Interview with Thomas Ligotti
by Robert Bee
Since the early 80s, Thomas Ligotti's brilliant, innovative fiction has been appearing prolifically in zines, story collections and anthologies. He has managed to establish a career on writing short fiction, a near impossibility these days. His work has been widely praised by writers as diverse as Poppy Z. Brite and Ramsey Campbell, and has won a number of awards including a Stoker for The Nightmare Factory. His other books include Songs of A Dead Dreamer, Noctuary, and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works. The accolades are all the more impressive if you consider the eccentric, surreal nature of Ligotti's writing. His work takes places in nightmare landscapes which unsettle the reader without the use of gore, violence or traditional monsters. Ligotti's work has not received the commercial success he deserves, but he has an avid cult following -- there are at least two websites and an e-mail newsletter devoted to his work.
RB: Tom, your work is unique and does not fit into any simple genre mold. Do you like your tales to be thought of as horror or is weird fiction a better term?
TL: I don't make any fine distinctions between horror, weird, terror, or what have you. I've always thought of my stories as fitting solidly in the tradition of horror tales that began with Poe. It seems odd to me that anyone would think otherwise but apparently this is the case. Possibly the reason for this is that when I began writing horror stories I had a kind of ideal in mind—a radically pure horror story, which in my view is something that very few writers have pursued. A great many stories that are published in the horror field are, to my mind, works that belong to the line of American realistic fiction as practiced by Stephen Crane, detective writers like Dashiell Hammett, modern writers like Bernard Malamud, people like that, and only incidentally include some horrific element which may not even be supernatural. I don't consider these horror stories, but that's just my personal quirk.
RB: A lot of your writing strikes me as dreamlike or surreal (to use that abused term). What role do dreams play in your work? Do your dreams ever inspire you?
TL: A number of my stories have had their inception in the nightmares which I've experienced throughout my life. In all cases these nightmares provide only a mood or an image or a phrase that my waking mind then develops into a narrative. Some examples of stories that had their beginnings in my nightmares are "The Cocoons," "The Bungalow House," and "Gas Station Carnivals."
RB: Metaphysics and the questioning of the nature of reality seem to be at the heart of your work rather than, say, werewolves, vampires and gore. These concerns remind me of Lovecraft's notion that weird fiction portrays the horrifying moment when the cosmos shatters our anthropomorphic understanding of the universe, replacing our merely human understanding with a cosmic perspective. Do you have an interest in what Lovecraft thought of as a "cosmic perspective"?
TL: Lovecraft did a fine job of communicating what he considered a "cosmic perspective" in his later stories, such as "The Shadow Out of Time" and "At the Mountains of Madness," in which the idea, as well as the emotional sensation, that human notions of value and meaning, even sense itself, are utterly fictitious. 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. Most of the time, of course, I think and act like every other goof and sucker on this planet. So did Lovecraft himself. Then there are other times when reality--or unreality, if you prefer--closes in and there's not much one can do except tremble and take extra medication.
It would be interesting to get Lovecraft's reaction to the relatively recent theories that have been advanced under the rubric of the "Anthropic Principle." Of course these ideas are the same ones that Lovecraft confronted in his own time and that have existed since human consciousness balked at the overwhelming lack of respect, or even recognition, that the universe--whatever you conceive it to be--extends to the human race.
RB: A lot of horror writers set their work in clearly defined locales: Lovecraft's Arkham and Innsmouth, Stephen King's Maine, Fritz Leiber's San Francisco and Chicago, Ramsey Campbell's Liverpool, but your work often occurs in a nebulous environment, almost like a Kafkaesque Eastern or Central Europe. I'm curious: where are most of your stories set?
TL: That depends on the story. Most of them are, I think, are quite clearly set in what people usually think of as a modern city or suburb or in some cases a small town with a name, although not a specific geographical designation. Then there are others, such as "The Greater Festival of Masks" or "The Red Tower" that are set in an indefinite nightmarish landscape. You have to remember the obvious fact that Maine or San Francisco are just fictions themselves, ones that we just happen to be familiar with to a greater or lesser degree, but that they don't have any substance or existence outside of fictional convention. People just made up these places.
RB: What type of outlook do you have on life? How does it affect your writing?
TL: My outlook is that it's a damn shame that organic life ever developed on this or any other planet, and that the pain that living creatures necessarily suffer makes for an existence that is a perennial nightmare. This attitude underlies almost everything I've written.
RB: A lot of your characters are artists, especially in the interlinked Teatro Grottesco tales. Why do you write so much about artists? What are your trying to say about art?
TL: Artists are explicitly concerned with unreal worlds, which makes them and their activities very well suited to a type of fiction that deals in the unreal. Artists are also stereotypically eccentric characters with whom I identify and find interesting to portray. I don't think I'm capable of depicting a normal, everyday person, and I'm sure I have no interest in doing so.
RB: What do you most fear and how does it affect your work?
TL: I fear the sort of deranged sense of reality that is elaborated in most of my stories. I also find that I'm very attracted to these states. When I was a teenager I took to drugs and booze like a duck to water. Then I cracked up and couldn't use conventional intoxicants without terrifying results. Eventually I found that horror fiction, and literature in general, was the closest I could come to the sort of escapism once provided by drugs and booze.
RB: I've noticed that you've used mannequins and puppets and automatons as recurring motifs. Why are these figures important for you?
TL: Because they're modeled on humans but are not human just as we are. That's the closest I can come today to an answer to this question. I don't think anyone can explain why so many people find dolls and puppets and mannikins frightening. Maybe they're scary because they look like us and we ourselves are scary. To me it seems that everything we do, everything we make is either overtly or secretly scary. Stare at you car or house for a while and see if you can detect that subterranean nightmarishness. Look at the way we conduct the "business" of our lives -- the insane customs and traditions, the kaleidoscopic styles of our clothes, the crazy jobs we work at, our carnivalesque recreational activities, our truly demented ways of relating to one another.
RB: What is the Tsalal? The Tsalal is a figure in "The Shadow, The Darkness" -- the novella included in the 999 anthology -- and of course the long story "The Tsalal." Is the Tsalal related to Lovecraft's God, Azathoth (who is also a presence in "The Sect of the Idiot")? Also, is the nausea in "The Shadow, The Darkness" a reference to Sartre?
TL: I ripped off the word Tsalal from Poe's "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," in which it refers to a land where everything is black. Tsalal is a Hebrew word related to the idea of darkness and darkening. In using this word I'm simply following a convention of horror literature which is best known to me in the works of Lovecraft, although I don't think of it as being specifically related to anything in Lovecraft's fiction. At the time I was writing "The Tsalal" and "The Shadow, the Darkness," this seemed like a grand, to the point of grandiosity, word to serve as a
sort of summation of what I was thinking and feeling at the time.
As for the "nausea" in "The Shadow, the Darkness," as well as several other stories, this is definitely not a reference to Sartre. It's not even specifically nausea but an undefined stomach disorder. I've used it several times because I myself suffer from a digestive disorder and I think that many people can identify with characters suffering from stomach problems. To me, disorders of the digestive system have a metaphysical dimension to them that other types of physical suffering do not. This might sound crazy, but I think stomach problems provoke an awakening to our general condition in this life as I alluded to above.
RB: Apart from Lovecraft, could you name some writers who are important for you, either as a writer or as a reader?
TL: To name only non-horror authors: Raymond Chandler, Philip Larkin, Vladimir Nabokov, Bruno Schulz, Dino Buzzati, Hagiwara Sakutaro, Thomas Bernhard, William Burroughs, Jorge Luis Borges, E. M. Cioran, Sadeq Hedeyat, S. I. Witkiewicz, Roland Topor. These are some of the authors whose complete works, and most secondary works on them, I've bought and read.
RB: A number of your stories, such as "The Night School" or "The Sect of the Idiot" or "The Cocoons," to name a few, have the theme of a secret brotherhood, a hermetic sect seeking enlightenment in darkness. Could you talk about why that theme attracts you?
TL: This conceit of a "secret brotherhood" is sort of a self-parody of my erstwhile craving for "enlightenment in darkness," which obviously never worked out.
RB: In "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story," you discuss the importance of style in horror fiction. What in your mind is the importance of style to horror and how does your dense, poetic style shape or affect your writing?
TL: At the time I wrote that story I was a fanatical student of literary styles, the more bizarre and artificial the better. This story reflects that fanaticism, which no longer burns in me.
RB: What are you working on now? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
TL: For a while now I've been working on writing screenplays. Why I'm doing this is sort of a long story. The short version is that a couple years ago I co-wrote a script that I tried to sell to the X-Files. I didn't know at the time that it was pretty much impossible to get such a script read by anyone who could do anything about it. Since then I've continued to pursue this form with the same co-writer. As anyone with the slightest experience of writing movie or television scripts will tell you, it's a very long odds undertaking. I'll probably return to writing stories eventually.