THOMAS LIGOTTI & THE ART OF PESSIMISM

One of the best kept secrets in literature, a writer of horror and philosophy.


By Ellen Karakosta: CULTURE Columnist


Thomas Ligotti has been called the best kept secret of contemporary horror fiction, and the statement is certainly not far from the truth.

Ligotti is prolific and acclaimed, with more than 40 years of published works under his belt and multiple awards. But he is still relatively obscure to the wider public, his name having only recently come to popular attention after Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of HBO series True Detective, admitted to being influenced by the cult writer for the first season of the show.

Despite Ligotti’s obscurity, very few horror writers have attracted more extensive scholarly analysis. His fiction is deeply idiosyncratic in its unrelenting pessimism. He uses little on-page violence, gore, or the traditional grotesquerie of the horror genre. But there is a suffocating sense of unease and the uncanny. A nightmarish atmosphere of horror that is unexplainable and inescapable. The protagonists are either lost in their own powerlessness or driven by their worst impulses. The monsters aren’t supernatural; they are either abstract and diffused, or all too human and mundane. For Ligotti, life itself is an constant nightmare that ends only with the final release of death. The universe is beyond indifferent; it is idiotic and mindless.

Ligotti’s fiction is not wholly unique or without precedent. In fact, he has been compared to HP Lovecraft in his pessimist and nihilistic overtones. Ligotti himself has cited Lovecraft as an influence and motivation for his horror writings. Edgar Allan Poe was another influence on Ligotti, with his mastery on portraying the unnameable macabre and the deranged states of mind of people on the edge of society.

Lovecraft’s monsters intrude upon the quiet, fragile world of the protagonists. Poe’s monsters are often the protagonists themselves, driven by desperation or madness. Ligotti denies his readers the relief of a defined enemy, either external or internal. The world itself is explicitly an enemy in a lot of Ligotti’s fiction, a malicious force in itself.

In The Frolic, a prison psychiatrist relates to his wife stories of his patient, a child murderer. In the conclusion of the tale, the psychiatrist discovers that his young daughter has been abducted by the patient. In an instant, a man’s world is shattered. There is no logical way this could have happened, and yet it does. The everyday absurdity of human life becomes monstrous and cruel.

The Town Manager is a strange tale of urban decay. A series of town managers get rapidly replaced, each one using his power to make the town more and more nightmarish. The protagonist leaves after the utter decay of the town, moving into a place where he applies for the job of…town manager. He faces utter futility and inevitability in the face of inexorable forces. There is no hope and no escape. Leaving is merely going back to the same situation.


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…life itself is an constant nightmare that ends only with the final release of death. The universe is beyond indifferent; it is idiotic and mindless...


My Work is not yet Done is Ligotti’s best known novella and a twisted corporate satire. In it, a disrespected junior manager acquires supernatural powers that allow him to avenge himself on his tormentors in horrific ways. From a righteous avenger, he turns into someone little better than the monsters he sought to hunt. There is no triumph for Ligotti’s characters, only futility and corruption.

Ligotti has not been content with only expressing himself through his fiction.

His sole non-fiction book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, outlines his antinatalist viewpoint and philosophy. The book is certainly uncompromising, unconventional fare, but at the same time an interesting point of view from an interesting writer. As in his fiction, Ligotti insists that human life is full of suffering, consciousness is a self-delusional curse and existence itself is malignantly useless. The Conspiracy is hardly evangelical, but it is, ironically, an affirmative book for anyone whose viewpoint is similarly fatalistic.

Despite its unpalatability, Ligotti’s work is beloved by a devoted group of fans. Apart from literary analysis, there are fan-created internet forums devoted to the writer. His work speaks to many. Perhaps his central thesis might, on some level, speak to all of us. We all experience unhappiness and misery at one point or another, often through the vagaries of chance, for no reason at all. We are often powerless in life. Few writers portray the feeling better than Thomas Ligotti.

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