There is a type of writer who works by accumulation, who gathers and stores inchoate material dredged up from the well of our darkest obsessions. These obsessions grip us all, but only in some do they swell and surge to the surface, becoming stories, gripping other men and women, and enduring as a result.
Few authors succeed in this. And those that do don’t “decide” to write; they are in some way compelled to do so. In reading them we perceive their need to tell stories, and this is why their work permeates our imagination with such potency, insinuating itself into our consciousness like doubts, nagging away at back of our minds.
In the history of modern literature, this atavistic flair has had many names and faces. And it lives on today. In early 19th-century Europe it took the form of Ernst Hoffmann and Giacomo Leopardi. A little later in Paris it was called Charles Baudelaire, while on the east coast the United States it went by Edgar Allan Poe, then H. P. Lovecraft. In Argentina of the late 20th century, it was known as Macedonio Fernandez, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. In America today it is embodied by Stephen King. And Thomas Ligotti.
Strangely enough, it took suspected plagiarism of his work to bring Ligotti to a wider audience. The accused was Nic Pizzolatto who, it has been alleged, used some of the most misanthropic obsessions found in Ligotti’s nihilistic essay The Conspiracy Against the Human Race to create the character of Rust Cohle in the first season of True Detective.
We didn’t know what we were missing. Recently published in Italian for the first time is an extraordinary collection of short stories entitled Teatro Grottesco. To mark its release, I had a couple of long-distance chats with Thomas Ligotti, reportedly someone so shy that you may doubt his existence, believing him to be the creation of some other author. But who cares, anyway? Even if he were a ghost, you’d still want to read him.
What are the obsessions that drive you to write?
All obsessions have their basis in emotion. The object of any emotion doesn’t really matter. The important thing is the emotion itself. My strongest emotion has always been fear, specifically that kind of fear we call anxiety. Feelings of anxiety may have a particular cause that can be named. For example, one might be anxious about speaking before a group of people. But true anxiety can’t be explained. It’s like a spiritual experience. The cause of the anxiety is a mystery. It can come upon you from nowhere and suddenly you are possessed by it. Nothing exists but the anxiety. You are just its vessel. It can even seem infinite, as if it might go on mounting forever… or until you are overwhelmed by its intensity and completely destroyed.
And where does this anxiety come from?
You could not give an answer that made any sense. How can you explain such a terrible mystery? The only thing you can do is somehow instill in another person how it feels to experience this anxiety. I think this can best be done by writing stories that provoke this experience in their readers. These efforts will not be entirely effective, just as no one can convey the horrible feelings you have in a nightmare. But perhaps for a moment you can provide a glimpse of your anxiety to another person.
What is the origin of the inquietude that emerges from your stories?
It can be anything perceived by our mind or our senses. Sometimes everyday ideas or objects can unexpectedly become strange and menacing to us. You may be driving down a road and see an open field with some trees in the distance. You’ve seen such sights many times before and not felt anything peculiar about them. But sometimes they start your imagination in motion. You feel there is something haunted about this empty land and the trees that block your view of what is beyond them. This scene becomes a façade for something you cannot see or know.
The whole world is like this. It’s filled with sight and sounds and smells that most of the time you take for granted. At certain moments, though, they stimulate your thoughts and feelings in odd ways and no longer seem obvious. They raise questions you never before considered. Sometimes you may even end up asking yourself, “What is this world about?” To this question there is only silence.
How do stories become disturbing?
I would say that a story becomes disturbing when it makes us feel or think something that we never thought or felt before, which is so often something terrible. A good writer can produce stories that work upon us in this way. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is an excellent example of such a story. Few people have ever seen the world through the eyes of the narrator of this story, which are also the eyes of Conrad. But when they read this story, they do in fact see through these eyes. Surprisingly, what they see is something they already knew, especially what is most awful about being alive. Almost all enduring works of literature are based on what is most disturbing in life. Few people can afford to dwell on such matters very long. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to live. They would be undermined by the same horror that destroys the character of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness.” But while they are reading Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” they are disturbed by this vision. Afterward, of course, they forget all about it so they can go on living as they did before.
There has always been a secret animosity between human beings and nature. (…) I favor this vision of humanity as liberating itself from it.
While reading your stories, I sense something strongly subterranean, something we don’t see but perceive. What is that?
In my opinion, which is based on my particular experience and nothing more, life is fundamentally a nightmare that ends only when we die. Few people would agree with this opinion. I’m not always overwhelmed by this view of life. But this is the view I’ve had in mind whenever I’ve written a story. It underlies them all. It is their subterranean stratum, as you observe. This is what the surface events of my fiction always attempts to convey to the reader. Sometimes a character in one of my stories will outright come out and say that life is a nightmare, a thorough nightmare without any redeeming qualities. Both Poe and Lovecraft did the same in some of their stories. Poe’s story “Berenice” begins with the words “Misery is manifold. The wretched of the earth is multiform” and so on. Lovecraft’s “Arthur Jermyn” famously starts off with the sentence “Life is a hideous thing,” a point he even more famously elaborates in the opening paragraph of one of his greatest works, “The Call of Cthulhu.”
But a story must convey this sense of nightmare largely by means of narrative incidents and not by expository assertions. Only occasionally is it useful simply to say that life is a nightmare. It’s a banal statement, though sometimes it becomes necessary to utter it openly. But then it loses its subterranean quality, its insidious obscurity.
We have a particular adjective in Italian, Perturbante. It’s not precisely about terror or fear, it’s more like something more slithering, disturbing, and I often feel it in your stories. What is that? How can you build something like that in your stories? How do you think it affects the reader? And how does it affect you?
I think that the English word “perturbed” could be considered a cognate word to perturbante. It has several meanings, one of which is to be mentally unsound. Psychological health is relative, of course. Among artists, a certain degree of mental unbalance is more helpful to them than it is to most of humankind. It can fuel their imagination and take it in directions not available to individuals who are more wholesome in their dispositions. States of longstanding depression or severe anxiety, for example, are not false perceptions of the world, though most psychiatrists would have us believe that they are. They are merely a more intense means of insight into what life is like for everyone at one time or another. It is real, and its reality cannot be denied. Those who are happy on a constant basis may also be seen as unbalanced.
No artist can express any state of mind that is not deeply founded in his or her personal experience. For this reason, writers tend to be specialists in certain mental and emotional states. Very few are able to successfully represent a wide range of these states, though many fake doing so and may be quite adept at it. By definition, writers of supernatural horror are specialists. They do not write for a general audience but for one that is similarly specialized in its temperament. Thus, both author and audience are preordained to come together. Both are already perturbed is the usual sense of this word. If this were not the case, there could be no communication between them.
I hate special effects. Once you’ve seen aliens destroy the world once, you can never see it again without being bored.
This disturbing effect seems to emerge in the western imagination of the late 1700, during the age of Enlightenment and at the very start of the first industrial revolution, during the seminal beginning of Modernity. Maybe it’s a peculiar feeling of our modern age, isn’t it? And how was before? What is its origin? And, at last, can it survive in the digital world we live in?
I believe your observation is accurate and insightful. I happen to subscribe to the view that since the time of the Enlightenment we have become more and more alienated from the natural world. Certainly this has been a frightening process, and indeed it has continued into the present day. But there isn’t enough space here to analyze what Enlightenment thinkers called “progress.” Suffice it to say that our so-called progress has led beyond a mere estrangement from nature to a destruction of it. Climate change is only one of its manifestations. As I see it, there has always been a secret animosity between human beings and nature. Beginning in the nineteenth century, certain figures have expressed a preference for the artificial over the natural. The French poet Charles Baudelaire was preeminent among them. In contemporary life, our future is depicted in fiction and films as being absent of natural appointments. Personally, I favor this vision of humanity as liberating itself from nature. I would much prefer to live in the environment of a space station than in the compost heap of this earth. On the other hand, what are we doing with our technology other than constructing another planet where a new evolution can take place in a spectral sphere, an atmosphere of ghosts?
How do you feed your imagination? What do you read? What do you watch? And to what do you listen?
I don’t need to feed my imagination. I only need to distract it. To my mind, this is what everyone does. To be alone with your own thoughts is a terrible prospect. I finished reading all the books that interested me years ago. I still listen to recorded readings of those books—the same ones over and over again. At the moment I’m listening to readings of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. If the world ended tomorrow, and I were the last person left alive, I think I would continue to enjoy the works of Borges. They would still seem relevant to me, even in a world without other people. Like Borges, I’m an avid watcher of movies. I can watch the same movies over and over again without tiring of them. Most of my favorites are the great films of the 1960s and 1970s: Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Man Who Would Be King. I tend to watch movies that are based on works of literature. The entire cinematic genre of so-called “noir” films is almost entirely based on detective and hard-boiled novels. Nowadays, it seems to me that television shows are better than movies. The best ones are quite literary, whereas modern films are based on original screenplays and depend too much on special effects. I hate special effects. Once you’ve seen aliens destroy the world once, as in the film Independence Day, you can never see it again without being bored. I’d rather watch two people talking to each other for a hundred minutes.
I still listen to music when the mood strikes me. The music I like best is strictly composed of the classics – such as that made during the psychedelic era – and also instrumental music. I’m sixty-two years old, so music of the past twenty-five is alien to me. Naturally it seems inferior to the music I listened to when I was you. For the first time in the history of music, it may well be inferior to all music that preceded it. But I don’t think that matters at all. All the books, movies, television shows, and music being produced today will grow stale and be eclipsed by new works in these fields, however inferior it may be to earlier productions in these fields. Nothing lasts very long in the realm of entertainment. And everything ever dreamed up by the human imagination is really only entertainment to distract us from the struggle of living out our lives, however long or short they may be. Once you’re dead, it doesn’t matter what happens afterward.