The Masters' Eyes Shining with Secrets:
Part One: H.P. Lovecraft, Gent.
H.P. Lovecraft and His Influence on Thomas Ligotti
by Matt Cardin
Part Two: The Masters' Eyes Shining with Secrets
- Secondary Materials
- Internet Resources
I. Introduction: The Shade of Lovecraft
II. Dark Guru, Personal Presence: Lovecraft in Ligotti's life
III. Notes on the Horror of Writing: Lovecraft in Ligotti's work, and vice versa
IV. Lovecraft and Ligotti, sui generis
V. Conclusion: The Enchanting Nightmare
Lovecraft was born 1890 and died in 1937. He wrote supernatural horror stories, poetry, and tens of thousands of letters, and was a major figure in 1920s and 1930s pulp horror. He is credited with infusing a new form of "cosmic realism" into the supernatural horror genre and has exerted a powerful influence on a host of other writers, including Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Jorge Luis Borges, Ramsey Campbell, Colin Wilson, T.E.D. Klein, and Thomas Ligotti. In the case of Ligotti, Lovecraft's influence has been not only literary but also deeply personal, in that Lovecraft first inspired Ligotti to write and gave him a model for how to conduct his own life.
PART ONE: H.P. Lovecraft, Gent.
(H)oward (P)hillips Lovecraft is one of those rare authors whose biography has aroused as much interest as his writings. This is probably due both to the intrinsic interest of his personality and life history and the uncommonly detailed record of his inner life that exists in the form of his massive epistolary output. So much has been written about him in the decades since his death that certain biographical points have achieved a kind of litany-like status. Among the most well known of these are the following.
- Both of his parents died in the same mental institution, his father when Lovecraft was eight and his mother when he was 31. His primary adult influence for a number of years during his youth was his maternal grandfather, but this man died when Lovecraft was only 14 years old. After his mother was institutionalized, Lovecraft lived for the rest of his life with two of his aunts.
- He was a sensitive and sickly youth whose ill health, most of which was apparently psychosomatic or emotional/nervous in nature, frequently disrupted his formal schooling. But he was also intellectually precocious, and after learning to read at an early age, he spent much of his childhood absorbing the contents of his grandfather's library, which included the standard classics as well as a generous sampling of scientific, travel, and other types of literature. His wide-ranging erudition later became the stuff of legend.
- He became on his own an accomplished amateur astronomer and chemist. His scientific interests spilled over into his fictional writings, profoundly influencing their dominant moods and themes.
- He wrote a massive number of letters and sat at the center of a large ring of correspondents, among whose company were a number of figures who achieved literary prominence of their own.
- He was a major figure in the 1920s and 1930s Amateur Journalism movement.
- His main means of economic support was a family inheritance, supplemented by his extensive literary revision and ghostwriting activities. His most famous client was Harry Houdini, for whom he ghostwrote the story "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," a.k.a. "Under the Pyramids."
- He was one of the towering figures of the 1920s and 1930s pulp horror and science fiction scene. His work was particularly familiar to readers of Weird Tales, where most of his stories were published. He became close friends via correspondence with the magazine's other two major contributors, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard.
- As a writer of stories and poetry, he was profoundly and pointedly influenced by a number of authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Chief among these were Poe, whom Lovecraft once called "my god of fiction," and Dunsany, whom Lovecraft viewed almost as an extension or precursor of himself.
- He held to virulently racist views and wrote extensively in support of the idea of "Aryan" superiority. In later life he softened a bit in this area, but he never ultimately renounced his racism. Paradoxically (in light of his anti-Semitic beliefs), when he married briefly, from 1924 to 1929, he chose for his wife a Jewish woman, Sonia Greene. His friends avowed that although he expressed his racist beliefs in the harshest possible terms, in actual human contact he was never anything but a perfect gentleman to everyone. In fact, they tended to speak of him as one of the most polite, gentle, and generous people they had ever known.
- He was an ardent political and social conservative, to the point of being a reactionary when it came to many issues (e.g. immigration laws, military policy). But in later life his views underwent a considerable change in the direction of socialism, although of a peculiarly fascistic sort.
- He loved the ancient Roman and eighteenth century American eras, and often adopted the pose of an eighteenth century British loyalist, dating his letters two hundred years into the past and signing them in the mode of a colonial gentleman.
- Except for two miserable years that he spent in New York City, he resided in Providence, Rhode Island for his entire life.
- He was exceedingly fond of cats and ice cream, and exceedingly repelled by cold temperatures and the smell of seafood.
- He invented a fictional book of occult lore, the NECRONOMICON, and succeeded so well in his attempts to lend it an air of authenticity (via, e.g., the composing of a faux history of its various editions and translations, and also numerous lengthy "quotations") that he inadvertently created a hoax whose influence survives to this day.
- He died of intestinal cancer at the age of 46 after a brief hospitalization, during which he experienced agonizing pain. He kept a written record of his sensations of dying, in hopes that this would be of use to medical science, but it was discarded by a nurse who did not know what it was.
- After his death, two of his friends and correspondents, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, founded the publishing company Arkham House, named after Lovecraft's fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, in order to keep his work alive. Arkham House went on to become a major force in the field of horror, fantasy, and science fiction publishing, largely by dint of its publishing first books by many authors who later achieved major renown, such as Ray Bradbury and Ramsey Campbell.
Lovecraft's life is so well chronicled, both in books and in readily available essays and articles on the Web (regarding which, see below), that the interested reader will have no trouble learning more.
At present Lovecraft is presently remember primarily for his stories. The very first collection of these, titled The Outsider and Others
, was published in 1939 by Arkham House. Today it is a highly prized collector's item, as are other early collections such as Beyond the Wall of Sleep
(1943) and Marginalia
(1944), both from Arkham House. These were based on questionable texts, however, which later scholars and editors, especially S.T. Joshi, worked to correct.
In the 1980s the definitive editions of Lovecraft's collected prose fiction, with texts edited and corrected by Joshi, were published in four volumes by Arkham House:
- The Dunwich Horror and Others
- Dagon and Other Macabre Tales
- At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels (currently listed at the Arkham House Website as At the Mountains of Madness and Other Macabre Tales)
- The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions
In the English-speaking literary world, Lovecraft has long been widely dismissed as a genre writer and pulp hack, but the turn of the twenty-first century saw the publication of several new editions that went a long way toward canonizing him as a mainstream American author. Penguin, the New York publisher well known for its line of trade paperback classics, published three Lovecraft collections, all of them edited by Joshi and using his corrected texts: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
(1999), The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories
(2001), and The Dreams in the Witch-House and Other Weird Stories
(2004). Each volume includes a long introduction and extensive notes by Joshi, and together the series reprints almost the entire contents of the Arkham House three-volume definitive set. In 2004 The Modern Library, whose editions of classic works by classic authors have long served as an informal registry of literary canonization in America, announced the publication of two Lovecraft volumes for 2005: H.P. Lovecraft: Tales, edited by Peter Straub and containing twenty-two stories, and At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition, with an introduction by China Mi?ville. H.P. Lovecraft: Tales
was published in March of 2005 and predictably drew much popular and critical attention to Lovecraft and his literary legacy.
Also of note are two volumes of annotated stories. The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft
(Dell, 1997) contains extensive annotations by S.T. Joshi. More Annotated Lovecraft
(Dell 1999) contains annotations by Joshi and fellow Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon. Both volumes feature numerous photographs and illustrations.
Aside from the editions named above, numerous mass market and trade paperback collections of Lovecraft's stories have been published by Ballantine, Del Rey, and other publishers since the 1960s. However, these do not contain the corrected texts and are therefore criticized by purists. For a time these alternative editions could be recommended simply because they were inexpensive and more easily procurable than the Arkham House ones, but the appearance of the affordable Penguin collections effectively nullifies this rationale.
At various times, large numbers of Lovecraft's stories, utilizing the uncorrected texts, have been available for free on the Internet. One prominent site, The H.P. Lovecraft Library
, which for a number of years provided e-texts of almost all of Lovecraft's published stories, has at the time of this writing either moved or been shut down due to copyright restrictions. Other sites are currently available that relist most or all of what appeared at The H.P. Lovecraft Library, but given the inherent instability of Internet content, the interested reader is advised to use a good search engine to obtain the most current results. Beyond that, the truly interested reader should purchase one or more of the print collections described above.
In addition to prose, Lovecraft wrote a huge amount of poetry, and the collected results can found in The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft, edited by Joshi and published by Nightshade Books. This book contains, in the words of the introduction, "all known poems by H. P. Lovecraft in existence, including untitled or fragmentary poems found in letters and other documents." Although on the whole Lovecraft's poetry is decidedly inferior to his other work, some of it, such as the long cycle titled Fungi from Yuggoth, is quite accomplished and absorbing.
By all accounts Lovecraft wrote literally tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime-one popular estimate places the number at over 80,000-and is therefore, in the words of his biographer and chief scholar, S.T. Joshi, "one of the most self-documented individuals in human history." Joshi is so bold as to speculate that perhaps these letters represent Lovecraft's chief literary achievement: "Although at the moment they are known only to the inner circle of Lovecraft scholars, they are arguably some of the most remarkable literary documents of the century, and it is even conceivable that in the distant future his reputation will rest more on them than on his fiction." It is in his letters, Joshi says, and especially in the longer ones, some of which run to seventy pages, that Lovecraft "reveals his true greatness and diversity as an artist," and also his full humanity (Joshi 2000).
Five volumes of selected letters, representing only a fraction of his total epistolary output, have been published by Arkham House:
- Selected Letters I (1911-1924)
- Selected Letters II (1925-1929)
- Selected Letters III (1929-1931)
- Selected Letters IV (1932-1934)
- Selected Letters V (1934-1937)
Additional book-length collections of Lovecraft's letters are available from various publishers, including Necronomicon Press and Nightshade Books.
Lovecraft's renowned survey of supernatural horror fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature
, can be found in the Arkham House collection Dagon and Other Macabre Tales
. It is also available in a number of stand-alone editions and at several Websites. As always, the definitive text from Arkham House is to be preferred.
In 2004 Hippocampus Press published five volumes of Lovecraft's essays. The Hippocampus Website states, "This edition gathers Lovecraft's complete nonfictional output for the first time, arranged in broad thematic groupings. S. T. Joshi, the world's leading authority on Lovecraft, exhaustively annotates all texts, also providing critical and bibliographical notes." The complete series consists of:
- Volume I: Amateur Journalism
- Volume II: Literary Criticism
- Volume III: Science
- Volume IV: Travel
- Volume V: Philosophy, Autobiography and Miscellany
For those who want to gain a knowledge of Lovecraft's marginalia but are loath to invest in multiple volumes, a generous sampling of such material, including philosophical and political writings, juvenilia, amateur journalism, prose poems, and more, can be found in Arkham House's Miscellaneous Writings
, which serves as a companion volume to their four volumes of stories and five volumes of letters.
H.P. Lovecraft: A Life
by S.T. Joshi. Necronomicon Press, 1996. Currently in its 3rd
edition, this book will likely remain the definitive Lovecraft biography. Joshi's research and scholarship are impeccable and his writing style engaging and clear. He provides many insights into Lovecraft as an author and a human being, and paints a rounded portrait that shows all sides of Lovecraft's character.
H.P. Lovecraft: A Biography
by L. Sprague de Camp. Barnes & Noble Books, 1996. Originally published as Lovecraft: A Biography
in 1975. This book has the distinction of being the first full-scale Lovecraft biography, but its defects have long been recognized: it contains many factual errors and is larded with the opinions of its author, who took it upon himself to evaluate every aspect of Lovecraft's life and behavior in moral terms. The result is a book that feels arbitrarily and annoyingly judgmental. De Camp's frequent opining about Lovecraft's need to "grow up" and achieve a "mature" and "manly" outlook on life quickly becomes tiresome. Nevertheless, the book does possess an inherent fascination, largely owing to its subject matter, and it has the virtue of collecting between a single set of covers virtually every scrap of information that was known about Lovecraft at the time of its writing.
In addition to these two biographies, numerous other biographical pieces, including memoirs, remembrances, and even a collection of Lovecraft's essays and letters arranged to form an autobiography, have been published. Most are readily available either new or on the used market. Among the most well known are the memoir Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside
by Lovecraft's close friend and fellow horror writer, Frank Belknap Long, and Lovecraft at Last
by Willis Conover, which collects Conover's extensive correspondence with Lovecraft when he (Conover) was an adolescent. Sixty-five personal reminiscences of Lovecraft are published together in Lovecraft Remembered
, edited by Peter Cannon.
Far too many book-length critical studies have been published to list them all here. Among the most prominent are:
- H.P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study by Donald Burleson (1983)
- H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism edited by S.T. Joshi (1980). As the title would indicate, this book collects forty years' worth of seminal Lovecraft criticism, which makes it particularly helpful for giving the reader an awareness of the fundamental changes that have occurred in this field over time.
- Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic by Maurice Levy, translated by S.T. Joshi (1988)
- Primal Sources: Essays on H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi (2003)
- H.P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie by Michel Houellebecq. This book, whose title translates as H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, is scheduled for its first official English-language print publication in March or April 2005. But a PDF file of a translation by Robin Mackay (who is apparently not the same person who translated the forthcoming print version) is already available for free download on the Internet. Houellebecq's "take" on Lovecraft may be of particular interest to Ligotti fans, since it focuses sharply on the nihilistic overtones of Lovecraft's oeuvre. At the end of his exploration, Houellebecq writes, "Here is the deepest secret of Lovecraft's genius, and the pure source of his poetry: he succeeded in transforming his disgust for life into an active hostility." There is every reason to think this assessment would resonate deeply with Ligotti.
A number of periodicals devoted entirely or partially to the study of Lovecraft and his writings have been published over the years. The two most prominent are Crypt of Cthulhu
and Lovecraft Studies
This is of course only a partial listing of the available resources, since there are literally thousands of sites devoted wholly or partly to Lovecraft. Many that are not listed here are quite worthy of attention.
PART TWO: The Masters' Eyes Shining with Secrets
I. Introduction: The Shade of Lovecraft
- The H.P. Lovecraft Archive-http://www.hplovecraft.com-Created and maintained by Donovan Loucks, this is effectively the official Lovecraft site on the World Wide Web. It contains detailed information on Lovecraft's life, writings, and fictional creations, as well as information and resources relating to his place in popular culture, the criticism of his work, and more. It also features a wealth of links to, and information about, other Lovecraft-related resources, both on the Web and in print, thus rendering it the single best resource for those hoping to learn more about Lovecraft (although the Wikipedia article listed below is so thorough that it presents some valid competition).
- "H.P. Lovecraft" by S.T. Joshi-http://www.themodernword.com/scriptorium/lovecraft.html-One of the longest and most comprehensive essays about Lovecraft available online at the time of this writing. It originally appeared as the introductory essay to An Epicure of the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft (1991), edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi. Here, it has been revised and updated by Joshi for its Web appearance. In addition to focusing on Lovecraft's biography in some detail, it delves into his fiction, letters, essays, philosophical and political thought, and more. In effect, the essay represents a condensation of Joshi's H.P. Lovecraft: A Life.
- H.P. Lovecraft: A Pictorial Bibliography-http://mysite.verizon.net/hplovecraft/index.html-A comprehensive and ongoing bibliography of books, articles, and essays by and about Lovecraft, beginning with Lovecraft's 1915 pamphlet "The Crime of Crimes: Lusitania, 1915" and continuing down to the present. What makes it an even more valuable and interesting resource is that it includes cover scans of most works (when they are available).
- Wikipedia article on Lovecraft-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._P._Lovecraft-Admirably detailed article that devotes separate sections to Lovecraft's biography, fictional writings, poetry, marginalia, critical study and reputation, and more. Well-stocked with links to books, publishers, and other items of interest, including several online texts of Lovecraft's stories.
Jonathan Padgett, the originator of Thomas Ligotti Online, relates the following anecdote in his Ligotti FAQ: "In a phone conversation I had with Mr. Ligotti in the Spring of 1998, he explained that Lovecraft's fiction had had the most profound influence on his life
rather than his fiction, as reading HPL's work was the impetus for Ligotti's writing career. Aside from this fact, Lovecraft really has had very little to do with the subject or style of Ligotti's writing" From this, one might infer that Lovecraft's influence is not readily apparent in Ligotti's work. But if this is so, then what are we to make of the phenomenon noted by Ramsey Campbell, who in his introduction to Ligotti's first book, the short story collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer
, stated, "At times [Ligotti] suggests terrors as vast as Lovecraft's, though the terrors are quite other than Lovecraft's" (SOADD
, p. ix). In other words, if it is true that "Lovecraft really has had very little to do with the subject or style of Ligotti's writing," then how can we account for the fact that, as Ed Bryant has put it, "Hardly anyone seems to discuss or even mention the Ligotti name without evoking the shade of H.P. Lovecraft" (Bryant)?
It is tempting to try to answer this question simply by turning to the available Ligotti interviews and assembling a montage of quotations, since he has spoken repeatedly and extensively about his relationship to Lovecraft. But a more thorough and satisfying answer can only come from examining the evidence and extrapolating independent conclusions from it. This will also give us the opportunity to examine in depth some of Lovecraft's own writings and representative attitudes, and to compare and contrast them with Ligotti's in order to arrive at a general understanding of where both men stand in relation to each other.
We may begin, however, with the aforementioned interviews, and in perusing them construct a chronology of Ligotti's acquaintance with Lovecraft, and also with the field of horror fiction in general, that may prove instructive.
II. Dark Guru, Personal Presence: Lovecraft in Ligotti's life
Ligotti was born in July of 1953 and, by his own account, had no significant exposure to horror fiction, nor any serious desire to read it, until he was eighteen years old and accidentally discovered Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House
at a garage sale in 1970/1971. In fact, prior to this he had never felt much interest in books and literature at all. In his own words, "Until reading Jackson's horror novel, I had read only a few works of literature in my entire life and almost all of those were reluctantly scanned under the duties of assignments in school. Having been something of a burnout in the late 1960s, I never really learned my way around a library and the concept of bookstores was wholly alien to me." When he began reading Jackson's novel, it came as a sort of revelation to him to realize that the book had served as the basis for a film he had liked, director Robert Wise's The Haunting
(1963). Upon finishing the book, he "felt a definite hunger for more horror stories, but not necessarily those of the Jacksonian type." What he wanted to read were not stories about modern characters set in modern times, but ones more like the movies he had enjoyed as a child, "the more clich?d Gothic horror movies set in the Victorian era....[T]his was the kind of horror fiction I was seeking, the progeny of Poe's tales" (Ford, p. 31).
Before going on to describe Ligotti's successful search for of this type of story, it is necessary to step back briefly and look to an event that had occurred prior to all of this, and that had laid precisely the right emotional and philosophical foundation to render him exquisitely responsive to Lovecraft's fictional vision of the universe. It had occurred when Ligotti was seventeen years old and under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He himself describes the event, and also his mindset leading up to it, thus: "As a teenager I had a tendency to depression. To me, the world was just something to escape from. I started escaping with alcohol and then, as the sixties wore on, with every kind of drug I could get. In August of 1970 I suffered the first attack of what would become a lifelong anxiety-panic disorder" (Angerhuber & Wagner, p. 53). Elsewhere he has described the event as an "emotional breakdown" and averred that although it occurred "following intense use of drugs and booze," we should not assign a purely causal role to these intoxicants, since they "served only as a catalyst for a fate that my high-strung and mood-swinging self would have encountered at some point" (Schweitzer, p. 30).
More than a mere panic attack, the episode involved a terrifying vision of the universe, and of reality itself, that permanently altered his worldview in a direction that was, although he could not know it at the time, proto-Lovecraftian. He has made this connection clear in several interviews, such as the one conducted by Robert Bee, in which Ligotti described Lovecraft's famous "cosmic perspective" as "the idea, as well as the emotional sensation, that human notions of value and meaning, even sense itself, are utterly fictitious," and then added, "Not long before I began reading Lovecraft's stories I experienced-in a state of panic, I should add-such a perspective, which has remained as the psychological and emotional backdrop of my life ever since" (Bee). Similarly, he told Thomas Wagner and Monika Angerhuber that he discovered Lovecraft "not too long after" that first attack and "found that the meaningless and menacing universe described in Lovecraft's stories corresponded very closely to the place I was living at that time, and ever since for that matter" (Angerhuber & Wagner, p. 53).
So: In August of 1970-the very month in which, eighty years earlier, H.P. Lovecraft had been born-a seventeen-year-old Thomas Ligotti experienced a horrifying vision of the universe as a "meaningless and menacing" place in which "human notions of value and meaning, even sense itself, are utterly fictitious." Shortly afterward, near the end of 1970 or beginning of 1971, he discovered Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House
, read it, and hungered for a different type of horror fiction. Since he was not familiar with libraries or bookstores, his search took him in an unlikely direction that produced an equally unlikely, though fortuitous, result: "The first place I looked in my quest for horror literature was the local drugstore, of all places. What strange luck that contained in its racks was a paperback entitled Tales of Horror and the Supernatural
by Arthur Machen. And I soon discovered that this was exactly what I had been looking for" (Ford, p. 31). Shortly after reading the Machen collection, at some point in 1971, he returned to the same drugstore and bought another book. It was the Ballantine edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos
, Volume 1 (Ford, p. 31; Bryant). And even though he had enjoyed the Machen book, the experience of reading Lovecraft did what Machen had not: it set off an explosive sense of identification and inspired Ligotti with a desire to write horror stories himself.
The reasons for this are various, but they all center around the overwhelming sense of empathy that he felt for Lovecraft's outlook. Lovecraft was "the first author with whom I strongly identified...a dark guru who confirmed to me all my most awful suspicions about the universe" (Paul & Schurholz, p. 18 ). Still fresh from the initial attack of his anxiety-panic disorder and still living in the grip of the horrific worldview it had opened to him, Ligotti felt "grateful that someone else had perceived the world in a way similar to my own view" (Angerhuber & Wagner, p. 53). And although the inspirational connection may not be obvious or necessary, for Ligotti it was an organic part of his remarkably intense emotional response to Lovecraft: "When I first read Lovecraft around 1971, and even more so when I began to read about his life, I immediately knew that I wanted to write horror stories" (Wilbanks).
As it turned out, Ligotti did not actually undertake the writing of fiction or anything else besides school assignments until late in his college career, when he "found the required writing that I was doing to be very stimulating: it made me high, or at least distracted me from my chronic anxiety, and I wanted to do more of it" (Schweitzer, p. 24). But his path as a writer had already been determined by that initial experience of responding to Lovecraft from the depths of his being, in the wake of which "there was never a question that I would write anything else other than horror stories" (Angerhuber & Wagner, p. 53).
Recently (as of February 2005), he has provided a bit more explanation about the specific nature of Lovecraft's inspirational influence upon him:
From what has already been said, it should be obvious that Ligotti is speaking autobiographically here. Elsewhere, he has stated directly that he took Lovecraft not only as a literary model, but also as a model for living itself:
Thus it seems impossible to overstress the importance of Lovecraft to Ligotti, not just as a writer whose works he loves, but as a human being with whom he feels a deeply personal sense of kinship. Ligotti himself has stated the matter definitively: "H.P. Lovecraft has been, bar none other, the most intense and real personal presence in my life" (Paul & Schurholz, p. 18 ). "I don't know what would have become of me if I hadn't discovered Lovecraft" (Wilbanks).
III. Notes on the Horror of Writing: Lovecraft in Ligotti's Work, and vice versa
What remains is the question of whether and how Lovecraft's influence can be seen in Ligotti's actual writing. Darrell Schweitzer offered a typical observation, and one that echoes Ramsey Campbell's sentiment expressed above, when he told Ligotti that "your stories only resemble Lovecraft's in the most tenuous manner, in that you too seem to depict a bleak and uncertain universe in which human assumptions don't apply very far. But the more overt Lovecraftisms, from the adjectives to the tentacular Things >From Beyond, are conspicuously absent" (Schweitzer, p. 25). This amounts to saying that Ligotti's stories recall Lovecraft purely in terms of mood and worldview, and for the most part this is correct, although a number of Ligotti's stories do incorporate specific Lovecraftian names and themes. One example is "The Sect of the Idiot," in which Ligotti mentions Azathoth, the deity or cosmic principle which Lovecraft created to symbolize the ultimate ontological horror. Another is "The Last Feast of Harlequin," the earliest-written of Ligotti's published tales, whose plot motifs explicitly recall Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "The Festival," and which ends with a dedication "To the memory of H.P. Lovecraft." But even in these and the few other stories in which definite Lovecraftian elements can be discerned-e.g., "Nethescurial," "The Tsalal," "Dr. Locrian's Asylum"-Ligotti does not mimic Lovecraft's prose style or call out a litany of fictional gods and monsters in the manner that has come to typify Lovecraftian "mythos" fiction. Instead, he returns to the same psychological/spiritual source of nightmarish horror that animated Lovecraft's stories, and works it outward into original tales told in an original style. This style itself may be decidedly non-Lovecraftian-Ligotti's stylistic masters, let it be recalled, are Poe, Nabokov, Burroughs, Schulz, and the like-but the spirit is Lovecraftian to the core.
And this is all to say that Ligotti nowhere apes Lovecraft, but instead, in a certain (purely metaphorical) sense, embodies
him, or at least a version of him (see below). In my essay "Thomas Ligotti's Career of Nightmares," I have speculated that Ligotti's writing may be taken "as a kind of distillation and expression in contemporary terms of what was best in Lovecraft" (Cardin, p. 16). Regarding what qualifies as Lovecraft's "best," Ligotti has expressed a definite preference for the earlier, more poetic, dreamlike tales over the later, longer ones such as "The Shadow Out of Time" and At the Mountains of Madness
in which Lovecraft attempted to build a combined atmosphere of cosmic horror and scientific/documentary realism. "I find Lovecraft's fastidious attempts at creating a documentary style 'reality' an obstacle to appreciating his work," he has said. "To me, reading a horror story should be like dreaming and the more dreamlike a story is, the more it affects me" (Ford, p. 33).
Given such a literary predilection, we can appreciate why Ligotti has designated Lovecraft's dreamlike "The Music of Erich Zann" as his favorite amongst Lovecraft's works. "To me," he has said, "it was in 'Erich Zann' that Lovecraft came up with the perfect model of horror story" (Ayad). He has described this story as "Lovecraft's early, almost premature expression of his ideal as a writer: the use of maximum suggestion and minimal explanation to evoke a sense of supernatural terrors and wonders" (Ligotti 2003, p. 82). "Erich Zann" has long been recognized as one of Lovecraft's most successful stories, and for our purposes here, it is important to recall that Lovecraft wrote it in 1921, only four and a half years into his mature fiction-writing career, which had begun in 1917 with "The Tomb." When we recall his famous assertion from 1936, just a little over a year before his death, that "I'm farther from doing what I want to do than I was 20 years ago" (SL V.224) and put this together with Ligotti's claim that he himself has "tend[ed] to take more cues from Lovecraft's earlier work" (Bryant), we can at last understand what it really means to say that Ligotti's writing distills the essence of Lovecraft's best. Lovecraft himself felt that he had produced his best writing early on, and Ligotti agrees. Considering the deep affective kinship between the two men, it seems reasonable to regard Ligotti's writing as a continuation of the type of writing Lovecraft produced early his fiction writing career, before he made the changes in his approach which hindsight later represented to him as a misstep.
Perhaps this is the appropriate point to highlight the obvious fact that not everyone agrees with Ligotti's preference for Lovecraft's earlier work, and thus not everyone agrees that Ligotti's own authorial choices have been for the best. In the world of horror literature and entertainment at large, most people associate Lovecraft with, and venerate him for, the branch of his writing typified by "The Call of Cthulhu," At the Mountains of Madness
, "The Shadow Out of Time," and his other, longer stories told in a realistic tone and mounted as documentary-type expositions of cosmic and/or supernatural themes, as opposed to the earlier stories that Ligotti values most. S.T. Joshi is one prominent figure who believes that Lovecraft produced his most significant work in this later "supernatural realist" mode and that, moreover, this mode has characterized the greatest works in the supernatural horror genre as a whole. "Ligotti's own tastes notwithstanding," he has said, "few will doubt that Lovecraft initiated the most representative phase of his career when he adopted the documentary realism of 'The Call of Cthulhu' in 1926; if he had stopped writing before that point, we would have little reason to remember him" (Joshi 1993, p. 152). By contrast, Ligotti believes that Lovecraft "was at his worst when he tried to be 'convincing' in the manner derived from the late 19th
century realist-naturalist writers," and that these attempts failed to achieve the effect Lovecraft had intended. "Lovecraft," he says, "always veered off into a highly unrealistic, as well as highly poetic style," and it is this very deviation from the ideal of realism that Ligotti finds most laudable and valuable (Schweitzer, p. 26). The upshot of the matter, generally speaking, is that Ligotti thinks Lovecraft was at his worst in the very stories where Joshi thinks he was at his best.
What we have here is a case of methodological and even philosophical disagreement, the details of which come out most clearly in the two men's respective assessments of "The Music of Erich Zann." Joshi, like Ligotti, notices something distinctive about this story. On the one hand, he praises it, saying that it "justifiably remained one of Lovecraft's own favourite stories, for it reveals a restraint in its supernatural manifestations (bordering, for one of the few times in his entire work, on obscurity), a pathos in its depiction of its protagonist, and a general polish in its language that Lovecraft rarely achieved in later years." And yet he also expresses a reservation, already hinted at in the parenthetical aside quoted above, about "the very nebulous nature of the horror involved" in the narrative. "There are those," he writes, "who find this sort of restraint effective because it leaves so much to the imagination; and there are those who find it ineffective because it leaves too much
to the imagination, and there is a suspicion that the author himself did not have a fully conceived understanding of what the central weird phenomenon of the story is actually meant to be. I fear I am in the latter camp." Although Joshi, like Ligotti, thinks Lovecraft was sometimes a bit too overexplanatory in his later stories, "in 'The Music of Erich Zann' I cannot help feeling that he erred in the opposite direction" (Joshi 1996, pp. 271, 272). But this is of course the complete opposite of Ligotti's opinion, since Ligotti, as we have seen, regards the same story as a masterpiece precisely because of its use of "maximum suggestion and minimal explanation" to evoke a specific type of philosophical-aesthetic response. For him, the story's refusal to give any hint of explanation regarding the precise nature of its central horror, in tandem with the skill of its telling, "suggest[s] to us the essence, far bigger than life, of that dark universal terror beyond naming which is the matrix for all other terrors" (Ligotti 2003, p. 80), whereas for Joshi the same quality merely hints at the author's underdeveloped conception of his own theme.
In light of this, we should not be surprised that Joshi has criticized Ligotti's stories for falling short of the ideal of supernatural realism. In 1993 Joshi expressed concern at the fact that Ligotti "seems, apparently by design, not to care about the complete reconciliation of the various supernatural features in a given tale," which, in conjunction with several other problems Joshi perceives in Ligotti's style (including obscurity, excessive self-consciousness and self-referentiality, and a lack of "spontaneity and emotional vigour"), prevents his work from ranking with the best in the supernatural horror genre. Joshi opined that Ligotti needs to produce more completed tales, as opposed to vignettes and such, and more work in the supernatural realist mode of the later Lovecraftian stories "if he is to join the ranks of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, Jackson, Campbell, and Klein, as he is on the verge of doing." Among Ligotti's works that already fulfill this order, Joshi counted "The Last Feast of Harlequin," "Nethescurial," and "Vastarien" (Joshi 1993, pp. 151-152).1
Ligotti, for his part, is quite self-aware about the choices he has made in matters of style and authorial philosophy. He has even employed a metafictional approach to incorporate his thoughts about such matters into some of his stories. "Nethescurial" is one such story, and ironically (in light of Joshi's praise), we can find within it an answer to Joshi's criticism of Ligotti's supposed over-vagueness. "Nethescurial" is constructed as a series of frame stories, and the narrator of the topmost frame is portrayed as possessing a certain savvy about the field of supernatural horror. In commenting on the contents of a manuscript he has found, which forms one of the lower-level frames, and which purports to give an account of a supposedly true quasi-supernatural/metaphysical horror story, he says, "The problem is that such supernatural inventions [i.e. the god Nethescurial, a "demonic demiurge"] are indeed quite difficult to imagine. So often they fail to materialize in the mind, to take on a mental texture, and thus remain unfelt as anything but an abstract monster of metaphysics-an elegant or awkward schematic that cannot rise from the paper to touch us" (G, p. 82).
Although in this passage the narrator/Ligotti is talking not about the problem of authorial vagueness, but instead the ontological and affective barrier that separates the world of written words from the world of existential reality, we may still read these thoughts as addressing the former issue as well. This is especially true since the "demonic demiurge" Nethescurial, which forms the story's central metaphysical horror, remains fully and fundamentally as unexplained in the end as does the nameless horror confronted by Lovecraft's Erich Zann. Ligotti's concluding words at the end of the passage quoted above may thus be taken not only as an apologia for the power of literary horror to move us, but also for the power of a minimally explained supernatural premise to have a similar impact: "Even if we are incapable of sincere belief in [the various stock narrative elements found in supernatural horror stories like the tale of the island cult of Nethescurial], there may still be a power in these things that threatens us like a bad dream. And this power emanates not so much from within the tale as it does from somewhere behind
it, someplace of infinite darkness and ubiquitous evil in which we may walk unaware" (G, p. 82).
Not incidentally, these thoughts were prefigured, and Ligotti's low opinion of the value and effectiveness of supernatural realism was given clear expression, in his words to interviewer Carl Ford in 1988, three years before "Nethescurial's" first publication:
Obviously, Joshi is correct in believing that Ligotti cares nothing for "the complete reconciliation of the various supernatural features in a given tale." What matters to Ligotti is the evocation of mood and the conveyance, preferably with consummate literary skill, of an overwhelming artistic-horrific vision. In fact, we could substitute "Nethescurial" for "Cthulhu" in the above quotation to arrive at a viable statement from Ligotti about his own guiding philosophy as a writer. (For more on the parallels between Ligotti's personal aesthetic as a writer of horror fiction and his statements about Lovecraft, see the final section of this essay.)
If it is ironic that Ligotti has answered, after a fashion, some of Joshi's criticisms in one of the very stories that Joshi has singled out for praise, then it is doubly ironic that Lovecraft's own words indicate that by the end of his life, he probably would have agreed more with Ligotti than Joshi on this issue. Although Lovecraft did begin employing a documentary-realist approach to fiction writing beginning in 1926, his self-stated ultimate goal in the writing of even these realistic stories was the evocation of mood, not the "complete reconciliation of [their] various supernatural features," which formulation may be taken as one of the hallmarks of supernatural realism. "[Weird fiction] must," he wrote in 1935,
In the case of Lovecraft's own writing, the point is illustrated by his 1931 short novel, At the Mountains of Madness
. He wrote this one in an ultra-realistic tone, complete with a generous overlay of scientific jargon, but as he said in a 1936 letter to his friend E. Hoffmann Price, at root his goal was simply "to pin down the vague feelings regarding the lethal, desolate white south which have haunted me ever since I was ten years old." In other words, he simply wanted to write a story that would express for him, and that would convey to others, an undefined feeling. This emotional closeness that he felt to the setting and subject matter of the story may account in part for the fact that when it received a hostile reception and was subjected to severe editorial mishandling, he was so discouraged that, in his own words, the episode "probably did more than anything else to end my effective fictional career" (SL V.223, 224).
The point is reinforced later in the same letter to Price, where Lovecraft used similar mood-based terms to explain his motivations for writing "The Haunter of the Dark" (1935): "The sole purpose of this attempt was to crystallise (a) the feeling of strangeness in a distant view, and (b) the feeling of latent horror in an old, deserted edifice" (SL V.224). Again, this ideal of mood, and not the achievement of a successful supernatural-realist effect, was so important to Lovecraft that his self-perceived failure deeply discouraged him. These words about "The Haunter in the Dark" are followed directly by his already-quoted claim that he was farther from "doing what I want to do" than he had been twenty years earlier.
In a more formal vein, in his 1933 essay "Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction," Lovecraft had made the same point when he wrote, "My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature" (MW, p. 113). And if we look to the introduction to his classic essay Supernatural Horror in Literature
(written 1925-1927), we see him flatly asserting that the "one test of the really weird"-that is, the litmus test for whether a supernatural horror story succeeds or fails-is simply whether it generates the right mood. More specifically, and to quote Lovecraft's famous words in full, "The one test of the really weird is this-whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim" (DOMT, 368-9).
At this point, the attentive reader may have begun to think that I am confusing categories in my argument. Supernatural realism, the reader might say, is a stylistic approach, whereas Lovecraft's weird-fictional ideal of evoking mood is a fundamental authorial motivation, prior to and separate from the selection of a literary style. In other words, supernatural realism was merely one of several stylistic vehicles that he employed in pursuit of his emotional goal, and therefore to oppose the two is to commit a category error. In my defense, I do not think I have committed this error, because what I have been attempting to show is precisely that primacy of his emotional motivation for writing stories at all. My point is not that his stories can be discretely divided into "mood-based" ones and supernatural realist ones, but simply that he was more emotionally invested in the idea of writing stories to convey ethereal moods than he was intellectually invested in the idea of writing stories to create a convincing air of realism or to offer a coherent explanation or reconciliation of supernatural motifs. When he reached middle age and began to take stock of his writing, he felt that the work he had produced prior to adopting the realist approach had more successfully achieved and fulfilled his emotional goals. And in this opinion, he is at one with Ligotti.
Nor does this identity of opinion stop there. Although an author's assessment of his or her own work should not always be taken as valid, it is a telling fact that Ligotti's opinion about Lovecraft's fiction echoes that of Lovecraft himself. Late in life, Lovecraft maintained that he regarded "The Music of Erich Zann" and "The Colour Out of Space," each of which in its respective way defies the conventions of supernatural realism by leaving the narrative's central horror utterly unexplained, as his most successful stories. Of course, Joshi, too, admires "The Colour Out of Space," specifically-and oddly, in light of his criticism of "The Music of Erich Zann"-for the way it "captures the atmosphere of inexplicable horror" perhaps more effectively than any of Lovecraft's other stories (Joshi 1996, p. 420). Ligotti, for his part, has said of this story that he admires the way it "delineat[es] a condition of pervasive strangeness and unease," the achievement of which is necessary for his enjoyment of horror fiction (Schweitzer, p. 27). So on this point, regarding this story, Ligotti and Joshi are in agreement. But we have already seen that Joshi holds reservations about what he perceives as the possible overuse of underexplanation in Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann," whereas for Ligotti the same story serves almost as an Ur-type template.
The overarching point that I have been laboring to make through all of this is that Ligotti's sense of identification with Lovecraft is so profound, and their sensibilities are so closely aligned, that the two of them even share Lovecraft's self-opinion as a writer, no matter whether this clashes with the expressed opinions of the world's foremost Lovecraft scholar or anyone else. If this seems an overstatement, I will at least argue for the heuristic value of the idea by pointing out that Ligotti's position enables him to offer an explanation for Lovecraft's late-in-life lament about his self-perceived failure to realize his authorial goals. The answer is really quite simple: Lovecraft's experimentation with supernatural realism may have produced the stories that he has become most known for, but they failed to satisfy him as much as his earlier work had done. For both Lovecraft and Ligotti, these later stories failed to approach the same summit of suggestive horror, and failed to capture and express the same delicate emotions, that his earlier ones had achieved, and thus both men prefer the earlier work to the later. Thus it was natural for Lovecraft to claim at the age of forty-five that he was farther from producing the work he wanted to produce than he had been at twenty-five. But Joshi can only be baffled by the claim and call it an "astonishing assertion" (Joshi 2000). Or perhaps (and this is more likely) he fully understands Lovecraft's subjective reasons for saying such a thing, but still finds it astonishing because he considers the stories from Lovecraft's supernatural realist period to be patently superior, meaning more significant, meaningful, and mature, than the earlier ones. In any event, the question here is not that of the objective literary value of Lovecraft's pre- or post-1926 work, but of the way that he, along with Ligotti, felt about such things. And the answer is clear.
Perhaps most telling of all, in the same letter where he averred that a serious weird tale sets out to be "a picture of a mood," Lovecraft reflected on his then-current approach to fiction writing and expressed confusion over the most effective way to achieve his goals: "I'm pretty well burned out in the lines I've been following . . . that's why I'm experimenting around for new ways to capture the moods I wish to depict." He specifically classifies "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Shadow out of Time," both of which he had written in his realist mode, as counting among these "experiments," and asserts, "Nothing
is really 'typical' of my efforts at this stage. I'm simply casting about for better ways to crystallise and capture certain strong impressions . . . which persist in clamouring for expression." Then he makes a most interesting statement: "Perhaps the case is hopeless-that is, I may be experimenting in the wrong medium altogether. It may be that poetry instead of fiction is the only effective vehicle to put such expression across" (SL V.199).
In this same vein, only a month after writing the letter to Price from which I have quoted extensively above, he wrote Price another one in which he disparaged his own earlier work, lamented the influence of pulp fiction on his thought process and therefore writing style, and then hinted indirectly, and tantalizingly, that he was groping toward yet another shift in his writing. And in this second expression of dissatisfaction, he made it clear that his lament from a month earlier referred not only to the quality of his work, but to its very form. "[F]iction
," he stated, "is not
the medium for what I really want to do
" (emphases in original). But regarding the type of writing he did want to do, he expressed confusion: "(Just what the right medium would be, I don't know-perhaps the cheapened and hackneyed term 'prose-poem' would hint in the general direction.)" (SL V.230). Lovecraft, we will recall, had already written four prose poems earlier in his career: "Memory," "Ex Oblivione," "Nyarlathotep," and "What the Moon Brings." In keeping with the conventions of the form, each of these pieces is characterized by a poetic, dreamlike tone and an atmosphere of unabashed surrealism. In fact, we might anachronistically describe his prose poems as some of the most Ligottian
things he ever wrote.
This is a clue worth following. Certainly, Ligotti himself has made extensive use of the prose poem form, or something resembling it, in what Joshi has described as "the vignettes, prose poems, sketches and fragments that so far [as of 1993] constitute the bulk of his output." It was Ligotti's repeated use of this semi-fragmentary form that led Joshi, with his preference for supernatural realism, to say that Ligotti "will, I believe, have to start writing more stories-as opposed to [prose poems etc.]-if he is to gain pre?minence in the field" (Joshi 2003, p. 152). Regardless of Joshi's judgment here, are we perhaps justified in speculating, based on the considerations already offered, that the different medium and/or style for which Lovecraft was blindly groping; the one that would have expressed to his satisfaction the poignant and powerful subjective impressions and imaginings that had dominated his life; the one that would have given him the same sense of creative fulfillment that his early works gave him in retrospect-are we perhaps justified in speculating that this new type of writing which he unsuccessfully sought to conceive may be found today in the works of Thomas Ligotti?
In pursuit of this idea, let us consider Ligotti's metafiction "Notes on the Writing of Horror," which stands as his quintessential statement on matters of literary style as they relate to the horror story. In this tour de force, he expresses, through the voice of the narrator, his thoughts about the various styles or "techniques" available to horror writers. These are, he says, essentially three in number. First is the realistic
technique, which is simply another name for conventional supernatural realism. The description that he gives would serve well as a textbook definition: "The supernatural and all it represents, is profoundly abnormal, and therefore unreal . . . . Now the highest aim of the realistic horror writer is to prove, in realistic terms, that the unreal is real." The second technique is the traditional gothic
technique, which places characters and plotlines in a recognizably gothic-fantastic setting and can therefore dispense with the strictures of realism by, for example, employing an "inflated rhetoric" that would seem hysterical in a more realistic context. Third is the experimental
technique, which a writer adopts when the first two would fail to tell the story rightly, and which is defined by the writer's "simply following the story's commands to the best of his human ability . . . . [L]iterary experimentalism is simply the writer's imagination, or lack of it, and feeling, or absence of same, thrashing their chains around in the escape-proof dungeon of the words of the story" (SOADD
, pp. 104, 108-9, 110-11). By way of example, Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" and Ligotti's "The Frolic" may be cited as instances of the realistic technique. Lovecraft's "The Outsider" and Ligotti's "The Tsalal" may be cited as instances of the traditional gothic technique. For the experimental technique, it is more difficult to pin down a Lovecraft story. Probably his prose poems are the best ones to single out, and perhaps "The Music of Erich Zann," which also qualifies as gothic. For Ligotti, so many stories fall into the experimental category that it is impractical to list them here. Examples include "Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech," "The Night School," "Mad Night of Atonement," "The Red Tower," the entire contents of "The Notebook of the Night" (the final section of his collection Noctuary
), and the chapbook Sideshow and Other Stories
Given Ligotti's assertion that a writer adopts experimentalism when the more traditional styles prove inadequate, we might speculate that it was this style that Lovecraft had in mind when he was searching for a new means of expression. His late-1936 claim to Fritz Leiber that one of his "cardinal principles regarding weird fiction" had always been the idea that "an air of absolute realism should be preserved (as if one were preparing an actual hoax instead of a story) except in the one limited field where the writer has chosen to depart . . . from the order of objective reality" (SL V.342) may be taken simply as one more sign of the confusion he was then experiencing over stylistic matters, since the claim clearly describes supernatural realism, and yet it was this very approach that he had been expressing frequent and severe doubts over, almost to the point of repudiating it, during the preceding months.
Having said all this, it may not be experimentalism alone that Lovecraft, or even Ligotti, was/is reaching for. In "Notes on the Writing of Horror," Ligotti/the narrator makes brief mention of "another style" that would supersede and obliterate all others. In order to do full justice to the story of Nathan, the protagonist whose example story he has been taking through permutations of the three standard styles, Ligotti/the narrator says he "wanted to employ a style that would conjure all the primordial powers of the universe independent of the conventional realities of the Individual, Society, or Art. I aspired toward nothing less than a pure style without style, a style having nothing whatsoever to do with the normal or abnormal, a style magic, timeless, and profound . . . and one of great horror, the horror of a god" (SOADD
, p. 112). In other words, he was trying to burst the bonds of the written word (which recalls the narrator's thoughts in "Nethescurial") by writing a horror story that presented pure horror, the pristine experience in and of itself, on a veritably cosmic-divine level, and that would therefore be able to invade the reader's experience and become, instead of just a story on a page, his or her existential reality. The attempt failed, of course, because it was necessarily founded upon the very unreality (of the world of fiction) that it was attempting to overcome. That is, the whole idea was a categorical impossibility. But the passion behind it was and is real in the minds of both the narrator and Ligotti himself, and also, I think, in the mind of Lovecraft, whose passionate desire to give literary expression to his deepest emotions, and thereby to affect his readers deeply, at least equaled that of his successor.
Speaking of categorical impossibilities, the idea that I have been advancing-that the different form of writing the middle-aged Lovecraft inchoately desired to produce may have been the very form of writing that Ligotti is producing today, and that both may have ultimately longed to write in an impossible godlike style-is of course a categorically unverifiable conjecture. It is also a somewhat outlandish one, and I fear that the very articulating of it may seem extravagant. But for all that, I still feel that it is a worthwhile possibility to consider, if only for the way it illuminates the writings of both men.
And having considered them together, as literary soulmates, it is now time to recognize their differences.
IV. Lovecraft and Ligotti, sui generis
It should be obvious by now that in stating Lovecraft's authorial ideal as "the use of maximum suggestion and minimal explanation to evoke a sense of supernatural terrors and wonders," Ligotti was stating his own ideal as well. And this ought to lead us to suspect the objective validity of his judgment. In truth, it is probably the case that his understanding of Lovecraft is too strongly colored by his personal feelings to qualify as objective, and that it is Joshi, the scholar, and not Ligotti, the literary artist, who can validly lay claim to the most technically accurate assessment. For my own part, in poring over Ligotti's essays and interviews, I have gathered the impression that his response to Lovecraft, and in particular his sense of identification with Lovecraft's worldview, has been so intense that it has led him to impute too much of himself to his idol. In other words, he has to a certain extent reimagined Lovecraft in his own image.
A pertinent example of this can be seen in his descriptive analyses of Lovecraft's nightmare vision of reality, which are, in my opinion, entirely Ligottian, but not entirely Lovecraftian. My own reading of Lovecraft has given me the impression that while he was entirely serious about the cosmic despair and philosophical concerns that undergird his stories, he did not experience precisely the same kind of existential torture and cosmic-ontological nightmare that characterizes Ligotti's fictional world and personal life. Lovecraft, it seems to me, was emotionally and intellectually focused on the horror of "cosmic outsideness," of vast outer spaces and the mind-shattering powers and principles that may hold sway there, and that may occasionally impinge upon human reality and reveal its pathetic fragility. Even a minimal knowledge of his biography leads to the conclusion that this was an entirely appropriate focus for him, given his infatuation with, and wide-ranging knowledge of, astronomy in particular and natural science in general. The same personal interests also indicate that his forays into supernatural realism were far from being a waste, since they utilized a definite portion of his knowledge and side of his character that otherwise would have languished in muteness.
Ligotti, by contrast, seems focused more upon the horror of deep insideness
, of the dark, twisted, transcendent truths and mysteries that reside within consciousness itself and find their outward expression in scenes and situations of warped perceptions and diseased metaphysics. As with Lovecraft and his own idiosyncratic themes, these themes are characteristically Ligotti's, characteristically Ligottian through and through, and they have grown out of his life. Whereas Lovecraft was passionately interested in astronomy, chemistry, New England history and architecture, and many other subjects that found their ways into his fictional writings, Ligotti's "outside" interests include the literature of pessimism, the composing and playing of music, and the study of religion and spirituality, especially in its mystical or nondual aspect. Thus the idiosyncrasies of his typical style and themes are as natural and expectable as were Lovecraft's.
Importantly, despite their significant differences, the Ligottian and Lovecraftian brands of horror do exhibit manifest family resemblances. It may even be that they represent opposite poles on the same continuum, with Lovecraft's outer, transcendent, cosmic focus and Ligotti's inner, immanent, personal one finding their mutual confirmation and fulfillment in each other. But the really important thing to notice is that the distinction between Lovecraft's and Ligotti's respective horrific visions, combined with a recognition of their underlying kinship, helps to answer our original question about Ramsey Campbell's reasons, in that introduction to Songs of a Dead Dreamer
, for mentioning in the same breath both Ligotti's separateness from and perceptible relationship to Lovecraft.
Another difference that I find between Lovecraft and Ligotti, and one whose significance is even more foundational, is that Lovecraft, as both a human being and an artist, was powerfully shaped by a lifelong experience of sehnsucht
, whereas in Ligotti this quality, while present, is overshadowed or even overpowered by stark, staring horror and a desperate bleakness. Lovecraft's poignant yearning after an experience of absolute beauty can be seen in many of his stories, such as "The Silver Key," where young Randolph Carter, Lovecraft's fictional alter ego, yearns for a return to the reimagined supernal peace and beauty of his childhood world; and also in his letters and essays, where he speaks repeatedly of finding himself overcome by aesthetic rapture and a sense of longing and "adventurous expectancy" at the sight of sunsets, cloudscapes, winding streets, rooftops angled in certain suggestive arrangements, and the like. The following passage from a 1927 letter to Donald Wandrei is typical:
Or again, from a 1930 letter to Clark Ashton Smith:
Additional examples could be multiplied at length, and all would show, like the above passages, that Lovecraft was gripped by an ingrained and, we might say, "classical" sense of sehnsucht
, the "infinite longing that is the essence of romanticism," as E.T.A. Hoffmann famously formulated it. It was precisely this faculty that led him to respond with such intense delight to the mystically charged writings of Lord Dunsany, which exerted an enormous influence on his own subsequent work. Lovecraft's Dunsanian stories can and should be read not only as outflowings of his love for Dunsany's aesthetic vision, but as expressions of his own personal sense of infinite longing.
Lovecraft even went so far as to assert that this feeling of longing, this heightened responsiveness to beauty that seems to hint at a transcendent world of absolute aesthetic fulfillment, is
The fact that he made all of these statements after
his 1926 conversion (as we might call it) to supernatural realism demonstrates beyond all doubt that the longings and mood-based authorial motivations he experienced during his earlier period were still in full force later on. And this provides still further explanation for why those later, more realistic stories, with their tendency toward narrative over-explicitness and a certain clinical, "scientific" coldness of style, while they may constitute significant literary works in their own right, appeared to him a deviations from his true path and desire.
Ligotti is fully aware of all this, of course. No one who has made even a casual study of Lovecraft's life and works can be unaware of this aspect of his character, and Ligotti has studied him more seriously and extensively than most. He has read Lovecraft's stories, essays, and letters, and has seen his repeated claim that his life was made bearable solely by virtue of those transcendent intimations of a supernal beauty. And Ligotti has, I think, responded to this after his own fashion. At the very least, he has recognized that even in a horror story like "The Music of Erich Zann," Lovecraft "captured at least a fragment of the desired object [i.e. the unattainable goal of that burning sehnsucht
] and delivered it to his readers" (Ligotti 2003, p. 84). But as mentioned above, in Ligotti's fictional world this yearning after beauty ends up being utterly subjugated to the experience of cosmic horror. I think it might even be possible to do a chronological study of the appearance and eventual complete submergence or subversion of this impulse in his stories. Early on, in such tales as "Les Fleurs," "The Frolic," "The Chymist," and "The Lost Art of Twilight," one can sense a world of suggestive beauties, laced with horrors (or vice versa), being painted in the descriptive passages, and in the hints of an alternate realm that borders the normal world: the "blasphemous fairyland" where John Doe frolics with his young victims (cf. SOADD
, pp. 12-13), the "opulent kingdom of glittering colors and velvety jungle-shapes, a realm of contorted rainbows and twisted auroras" where the narrator of "Les Fleurs" dwells amidst a riotous floral beauty of hideous luxuriance (SOADD
, p. 25). The emotional center of this subset of tales is summed up in a single sentence from "Vastarien," which itself stands as Ligotti's most singular, unified expression of this sort of longing: "Victor Keirion belonged to that wretched sect of souls who believe that the only value of this world lies in its power-at certain times-to suggest another world" (SOAD, p. 263). The very wording, aside from the description of those who are subject to this longing as "wretched," recalls some of the Lovecraft passages quoted above.
But as Ligotti's art progresses, the longing expressed in his stories mutates, until we are presented with such grim spectacles as "The Tsalal," in which protagonist Andrew Maness' longing is described in terms that subvert and transmute the desire for beauty into a desire for gothic horror and bleakness. Andrew, the story informs us, was conceived as part of a sinister mystical rite that was intended to bring the Tsalal, a god or principle of ultimate darkness, into this world. As "the seed of that one," he will find that throughout his life he "will be drawn to a place that reveals the sign of the Tsalal-an aspect of the unreal, a forlorn glamor in things" (Ligotti 1995, p. 93). This attraction takes the form of a longing that still bears certain similarities to Lovecraft's, since it is still based on the desire to see and experience another world-and yet for Andrew Maness, the sights and scenes that evoke the longing, and the fundamental character of the other world that he desires, have nothing whatsoever to do with sunsets or mystical vistas, or indeed with any sort of beauty at all:
For this narrator, such grim and spectral scenes inspire the sense of an imminent, nightmarish transformation being worked upon the world through the agency of his own being, and this in turn "overwhelm[s] him with a black intoxication and suggest[s] his life's goal: to work the great wheel that turns in darkness, and to be broken upon it" (N, p. 83). Obviously, this is light years from Lovecraft's "vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory-impressions that certain vistas, particularly those associated with sunsets, are avenues of approach to spheres or conditions of wholly undefined delights and freedoms which I have known in the past and have a slender possibility of knowing again in the future" (SL III.243). This difference, not incidentally, has resulted in dramatic differences in the two men's fictional representations of longing. One need only compare any of the above-quoted Ligotti passages, or any of a dozen others, to analogous descriptive passages from Lovecraft's dream stories in order to see the difference.3
Ligotti has inadvertently given us a clue as to how to articulate this particular distinction between Lovecraft and himself. He has written, "Like Erich Zann's 'world of beauty,' Lovecraft's 'lay in some far cosmos of the imagination,' and like that of another artist, it is a 'beauty that hath horror in it'" (Ligotti 2003, p. 84). For Ligotti, the order of primacy is reversed: his other-world is a horror that hath beauty in it. It is a world of horror first and foremost, with its undeniable, intermittent beauty standing only as an accident or epiphenomenon-and perhaps as a kind of deadly lure. Understanding this, we will not wonder at the fact that his oeuvre contains nothing even remotely resembling Lovecraft's Dunsanian stories. He has never written, or at least never published, anything like Lovecraft's "The Quest of Iranon" or "Celepha?s," the first of which is entirely lacking in horror and the second of which only lightly brushes past it, and both of which take for their primary themes not gothic darkness but ethereal beauty and bittersweet poignancy.
The thematic progression of Ligotti's fiction away from any sort of expressed longing and toward a zenith, which is to say an emotional nadir, of despair and horror is completed in "The Bungalow House," which portrays the miserable death of the very capacity to yearn. The protagonist of the story, a solitary librarian, becomes infatuated with a series of bizarre audio performance tapes that he discovers at a local art gallery. These tapes contain first person "dream monologues" narrated by an oddly familiar voice, and the bleak, surreal scenes they describe touch an emotional chord deep within him, causing him to respond with the same feeling of "euphoric hopelessness" described by the taped voice. Expressing a sentiment that rather recalls Ligotti's closing words in his essay "The Consolations of Horror," the narrator of "The Bungalow House" says he feels comforted by the tapes, since they demonstrate that someone else has shared his most private and powerful insights and emotions. "To think," he says with rhetorical emphasis, "that another person shared my love for the icy bleakness of things
, p. 523).
But by the story's end, he has been emotionally devastated by a personal confrontation with the owner of the anonymous voice, and by a "twist" that has revealed a depth to his own wretchedness that he had not previously suspected. The result is that he has been robbed of that selfsame ability to feel "the intense and highly aesthetic perception of what I call the icy bleakness of things
" that had initially attracted him to the tapes (TNF
, p. 531). The story's closing lines explicitly describe the nature of his loss:
This emotional death signals a lasting shift in Ligotti's writing; in his post-"Bungalow House" stories, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find evidence of the same yearning, however dark its character by the time of "The Tsalal," that informed much of his earlier work. This leads us to suspect a strong autobiographical component to this thematic arc, and we are confirmed in our suspicions by Ligotti's nonfictional description of his agonized struggles with anhedonia in The Conspiracy against the Human Race
One of the most fundamental elements of any writer's psychological makeup is the central impulse that motivates him to write at all. When we compare Ligotti's expressed motivations with Lovecraft's, we find that this dividing line between them-Lovecraft's golden longing contrasting with Ligotti's gloomy one that eventually dies in desolation-extends all the way inward to that foundational level. We have already seen that Lovecraft said he wrote directly out of his sehnsucht
, "to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy" that he derived from various sources. In the same essay, he went on to explain why he wrote the particular kind of story that his readers have come to associate him with, and his words are of paramount significance to our concerns here:
The import of this statement for Lovecraft's status as a horror writer is obvious: he was saying, circa 1933, that he only wrote horror because it was efficacious for achieving another effect that is not intrinsically horrific. In other words, for him, horror was a means and not an end. It was his poignant, wistful longing after transcendent beauty and cosmic freedom that animated his authorial life-and not only that, but his life in general: in the same letter where he described his "vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory," he claimed that this intense emotional experience was chief amongst the reasons why he did not commit suicide-"the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthernsome quality" (SL III.243).
Such an attitude contrasts sharply with the reason, quoted earlier, that Ligotti has given for going on with life: "to communicate, in the form of horror stories, the outrage and panic at being alive in the world." He frames this as "following Lovecraft's way," and to a degree he is correct, since the horror Lovecraft expressed in his stories was entirely authentic. But as we have seen, it was not the whole of his subjective reality, nor, by his own account, was it the ultimate end of his creative endeavors. This means it is just one more indication of Ligotti's radical emotional and intellectual appropriation of Lovecraft when he holds up horror as Lovecraft's real message and meaning, and for the most part relegates every other aspect of his life, writings, and character to peripheral status. For Ligotti, horror-the kind he experienced at the age of seventeen in that Lovecraftian epiphany of a meaningless, menacing cosmos-is all that is "really real," and whenever he, Lovecraft, or anybody else departs from living in the full nightmarish intensity of it, this equates with "think[ing] and act[ing] like every other goof and sucker on this planet" (Bee).5
So we are left with a kind of paradox or contradiction, in that Ligotti identifies strongly with Lovecraft as a writer and human being, and has modeled his own life and writings upon Lovecraft's example, and yet the aesthetic longing that was central to Lovecraft's character and writings, and which comes out most clearly in the early stories Ligotti so greatly admires, is something that Ligotti is forced, by virtue of his own personal vision and experience, to view as peripheral. A likely explanation for this fact is that when Ligotti first discovered Lovecraft and fastened upon his writings as expressions of the emotional and philosophical horror that he (Ligotti) was experiencing, this resulted in his gaining a one-sided understanding. His private predisposition illuminated with stunning intensity an important facet of Lovecraft's vision, but at the same time it relegated equally important facets to secondary status. We may view the overall result as ironic, since the part of Lovecraft's life and work that has hitherto been overlooked by the reading public at large-his longing after beauty-in favor of framing him purely and solely as a horror writer (witness the contents of the 2005 Modern Library volume, which omit entirely the dream and Dunsanian stories), is also obscured by the overwhelming horrific focus of Ligotti, who is widely recognized as one of Lovecraft's most prominent literary heirs.
V. Conclusion: The Enchanting Nightmare
Having gone on at such length about Ligotti's "appropriation" of Lovecraft, let me now hasten to add that I do not consider his subjective attitude to be at all inappropriate. Far from being a detriment, it is the proper attitude for any artist who comes under the sway of a powerful, life-changing forebear. Indeed, it recalls the response of Lovecraft himself to the writings of Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft first read Dunsany's A Dreamer's Tales
in 1919, and later said the first paragraph had "arrested me as with an electrick shock, & I had not read two pages before I became a Dunsany devotee for life" (SL II.328). He felt that Dunsany was saying everything that he, Lovecraft, had hitherto wished to say as an author, and four years later he still claimed a thorough sense of identification with the man: "Dunsany is myself
. . . . His cosmic realm is the realm in which I live; his distant, emotionless vistas of the beauty of moonlight on quaint and ancient roofs are the vistas I know and cherish" (SL I.234). Far from injuring or cheapening his work, Lovecraft's love affair with Dunsany served as a catalyst for the crystallization of thoughts, emotions, and a narrative style that were already imminent in his own writing. His felt identification with the man acted as a midwife for his own birth into creative maturity.
I cannot think but that Ligotti's position with regard to Lovecraft is analogous. Intellectually, he probably has as balanced an understanding of Lovecraft as any scholar, but this necessarily takes a second place to his emotional response. As an artist, his primary calling is not to pursue the strict scholarly accuracy of a Joshi, but to bear witness to what he sees, feels, and knows within the depths of his being. And even though his understanding of Lovecraft is intensely subjective, it is also for that very reason all the more potent. In an artistic or "spiritual" sense, it may even be more accurate than Joshi's, the evidence of which can be seen in the fact, with which we commenced this exploration, that while Ligotti's stories "only resemble Lovecraft's in the most tenuous manner," they almost invariably "evoke Lovecraft's shade" in the minds of his readers. "I hope my stories are in the Lovecraftian tradition," he has said, "in that they may evoke a sense of terror whose source is something nightmarishly unreal, the implications of which are disturbingly weird and, in the magical sense, charming" (Shawn Ramsey, "A Graveside Chat: Interview with Thomas Ligotti," 1989, quoted in Joshi 2003, p. 142). He has also said, "In my eyes, Lovecraft dreamed the great dream of supernatural literature-to convey with the greatest possible intensity a vision of the universe as a kind of enchanting nightmare (Ford, p. 32). Whether or not he is technically accurate in this assessment of the deep nature of Lovecraft's artistic vision-and in this particular case I think he is dead-on-his belief
that this was Lovecraft's dream has led him to produce a priceless body of weird fiction. One likes to think that Lovecraft himself would have been deeply pleased by this showing from his most worthy disciple.
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---. Miscellaneous Writings
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