“A man awakes in the darkness and reaches over for his eyeglasses on the nightstand. The eyeglasses are placed in his hand.” This is the bare bones of so many tales that have caused readers to shiver with a sense of the weird… To perceive, even if mistakenly, that all one’s steps have been heading toward a prearranged appointment, to realize one has come face to face with what seems to have been waiting all along — this is the necessary framework, the supporting skeleton of the weird…
— Thomas Ligotti, from “In the Night, in the Dark: A Note on the Appreciation of Weird Fiction” (foreword to Noctuary)
The Washington Post once called Thomas Ligotti “the best kept secret in contemporary horror fiction” — but that’s less the case these days. On October 6, 2015, Penguin Classics published Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. This in itself is a noteworthy event, but all the more so because Ligotti is only one of ten living writers published by Penguin Classics.
As much as is possible, I want The Lovecraft eZine to represent the weird fiction community, and not just my own thoughts and opinions. With that in mind, I decided to do something different with this interview: I asked a few weird fiction writers and editors to send me one question each for Thomas Ligotti. I think the result made for a fascinating “interview”, and I hope you will, too.
John Langan: Is there a particular story that represented a breakthrough for you as a writer, an instance where you found yourself at or at least closer to your goals for your fiction?
Thomas Ligotti: I consider my breakthrough story to be “The Chymist,” which was also my first story to be published when it appeared in Harry Morris’s fanzine Nyctalops in 1981. Before that time, I had submitted only a few stories to other small-press horror publications. These were rejected. I agreed with the editors who rejected them and, like every other story I wrote in the 1970s, with one exception, I threw them away. The one exception of a story that I didn’t trash from that period was “The Last Feast of Harlequin.” I didn’t think much of that story, but there was something in it that kept me from tossing it in the garbage. While I dedicated “The Last Feast of Harlequin” to H. P. Lovecraft, I didn’t think of it as a Lovecraftian when I was writing it. That was an addendum added before it appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1990, believe it or not. It definitely reads like a Lovecraftian story, which is probably why I dedicated it to him. However, it also reads like non-Lovecraftian stories I later wrote, that is, as a first-person confessional account of a nightmarish supernatural encounter with or without monsters or something monstrous. That’s the kind of supernatural story I wanted to write. In my later story “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story,” the narrator makes this point. This was also how Poe, Machen, Blackwood, and other horror authors I liked best wrote all their best works, or so it seemed to me then. However, as much as I was influenced by these canonical figures of the genre in question, most of my reading was not composed of horror fiction. Primarily, what I read were works that would be considered experimental or postmodernist, whether or not they were written before or after the postmodern era at its height, roughly from the fifties and into the eighties. These works were all in some way more off the path of conventional fiction so to speak. They were more complex, more devious in their literary design, more thematically remote from the life of average persons, and more stylistically flashy or peculiar in their prose styles, qualities that also describe Lovecraft’s fiction. Some of the later, postmodern figures known for practicing this manner of writing were Vladimir Nabokov, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, minor “death of the novel” authors like Ronald Sukenick, Alain Robbe-Grillet and other French nouveau roman luminaries as well as writers associated with modern-era trends like Symbolism and Surrealism, and various foreign writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are really too many to name, and, more or less as a literary collective, they worked far outside the bounds of literature as seen in the works of the vast majority of modern horror writers, even though I always returned to horror for my subject matter, because I couldn’t be or didn’t want to be a member of the world-historical literary class. I wanted to be a horror writer and only a horror writer in the sense I conceived such a thing, which for the most part had gone out of style with Lovecraft and descendants of other genre masters such as M. R. James. The ultimate product of all these influences from two different literary worlds, horror and non-horror, was “The Chymist.” In that story, I felt I was finally expressing myself in a way I felt most at ease and that flowed rather than lumbered in the traditional way of both classic horror genre and mainstream literature as I perceived how these forms manifested themselves in large part since their inception sometime in the eighteenth century. With few exceptions, I’ve had no love for the classics of literature as commonly regarded. They practically never address anything that has meaning for me as an admittedly outsider type of person. When the voice of the narrator of “The Chymist” began pouring out of me and rambling about his fascination with a corrupt world of ever-mutating decay, I felt as if I had spoken my first words. “The Last Feast of Harlequin” had a similar foundation in its corrosive view of life, its theme of antinatalism avant la lettre, and the fatal depression of its narrator . . . but its perspective on these subjects was simply frightened and appalled. “The Chymist” delivered the same message, because life is unquestionably frightening and appalling, if I may say so without inviting too much abuse from optimistic persons. But there were other ways of conveying this view—twisted and perverse ways that derived as much from the world within us as they did from the world around us. That was how it seemed to me anyway. These ways were also more inventive and interesting to me. So, to answer the question with emphasis, it was indeed with “The Chymist” that I felt I had broken through as a writer and was closer to my goals as a writer.
Richard Gavin: Greetings, Tom. In past interviews you’ve mentioned how you experienced nightmares quite frequently throughout your life. Given that many of your tales are imbued with an authentically nightmarish air, it seems safe to assume that your dream life holds (or held) some connection to your creative life. With your fictional output being reduced in recent years, do you still experience unworldly dreams as you once did?
Thomas Ligotti: I would rather live in a persistently vegetative dreamless state than have to look forward to the dreams I have every night, even if they’re not nightmares of a wake-up-screaming nature or, just as bad, night terrors in which I’m conscious of being asleep but unable to move. In order to emerge from these states, I do have to scream myself awake and then get out of bed or off the couch as soon as possible to avoid sinking back another round of night terrors. In 2012, I went under anesthesia three times in connection with an acute episode of diverticulitis. The first time, I recall awakening and immediately asking what time it was in order to orient myself. But I didn’t have any special feeling about emerging from an encounter with death of which I was not even aware. The next two times, I remember both going under anesthesia and emerging from it. When I went under on those occasions, I dearly hoped I wouldn’t regain consciousness. When I did, however, it was both wonderful and terrible. Being anesthetized, as anyone knows who has undergone this experience, is in retrospect as if you had been dead. There’s nothing to remember—no dreams, no feelings, nothing but a vague sense of resting in utter blackness. This is the wonderful part. The terrible part is the resentful disappointment I felt of being brought back to life. I know this may sound affectedly morbid, or even a complete put on by someone working on his image as a creepy outsider horror writer. If someone happens to think this, and I can understand why they might, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be belligerent, but I know what’s true for me, even if no one else can conceive of it. This absence of understanding on the part of others is something that a great many people must live with. There are plenty of forms of suffering for which an individual is accorded all kinds of concern and benefits. The reason for this is that most people have suffered in a multitude of the same or similar ways, even it’s just a broken bone. Others get nothing simply because what they suffer is relatively rare. I’m not saying that this state of affairs is just or unjust, deserved or undeserved. It’s just the way it is. Ultimately, it works out for the perpetuation of the species. If no one could comprehend another’s suffering, everyone would exist in a condition of frustrated misery for which they received no empathy. What they experience could only be known by report and recorded in medical and psychiatric manuals, which is exactly how much of the worst pain in the world is in fact understood. This works out relatively well sometimes. A surgeon doesn’t need to know what it’s like to have his colon cut out to do a fine job of cutting out someone else’s colon. It can be trying, however, when your psychiatrist only knows the particulars of some emotional malady you’re experiencing because he read about it in the DSM. You may receive some concern and benefit because in appearance you’re obviously a mess, and it doesn’t seem that you’re faking it. But this isn’t always the case. As a society, we would probably not be well served if it were always the case. It would be quite demoralizing, and those who otherwise wouldn’t be burdened with pity or sympathy for others, as they often are for starving strangers or victims of mass murders, would barely be able to get out of bed in the morning. Mass empathy for pain quite obviously isn’t in the interest of survival. A certain amount of empathy is necessary. Too much empathy on the part of more complex organisms would have thwarted evolution at some pre-human phase of progress. No one should wonder why some people reject evolution as the explanation for human life. Evolution is creepy and merciless.
Rick Lai: Was the Great Black Swine from My Work Is Not Yet Done inspired by William Hope Hodgson’s pig-like monsters in The House on the Borderland and “the Hog?”
Thomas Ligotti: No. It was inspired by Schopenhauer’s idea of the Will-to-live, which functioned in My Work Is Not Yet Done as much as a monstrous entity as it did a non-human force that determines our behavior and invisibly intervenes in the world. The Great Black Swine was the supernatural villain of the book. It made everything happen as it happened in the narrative because that is its nature and tendency. It doesn’t mean to be evil, but from a human perspective it is.
Nicole Cushing: Let’s talk about poetry. I’ve read Death Poems and The Unholy City. I’ve also read several of your vignettes (which some might think of as prose poems). I’m struck by the range of these works–how they address similar themes with quite different styles and tones. What led you to explore varying styles and tones in your poems? What led you to use poetry to explore some ideas, emotions, and images rather than short fiction? I know you admire the poetry of George Sterling, but it seems–at least in form–much different from yours. Are there any poets you consider to be significant influences?
Thomas Ligotti: I’ve never considered myself a poet in any significant way. Relatively few authors are adept in both fiction and poetry. Poetry requires a specialized and arduous study that I had no interest in pursuing and was far afield from what I wanted to achieve as a writer. This is especially true since the late nineteenth century, when poetry began to grow into a practically an occult art demanding a vast knowledge of its history and methods. Today, few major poets are even readable by anyone except other poets. I have no criticism of that. There are exceptions, of course, and most of my favorite poets are among these: A. E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, and Philip Larkin, for example. At the same time, some of the poets I best love are incomprehensible in an ordinary sense, even to other poets and literary critics, and yet there’s something in their work that’s attractive to me on a level that has nothing to do with common understanding. The Symbolists and those influenced by these poets are excellent instances of such poets. The poems of Georg Trakl are impenetrable, completely resistant to any consensus reaction or understanding. Nonetheless, I love the poems of Trakl. I have no idea why. Poetry that I’ve particularly enjoyed and feel I understand in some nebulous way has been written by Chinese and Japanese poets influenced by Buddhism. I took their style, which is simple on its surface, as my model for most of the poems in my collection Death Poems, named after a genre of poetry composed by Buddhist monks on the occasion of their impending death. For this reason, I believe, my death poems seem meager and even childish to many readers. Other poems I’ve written, including those in Things They Will Never Tell You, I Have a Special Plan for This World, and This Degenerate Little Town are written in cycles that collectively tell a kind of story or convey a common view of life or some peculiar phenomena in life. The difference in the poems of these cycles is much like the difference between stories I’ve written that have divergent themes and styles. The influence on these works is that of poets like Charles Bukowski and E. E. Cummings, who wrote rather strung along, prosaic poetry. There is a definite cadence and structure in the titles I’ve cited, but it doesn’t resemble the kind of linguistically dense and cryptic writing of modern or postmodern poets, T. S. Eliot on the one hand or John Ashberry on the other. The Unholy City really isn’t composed of poems strictly speaking. It’s a collection of lyrics to be read with music that I wrote and badly recorded to accompany the screenplay Crampton. As far as the vignettes or prose poems I’ve written, most of which are collected in Noctuary, these are very much like stories from which plot is practically absent and a theme or mood predominates. They’re far more dense than I could have made a story and hence are shorter in length so as not to overtax the patience of the reader and retain a hint of narrative interest. Each has a point somewhat in the manner of an essay.
I admire George Sterling much for the same reason that I admire the poems of Clark Ashton Smith, at least more than I admire his stories. Both poets were quite conspicuously influenced by Charles Baudelaire, translator of one of the most unprolific yet important poets of all time, Edgar Poe, whom Baudelaire and a number of later poets of various nationalities have translated. Baudelaire’s influence is global and his mark is upon many of poets I have most cherished. I’ve never taken Poe as a model for my poems, mostly because so many of them are romantic and sentimental. And I’ve never taken Lovecraft as model either because of his obsession with writing poems in the style of the eighteenth century, with the exception of course of what I consider one of his greatest works, The Fungi from Yuggoth. I think if I had one work of Lovecraft’s to preserve it would be this loose cycle of poems. They include most of his major themes and, in my opinion, have an atmosphere to them that is far more haunting than that of his stories. Plus they don’t wander into his later quasi-science fiction style, which easily contain the worst prose of all his works. At the same time, the vision conveyed in these stories is necessary to his overall greatness as a writer and a thinker. I hope my response has sufficiently addressed your question, since I could write so much more on this subject.
Jeffrey Ford: Although you are most associated these days with the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, the manner in which you employ dark humor in your stories (one of my favorite aspects of the work) is more reminiscent of Poe. What part, overall, does humor play in your work?
I don’t think of humor as a discrete element in anything I’ve written. I do think of it organic to a number of my later stories. These are often works that have been influenced by Thomas Bernhard, whose fiction and plays provide a good many chuckles of deranged sort on every page. To some degree, this is also a quality of some of the works of Franz Kafka. Some of his friends who heard him read from his works have written that he giggled all the while. I can imagine doing the same in reading from some of my own stories. In an email exchange some years ago, I was asked about the humor in my stories, and my answer was the humor makes blackness blacker still. That sounded true to me at the time, and I still think it has some element of truth to it. As I previously remarked, I intend the humor in my writing, and that includes The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, to be organic not adventitious. I think any humorous effect in my stories and in Conspiracy may be a function of exaggerating a grim or nihilist idea or theme. Humor of this kind often appears in my interviews, though I don’t think it has arisen very much has in this one. I’m not sure why that is. It’s quite possible that in responding the questions by writers of works I know to be praiseworthy I’ve attempted to come across as more sophisticated than lighthearted in my responses. Among the writings I’ve most enjoyed are the short stories, not the novels, of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. Aside from their humor, the style in which they are written is among the most inventive and impressive in all of literature. Of course, these are works of pure humor, something that is indeed enjoyable but cannot really mean much to me. A writer I followed for some time whose work is humorous and yet at the same time deeply grim is Stanley Elkin. I learned a lot from him. Like Wodehouse, he was also a breathtaking prose writer of incredible inventiveness. As a writer whose subject matter was often depressing, such as that which emerged from the narrator of The Franchiser, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, as did Elkin, he far exceeded Samuel Beckett, who I think is overrated for his melding of humor and pathos. As far back as I can remember, a good many people have remarked on my comic remarks and clownishness. I’m not aware of using humor as a mechanism to engage others into being well disposed toward me. That may be true, but I think it’s actually an integral part of my nature. At the same time, my humor in everyday life has had its origin in my suffering. I’m often funniest when I feel terrible. This connects with humor in my stories being organic to their gloomy subjects. It’s not exactly gallows humor, though it sometimes arises in dark contexts. I supposed an example, at least I hope it’s an example, of this type of humor would be in my repetition of the words “beef, pork, goat” in “The Clown Puppet.” It’s the word “goat in this sequence that makes it funny to my mind. I actually saw a meat store in a slummy area of Detroit that advertised an inventory of beef, pork, and goat. I made a mental note to use those words in a story someday, which I did. Maybe the eating of “goat” isn’t funny to some people, but I found it a riot. I repeated these words under my breath for the rest of the day. Goat.
Pete Rawlik: “The Last Feast of Harlequin” has seemed to have had a lasting impact on weird fiction and the Lovecraftian Mythos. Its impact can even be seen in Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter”. The story itself intersects nihilism with the clown/outsider motif. In the quarter century since its publication outsider/clown themed bands such as GWAR and Insane Clown Posse have spawned a movement of followers who seem to embrace both absurdity and nihilism, echoing what you did in “Harlequin”. Do you feel at all prophetic about these movements and how do you react to their existence and growing popularity?
Thomas Ligotti: I definitely don’t feel prophetic about these movements. Maybe there was some influence, I don’t know. In the 1990s, someone from a band called Isis, I believe, contacted me to ask if they could record a song closely based on “The Last Feast of Harlequin.” I said they could.
Joe Pulver: Hi, Tom. We were talking once and you mentioned The Shadows and Danny Gatton. Many writers use music as inspirational fuel when writing. Can you speak of music and how, or if, it plays a role when you write, or to your attraction to it in general?
Thomas Ligotti: I’ve never listened to music while writing. I’ve written while driving, but I can’t imagine writing while listening to music. It would be too distracting. I’ve been drawn to popular music from an early age. I asked for a transistor radio for my birthday once in order to listen to baseball games. I also listened to hockey games while lying in bed on Sunday nights, because it was the only sport broadcast at that time. It was depressing, listening to broadcasts of hockey, a game in which I had no interest. But I had to listen to something to take my mind off having to start another week of school the next day. Like many people, I found both Sundays and school depressing. Monday wasn’t all that great either. Coming Tuesday, I felt better. Not long after I received the transistor radio to listen to sports, I started to listen to local radio shows that played popular music. Afterward, I stopped listening to sports altogether and only listened to music. This was in the early sixties, and I retain nostalgia for songs of that period, especially songs that had what I perceived as haunting melodies or instrumental hooks such as “Icicles and Popsicles,” “Johnny Angel,” “Suspicion,” “Patches” and other dead teenager songs. I also liked instrumental surf music. Then there were the Beatles and other British Invasion bands. I took up guitar and played lead in a band throughout junior high and most of high school. We played an incredible variety of songs throughout that period and had a particular liking for The Lovin’ Spoonful. Then came blues, blues rock, and psychedelia. We became a jam band at some point. Eric Clapton was my idol, and we did most of Cream’s discography. I played guitar solos at monstrous length. While I had an unholy terror of performing in public, I loved music so much that I put up with the anxiety. Before every gig, I literally trembled. All I wanted was for it to be over. For some reason, though, it didn’t affect my playing. Music ended for me when I had an emotional breakdown and started having multiple panic attacks every day. I didn’t pick it up again until college, when I took courses in theory, sight singing, ear training, all of that stuff. I was terrified every day. Everyone else in class was a music major except me. I worked far more at music than I did at literature and language. I started playing classical guitar. I also played electric guitar at home and taught guitar in a music studio for a some years as one of my jobs to pay for college. I never performed in public again except in music classes. In 1975, I stopped listening to music altogether when my first depression hit. That lasted for years. Sometime later in the seventies I began to feel better and started reading and writing every free moment. Throughout the eighties, I read and wrote before and after work. By then, I was working at a reference book publisher. I learned a lot about taking writing seriously in that job and abused the sources of the company, stealing books and literary journals, photocopying documents, using research sources like the yearly MLA compilations for my own purposes. At the same time, I was one of the most productive employees in the literature criticism department. By the early nineties, I had published my first three collections of stories. But writing was incredibly stressful for me. It made me sick and aggravated my panic-anxiety disorder. I was hopelessly addicted to tranquilizers by then. So I decided to stop writing and start playing guitar once more. I thought guitar would be less stressful. I don’t know why I thought that. It never was before and it wasn’t now. I bought tons of equipment and started listening to and playing music all the time. I wanted to become adept at every kind of instrumental music, acoustic and electric, and I began writing and recording every day. One project was to compose an album of solo acoustic guitar pieces within two years. And I did it, along with all the electric music I was playing and recording with the help of a drum machine. Then I wanted to start writing again. Now I had two hobbies I was pursuing, and I was stressing myself to the edge. In the late nineties, I was also working in what became an antagonist environment for me. During that time I wrote My Work Is Not Yet Done, in which the narrator decides to kill his co-workers and ends up doing worse to both them and himself. I also wrote all of the stories in Teatro Grottesco. There was a lot of overlap between music and writing during those years. I also began collaborating with David Tibet throughout the nineties on various projects. I had to stop writing fiction in the later nineties because I just couldn’t do it anymore. However, that was when I realized something—I now had no literary projects between me and death. That horrified me. There was just nothing constructive for me to do . . . and then death. Music alone wasn’t enough because writing had become so important to me once again. One day a friend of mine at work told me about an idea he had for the introductory segment to an episode of the The X-Files. I pushed him into collaborating with me on writing an episode for the series. That was the beginning of our so-called career as screenwriters. We got an agent. Some stuff happened. Most stuff didn’t. Harper-Collins wanted me to write a franchise novel based on the X-Files episode that my friend and I had written, and they ended up reading it because The X-Files wouldn’t read scripts for fear of being accused of plagiarizing anything they rejected. An editor at Harper-Collins thought very highly of the script and thought the X-Files people should have made an exception, as they did for one of the brothers of someone who worked on the show. In any case, there was no way I was going to write an X-Files novel, but my friend, Brandon Trenz, and I kept writing screenplays and at least I had some writing to occupy me until I died. At the same time, I was being persecuted at work for no good reason until they finally got me to quit in 2001. I moved to a faraway state, where I worked as a freelance writer and started playing and recording music again. In late 2001, I suffered a second major depression, which eventually was diagnosed as the depressive phase of a bipolar disorder. At this point, I finally came to a revelation about music. As happened during my years-long depression of 1975-78, music died for me. I could no longer feel its emotional effect. I had experienced this during my earlier depression, but when I recovered I couldn’t bring myself to question the efficacy of music or its power for a music-loving person. In the grip of anhedonia, the most severe symptom of depression and the one from which I suffered, one thing a music-loving person finds out is that they don’t have music anymore. It’s as if it never existed. You no longer listen to music. There’s no point. It seems stupid. You may recognize in an abstract way the absence of music, but essentially there’s just a void where once there was music. You now know that there is nothing inherently moving in music. It’s just sounds like any other sounds. It was taken away from you. It may return, but even if it does you will always know it can be taken away at any time. And so can every other emotion that ever gave you the illusion that your life was worth living. It’s like the opposite of having been in great pain and then having that pain removed. What a break to no longer be in pain. The last thing you want to do, though, is think that you can suffer pain in the future, and probably will. But you try not to think about that, and your mind is quite willing to forget. When music comes back, and it probably will, the best you can do is forget that, like pain, it can disappear . . . except you won’t like that disappearance. You can’t think about it. Music as a phenomenon with no necessary essence, no necessary substance—it can hardly bear thought, which is why you don’t give it any if you can avoid that truth. You must go back to living a lie, a lie among many and a lie that exposes all the other lies you live on. I lost music for ten years this time. I also lost my imagination for those ten years. They both came back, and I loved them again. But I didn’t believe in them anymore. I’ll never believe in them as I once did. They’re not real—not really. They are something to kill time, something between me and death. They come and they go all the time now. Strangely, or perhaps not, one thing that never came back was reading. I do still read sometimes. I know what I’m reading, but I can’t feel what I’m reading. And that isn’t actually reading. So if you ever wondered, Joe, about a certain book you edited that I never said anything about, now you know. I couldn’t read it.
S.P. Miskowski: I think you said your energy and imagination were stimulated after being under anesthesia three times in 2012. (Vivid dreams following surgery made me aware of how much of my creative mind I’ve hidden in shadows for years.) Do you continue to draw creative stimulation from those experiences in 2012, and if so, in what ways?
Thomas Ligotti: The creative stimulation I experience for about eight months in 2012 lasted until the year’s end and then gradually sunk into a kind of bog inside me. My energy lessened once again and my anhedonia returned, though not with a vengeance. I know that I still have an imagination; I just can’t access it. If I try, I have fits of agitation. I would like to write the first book, either as fiction or nonfiction, that conveys what this experience is like. Maybe I will someday.
Michael Cisco: Please expand on your interest in philosophy. I’m interested to know if there are other thinkers, apart from Cioran and Schopenhauer, whose ideas you find useful.
Thomas Ligotti: I have no interest in philosophy as such but only in specialized problems that loom large in the thought of some philosophers and philosophical writers. These problems are relatively few and are related to one another. Generally, they would be classed as “existential,” though for the most part in a commonsensical manner rather that has to do with persons and phenomena in an everyday, ordinary sense and not as abstract things that exist only within a wholly conceptual system. So I’m no more interested in understanding Nagarjuna’s concept of emptiness than I am in Martin Heidegger’s concept of Dasein. Hypothetically, such matters are supposed to help me understand who I am and what the world is. Practically, they do not further for me or to me any such understanding but only provide idiosyncratic ways of talking about who I am and what the world is. It’s as if they subscribed to the bon mot of Oscar Wilde that he lived in fear of not being misunderstood, as if even that much could be established. I wish I could say it’s just me, but it isn’t. Therefore, and in brief, they do not efficiently touch on what I experience and how I function as a cogitating organism. It’s not mysterious, then, that I have an interest in more earthly and visceral modes of specialized problems, one of them being the problem of consciousness. I feel that there is such a thing as consciousness and that I experience it in various ways. I take it personally that I exist all, and having a comprehension of the role consciousness plays in how I feel I exist is important and interesting to me. David Chalmers sees the workings of consciousness as the “hard problem” because we can’t say how mental phenomena relate to physical phenomena. He approaches this problem from linguistic, ontological, and epistemological perspectives, among others. He assumes that there is such a thing as consciousness, and that we may be able to know something about it. On the other hand, Daniel Dennett argues that consciousness is an illusion, and hence there is no problem at all. Possibly his best-known work, Consciousness Explained, is often referred to as Consciousness Explained Away. This is a typical face-off in philosophy. At some point in the history of some much-discussed problem, someone comes along and says that the problem itself is incoherent and doesn’t deserve the attention it’s gotten. There are, of course, about a billion other theories of consciousness. In The Conspiracy against the Human Race, I was interested only in explaining the ideas of Peter Wessel Zapffe and how they relate to the following specialized problem: “Is being alive all right?” Zapffe viewed consciousness as an emergent property of the brain that occurred at some point in the physical evolution of human beings. Consciousness as a biological phenomenon is also the view of respectable and well-known philosophers like John Searle. But I decided not to go into either parallel or rival theories of consciousness to that of Zapffe. That would have eaten up pages at a point in the book where I thought I needed to move on and get as fast as possible to my principal interest: “Is being alive all right.” It would have gotten into technical longueurs and made The Conspiracy against the Human Race a work of philosophy, or, more accurately, a sad attempt at writing a work of philosophy that could be revered and famously misunderstood. That wasn’t my aim. I wanted to write about how I saw human existence—and nothing else. I wanted a record of what I thought about being alive, even though I deliberately never used the first-person pronoun anywhere in the book. I didn’t want to argue in a logical manner on subjects that to date are still up in the air. I lost interest in logic in school, and not because I didn’t do well in the subject. I can’t imagine being engaged by thought of a philosopher like W. V. O. Quine, who thought of philosophy as a kind of helper discipline useful only in furthering the purposes of science. And though I studied the system Schopenhauer worked out in The World as Will and Representation (or Mind) to both explain how we could know the nature of Kant’s “thing-in-itself” and why it was complicit in the world being such a crummy place for human beings, I didn’t care and wasn’t convinced by the former but only cared about the pessimistic conclusions derived from its speculations. As advertised in the subtitle of The Conspiracy against the Human Race, I was developing “A Contrivance of Horror,” and I used the ideas of others whose thoughts and emotions advanced my own in different ways. I didn’t use the ideas of thinkers who didn’t interest me and didn’t efficiently address the specialized problems that concerned me. The ideas of Zapffe did interest me and with super-efficiency addressed specialized problems that concerned me. Relevant to my interest in consciousness are my interests in the problem of Free Will problem and the problem of the Self, that is, whether or not we have free will in some sense and whether or not there exists or could exist a self. As with discussing consciousness and how it functioned in our lives, assuming the correctness of Zapffe’s view, which I did assume, I could only go so deeply into the vast bibliography of speculative thought on Free Will and the self. I also glossed over some matters vital to moral philosophy. David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been, which is given over to practically all the same matters as The Conspiracy against the Human Race, strictly employs moral philosophy to make his case that bringing to life a person is not all right. For him, and for many others, being against life is spoken of as “philanthropic antinatalism.” I’m a moral anti-realist in principle, because few or none can hold the opinions I do and still maneuver in the world, and so morality as a sub-class of philosophy doesn’t interest me and philanthropic obsessions aren’t useful in explaining why someone might see things as I do. When I asked David Benatar why he based his arguments for antinatalism on moral philosophy rather than philosophical argumentation relating to Free Will, he replied that he wasn’t interested in Free Will as a genre of philosophy. Fair enough. It’s not as if you can choose what will interest you as a philosopher, or as anything else. Now, I hope what I’ve written above conveys a rough idea why I’m not interested in philosophy. There are others philosophers and philosophical writers who interest me besides the ones mentioned in The Conspiracy against the Human Race. If I hadn’t mentioned Galen Strawson, who has written some of my favorite books on Free Will and the self, I would cite him here. Actually, it’s possible that aside from philosophers mentioned in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, I’ve read every philosopher who could possibly interest me, with the exception of untranslated philosophers, or whom I would find useful in some way. Philosophers who don’t interest me are professionals like, I don’t know, Slavoj Zizek or philosophers associated with the indescribable Continental school plus any philosopher that would interest them going back a couple hundred years or so.
Salome Jones: Have you considered expanding “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures” into a full treatise on the art and consolations of writing horror?
Thomas Ligotti: I like that idea very much, Salome. “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures” was relatively fun to write, which is something I can’t say about most of my stories. In that piece, I first discussed what I believe is a strong connection between pessimism and supernatural horror, which led to my inserting each section of the story in my later book The Conspiracy against the Human Race, in which I also devoted two distinct sections to pessimism. Plus “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures” was written in the style of nonfiction, a form that I find much easier to work in than fiction.
Ramsey Campbell: What do you think time and space are for? What do they mean to you?
Thomas Ligotti: Time and space, or spacetime, are what death needs to grow in. That’s what I think they are “for,” and that’s also what they mean to me. While other positions have been argued, none of them can be proven. For instance, according to surrealist physicist Jean-Paul Jean, spacetime is for polishing goldfish, thus giving their scales a radiant sheen. Jean Paul flaunts an excellent case. In principle, though, his theory obliges him to commit suicide. I wish mine did, if only in principle.
Be sure to check out Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, published by Penguin Classics, and The Grimscribe’s Puppets, a Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology, and Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti.
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A most informative and revealing article. I enjoyed it immensely.
Ligotti expands on subjects he addressed in “Conspiracy…,” but on such a more personal level.
Great interview. The more of Tom’s interviews I read the more I realize why I am so attracted to his fiction, at least in part.
I identify with him, mental illness being the overarching theme of my life. From puberty ’till 27, I lived mostly in a semi-tangible hell. Crippling anxiety and depression. Very short periods of hypomania, fueling very short periods of productivity. At some point I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. At 27 I found a med that, to a degree, has allowed me to be a semi-functional animal. To a degree.
Tom’s relationship with music is pretty much my own. Anhedonia really fucks with your head in a permanent way. So does all of it, really, but at least the rest allows you to pretend there isn’t a gossamer veil waiting to part for you.
Thanks for the interview. Even better when they show you something about yourself… I think.
This is a fantastic look into the mind of a true master, and a wonderful array of well thought out questions. Fantastic interview Mike, great idea. Thank you for sharing it with us. Hope you’re feeling better as well!
This was a brilliant idea, to have numerous writers ask questions, and Tom’s generous replies are fascinating. I’ve shared this extraordinary interview on Facebook. I especially love Tom’s comments on Fungi from Yuggoth and its importance.