This post is part of the RIP or Readers Imbibing Peril seasonal reading event.
Having recently read Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror and finding his thinking to be interesting but flawed, I decided to delve into the author’s fiction. Ligotti is primarily a short story writer. Some of his stories can be classified as falling within the realm of horror, but some can be better described by what Ligotti himself terms to as “Weird Tales.” I have now read a fair sampling of his stories pulled from various collections found at my local library. I attempted to read the stories that his fans and critics have identified as his best works as well as those which have intriguing descriptions or titles.
Ligotti’s prose paints an extremely moody and menacing atmosphere. He is, as he admits, very influenced by the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft in tone, plot and themes. I noticed that the tales written later in the author’s career deviate from the Lovecraft influence, at least in plot, as compared to the earlier works. While some of the stories have a very cohesive and logical plot, others are dreamlike and involve events that do not really fit together.
The author’s view of the universe is grim indeed. Though not a proponent of his worldview, see my commentary here, this dark, pernicious outlook helps to generate terrific and dark yarns. While the endpoint of the author’s belief system is almost laughably pessimistic, he raises some thought provoking issues and themes in regard to the meaning of existence. Furthermore, if one does not take the over the top gloominess of the fiction too seriously, this gloominess can be ironically entertaining and even fun in a creepy sort of way. These tales, at times, can be disturbing. Though Ligotti rarely describes actual terrible events, he often implies that terrible things have, or will, occur.
Almost without exception, various facets of the author’s worldview as expressed in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror are conveyed in his fiction. This philosophy, either symbolically through the philosophical musings of various characters, or through downright descriptions of the universe, is constantly on display. Again and again we are reminded of humanity’s insignificance, that our perception of ourselves is completely wrong and that we are much less than we think we are. Ligotti has expressed in his essays a deterministic view of human behavior. He believes that free will and the concept of “self” are illusions. He sees people as being “puppets” of nature. Thus puppets, dolls, mannequins, etc. often reoccur in his tales. Most importantly, his stories take place in a universe that is itself malevolent. Dark forces are always lurking underneath the visible world. He writes few stories that can be described as “good versus evil.” Instead, he pits hapless and helpless people against a pernicious cosmos.
"The Sect of the Idiot" is a striking and imaginative tale that illustrates much of Ligotti’s thinking. The unnamed narrator is the inhabitant of an unnamed phantasmagoric city. The protagonist initially dreams of a group of strange, hideously inhuman, robed figures who hold power in the city. Eventually, evidence is discovered, revealing that the group is real and that it exerts godlike powers over the fate of all humanity.
The narrator expresses the trivial nature of himself, and by implication of humanity, in comparison to these beings,
“I was no more than an irrelevant parcel of living tissue caught in a place I should not be, threatened with being snared in some great dredging net of doom, an incidental shred of flesh pulled out of its element of light and into an icy blackness. In the dream nothing supported my existence, which I felt at any moment might be horribly altered or simply. . .ended. In the profoundest meaning of the expression, my life was of no matter.”
Later, our narrator comes to realize that there is a higher force than these grotesque beings. It turns out that, just like humanity, these creatures are in denial as to the truth behind creation. The truth is that there is chaos and meaningless underlying it all, chaos and meaningless that Ligotti equates with idiocy,
“these hooded freaks who were themselves among the hypnotized. For there was a power superseding theirs, a power which they served and from which they merely emanated, something which was beyond the universal hypothesis by virtue of its very mindlessness, its awesome idiocy.”
Ultimately, the Universe is a dark and pointless place that is very bad for people. Personal insanity is almost a logical endpoint to it all. The narrator eventually concludes,
“Life is the nightmare that leaves its mark upon you in order to prove that it is, in fact, real. And to suffer a solitary madness seems the joy of paradise when compared to the extraordinary condition in which one’s own madness mealy echoes that of the world outside. I have been lured away by dreams, all is nonsense now.”
Gnostic influence can be found all over Ligotti’s works. He makes several direct mentions to Gnosticism in both his fiction and his non–fiction essays. The Gnostic belief that the creator of our Universe was some kind of imposter who did something very wrong is reflected here. These beings are cold and maleficent deities. They exhibit the attributes of an imposter God, as portrayed by their subordinate position to the greater force. Most Gnostic thought systems, however, acknowledge a positive spiritual power that takes precedence over reality. Here, the spiritual force is mindless and vile. This story takes place in a creation that is very, very wrong.
A perusal of online opinions indicates that many folks find Ligotti to be depressing. As I alluded to earlier, I do not concur. Paradoxically, the imaginary nasty universe that the author creates, for me, is at times an amusing and intellectually stimulating counterpoint to reality. In addition, even if one does not buy completely into the negativity, these tales are thought provoking. I find if one likes dark and odd stories, set in dark and odd universe, these stories are highly recommended.
Just a note about one story, “The Frolic,” where Ligotti goes way beyond his usual level of “bad stuff going on.” This one is in no way fun and it is very disturbing. As it is the first story in some collections, I warn the faint at heart to consider staying away and others from judging the author on this tale alone. Though it still implies rather then describes what actually happens, in terms in intensity and ugliness, it is really not like most of the author’s other works.
Interesting review, Brian. Authors who are influenced by Lovecraft are often a bit on the darker side. "Weird fiction" has become a genre term by now. It's for all sort of speculative fiction that cannot be attributed to one genre only.
I used to love Lovecraft and find fiction inspired by him interesting, so I'll hunt for his stories. Maybe not The Frolic though.
I guess Weird Fiction is a good descriptor of these hard to categorize strange tales. I also really love Lovecraft. I think that if you are a fan of Lovecraft you will like Ligotti.
read a lot of Lovecraft when a lot younger & found them interesting & enjoyable making this of interest also, a recent book that could easily slide onto the Weird Fiction label & was also a good read was The Crooked God Machine by Autumn Christian, which I reviewed earlier this year.
Hi Parish - I remember your review of the he Crooked God Machine. It really sounds good.
Lovecraft really was a great writer of this sort of thing.
Good review, as always, Brian. Probably I won't be reading any of Ligotti's stories. I belong to the faint of heart, although I do like good old fashioned scary tales.
Ligotti sounds like a lot of writers, in order to prove their worldview they create a reality that conforms to it in their stories.
I have been meaning to read Lovecraft, though.
Hi Sharon - As always thanks so much.
You raise a really good point about writers creating a reality to support a worldview. As I think about it, a lot of great writers do this also. I think that it can be a part of great art.
As I mentioned if one avoids The Frolic, most of Ligotti's stories are actually fairly tame.
Glad you enjoyed reading about Ligotti's alternate universe. He does sound like an interesting writer of weird fiction, especially if influenced by H. P. Lovecraft. That cover really is creepy. This is a great choice for r.i.p.!
Now, you've got me wondering about The Frolic.
“I was no more than an irrelevant parcel of living tissue" true yet gruesome. I can't tell you how many times over the past week or so, since you made the post on this writer, I've thought about his ideas.
So I'm rather selfishly glad that you tried out one of his books.
Hi Naida - His stories are if nothing else interesting.
Several of the book covers are really chilling and in my opinion extraordinary. I must do a bit of research on the artists.
I hope that I have not overstated the effect of The Frolic. there is just an strong implication that I truly bad disturbing thing has or is going to happen.
Hi Guy - That is a great quote.
His ideas are at the very least thought provoking. I do think that he is better at conveying his ideas through fiction then he does through philosophical essays.
I think I'm too sensitive to read such dark stories! But I enjoyed your review.
Hi Sump - Ligotti is not for everyone. However, with that said he is almost never explicit, just very gloomy and pessimistic. As I mentioned however, the implications of his tales may be disturbing.
A few years ago I read his collection of short-stories 'Teatro Grottesco.' I liked them, but they also left me fatigued because of their repetition. Still I admire the relentlessness of his pessimistic worldview, even if I'm not particularly attracted to it. It's a fascinating mind space to live in for a while.
But, when it comes to weird tales, no one can steal Lovecraft's thunder.
Hi Miguel One of the collections that read stories from was Teatro Grottesco. I believe that this was later in his carrier. the stories seemed more characters based and less about odd and horrifying situations then the earlier works.
I agree about Lovecraft. he was simply the best.
Regarding Lovecraft, I even admire his prose very much; it's called clunky and obscure, but I love his rhythms and cadences. And then that vast imagination!
Hi Miguel - I know a few folks who do not like Lovecraft's prose styles. I think that it pairs perfectly with his subject matter however.
Different from my usual choice of reading, I'm so fascinated by both the book cover and your post to want to read Songs Of A Dead Dreamer.
Hi Petty - I just checked the story mix in Songs of a dead Dreamer. It has some of his best. It includes Sect of the Idiot.
It can be difficult to find. The Nightmare Factory and the Nightmare Factory II are compilations that also contain most of these stories.
I myself do not read a lot of horror. Ligotti is definitely different and I think a cut above most.
Sadly, horror is not a genre I enjoy but I can see how it could be stimulating to imagination and thought.
Great review, as always. I've never read anything by this author, but it sounds like something different for me to try! For some reason Dostoevsky came to mind while reading your review - maybe it was the mention of the moody tone!
I'll definitely consider this book if I feel like reading something from the horror genre.
Hi Harvee - I do not read a lot of horror myself. However, I enjoyed these stories as I think that they were effective, well written and had something interesting to say.
Hi Lucy - As always thanks!
I think that Dostoevsky 's moodiness was very different. Of his worldview was Christian and Ligotti is definitely not.
A new name to me I ve only read a couple of Lovecraft stories would like to try more and this one sounds great for a dark night to read ,all the best stu
Hi Stu - If you like Lovecraft you would probably like Ligotti.
As for a dark night, Ligotti is certainly atmospheric.
I've been looking for horror stories lately and Ligotti does seem to have a few interesting ones, according to your review. I prefer Poe over Lovecraft but "disturbing" sounds too intriguing to ignore.
Thanks for the review.
Hi Delia - Ligotti just has troubling things happen to people sometimes so that combined with his mood he can be disturbing.
I think that Poe was a better writer then Lovecraft. But Lovecraft really created a fun world on to of an ominous atmosphere.
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