I first found out about Thomas Ligotti in a way I think he would appreciate: a slow-moving thread on a long-past relevant forum. Prominent posters in the thread made fond offhand references to “Thomas” and his frequent puppet motifs. It was later that I learned that he was the inspiration for Rust Cohle in True Detective, whose monologues about the rapture of self-negation have been famous for years.
Here is a short history of Thomas Ligotti. He was raised Catholic, which he describes as an initiation of sorts into the terror of life. He worked in publishing for a long time, but now works as a freelance editor. He identifies as a socialist, but the policy that he expounds upon in most interviews is the right to euthanasia, which he considers the hallmark of a civilized country. In one interview, only recently translated from Polish (this is the experience of a Ligotti reader: creeping from one dusty archive to the next for a scrap) he derails a question about influences by ranting about the right to die.1 Ligotti is severely mentally ill, and openly so. He is frank about his bipolar disorder, he refers to himself as a depressive, and he constantly talks about his resentment of medication that he feels disables him. He says in one interview, “only in a good mood can I think about my existence or existence itself without thinking about wanting to be euthanized by anesthesia.”
He’s fond of watching jai alai. He has what appears to be an all-encompassing fascination with clowns, puppets, masks, and theater: anything that highlights the unreal and throws reality into sharper contrast. He wrote an unfilmed episode of The X-Files. One of his books is a manifesto of anti-natalism. He describes his work as entertainment, but also as a service of sorts: to tell others who can see the strings pulling us all that they are not alone. So that, paradoxically, they can become interested in the man whose work proclaims that there is nothing interesting. Mostly, he would likely be irritated at this recital of facts, since he says “I definitely don’t perceive myself as having a strong core identity. I don’t believe that anyone possesses anything of the sort, which is why I don’t believe in what some people refer to as a “self,” one that can exercise free will.”
His work fosters devotion, not in small part due to the fact that Ligotti is a recluse, which gives him an allure. A few days ago, it was announced that he will soon release his first work in eight years. This is not unheard of: his previous break was about a decade long. The new work is ten “apocalyptic poems” that will accompany an album by Current 93, a prior collaborator. (They previously worked on an incredibly eerie album with spoken word that made my neighbor bang on the wall in annoyance.) The best resource for Thomas Ligotti information is Thomas Ligotti Online, a site that looks very much like it must have ten years ago.
Ligotti’s stories are usually set in derelict towns, which one Ligotti scholar refers to as Ligotti’s depiction of the void capitalism leaves in society.2 They usually feature clowns, puppets, masks, and theater: anything that highlights the unreal and throws our own reality into sharper contrast. The prose is elliptical and dry, but has traces of black humor: “his affinity with the immanent schemes of existence had always been much deeper than ours. So we buried him deep in a bottomless grave.”3 The Lovecraftian influence is obvious in some of his work, but whereas Lovecraft describes the quest for meaning and knowledge, Ligotti says it’s useless. The writer he cites the most in interviews is Vladimir Nabokov.
So why read Ligotti? Because, even though he insists that “mortification of one mystery after another has no terminus beyond that of the seeker’s own extinction,” the black hole of this human void is interesting.4 I’ve seen pictures of Vantablack, a black pigment that is one of the darkest materials ever discovered. It’s hard to avert your gaze. You keep looking into it, waiting for something more. The fact that it is a hole in the world is what makes it uniquely compelling. Ligotti’s pessimism is Vantablack literature.
It’s not nihilism, to be clear. Nihilism is a type of belief. True pessimism is beyond that. It’s like what Emil Cioran, a pessimist philosopher said: “I couldn’t care less about the relativity of knowledge, simply because the world does not deserve to be known.” It’s self-evident, instead of the grasping search for meaning. Ligotti is someone who sees an innate lack of free will and thus concludes that the human quest for identity and meaning is ultimately futile.
As an eternal optimist, I know Ligotti would not characterize me as one of the elect demoralized, but as a loser: “we are each either among the demoralized showing the way to a future of eternal nightmare, or we are losers celebrating our moment in hell.”5 The fascination of being a loser celebrating my moment in hell in the Ligottian schema is perusing his work at leisure and coming away uplifted by the adventure and intrigued by a novel perspective. I’m a fellow depressive, but in my personal night there are stars.
1 Wojciech Gunia, “‘They say I should kill myself and not try to spoil their enjoyment in being alive’: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti,” Vastarien: A Literary Journal 1: 1: 83.
2 Michael J. Abolafia, “‘Eccentric to the Health Social Order’”: Inversions of Family, Community, and Religion in Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin,’ Vastarien: A Literary Journal 1: 1:73.
3 Thomas Ligotti, “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” Songs of a Dead Dream and Grimscribe, 448.
4 Thomas Ligotti, “The Spectacles in the Drawer,” Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, 299.
5 Thomas Ligotti, “Metaphysica Morum,” The Spectral Link.