sit down and recall what I believe in principle.[11]

Two crucial points develop from even this brief exposition. First, that the motives behind Ligotti’s defence of antinatalism are not sadistic or intended to generate suffering in others. Crucially, antinatalism should not constitute the imposition of mass suicide by force or by ideological brainwashing. On the contrary, Ligotti understands antinatalism as the least painful option for future generations, an idea in keeping with his insistence that he is also a ‘socialist’.[12] Second, antinatalism does not seek to evangelise; its ultimate purpose is not to transform or radicalise non-believers. Antinatalism, for Ligotti, is a thought experiment that reflects his own beliefs about the pointlessness of human existence and, as he has made clear on various occasions, is a proposition he does not think stands any chance of catching on, given that it goes against everything that has kept the fabric of human life alive for millions of years. Antinatalism is more than a simple opinion, however, for ‘while no one can prove that there is any praiseworthy incentive to reproduce, there are cases in which most would agree there are indeed praiseworthy, or at least not blameworthy, incentives not to reproduce’.[13] The latter, naturally, includes the contribution – the creation – of a human being who will ineluctably feel pain and suffering, and will one day die.

As he has spelled out, The Conspiracy against the Human Race is also a treatise on how the horror of existence operates in supernatural horror. While Ligotti does not exactly make a case for its purpose or real world value, he does attempt to explain how supernatural horror works and connects to a wider philosophy of the world. As someone who thinks, at a personal level, that authorial voice is the most important thing about the literary experience of a given text, Ligotti’s vision permeates his fiction. The intertwinement between practice and philosophy is not a novelty in his oeuvre. His early ‘Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story’ (1985), for example, proposed and exemplified what he considers the three basic techniques of horror writing (the realist technique, the traditional Gothic technique and the experimental technique) only to then argue for another style, his own, where ‘readers would be distressed not by [an] isolated catastrophe […] but by the very existence of a world where such a catastrophe is possible’.[14] In another piece, ‘Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror’ (1985), passages from which ended up in Conspiracy,Ligotti lays down the cathartic qualities of supernatural horror as a form of self-mockery for the pessimist, as a way of ‘indulging in cruel pleasures against ourselves and our pretensions’, of delighting in ‘the Cosmic Macabre’.[15]

Ligotti’s doom and gloom – or brave and realistic assessment of reality, depending on one’s position – thus translates quite differently into his fiction. The encounter with the weird in Lovecraft, an encounter that pits humanity’s insignificance against a vast chaotic cosmos (cosmic horror), is replaced with a clash with reality, in which the world we know (understood in Ligotti as evil and horrific) is glimpsed via strange artefacts like special lenses or music boxes. Similarly, characters in stories such as ‘The Spectacles in the Drawer’ (1987) or ‘Flowers of the Abyss’ (1991) are afforded glimpses into ‘a far-off realm of secret truth whose gateway is within the depths of our own blood’, into ‘the madness of things that to [their] mind[s] form […] the very foundation of existence’.[16] Significantly, however, these newfound dimensions are not so much alternative universes as they are a more faithful rendition of ours; that is, the ‘real’ world superimposed onto the one in which we choose to believe. The latter is othered in Ligotti’s fiction, rendered an ‘unearthly realm’ where only madness and/or death await, and thus works metaphorically and provides the desired weird effect, a ‘subjective sense of strangeness’.[17] As Ligotti claims in his appreciation of the weird, weird experiences in fiction resonate with real life because an ‘experience of the weird is a fundamental and inescapable fact of life’; ‘like all such facts, it eventually finds its way into forms of artistic expression’.[18] In this respect, Ligotti’s and Lovecraft’s visions are contiguous, if their inflections sometimes differ representationally. Although the nightmarish revelations of a perennial darkness at the heart of all things in ‘The Shadow at the Bottom of the World’ (1991) or ‘In the Shadow of Another World’ (1991) are not intrinsically dissimilar to the ‘abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning’ in some of Lovecraft’s more abstract horror tales, Ligotti’s interest lies in the inherently hallucinatory experience of existence.[19] Both Lovecraft and Ligotti stage a chance confrontation with a world that cannot be comprehended, but Ligotti’s characters are drawn by a species of death drive to these revelations.

While both Lovecraft and Ligotti aim to create nightmarish scenarios, there is an impression of inevitability and mild conformist comfort in the latter. Nowhere is this double bind better articulated than at the end of ‘The Night School’ (1991), where darkness and the ‘disease of the night’ incarnated by one Instructor Carniero ends up pervading the body of the narrator.[20] His final monologue is worth quoting in full:

My desire to know something that I was sure was real about my existence, something that could help me in my existence before it was my time to die and be put into the earth to rot, or perhaps to have my cremated remains drift out of a chimney stack and sully the sky – that would never be fulfilled. I had learned nothing, and I was nothing. Yet instead of disappointment at my failure to fulfil my most intense desire, I felt a tremendous relief. The urge to know the fundamental things was now emptied from me, and I was more than content to be rid of it.[21]

While the encounter with utter darkness, the ‘real’ aspect of reality, often presented in a state of liquefying decay, is destructive for the human ego, it also offers some solace in its attack on self-deception. This is both crucial to Ligotti’s conception of the world and to his literary output: there is no real earthshattering instant, or if there is, it is portrayed metaphorically. The moment of horror occurs when we begin to see, through an awareness of our own decay and the impending inevitability of death, the world and humanity for what they are: meaningless, worthless and evil (insofar as intent is projected onto the endurance of pain without purpose).

Ligotti is not a fundamental nihilist, precisely because he does not believe in the concept of values; life, consciousness and free-will are mistakes that humans are unfortunate enough to have to suffer through. Despite an aesthetic and ethical engagement with nihilism throughout his fiction, Ligotti rejects any possibility of a positive outcome. Hence, his dismissal of Nietzschean nihilism and his vocal advocacy of extreme pessimism.[22] As a result, Ligotti’s fiction undermines any impression that life, as experienced through egocentrism, hegemony or philosophy, can be overcome or transformed into anything other than an even more abstract and self-destructive experience. Ligotti’s ecocidal pessimism also rejects romantic or didactic belief in salvation. In his fiction, the sublime – albeit a perverse version that forgoes any sense of pleasure – is transposed onto decay and death, and it is only through the embrace of these, namely, the realisation of the true nature of life as nightmarish, that one can achieve anything close to satisfaction. To confront decay is to apprehend the horror of existence and thus to begin to imagine self-annihilation. If, as Ligotti writes in ‘The Medusa’ (1991), ‘we may hide from horror only in the heart of horror’, so, too, may we alleviate existential anguish by embracing it in fictional terms.[23]

[1] Thomas Ligotti quoted in Matt Cardin, ‘“It’s All a Matter of Personal Pathology”: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti’ (2006), in Cardin (ed.), Born to Fear, pp. 117–33 (p. 131). Logically, Ligotti’s ideal world would be one where either the entire human race is anaesthetically euthanized or else one where human beings ‘ha[ve] experienced the annulment of [their] ego[s]’. Thomas Ligotti quoted in E. M. Angerhuber and Thomas Wagner, ‘Disillusionment Can Be Glamorous: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti’ (2001), Cardin (ed.), Born to Fear, pp. 59–75 (p. 74).
[2] Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010), p. 15.
[3] Thomas Ligotti, quoted in Thomas Wagner, ‘Work Not Done? An Interview with Thomas Ligotti’ (2003), in Cardin (ed.), Born to Fear, pp. 77–91 (p. 77).
[4] Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. 28.
[5] Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. 28.
[6] Ligotti, Conspiracy, pp. 105–13.
[7] Ligotti, Conspiracy, pp. 43, 77. Capitals in original.
[8] Thomas Ligotti, quoted in Tina Hall, ‘The Damned Interviews: Thomas Ligotti’ (2011), in Cardin (ed.), Born to Fear, pp. 175–81 (p. 179).
[9] Thomas Ligotti quoted in Geoffrey H. Goodwin, ‘Thomas Ligotti Interview’ (2009), in Cardin (ed.), Born to Fear, pp. 145–54 (p. 145).
[10] The reference is to his short story ‘I Have a Special Plan for This World’ (2002).
[11] Thomas Ligotti, quoted in Nathaniel Katz, ‘Interview: Thomas Ligotti’ (2011), in Cardin (ed.), Born to Fear, pp. 185–97 (p. 191).
[12] Thomas Ligotti quoted in Hall, ‘Damned Interviews’, p. 177.
[13] Ligotti quoted in Katz, ‘Interview’, p. 192.
[14] Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (London: Penguin, 2015), p. 102. Ligotti does make a point of establishing that this style is not uniquely his.
[15] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 188.
[16] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, pp. 302, 314.
[17] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 318; Thomas Ligotti quoted in John B. Ford, ‘The Grimscribe in Cyberspace’ (2000), in Cardin (ed.), Born to Fear, pp. 53–7 (p. 57.).
[18] Thomas Ligotti, Noctuary (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2012), p. 9.
[19] The quotation is from ‘The Music of Erich Zann’ (1922). H. P. Lovecraft, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 50.
[20] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 401.
[21] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 402.
[22] Ligotti quoted in Hall, ‘Damned Interviews’, p. 177.
[23] Ligotti, Noctuary, p. 17.