A few years back I wrote a dissertation having to do with the philosophy of existentialism. When I would tell others this, they would often pause, screw up their faces and draw back a moment. “Why are you writing about that?” they would ask, skeptically. “It’s so gloomy.”
On those occasions I sometimes found it difficult to reply. The truth is, I didn’t find existentialism gloomy at all; actually, I found it consoling. In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, for example, I encountered a kindred spirit in the character Meursault. Like me, Meursault was trying to navigate a world that was specious and corrupt, one that might kill you off merely for refusing to follow its scripts or accept its metaphysical beliefs. Our world.
By comparison, the fantastic worlds of most gothic narratives are almost charming: evil is somehow objectified and, more often than not, overcome. This is because most horror writers focus on revealing “the secrets about some evil in our world, as opposed to the evil of the world,” says Thomas Ligotti, who has been writing horror for over a quarter of a century. For him, the trouble with the world is not “the terrible within it, but that it is permeated by the terrible. It is a nightmare through and through from which there is no escape”.
This idea is key to understanding Ligotti’s writing, as well as the influence he has had on, among others, Nic Pizzolatto, who recently stated in an interview that Thomas Ligotti was one of the principal thinkers he had in mind when working on the HBO hit series True Detective.
Ligotti is an unapologetic pessimist; the same pessimism that saturates his fictional worlds may be what many viewers have found most disturbing and fascinating about True Detective. In fact, fans of the show who desire a better understanding of its philosophical musings might start by reading Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti.
The interviews confirm in conversation what Ligotti shows us in his fiction: that he believes the world is bleak, that “human life moves only in one direction—toward disease, damage, and death. The best you can hope for is to remain stagnant or, in certain cases, return to a previous condition when things weren’t as bad as they’ve become for you.”
In the 25 years that the interviews span, Ligotti’s take on life has remained constant. If for Shakespeare life is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, for Ligotti “it’s a tragedy that consumes us and makes the world what it is—an inane and grotesque puppet show,” and he would disabuse us of any notion that it might possibly be otherwise. “We live,” he argues in Sartrean terms, “in a permanent state of bad faith, a mutual representation of ourselves to one another for the sake of remaining sane and following our biological imperative to continue as a species”.
Ligotti would rather the species went extinct.
This sounds simplistic, even peevish, but it’s not. His beliefs are grounded in an ethical imperative, “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… Thus, the only way to end all suffering is to cease producing beings who suffer.”
“So why don’t I just kill myself?” he asks one interviewer rhetorically, perhaps forestalling him. “Anyone who asks a question like that wouldn’t understand the answer.” Being alive means resigning oneself to paradox, because “it’s not really possible to avoid affirming life, even when you’re writing a horror story defaming it. The act of writing is an affirmation, as is the act of suicide. Both are vital and idealistic gestures. They express the conviction that it matters whether one lives or dies.” Whereas for Ligotti our lives “are completely bereft of any significance and meaning at all.”
Ligotti is very direct, and one gathers that there was little laughter shared during the course of these interviews. So it’s surprising that he recognizes and respects the need for humor. In this, he echoes one of his influences, E.M. Cioran, when he says, “To my mind, a well-developed sense of humor is the surest indication of a person’s humanity, no matter how black and bitter that humor may be. If you think of the real bastards in world history as well as those with whom you are personally acquainted, they are people who invariably have no sense of humor. And they will often regard your sense of humor as ‘inappropriate.’ Humor is the mark of their enemy.”
Ligotti had already published a more academic book, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, back in 2011. There he developed his particular brand of pessimism and anti-natalism more formally. In the introduction to the interviews, Matt Cardin rightly points out that Born to Fear might be considered a companion to that work, and certainly the more philosophically minded will eventually want to read it. Yet, even in interviews, Ligotti’s strengths as a thinker, and especially as a literary critic, stand out when he points to subtleties in various authors’ writings and distinguishes between “the weird” and “horror”.
As for his own literary tastes, he says, “I’m completely indifferent to what genre I read provided that I feel sympathy with how a writer perceives being alive in the world.” Predictably, high on his list are Lovecraft and Poe. “Like Lovecraft,” he says, “I am not interested in people and their relationships… I also have a bad attitude toward the world. I think that life is a curse and so on. People reading a book on a beach or in an airplane don’t want to hear stuff like that. They just want to relax and be told a diverting story from a third-person omniscient viewpoint, giving them the sense that they have a movie playing in their mind. I don’t blame them in the least.”
It’s that last line that will make Ligotti endearing even to readers who do not share his pessimistic view of the world or his opinions on books, films and popular culture. In the interviews, Ligotti comes across as a learned man whom one might easily converse with, even disagree with, and still get along. He tells one of his interlocutors, for example, “let me pause a moment and acknowledge the obvious, namely, that my celebration of Poe and Lovecraft, and my derogation of writers who are unlike them, is a pure outpouring of personal temperament—and nothing more.”
Personal temperament, or something akin to it, was exactly what drew me to Camus, and what has made reading his books, along with those of Cioran, Ligotti and others, such a solace. Ligotti has a name for this effect: “This is what I call the ‘I thought I was the only one who felt that way’ syndrome. The farther your thoughts and feelings are from those of the mainstream, the more attached you will become to the writer who speaks for you so. You will feel lucky to have found that writer. And that writer will feel even luckier to have found you.”
With a new collection of interviews with Ligotti to read, hot on the heels of the successful first season of True Detective, pessimists have much to feel lucky about all around.