Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment
First there was the Penguin Classics combined edition of Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Now there’s this forthcoming Penguin Classics edition of his The Conspiracy against the Human Race, to be published this October, with another beautiful cover by Chris Mars and a new preface by Ligotti himself. The canonization continues.
Here’s the official publisher description (in which, as I’m disappointed to note, the first sentence is accidentally worded in such a way as to make it a fragment):
In Thomas Ligotti’s first nonfiction outing, an examination of the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life through an insightful, unsparing argument that proves the greatest horrors are not the products of our imagination but instead are found in reality.
“There is a signature motif discernible in both works of philosophical pessimism and supernatural horror. It may be stated thus: Behind the scenes of life lurks something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world.”
His fiction is known to be some of the most terrifying in the genre of supernatural horror, but Thomas Ligotti’s first nonfiction book may be even scarier. Drawing on philosophy, literature, neuroscience, and other fields of study, Ligotti takes the penetrating lens of his imagination and turns it on his audience, causing them to grapple with the brutal reality that they are living a meaningless nightmare, and anyone who feels otherwise is simply acting out an optimistic fallacy. At once a guidebook to pessimistic thought and a relentless critique of humanity’s employment of self-deception to cope with the pervasive suffering of their existence, The Conspiracy against the Human Race may just convince readers that there is more than a measure of truth in the despairing yet unexpectedly liberating negativity that is widely considered a hallmark of Ligotti’s work.
In this just-published episode of the This Is Horror Podcast, Jon Padgett and I talk with hosts Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella about our new project Vastarien: A Literary Journal, along with other matters of interest. Click to listen or download.
Note that at the time of this writing, our Vastarien Kickstarter campaign, to fund the first year (three issues) of the journal, still has seven days left!
Here are some show notes:
Vastarien is a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas.
Support Vastarien on Kickstarter
[03:30] Vastarien origin story
[08:40] Why Vastarien title
[20:20] Penguin edition Conspiracy Against The Human Race/Cadabra Records Ligotti’s The Bungalow House
[28:10] Jon Padgett’s final message (in this podcast not in life)
[31:10] What is the worst thing that has happened to you as a result of your own mind or imagination
[34:20] Physical and mental and other sensations during sleep paralysis
[45:45] The creative self and self
[51:40] Andrew M. Reichart, via Patreon,
[54:40] Scott Kemper, via Patreon, wants to know about other Ligotti-esque authors to become acquainted with
[57:40] Films and TV shows that may appeal to Ligotti fans
[01:10:00] Kendra Temples, via Patreon, asks anti-natalism and philosophical pessimism and impact
[01:18:00] How Gnosticism fits into the vision of Vastarien
[01:22:25] What should and shouldn’t people submit to Vastarien
[01:26:35] Final question to ponder
Nanette Fabray, the legendary American television actress, singer, comedienne, and advocate for the hearing impaired, has died at the age of 97. Fifty years ago last month, she (and The Carol Burnett Show) provided just over two minutes of the most amazingly quiet and mesmerizing programming in the history of American broadcast television. These two minutes also reinforced what a truly talented singer and performer she was. I’m honestly surprised that CBS allowed this mini-oasis of meditative quietness to briefly inhabit the airwaves during the bombastic TV era of the late 1960s. Notice just how strikingly calm and silent people’s television sets got for 136 seconds as Fabray sang and signed a certain song.
The following insights are excerpted from a brief but engaging NPR piece that traces the cultural arc from Vint Cerf (the “inventor of the Internet”) and his early naive optimism about this new technology, to William Gibson’s uncanny prescience in forecasting exactly where the Internet would really take us (to a corporate-controlled cyberdystopia with sharply curtailed human relationships), to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s ongoing exploration of the darkest corners of the whole thing:
Initially, Cerf was trying to create an Internet through which scientists and academics from all over the world could share data and research. Then, one day in 1988, Cerf says he went to a conference for commercial vendors where they were selling products for the Internet. “I just stood there thinking, ‘My God! Somebody thinks they’re going to make money out of the Internet.’ ” Cerf was surprised and happy. “I was a big proponent of that. My friends in the community thought I was nuts. ‘Why would you let the unwashed masses get access to the Internet?’ And I said, ‘Because I want everybody to take advantage of its capability.’ ”
Clearly, Cerf is an optimist. That is what allowed him to dream big. But, in retrospect, some of the decisions his team made seem hopelessly naive, especially for a bunch of geniuses. They made it possible to surf the Internet anonymously — unlike a telephone, you don’t have a unique number that announces who you are. We know how that turned out. People with less lofty ambitions than Cerf used that loophole for cybercrime, international espionage and online harassment.
Cerf admits all that dark stuff never crossed his mind. “And we have to cope with that — I mean, welcome to the real world,” he says. . . .
Somehow [William] Gibson was able to imagine the potential scale of it — all those computers connected together. . . . But, it isn’t just the Internet that Gibson saw coming. In Neuromancer, the Internet has become dominated by huge multinational corporations fighting off hackers. The main character is a washed-up criminal hacker who goes to work for an ex-military officer to regain his glory. And get this: The ex-military guy is deeply involved in cyber-espionage between the U.S. and Russia.
Gibson says he didn’t need to try a computer or see the Internet to imagine this future. “The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively,” he says. He says he’s more interested in how people behave around new technologies. He likes to tell a story about how TV changed New York City neighborhoods in the 1940s. “Fewer people sat out on the stoops at night and talked to their neighbors, and it was because everyone was inside watching television,” he says. “No one really noticed it at the time as a kind of epochal event, which I think it was” . . . .
Brooker has a certain amount of frustration with the leaders in tech. “It’s felt like tech companies have for years just put this stuff out there,” he says. “And they distance themselves from the effects of their product effectively by saying, ‘Oh, we’re just offering a service.’ ” Brooker sees each new technology more like an untested drug waiting to launch us on a very bad trip. Each episode of Black Mirror is like its own laboratory testing a technology that is already out, but pushing it by mixing in common human behaviors and desires.
Philip Roth, 1973
Here’s Nathaniel Rich, writing for The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013:
Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:
The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?
Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of . . . media stupidity and cynical commercialism — American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.
The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . . by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”
Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.
Full article: “Roth Agonistes“
Photo by Nancy Crampton (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Some time ago here at The Teeming Brain, I announced the birth of a new literary journal titled Vastarien, to be edited by Jon Padgett and me, and to be framed as “a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas.” We launched a website, www.vastarien-journal.com, where we published submission guidelines and started receiving stories, poems, articles, essays, and artwork. Jon and I then spent many months and countless hours responding to these submissions and crafting the first issue. Jon also retained the services of artist Dave Felton and designer Anna Trueman to create a stunning cover.
Yesterday we launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of the first three issues. It reached its funding goal today, in a total of 27 hours. In fact, we have now surpassed that funding goal, and we will soon be announcing some stretch goals. This is a wonderfully affirming response that shows what a high level of interest and excitement there really is for such a publication.
The Kickstarter campaign has nearly a month left. This means you can still become one of our backers. We have created an attractive set of rewards for different pledge levels. At the campaign page you can also read the full table of contents for Volume 1, Issue 1. Consider yourself invited:
(BONUS NOTE: We’re also now accepting submissions for issues 2 and 3. The submission period will close on March 1.)
If reading is not always an act of liberation, it is at least an act of self-definition. It is an experience of solitude in which we become unavailable to those immediately around us. Even when we read to someone else, usually a lover or a child, or have them read to us, the effect is to be pulled together into an orbit defined by the book. In reading we make a public space into something private, and find a way to be private in public. . . .
What’s more, we are never just reading: we are always reading in a specific place and time, in a certain chair, at the window or in the basement, hot or cold, sleepy or wide awake, alone or in a crowded room. In an essay on Ruskin, Proust writes that when we look back on our favorite childhood days of reading, what we remember is all the interruptions that kept us from the book — the family that was calling us to dinner, for example, the very dinner that was ruined because we spent the whole meal wishing we were still reading. But now the memory of the reading is riddled with all its interruptions, and we look back on them fondly as part of the same event.”
Maybe that also describes what it’s like to watch movies or television shows. I don’t think it describes what it’s like to use a phone. It could be that in ten or twenty years I will look back fondly on these nights on the couch, where I panic over the headlines, compulsively like photos on Instagram, check my email, and return to the headlines on the great hamster wheel of contemporary enervation. Is this reading? Will I recall the interruptions that wrench me away from the latest political disaster with fond nostalgia, the cries of the baby intermingled with tweets about sexual harassment and rising sea levels? What I know is that on the nights when I force myself to open a book, I feel like a person, an individual engaged in an activity at once secret and communal, rather than a receptacle of mass information.
Full text: “Reading in the Dark“
Dejan Ognjanovic, who runs the prominent Serbian horror blog The Cult of Ghoul, has given Horror Literature through History a 2018 Golden Ghoul Award for best non-fiction horror book of 2017. You can read the complete awards list (in Serbian) at the blog.
A newly published op-ed by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty is well worth reading for its nuanced response to the current crisis of falling idols in the world of arts and entertainment. Given my personal literary leanings, I find McNulty’s points to be nicely applicable to the case of someone he doesn’t name: H. P. Lovecraft, the moral excoriation of whom has by this point become de rigeur in some wings of the speculative fiction community. Here are some high points of McNulty’s argument, decontextualized from the rich field of specific examples, both classic and contemporary, that he uses to illustrate his point:
I know that an artist is not identical with his or her masterpieces and that few human beings can live up to their greatest achievements. . . .
If a book or play speaks, it does so in a way that transcends the limitations, and imperfections of the author, a more elusive figure than the publishing industry (and identity politics hard-liners) would have us believe. I’m not so much of the school of literary critic Roland Barthes, who famously declared the death of the author, as of the school of Proust, who saw that a writer crystallizes the notion of a multiplicity of identities, the way each of us contains numerous selves, not all of them readily categorizable.
Anyone whose occupation is imagining the lives of others necessarily has a thronging inner world. The artist who creates beauty can contain a fair amount of ugliness. . . .
History is the ultimate arbiter of what endures. Moral verdicts on the author, the raison d’être of many biographies, is a secondary layer that can color the reception of an artist’s oeuvre but cannot nullify work that retains its expressive power. . . .
Some of the shock we’re experiencing right now about all these fallen idols stems from our mythologizing natures. We expect our heroes to be exemplary, yet (as Proust points out) human fallibility may be a necessary ingredient in creativity. Heinous crimes are another matter entirely, but as any reader of biography can attest, genius and pathology aren’t exactly strangers.
Booklist has weighed in with a starred review of my Horror Literature through History:
The fan and the scholar alike will find much of use in this fun, well-organized two-volume reference set. Cardin (Mummies around the World, 2014) looks at horror literature with the broadest lens possible, considering not just its history but also its influence on new media, other genres, and more, organizing it all into three distinct and meticulously researched sections. . . . Extremely informative in its content, easy to use, engaging in its writing style, Cardin’s comprehensive and inclusive reference work not only solidly makes the case for horror’s enduring importance in our lives, as humans, throughout history but also presents it in a package that is a pleasure to read.