Rachid M’Rabty

There is one particular scene in the cult British TV sitcom, Peep Show, wherebyMark Corrigan (David Mitchell), the often cynical and jaded miserabilist of the show’s double act, berates Jeremy ‘Jez’ Usborne (Robert Webb) for his overly optimistic, care-free approach to life. On the harsh realities of life, he states:

Nothing you want is ever going to happen. That’s the real world. Your hair isn’t red. People don’t walk around on stilts. Maybe somewhere you can earn a living sitting around drinking margaritas through a curly plastic straw, but in this world you’ve got to turn up, log on and grind out.

In this world, positivity and blissful optimism and, of course, its societal application within the logic of capitalism, stands out as a palpable horror that belies the increasing hopelessness felt in society and contributes to a wider sense of detachment and resignation.

The fiction of Thomas Ligotti denotes an interesting and speculative response to this. In his fiction, Ligotti’s stories show that underlying the ridiculousness and absurdity of the ways that societies function is a fundamental choice between optimism, which is the belief that life is fundamentally a good thing; and that somehow the horror of the world or a life will ultimately be changed for the better – or pessimism. Pessimism is that which, by contrast, decides there is no redeeming an intrinsically bad thing, that the only possibility is to withdraw from it or to face up to this so as to better understand and navigate the worst of its detrimental effects.

In this short and intentionally provocative paper, I explore how in Thomas Ligotti’s fiction, societies are led towards a kind of post-hope pragmatism, wherein ‘grinding it out’ is just about all there is to do. Through a brief reading of two of Ligotti’s most revered short stories, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’ (1990), and ‘The Town Manager’ (2003), I want to demonstrate that despair and resignation underpin Ligotti’s post-hope worlds. In so doing, I suggest that in this situation, pessimism (which in the readings of these texts I align to pragmatism) presents the best means of confronting and negotiating a path through what is for his characters a fundamentally miserable existence.

Of kinds the kinds of philosophical framing of the world and existence that exist, pessimism is not ideal. The problem is that the wanton idealism of optimism is baseless and irrational. Pessimism is (at least nominally) premised on an assessment: Things aren’t perfect and there is no sound basis to believe they ever will be. Indeed, it is conspicuous that today some of the most apocalyptic and reprehensible aspects of social and political coercion come wrapped in or justified by a rhetoric of optimism and progress – all of which neglects to address or knowingly obfuscates an underlying malicious intent.

For Lauren Berlant, optimism it is cruel, a staple of social and political experience that is an obstacle to your flourishing.[1] For Slavoj Žižek, the celebration of idealistic, optimistic gestures is the ideological scaffold of an enforced neoliberal capitalist hegemony.[2] For Terry Eagleton, it is a barrier to radical action.[3] Ligotti is equally as equivocal in his diagnosis of optimism as a tool of those in control:

Those seated in the head offices of the earth know that gales of happy talk must be thrown the way of ordinary folk, who need to hear that things are all right all the time, or, if they are not all right, soon will be. Whether your ambition is to rule over your fellows or simply to manoeuvre among them, a show of jaunty optimism is requisite.

What all agree on, is that the idea of optimism is increasingly void as a means of coping with the nightmare of both human society and the human experience.

Weird fiction and particularly supernatural horror, of which Thomas Ligotti’s work is most categorised, is perhaps the most effective vehicle for conveying these kinds of ideas as it is a mode that as the critics Stoneman and Packer argue, ‘calls into question the inadequacy of rational thought to organize and structure the sensible world of appearance’.[5] This is argued throughout Ligotti’s non-fiction work The Conspiracy against the Human Race in his impassioned defence of supernatural horror. As examined in Conspiracy, for Ligotti, things went downhill for us all as soon as human beings became aware of themselves which is why he claims that consciousness is parent of all horrors. An awareness of one’s own self-importance immediately changes one’s relationship with the world around them. Since this nascency of human consciousness, human beings have clung to their optimism as they strive to create some narrative, meaning or means of understanding a new world in which they have purpose.

The problem for the pessimistic view, however, as described by Stoneman and Packer, is that:

Even if pessimists found an audience willing to entertain their ideas, they would still face another significant hurdle, namely, that the denial of existential significance is at some odds with the affirmative function of rhetoric to preserve a world of meaning, one in which material reality is not blindly cruel and indifferent but welcoming, reassuring and kind.[6]

Ligotti’s works challenge precisely this common-sense logic that structures our entire world: Instead, Ligotti, as will next be examined in the two hitherto cited short stories, depicts communities and individuals who are directed by a seemingly invisible or unknowable hand – “something pernicious” – that, through malicious politicking, or subtle acts of coercion results in the drain or destruction of the individual/community and ‘makes a nightmare of our world’.[7] This is the post-hope message that emerges in Ligotti’s fiction as positivity, optimism, etc. etc. leads only towards degeneration and the facilitation of absurdity and suffering. Ligotti’s sandbox societies of ‘Mirocaw’ (Last Feast); ‘Funny Town’ (Town Manager) exhibit how the pessimistic mindset (an awareness of ones doomed state) becomes a necessity in surviving (or temporarily negotiating a way around) the nightmarish and pernicious predicament that is the horror of existence.

Widely considered as one of Ligotti’s most notable tales, is his Lovecraft-inspired ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’ (1990). In this story, as part of his investigations, the narrator must embed himself within a new society and in the process becomes transformed as all pretensions towards an optimistic and positivist rationale are ebbed away as he confronts the incredulity of his existence. In this story, the unnamed anthropologist (specialising in the study of clowns and ritual) enters the mysterious town of Mirocaw to study the “fool’s feast” – which takes place each winter. During his investigations, the anthropologist discovers a celebratory festival that aims to stave off the destructive effects of an ambiguous winter depression, that afflicts the town. The town itself, we are told, is prone to many “holiday suicides” and disappearances, which the narrator’s former professor, Dr. Thoss, had years earlier speculated was connected to an epidemic of Seasonal Affective Disorder – indeed, the narrator, on arrival in the town suffers a similarly ambiguous ailment and discomfort.

Of the various events that the town’s carnival offers, the anthropologist becomes obsessed with the discrepancies between the ‘main’ festival and its typically celebratory atmosphere, and a seemingly independent festival that ‘seemed to exist on the wrong side of some great invisible barrier dividing the desirable sections of Mirocaw from the undesirable’.[8] While each festival mirrored the other in some respects, the narrator is drawn towards the strange, melancholy clowns who seemed to constitute ‘nothing less than an entirely independent festival – within a festival’.[9] While the more conventional, celebratory festival has an optimistic intent – a traditional celebration that staves off the worst of the town’s seasonal malaise –  this ‘other’ festival seemingly just goes through the motions veering between indifference and morbidity. Indeed, by following in the footsteps of the participants of this festival, the narrator becomes transported and transformed in way devoid of all optimistic leaning:

As I drifted along […] I felt myself more and more becoming an empty, floating shape, seeing without being seen and walking without interference of those grosser creatures who shared my world.[10]

Naturally, the curious anthropologist follows these rarefied harlequins who quite literally lead him into the nadir of their ‘festival’ of ‘sorrow, lament, and mortification’.[11] Entering the scene with his rationalist, scientific-hat on, he believes the congregation to be ‘merely morbid souls with beliefs that were eccentric to the healthy social order around them’.[12] What follows, though, serves to undermine precisely this rational and scientific understanding of the world that gives him both balance and purpose. In the caverns beneath Mirocaw, he bears witness to a Lovecraftian scene of weird horror as the town’s “winter queen”, in a supernatural, cult ritual, is sacrificed to the gathering clowns who have transformed into an indescribable, worm-like creature. After escaping the ritual and then the town, the anthropologist is unable to rationalise the events he has experienced, or resolve the haunting decree that he, too, is one of them. As a result, he descends into a forlorn state of despair and acceptance of his malady and horror.

‘To face the normal flow of life as I had formerly known it’, he explains, ‘would be impossible [as he is] now very much under the influence of a season and a climate far colder and more barren than all the winters in human memory’.[13] Unable to return to his ordered, homely and secure understanding of the world in which plays the role of respected academic, he is in some (morbid… perverse…) sense liberated from the weight of life, though doomed by his acquaintance with what exists beyond the façade of the everyday. Indeed, the post-hope message of this narrative is thus made clear: The anthropologist concludes that what he believes to be is not, and never will be again. That the life he knows is illusory – a product of a wider cognitive double-dealing – and the life he ends the story with, is one that (by all previous logic or rationality) should not be. His ‘conscience [is] vaulted into a realm from which it would never return’ and he is inducted into a pessimistic world suffused with a profound sense of dread wherein the scientific, stable and sheltering narratives he once sought are revealed as utterly baseless and collapse.[14]

The best he can hope for following this grim revelation is to not be consumed entirely by this information, to grind out an existence in only minor discomfort, such as that which is adopted by the other ‘clowns’ of Mirocaw who drift weightlessly through existence in a state of morose obsolescence. Ligotti’s protagonist here, through his experiences, is able to gaze upon the true malignancy hidden beneath the carnivalesque façade of the town’s festivities and is able to peek beneath the masks worn by the townsfolk – the puppets in a macabre plot or conspiracy. Indeed, we would all do well to sneak a glance beneath the showy attractions and disguises worn within our own society so as to better identify consider the reality of our given situations and the plots of those in the head-offices of the world, that direct our own increasingly hopeless lives. This point leads nicely, then, into my discussion of the second short story, ‘The Town Manager’.

In ‘The Town Manager’, this sense of abject hopelessness or resignation confirms that the pragmatic, pessimistic response to the underlying conspiracy against the human race is a requisite. In this narrative the reader follows the protagonist and his fellow townsfolk through the transition from one government leader, to another who scribbles out his demands for non-sensical policies without challenge or recrimination; and then rules with tyranny over a disempowered and exploited citizenry who, ‘nonetheless, still had to go through the motions’.[15]

For the townsfolk, this grim state of affairs is simply:

The order of things into which [they] had been born and to which [they] had committed [them]selves by compliance. The risk of opposing this order, of plunging into the unknown, was simply too much to contemplate for very long.[16]

It is a story that functions as a parable of the absurd and mendacious nature society at-large as it is coerced and compelled by political forces motivated by greed and self-interest to act in ways that are detrimental to the communal good. Here, the new town manager comes in and immediately sets about ordering his subjects to transform the town into a sideshow attraction – ‘Funny Town’ – and then once the attraction lost its appeal, disappears with every penny of revenue generated.

Like ‘Last Feast of Harlequin’, in ‘The Town Manager’, characters are systematically trapped within, and violently constrained by, forces beyond their understanding. Specifically, here, they are trapped by a fear of change and loyalty to traditional lore. In this narrative, though, life for the town’s population becomes a routine of the grotesquely absurd. As the narrator exhorts, ‘those of us who lived [in the town] functioned as sideshow freaks’, puppets and slaves to the unknown malefactor as their abhorrent vision for the society is put into practice.[17] In as such, this story functions as a pejorative retort to those who hold any lingering optimistic faith in government – as the townsfolk here do – to act in ways that is foster dignity and wellbeing of its people.

When the narrator of ‘The Town Manager’, disillusioned by the ridiculousness of the town’s machinations, decides to walk away from it all, he acts out of optimism – a belief that elsewhere something must be better. However, as is consistent with Ligotti’s wider literary intention to rain only misery and despair on everyone’s parade, the narrator’s venture is doomed to fail. ‘I had fled that place’, he admits:

I passed through many towns, as well as large cities, doing clean-up work and odd jobs to keep myself going. All of them were managed according to the same principles as my old home town, although I came upon none that had reached such an advanced stage of degeneracy. I had fled that place in hopes of finding another that had been founded upon different principles and operated under a different order. But there was no such place, or none that I could find. It seemed the only course of action left to me was to make an end of it.[18]

Conventional life, as a participant citizen of the town, is the adversary which the narrator must overcome, either through acceptance or through a somewhat self-destructive resignation and disavowal of the certainties of their reality. At the end of the story, for the narrator at least, negation from this world (no matter the cost), is preferable. Strangely, it is at this point of pessimistic confirmation that an alternative is presented. Conversely, this alternative is an escape further into the system, in the form of a career in town management. As he puts it, it is ‘either that or make an end of it’.[19]

Here, rather than some kind of positivist approach to overturn a detrimental government or culture, the protagonist feels further compelled to grind out his existence. In so doing, rather than attempting to make an end of it, the narrator edges towards another ‘solution’ of sorts. In this post-hope world, he is unable to overcome an inherently bad thing, he ascribes to a survival premised on becoming the inherently bad thing – by taking up a career in Town Management. His response is a sign of how resigned the narrator has become to the present state of affairs that life in the town and beyond offer no positivist reprieve or alternative. Instead at the story’s conclusion, hopelessness belies a cynical pragmatism.

This paper has engaged in a speculative exposition of some of the misery of existence in Ligotti’s works and how characters navigate his thoroughly pessimistic world-view. What is striking, however, is that it is only when divorced of any pretensions towards optimism, be it a belief in the stable and rational understanding of the world, or a belief in the socio-political systems that govern us, do his subjects begin to understand the world around them and begin to take action that affects their lives.

Despite the numerous scenes of festivities and absurdities that fill Ligotti’s stories, his protagonists are rarely convinced or enamoured by the frivolities of life, as they become aware of a pernicious malefactor behind their façade. As these two stories show, society is overwrought with horror (be it a conspiracy that conducts and coerces entire towns; a tentacled, conqueror worm that eats people and plunges entire populations into a malaise; or the horrors of government and bureaucracy) and is overwrought by despair and resignation. Indeed, despair at these situations and the resignation to just grind out an existence despite the horror of what they have experienced/are experiencing – to accept this post-hope, negative-realist, new-reality – is characteristic of the Ligottian story. Here, pessimism, the abandonment of optimism and rationality, is necessary as characters attempt to articulate a pragmatic response to, or attempt to navigate a way through, life and society in his works.

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (London: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 1.
[2] Slavoj Žižek, The Courage of Hopelessness (London: Allen Lane, 2017), p. xiv.
[3] Terry Eagleton, Hope Without Optimism (Yale University Press, 2015), p. 5.
[4] Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010), p. 169.
[5] Ethan Stoneman and Joseph Packer, ‘No, everything is not all right: Supernatural horror as pessimistic argument’, Horror Studies 8:1 (2017), 25–43 (p. 33).
[6] Stoneman and Packer, p. 26.
[7] Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. 185.
[8] Thomas Ligotti, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (London: Penguin, 2016 [1989 & 1991]), p. 268.
[9] Ligotti, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, p. 280.
[10] Ligotti, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, p. 284.
[11] Ligotti, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, p. 289.
[12] Ligotti, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, p. 290.
[13] Ligotti, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, p. 294.
[14] Ligotti, ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, p. 290.
[15] Thomas Ligotti, ‘The Town Manager’, [2003] in Teatro Grottesco (London: Virgin Books, 2008), p. 24.
[16] Ligotti, ‘The Town Manager’, p. 29.
[17] Ligotti, ‘The Town Manager’, p. 31.
[18] Ligotti, ‘The Town Manager’, p. 35.
[19] Ligotti, ‘The Town Manager’, pp. 35-6.