Regular readers will remember that I recently read the new In the Mountains of Madness by W. Scott Poole, which is not just a biography of horror writer HP Lovecraft but also an examination of the “Lovecraftian” culture that has built up around his work since his death; and that got me interested not only in reading the entire oeuvre of Lovecraft for the first time (a process I’m in the middle of right now), but also checking out some of the contemporary authors who write in Lovecraft’s vein, and who are helping to carry and extend the “Cthulhu Mythos” into the 21st century.
So for advice with that I turned to an acquaintance of mine, Chicago horror author Richard Thomas; and among the other contemporary writers he encouraged me to sample was Thomas Ligotti, who I had already vaguely heard of as, alternatively, “The best horror writer you’ve never heard of” and “the horror writer all the other horror writers wished they were.”
Several of his fictional works struck my fancy when first looking through his bibliography; but what stuck out much more in my mind when coming across it, and what I ended up taking on first, was actually a nonfiction book he wrote back in 2011 with the intriguing title The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. It’s essentially a Philosophy 101 survey of all the various deep thinkers throughout history who have espoused what Ligotti calls a “philosophy of pessimism,” which he then examines and weaves together to present a sort of unified narrative story about what all these philosophers had in common, and the 3,000-year-old lesson they’ve been trying to teach us the whole time.
It essentially starts with the idea that no living creatures in the universe were ever meant to have self-sentient consciousness, and that the fact that humans do is actually an aberration and a curse, not some sort of gift from a benevolent god; because with this self-sentient consciousness, we’re then compelled to spend our lives searching for a meaning to our existence, but are saddled with the knowledge that there is no meaning to existence, that the universe is quite simply an infinitely large void of constant chaos and random violence, bereft of any human-invented quality like “equality” or “fairness,” and that each of our lives are nothing but insignificant specks in the cosmic scale, in which we change not a single thing about the universe in our lifetimes and then are promptly forgotten by the human race a mere generation or two after our deaths.
That’s the “conspiracy” of the book’s title, the idea that someone is perpetrating a grand cruel joke on humanity at all our expenses; for anyone who looks too closely at this unvarnished truth about the universe, one that we were born with the ability to easily see, ends up going violently insane (or in other words, suicide victims and serial killers are simply the people who see the universe as it really is), which means that to stay sane, productive members of society, we must literally spend our entire lives making up pretty little lies about existence (that there is a cosmic order to it, that there is an inherent sense of justice, that we were purposely born on this planet for a specific reason), and then spend every ounce of our energy brainwashing ourselves into believing these lies, despite the fact that we can quite easily see with our rational minds just how much we’re deluding ourselves when we tell ourselves these things.
That’s essentially the basis behind every horror story ever written, Ligotti argues, the schism between the lies we tell ourselves about an orderly, fair universe and the unending parade of chaos and violence that we glimpse when we stop telling ourselves these lies; and he then spends the length of his book hopping from one famous thinker to another over the course of written history, showing how there have always been select philosophers and authors around, from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance to the Victorian Age to now, who have used this same basic set of principles as the basis behind every treatise and manifesto they ever wrote.
Yeah, pretty dark and heady stuff, making it no surprise that True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has admitted in interviews that he based Matthew McConaughey’s season 1 antihero Rust Cohle directly on the theories being discussed in this book; and it also goes a long way towards explaining why a genre writer like Ligotti cites as some of his favorite authors such surprising non-horror people as Arthur Schopenhauer, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett.
So after this, then, I jumped right into the only book-length fictional piece Ligotti has ever written, 2002’s My Work Is Not Yet Done, republished in 2009 for a larger audience by hipster British press Virgin Books (all the rest of his books are short-story collections), which unsurprisingly reads like a fictional version of all the nonfiction theories being banded about in Conspiracy. It’s essentially the tale of an intellectual malcontent and mentally imbalanced loner working a faceless middle-management job at a blandly nondescript corporation; when he’s railroaded by scheming co-workers into getting unfairly fired, he makes plans to launch into the violent act of retribution you would expect from such a person, but then a sudden dark cloud that envelops the city that night imbues him with a malevolent supernatural spirit that suddenly makes the story go in a much different and weirder direction.
I’ll let the rest of this delightfully crackpot story remain a surprise, although I will mention that the scope of the narrative gets a lot bigger and grander than you would expect by the time the story is over, and that it’s also obvious in this book why so many people call Ligotti the natural heir to Lovecraft and his obsession for all-powerful creatures who regard humans as little more than gnats to be flicked at in annoyance. What may be the most clever thing of all about about My Work, however, is that it’s also an astute examination of the former industrial powerhouses of the American Midwest, and the ignoble corrosion they have faced in the post-Industrial age (Ligotti was born and raised in Detroit, and the unnamed city where My Work takes place feels an awful lot like it, although you could also substitute in such cities as Cleveland, Indianapolis or St. Louis), as well as a gleefully cynical takedown of the misguided attempts to transform these cities in the 21st century into shining creative-class destinations full of coffeehouses, bike paths and loft condos. (In fact, in a way you can see the main theme in My Work manifested as the question, “What if literal demons were behind the urban gentrification movement?”)It's obvious in his work why so many people call #Ligotti the natural heir to #Lovecraft Click To Tweet
It’s been a darkly exhilarating experience for the last few weeks, being stuck so deep in Ligotti’s unrelentingly nihilistic universe, a writer who after thirty years of professional publishing just now seems to be starting to come into his own as a popular public figure. (He’s one of only ten living writers on the planet who’s been republished by Penguin Classics, a feat which only happened a year and a half ago, at which point the Washington Post called him “the best-kept secret in contemporary horror fiction.”) If you yourself are looking for a refreshingly chilling alternative to the played-out “ghosts in the suburbs” trope of Stephen King and other Postmodernist horror authors, I suggest you give Ligotti a whirl yourself.