Joe Howsin

In his non-fiction work Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti presents the reader with examples of both optimistic and pessimistic philosophies; the optimist, Nicolas Humphrey calls human consciousness ‘a wonderfully good thing in its own right!’[1] Meanwhile, the contrasting pessimist Peter Wessel Zapffe refers to our conscious minds as ‘a breach in the very unity of life […] an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature’.[2] Both sets of philosophers, Ligotti says, ‘are equally passionate about what they have to say, which is not to say that they have said anything credible’.[3] However, he goes onto say that as a writer or philosopher: ‘even though you cannot demonstrate the truth of what you think, you can at least put it on show and see what the audience thinks’.[4] This balanced approach to the debate of pessimism verses optimism (a debate Ligotti says will never be solved) frames his overall position as one striving for balanced discussion rather than a dogmatic assertion of the undeniability of pessimism; indeed, Ligotti freely admits that optimism is the preferred school of thought for ‘the crushing majority of philosophers’.[5] But by possessing consciousness, and being optimistic about the fact, Ligotti argues that: ‘we believe we are making a go of it on our own, and anyone who contradicts this belief will be taken for a madman or someone who is attempting to immerse others in a contrivance of horror’.[6] This quote succinctly surmises Ligotti’s perception that pessimistic philosophy is often disregarded and misunderstood. However, it is my hope with this paper to show that while one may disagree with the philosophy of pessimism, we can at least strive to understand it, and in doing so better understand one of the most effective and unique writers of supernatural horror of our times.

Climate change (or global warming) is possibly the most significant existential danger to ever face humanity and the natural world. What’s more, it is a threat which is completely man-made. From this perspective it’s difficult not to be pessimistic about climate change and the role the human race has played in its creation and proliferation, a feeling which is only made worse by the campaign of misinformation and inaction which has compounded the issue for decades. While there is still cause for hopefulness in the developing technologies of renewable energies and the growth of public concern regarding climate change, one man for whom the great destructive capabilities of humanity will come as no great surprise is the author this symposium is dedicated to: Thomas Ligotti. In Conspiracy Against the Human Race Ligotti outlines his pessimistic philosophy and argues that humanity’s place within the natural world is both alienating and destructive; this sentiment is reinforced in his short fiction in which nature is twisted and corrupted by the malign presence of the human, resulting in grotesque hybrids which act as avatars for our gross misuse of the Earth’s ecosystem.

This paper takes a view of Ligotti’s pessimistic philosophy through an environmentalist reading of his short story ‘The Shadow at the Bottom of the World’. Published in Grimscribe, The narrative concerns an unnamed farming community which is faced with an inexplicable and threatening new season which Ligotti calls, ‘a new autumn’.[7] The community awakens from a night of bad dreams to find that a pervasive warmth, unusual for the time of year, has swept over their town and is emanating particularly from a farmer’s field. In the centre of this field stands a lone scarecrow whose limbs flail violently as though it were a man being hanged by a noose, and spread all around it is a dark, soft soil which is warm to the touch. The unnatural warmth and the deprivation of sunlight by thick cloud disturbs the townspeople so much that they rip apart the scarecrow, only to find that underneath the straw and cloth lies a fungus-like darkness, which is human in shape. Attempts to destroy or dig up the scarecrow are in vein, and when the townspeople return to the field the next morning, they find the scarecrow has disappeared, a bottomless pit now sitting in its place. The pit is hastily boarded over with planks and dirt, but the strange weather worsens as malevolent faces appear all over town and the entire community suffers horrific nightmares. The only member of the community to foresee and seemingly understand the phenomena is an old man named Mr. Marble; however, when a storm of unnatural light emanates from the trees and plants Mr. Marble is possessed by an unnamed entity and stalks the town with a knife, looking for victims to sacrifice. With great effort, the possessed Mr. Marble struggles to leave town and is found the next morning having slit his wrist next to the bottomless pit. Having hidden inside and selfishly hoped for the possessed Marble to kill anybody but themselves, the townspeople, ungrateful for Marble’s struggle against his possession and his self-sacrifice, unceremoniously fling his body into the pit.

In what follows, I will analyse Ligotti’s depiction of a corrupted natural world, the imagery invoked by the figure of the scarecrow, and the disturbingly human face of this ecological nightmare. To begin, it is clear to see that throughout ‘The Shadow at the Bottom of the World’ Ligotti uses imagery of decay and disease in order to create a profound unease within the reader. The soil and atmosphere of the town is described as ‘unnaturally warm for the season’, the implied danger of which is emphasised as it violently ‘erupted with some feverish intent’, which so encompassed the town that ‘even the stars of chill nights seemed to grow delirious and take on the tints of an earthly inflammation’.[8] These references to fever and inflammation heighten the sense that this heat is emanating from a sickness, whilst perhaps even more unsettlingly the mention of intent not only implies that the natural world possesses a consciousness, but when coupled with the reference to delirium we are confronted with the idea of an earth which is not only diseased and dying, but that has been driven insane. The relationship between unnaturally high temperatures and the corruption of the natural world is an obvious connection to global warming when imposing an environmental reading upon this text. But of even greater significance is the way in which Ligotti frames this relationship closely with intersections of the natural and the man-made. He paints the contrast between the human influenced farmland and the wild woods as being a dichotomy of imprisoned, orderly and dead verses the vibrant, chaotic and free: ‘A vine-twisted stone wall along the property line of the farm was the same shade as the sky, while the dormant vines themselves were as colourless as the stone they enmeshed’.[9] This is in contrast to: ‘the colours of the abundant woods along the margins of the landscape were un-dulled, as if those radiant leaves possessed some inner source of illumination or stood in contrast to some deeper shadow which they served to mask’.[10]

As the rage of the strange autumn grows over the course of the story, we see the colours of the wild woods strip away the dark mask of human civilisation and invade the town in a storm of eldritch light, sound, and images, which invades the townspeople’s homes and minds. It seems like a promise, and a warning, that fleeting and arbitrary divisions of land, such as the farmyard wall, will prove inconsequential if the natural world were to rear up and forcibly cross the threshold. But Ligotti doesn’t just present us with a world gone wrong, as in many other Weird or apocalyptic tales, he also bleakly drives home that not only is the world sick and out to harm us, but that we’ve brought this violence upon ourselves.

To articulate humanity’s imbalanced relationship to the natural world Ligotti presents the image of the scarecrow as a foul parody of Christ’s crucifixion. There is a clear visual metaphor supporting this reading, as its: ‘arms were slackly extended in a way that suggested some incredible gesture toward flight’.[11] Ligotti also refers to it as ‘a great idol in shabby disguise, a sacred avatar out of season’.[12] The farmer, by dropping a stone into the pit the scarecrow disappears into, essentially re-enacts the boulder being pushed over the mouth of Christ’s tomb, with similarly ineffective results. Just as Christ’s crucifixion transforms him into an embodiment of human sin, so too do the scarecrow’s trappings of straw and cloth, when stripped away, reveal it to be the embodiment of the earth’s sickness and its all too human shape:

He stepped up to his scarecrow and began to tear the imposter to pieces […] the skeleton of the thing should have been merely two crosswise planks […]. Yet the shape that stood before us was of a wholly different nature. It was something black and twisted into the form of a man, something that seemed to have come up from the earth and grown over the wooden planks like a dark fungus, consuming the structure […] there were thin arms stretched like knobby branches from a lightning-scorched tree. All of this was supported by a thick, dark stalk which rose from the earth and reached into the effigy like a hand into a puppet.

However, while Christ exists to absolve humans of their sin, the scarecrow is a vengeful spirit and a dark mirror for the callous destruction of the ecosystem; instead of bringing absolution, there is a reckoning. Humanities’ guilty role in the creation of this dark messiah, whether through direct action or mere neglect, is signified by the invisible stain which marks those who touch the scarecrow’s inky form: ‘he [the farmer] was trying to rub something from the hand that had touched the shrivelled scarecrow, something that could not be seen’.[14] This guilt is driven home further by the appearance of weird faces which invade the homes and dreams of the townspeople. This phenomenon endows the vengeance of the natural world with a human face which, for Ligotti, is anything but a desirable feature. The decay and corruption these faces represent is linked directly to human consciousness with the line: ‘these designs were not unfamiliar to us … for in them we recognized the same outlines of autumnal decay we saw our dreams’.[15] Finally, this corruption is tied not only to the human mind, but our very bodies; as blood from Mr. Marble’s corpse appears to be of the same dark consistency as the scarecrow’s body: ‘We knew very well, of course, what that shadowy blackness did feel like’.[16] From the very start, the scarecrow has foretold the corruption within mankind.

The condemnation that the scarecrow represents is made even more damning by its movements: ‘its legs kicked wildly, like those of a man who is hanged’.[17] This imagery of hanging makes the scarecrow embody both Jesus and Judas simultaneously, the natural world is portrayed in this way as being both a betrayer and a figure of righteousness.

The townspeople, naturally, see the reckoning which has come to their town only as a betrayal:

From the beginning, there was an exchange to which we had resigned ourselves: that which is given must one day be given back […] But the phenomenon we confronted seemed nothing less than a premature craving, a greed surpassing our covenant with earth’s estate.[18]

The irony of this sentiment appears to have been completely lost on the townspeople; there is no acknowledgement that the ground upon which their town is built was given by the earth, and is now being taken back; no admission that the excessive exploitation of natural resources constitutes this same greedy craving; there is no regret whatsoever at the fact that it was humanity which first overstepped the covenant of harmony between the earth and all living things. This, Ligotti would argue, is a symptom of the way in which our unique human consciousness has separated us from the rest of creation: yet even from a pessimist’s point of view, this hardly seems an acceptable excuse for the damage which has been done. For surely any optimist would argue that with heightened consciousness comes a greater responsibility to care for the animals and plants which sustain us in turn? It is for this reason that climate change and an ecological perspective on Ligotti’s stories constitutes the best way to bridge the gap of understanding between pessimists and optimists. The ending of this story is indicative of Ligotti’s position here. The narrative concludes with the bleak implication that despite all that has happened, the townsfolk have not changed their ways. Like the crucifixion of Christ and the destruction of the scarecrow before him, Mr. Marble’s reward for his self-sacrifice is to be buried, deep, ‘in a bottomless grave’.[19]

[1] Nicolas Humphrey, quoted in, Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (New York: Penguin, 2010), p. 7.
[2] Peter Wessel Zapffe, quoted in, Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, p. 5.
[3] Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, p. 7.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, p. 3.
[6] Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, p. xxii.
[7] Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (New York: Penguin, 1986), p. 445. All further references will be to this edition.
[8] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 439; p. 437; p. 438.
[9] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 439.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 438.
[12] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 438-439.
[13] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 439-440.
[14] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 440.
[15] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 444.
[16] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 448.
[17] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 438.
[18] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 446.
[19] Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, p. 448.