An Interview with Thomas Ligotti
Born to Fear
Conducted by Sławomir Wielhorski , 2012
Published at The Teeming Brain on February 23, 2015
Originally published in Coś na Progu (Poland) 4-5 (2012)
English translation first published in Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti (Subterranean Press, 2014), edited by Matt Cardin
Copyright 2012 by Sławomir Wielhorski. Reprinted by permission of the interviewer and the publisher.
Bonus material copyright 2012 Sławomir Wielhorski
As indicated by a recent article published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde (“Cet Oppressant Sentiment D’epoutante” or “This Oppressive Feeling of Dread”), Thomas Ligotti’s career of nightmares is gradually reaching across the Atlantic to permeate the consciousness of European readers with his visionary genius. The first translations of his prose appeared in the early 1990s in Germany and France. These were soon followed by additional translations published in Spain, Italy, Greece, Sweden, and Serbia.
The following interview was conducted in July 2012 with the intention of introducing Polish readers to Ligotti and his writings. At that time only a couple of Ligotti translations, appearing in various anthologies and magazines, existed in Poland. The interview was initially published in the magazine Coś Na Progu and later printed for the first time in English in Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti, released by Subterranean Press in 2014. The book’s title is drawn directly from this very interview.
At the time I spoke with Tom Ligotti, he was in between surgeries following an attack of diverticulitis, and he agreed to the interview despite this traumatic experience and its accompanying pain. Very special thanks are due to him for making the effort and taking his time to provide exhaustive answers that made, and still make, this exchange much more than the mere introduction to his writings that it was originally intended to be.
Tom’s Teatro Grottesco was recently released in Polish by Okultura Publishing in a limited hardcover edition that features a new foreword by the author himself, written especially for this edition. This publication marks another step forward in the mission to make Tom’s writings recognized internationally.
Okultura Publishing, 2014 – Cover Illustration by Serhiy Krykun
SŁAWOMIR WIELHORSKI: Could you tell us what triggered your interest in the horror genre and what influence it had on your life and literary output?
THOMAS LIGOTTI: I was born to fear. It’s as plain as that. As the narrator of my short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done writes, “I have always been afraid.” If I ever wrote an autobiography, I would begin with the same sentence. In my opinion, everyone is some kind of fluke, an accident of biology and environment. We are randomly generated, arbitrarily conditioned flukes. And the kind of fluke I am is one that is born to fear. I don’t know how much of my fear is derived from genetics and how much from life experience. But the upshot is that I was born to fear, that is, by all laws of cause and effect, if you believe these have any purchase upon who we are — as do many psychologists — that was my destiny. Naturally, then, I was attracted to things that instilled fear in me, a paradoxical means of handling my fear but one that is not uncommonly employed by those who have been born to fear. Can anyone doubt that Poe was born to fear, or that Lovecraft was born to fear? They may also have been born to other things, but primarily they were born to fear. Almost everyone who writes or reads horror stories was born to fear. It only makes sense that this is the case.
This is one of the great sicknesses of the human race. We evolved in large part by our fear. Of course, there are needs that drove our species to evolve, physical needs and psychological needs. And we have always feared we would not be able to satisfy these needs or die out. In addition, we have always feared other things, unknown things that resulted in fearsome imaginings that created gods and ghosts. To quote from another of my works, “We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.” Everything we do is only an attempt to hide from our horror of horror. Every distraction that we invite or invent is only an attempt to hide from this curse of our existence. Anyone who denies this is a cretin pure and simple, because the more we try to evade horror, the more horror we bring down upon ourselves and then pass on when we reproduce and create other beings who are born to fear. And it’s not a great leap of logic to conclude that some of those people who instinctively or accidently realize this dreadful state of affairs are drawn to artistic representations of it, as if they could wash away their horror by wallowing in it. Since I have been intensely fearful and have been diagnosed with this disorder by experts in fear and all the other derangements that are associated with fear, such a major depression and paranoid schizophrenia, I have been especially motivated to create artistic representations of horrific experience. Thus, when I discovered the writings of Lovecraft and Poe, I immediately identified the fear that was the source of their writings and embraced it. Instead of seeking some kind of peace in my life, I aggravated my fear. And I aggravated it further by a seductive dwelling on the most morbid and fearful aspects of existence. I wish I had sought peace instead of fear, but I was not wise enough or insightful enough to do so. Instead I did what most of the perfect idiots of this world do — immersed myself in whatever I could find that would exacerbate my birthright of fear as a member of the human race.
Many people produce children and then later come to fear all the terrible things that can happen to them. That’s not how they planned their lives, but that’s how they turned out. Correspondingly, I have produced horror stories. Both kinds of production only bring fear rather than the peace and quiet we should strive towards. But what else can we do, given that we are generated and conditioned to love fear and hate peace and quiet? This is the destiny of the human fluke, and I welcomed it as one of the more degenerate types of the human fluke. I wanted to communicate my fear as vividly as possible. I didn’t want to do this by means of physical horror, even though in real life physical horror is possibly the worst horror one can know, but by means of emotional horror, of existential horror, which may in fact be worse than physical horror when it lasts over the course of a lifetime of fear or depression, with not a day of let up in one or the other of these disorders, unless it’s by means of drugs or alcohol, which are the most famous and frequent ways that human beings have employed to escape the horror of their lives. Emotional, existential horror is the kind of horror that Lovecraft purveyed because he imagined that human beings are not what they think they are, nor is the universe the place they think it is. This is also the basis of the ghost stories at which English writers particularly excel — the horror of the dead and of death itself, which of course was best articulated by Poe, an American who didn’t write to provide what M. R. James called a “pleasing terror” but was truly serious about the gruesome aspects of death and its attendant suffering. Perhaps both of these styles amount to the same thing, since any kind of writing is composed essentially for the amusement of readers who wish to engage their core fear of being alive.
“The whole genre of horror is only of interest to those who are drawn to the unnatural in all its nuances. That is the primary task of every great horror writer: to expose the miscreation of this world and everything in it.”
All of what I have said here is, of course, only my opinion of how things are in this life. Others have different, sometimes diametrically opposed, opinions to mine, assuming they even have an opinion and aren’t just coasting through life in accord with the tacitly optimistic doctrines of the society in which they are embedded. And even on the supposition that you have a consciously held opinion, it is often just an opinion held during the status quo moments of your life and not in those all-important moments of crisis. But none can offer an opinion on what the Zen Buddhists called “the great matter of life and death” that has more force or reason behind it than the one I’ve put forth, no matter how many people may agree with them. Even if you are not philosophically or spiritually inclined, this great matter is the reason you have health insurance, if you do have it. I truly regret that we cannot come to a consensus on what is the most crucial existential question of all. While few people would agree with my assessment of being alive, and even fewer have seriously considered it, no one can successfully argue why our species should continue to thrive and not die out like most others. But to die out as a species doesn’t help those of us who are already living out our lives, which we hope will end while we are asleep or perhaps under anesthesia during a surgical procedure designed either to save our lives or to restore to them whatever measure of “quality” they have lost along the way to their end.
SW: In Europe, some of your story collections have appeared in Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, and Greece. I now hear that a French publisher is going to release a volume of your work. I’m quite sure that your optimum audience still hasn’t been reached, bearing in mind how many readers of the weird haven’t had a chance to read your fiction due to the language barrier. Taking into account the entirety of your works, where do you think new readers should start?
TL: This is a difficult question to answer, because I can’t remember which collections are available in which European languages. I’ve been told that the first published collection of my stories in Spanish is not very good, although I can’t say for sure. Good or bad, another collection is scheduled to appear in that country. I have reason to think that the other translations are quite good. You have informed me that a Polish edition of my last collection, Teatro Grottesco, is now in production. I have no knowledge concerning this publication. Nevertheless, I hope that this project turns out well, because I think the stories therein are more consistently mystifying than the ones in my previous collections, and judging from the European literature that I’ve read in translation, mystification is less an obstacle to enjoying an author’s works, whereas American readers are drawn to more obvious examples of generic horror, which are mostly in the form of lengthy novels. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” is an excellent specimen of mystifying horror. It can be read over and over again and not lose its original power, precisely because it is permanently mystifying and doesn’t give away the secrets of its effect on the reader. Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories have the effect of mystification that may be found in the works of such eminent Western and Eastern European writers as Gogol, Kafka, Witold Gombrowicz, and Dino Buzzati, among many others.
SW: To what extent do readers’ expectations influence the content of your stories? When writing, do you ever take into account the target audience, or do you only aim at creative self-expression?
TL: In principle, self-expression is to me paramount in any work of art, particularly literary works. In using the term “self-expression” I’m speaking in a very loose way. No one can actually pinpoint who or what he is in any significant sense, let alone communicate that knowledge to another person, another “self.” Even if you could, there would be no way for anyone to know that this task had been successfully performed. These facts are obvious. But readers quite often do have the feeling that the person who wrote particular works of literature has had the same kind of thoughts and emotions that they have had. It would be strange if this phenomenon didn’t occur, given that whoever you are there are plenty of others who are enough like you to appreciate the kind of thing you write, especially if you are working with your personal experience as the central subject.
When I first began writing fiction, I realized that I knew very little about the world and that all I had to work with was me — that my only source of material was my own life and that any attempt to do something else would be not only fraudulent but lame and unsuccessful as art or as expression. In Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield mentions reading books that make him wish he could be friends with the author and be able to call him on the phone and so forth. I would consider a literary work that made someone feel this way a success. Furthermore, it’s the only kind of success in literature that means anything to me. But you can’t set out with the intent of writing in this manner. You just do it because it’s the only thing you can do. You don’t want to write about what it would be like to be an FBI agent who chases down a serial killer. That requires research, lots of it, unless you’re already somebody like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and are fictionalizing one of the cases you worked on. The American writer Harry Crews said that he wouldn’t walk across the street to write a book that necessitated doing research for him to write it. On the other hand, some writers really like to do research for their books, and they probably also like reading books that are based on tons of research. Maybe that, too, is a kind of self-expression. But what I want to feel when I read something — and it could be a work of philosophy or a column in a newspaper — is that the writer sees the world as closely as possible to how I see the world, that he is in essence just like me, even if he really isn’t like me in all his attitudes and ideas. I don’t want to read anything that makes me feel that the author is detached from what he writes, even if there is a whole school of classical literature or entertainment literature that values and even demands such detachment, or at least the appearance of such detachment.
At the same time, you could be hell bent on expressing thoughts and feelings that are profoundly important to you and still not interest anyone because you are so different from all but a few persons. This is the case of the so-called outsider artist, who usually writes about an extremely personal and usually perverse fantasy world. That kind of artist is regarded more as a psychiatric specimen than a fiction writer as such. But there is a connection between the outsider artist and the writer whose works are intensely expressive of his thoughts and feelings. The only difference is one’s persona and how many other people identify with the things that are most important to that persona. Among horror authors, Lovecraft is often considered the consummate outsider, partly because he wrote a story called “The Outsider” that has certain points of reference to himself and his life as expressed elsewhere in his writings, particularly his letters. But how much of an outsider could he really have been if millions of people would like to meet him or call him on the phone and so forth?
“In Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield mentions reading books that make him wish he could be friends with the author and be able to call him on the phone and so forth. I would consider a literary work that made someone feel this way a success. Furthermore, it’s the only kind of success in literature that means anything to me.”
So the whole business of self-expression is as much a matter of human flukiness as everything else that concerns our species. In all vital matters, we are pretty much the same. To discriminate among ourselves and have myriad views of so-called reality is the basis of our tragedy as conscious organisms. Nevertheless, it’s a tragedy that consumes us and makes the world what it is — an inane and grotesques puppet show. But that’s just how I see things.
SW: When asked for his favorite piece by you, Ramsey Campbell described The Conspiracy against the Human Race as “in some ways quintessential.” Would you agree with this claim? Being your first book of non-fiction, in what ways does it relate to your earlier works?
TL: To say that The Conspiracy against the Human Race is quintessential of my work is more accurate than even I realized after I had finished writing it. Among its major themes is that which has come to be known as antinatalism. This is the conviction that the human race should cease reproducing because life is at best troublesome and at worst a thorough-going nightmare. This ancient idea — that it is better not to be born and second-best to die young — had been newly introduced to the English-speaking world by the South African philosopher David Benatar, who published his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence at the same time that I was writing Conspiracy. Others have also promoted the tenets of antinatalism, and it seems that in the early decades of the twenty-first century the philosophy first articulated in full by Arthur Schopenhauer has been finally coming into its own among a wider crowd than the tiny circle of nineteenth-century German pessimists such as Julius Bahnsen and Philipp Mainländer who first embraced it.
It was only after publishing The Conspiracy against the Human Race that I became aware of an interesting fact: the first story I wrote that I thought good enough not to destroy, titled “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” which was composed in the late 1970s but not published until 1989, had antinatalism as its central theme. The story concerns a depressed academic who visits a small town in the American Midwest and discovers there a cult that abhors human reproduction much as the Gnostic Christians did in the early centuries of our common era. In Conspiracy I naturally discussed these Gnostics, who believed that the world was created by a false and idiotic god who mistakenly thought he was the true god and creator of the universe. What could make more sense, just as long as one does not believe in the existence of any kind of god at all? So it seemed that by writing Conspiracy, my work had come full circle and returned to the antinatalist turn of mind with which it began, or nearly began.
Antinatalists, including myself, do not advocate suicide as a means of clearing the earth of the human race, but there is an argument that they probably should, at least in principle. The antinatalist philosophy is based on the principle that human suffering, not to mention the suffering endured by higher species of creatures, makes life a losing proposition. And since every individual who exists does so only at the expense of other individuals by hogging resources for themselves, thereby denying billions of people such basic needs as food and shelter and consequently contributing to the suffering of others who starve and die cold and naked in the midst of the harsh elements of the earth, the only decent thing to do would be to eliminate oneself from this miserable equation.
One great problem to being a benefactor of the world by excusing oneself from it is that suicide is a difficult and unpleasant undertaking. This leaves us with only two choices to make human existence tolerable, if one believes that we can freely make choices in our lives, which, as a moral nihilist and strong determinist, I do not believe. The first choice has been that proposed by the English philosopher David Pearce, who advocates that our species should work toward a single goal: that of altering ourselves by means of drugs and technology such that we will always exist in a state of good feeling and die without fear or pain. The other solution to human suffering would be self-murder by the most simple, painless, and certain means — that of death by euthanasia. This solution is beautifully exemplified in the movie Soylent Green, wherein life in the world is depicted as so obviously unpleasant that a peaceful assisted suicide is presented as a viable alternative to the continuance of one’s existence. In the minds of antinatalists, human life has always been perceived as intolerable and not worth carrying on. It’s only that most people deny that this is the case or delude themselves into thinking there is some larger scheme, such as that offered by religion, or the belief that suffering has value, that keeps the pathetic and too often excruciating show of human existence in perpetual motion, or seemingly perpetual motion, since we know that we are doomed to extinction sooner or later. However, even if existence were tolerable for everyone because we are drugged or technologically mutated into a permanent state of sensual well-being, this is still not a defensible argument that we must exist or that existence is better in some way than nonexistence. And that’s about the size of it for us all.
“Whatever serenity or excitement we seek is no more than a distraction from the reality of the strange destinies of pain and the illusion that this pain has any worth. Nevertheless, illusion is all we have until what is real in this world befalls us.”
SW: This year, on the 125th anniversary of his birthday, we celebrate in Poland The Year of Stefan Grabiński. I know that you count yourself among the admirers of the “genuine visionary of nightmare,” as you once referred to the Polish Poe. Could you tell us how you came across his writings and what aspect of his stories appeals to you most?
TL: Like every writer who has ever appealed to me, Grabiński wrote about marginal characters living outside of conventional reality and occupying places pervaded by a dreary atmosphere of doom. I first came to know of Grabiński’s existence when I read a few paragraphs describing his work in Franz Rottensteiner’s The Fantasy Book. I was utterly tantalized by this glimpse of the works of the so-called Polish Poe. Years later, I learned that Miroslaw Lipinski had embarked on translating Grabiński’s work into English when I read an advertisement for The Grabinski Reader in Robert Price’s journal Crypt of Cthulhu. At the time, I happened to be in Salem, Massachusetts, where American Puritans killed some people they thought to be witches, and I immediately wrote to Lipinski on the stationary of the hotel where I was staying. Not long afterward I received the first issue of The Grabinski Reader, which contained “The Area” and “Szamota’s Mistress.” These stories were everything I had come to expect from a European author of the morbid and the bizarre whose work, in fact, is indeed reminiscent of Poe’s, as is a great deal of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature from Europe that developed in the shadow of Baudelaire and his translations of Poe. Both of these men brought out something that I believe had always been latent in European literature: a belief in the legitimacy of presenting repellent subject matter and negative evaluations of life in works of art and literature. By their overwhelming genius, Baudelaire and Poe permitted the writers of the world to speak of the physically and psychologically offensive aspects of being alive.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Europe, where the cautious advancements of Romanticism in each country’s literature into dark regions mushroomed into a full-blown obsession with all things degraded and pessimistic in the broadest sense. With few exceptions, America did not provide fertile soil for this mutation, but Europe, which had steadily degenerated in so many ways after the fall of Rome and the rise of medieval Gothicism, fully bloomed in the night of history. In Poland, Grabiński was one of its finest flowers of evil. Like Baudelaire and Poe, he took particular advantage of the new liberty to explore the more fantastic fixations of the erotic impulse. If you are an avid fan of the weird and the uncanny, it’s probably inevitable that you are not going to be intrigued by natural human affairs. The whole genre of horror, in fact, is only of interest to those who are drawn to the unnatural in all its nuances. In keeping with this tendency, nothing is natural in Grabiński’s world, and nothing is innocent of a tendency to rot into nightmares of reason. The romanticized view of travel by railway will never breathe again after one has read Grabiński. As with all great horror writers, he saw the poisonous side of things wherever he looked. Moreover, over the span of each of Grabiński’s stories, one doubts that there is any other side to be seen in this life. And that is the primary task of every great horror writer: to expose the miscreation of this world and everything in it.
SW: I’ve always been impressed with how well read you are in European literature. Two other Polish writers whom you’ve mentioned being fond of are Bruno Schulz, whom you consider a major influence, and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. What is it about European writers that attracts the attention of an American writer who is primarily interested in horror?
TL: After reading the works of all the great supernatural horror writers, I finally realized that I wasn’t interested in this genre as such but only in a few figures who just happened to be included in it, such as Poe and Lovecraft. Otherwise, I’ve read only writers who suit my peculiar tastes and demands as a reader. And most of them aren’t considered to be horror writers in the common sense of the term. Bruno Schulz fits into my pantheon of great writers because he wrote about a crummy backwater town in a manner that was delirious and fantastic. Imagine that Lovecraft didn’t write about Arkham or Innsmouth as a visitor, but was actually a resident of these sinister, nightmarish towns and wrote about them from the inside. This is what Bruno Schulz was like for me. He also straddled the line between the outsider artist who writes about his peculiar obsessions and a conventional literary artist. His outsider aspect appears more in his masochistic drawings than in his fiction. In an early draft of Conspiracy against the Human Race, I wrote about Bruno Schulz and the larger meaning his works held for me. Since this section of the book didn’t appear in the published version and may be difficult to find on the Internet, I’ll quote it here:
Schulz exemplifies a literary artist who practiced a major means for elevating prose to the level of poetry — that of metaphor. Schulz’s works comprise a fantasia of this device. The cumulative effect is that of a world in delirium, a land where people and objects alike are the clay of the author’s imagination and are subject to be molded according to entirely mysterious designs. I will quote an example:
Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom. The rust-colored earth was covered with a threadbare, meager tablecloth of snow full of holes. There was not enough of it for some of the roofs and so they stood there, black and brown, shingle and thatch, arks containing the sooty expanses of attics — coal-black cathedrals, bristling with ribs of rafters, beams, and spars — the dark lungs of winter winds. Each dawn revealed new chimney stacks and chimney pots which had emerged during the hours of darkness, blown up by the night winds: the black pipes of a devil’s organ.
It should be noted that among the metaphors of this passage, wherein there are in fact metaphors layered upon metaphors, is the assertion of the fantastic in the form of those chimney stacks that sprout like mushrooms in the night. As opposed to fantasy, with its heroes and villains cut from the same wholesome cloth as those in television shows and movies, the fantastic is a decidedly unhealthy mode of expression. And Schulz is among the great sick men of literature. In his case, the sickness at the basis of his character is best evidenced by the prodigious use of metaphor as a means for telling others, or attempting to tell them, what cannot be communicated in any other way. There is a word used to describe Schulz’s writing that turns up occasionally in Lovecraft’s writing. That word is “febrile.” This quality seems to me essential for all literature of nightmare, especially horror fiction. It also demonstrates the expressive limitations placed on those who work this genre most intently as well as those “sensitive few,” as Lovecraft calls them, who are doomed to be its captive readers.
In healthy discourse, metaphor is an instrument for elaborating some experience that is widely known, a familiar and everyday knowledge made a bit more interesting by a poetic rendering of it. As an instance, we might consider the frequent likening, however banal, between temperature and psychophysiology. One person is burning with desire. Another is a cold fish. With the exception of a small percentage of people who are born with, or have had inflicted upon them, specific anatomic deficiencies, everyone knows the conditions to which these statements refer and how we are supposed to understand them. For an overwhelming number of our species, the supposedly healthy and happy majority, metaphor is barely required. They may plainly say things such as, “I have a throbbing headache” or “I feel sad” and be clearly understood due to the universality of these sensations and feelings. This is the frame within which their lives are circumscribed and beyond it they are not usually eager to stray or to admit that they have done so when something untoward pushes them out of that frame. Yet there are also those who, often involuntarily, have been shoved outside the circle of a healthy life. For them, metaphor is the only vehicle they have for getting across the border between them and the rest of humanity. And it is these cases that reveal the limitations of metaphorical speech.
A speaker or writer can make himself understood only to those who have already shared his experience. Otherwise, the use of metaphor would not even be required. There would exist in the language a word or two that would make the connection for him, because so many billions have previously undergone the same sensation or feeling. You tell the doctor that you are nauseated. Even though there is no instrument for measuring nausea, he immediately knows what you mean because he himself has felt nauseated. However, imagine nausea as a rare condition. How would you explain it to the medical authorities? You might say that there is a raging storm in your gut, but what would someone make of that who had not felt this sensation himself? You might even be accused of exaggeration or outright fabricating of symptoms. Certainly there would be no ready medications available to treat your condition, given its rarity. Perhaps you would be offered some concoction that your doctor judges appropriate for the ailment that most closely resembles the one you describe as a raging storm in your gut. This approach will certainly do you no good, being a hit and miss affair of the sort that is familiar to every person taking medications for depression. In the meantime, since nausea, like depression, is not a malady that usually incapacitates its sufferers, you would be sent out into the world to carry on as if you had nothing wrong with you and live among those who would look at you strangely the moment you spoke of a raging storm in your gut or used some other metaphor you thought might convey your lonely sickness. Perhaps you might take to literature and compose works founded on how your nausea caused you to view human existence. If you wrote engagingly enough, you might be published and others who also knew what it meant to feel nauseated would understand what you were saying in a way no others could. This is the predicament of the sick writer. For Schulz, simply substitute “febrility” for “nausea” and you may understand why he has relatively few readers and why those who do read his works celebrate him more often for his prose style rather than for his vision of a world that is a nightmare of unstable and ever-mutating forms. Schulz failed, as so many have done, to produce a body of writings that appeals to those who promote pretexts for survival and reproduction. No one would wish to bring a new creature into the world of Schulz’s metaphors, obscure as they will always remain to those who do not share his febrile, and sometimes nauseated, vision of life.
As for Witkiewicz, I tend to admire and identify with writers who commit suicide, and he killed himself in a really grand style, which one has to read in its details to really appreciate. I also like the way he noted on his paintings, which he mainly produced to make a living, whether they were created while he taking cocaine or after he had stopped taking cocaine, or while he was smoking or after he had quit smoking. What could more important for an artist to communicate to his audience than the biologically determined mental state in which he created some work or other? This suggests that Witkiewicz realized the great truth of the body and what it makes of the person who has to live according to its vagaries. By means of self-medication one can alter one’s moods, and the alteration of one’s moods necessarily affects one’s opinions and ideas, if only for a time. To evaluate a writer with anything approaching confidence, or to judge any person at all, one has to be sensitive to what’s happening in his nervous system, what is his genetic profile, what physical strengths and defects he has, and a thousand other physiological factors that account for why someone is one way and not another. Some people, including myself and others I’ve consulted on this matter, perceive their bodies and consequently themselves differently simply because they’ve had their mouth numbed at the dentist. Where your body goes, you go. Your body is your psychology and your “self,” most obviously in those instances where it has suffered some insult so damaging that it becomes the preoccupation, or even the occupation, of your life. Even in the best of times, taking care of your body can be a real job. Like Beckett and other playwrights who have been collectively described as comprising the Theater of the Absurd, Witkiewicz didn’t bother with the superficialities of character psychology and so-called selves. Instead, he focused on the greater matter of life and death. Ultimately, the most encompassing description of Witkiewicz’s works that I can offer is that they are the most nihilistic I’ve ever read. I especially recommend The Shoemakers. There is no doubt that Witkiewicz was one of the most massively brilliant artists who has ever existed. I’m convinced that the reason he is not recognized as a major voice of the modern era, when the world lost its moorings in the naïve and complacent values that Schopenhauer rose up to challenge in philosophy and Poe in literature, is that he wrote in Polish and not in French or German or English.
SW: “The Sect of the Idiot” is the fourth story of yours to be published in Poland. It begins with an epigraph from the Necronomicon. Could you tell us more about the story and the ways in which, according to you, it relates to Lovecraft’s works?”
TL: “The Sect of the Idiot” describes a town that has all the qualities of what I think of as an “infernal paradise.” To me, this phrase describes a place that has the conflicting qualities of outward serenity and covert peril, and that provides a modicum of stimulation and excitement for “solitary souls” who are seeking both of these properties, in opposition to a normal world characterized by frantic but empty activity and, at the same time, a complete lack of the sustenance inherent in spiritual endeavors, specifically those that promise a confrontation with true reality. As with all my stories, the urge to discover the real ends badly, because what is real is also ruinous. As I write in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, “Behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world.” This applies to the world as a whole but is a truth particularly close to the surface in extraordinary places such as the weird little town which for the narrator of “The Sect of the Idiot” is a double-edged retreat. He doesn’t really want to know the nature of reality. What he wants is an experience of the precarious that for him provides a sense of mystery which is the only thing that makes his existence tolerable.
“We are randomly generated, arbitrarily conditioned flukes. And the kind of fluke I am is one that is born to fear.”
The same pull towards a potential doom is a common urge in a number of Lovecraft’s characters. In his “The Picture in the House,” Lovecraft blatantly speaks of the nature of this urge when he writes,
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.
Now Lovecraft adored New England and its history. But in his stories, New England is façade for the worst horrors as delineated in such towns as Arkham, Innsmouth, and the woods of Vermont, which the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” at first finds a sublime and charming locale and then later realizes is the perfect habitation for an invasion by outside forces in the form of extraterrestrial monstrosities, just as Lovecraft’s native city of Providence has a history of horror in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The town in “The Sect of the Idiot” hides a menace that is very Lovecraftian in the suggestion that it is the dwelling place of creatures that are not of a worldly dimension. At the same time it is an indictment of all reality, not simply because there are elements of the terrible within it, but because it is permeated by the terrible. It is a nightmare through and through from which there is no escape. And human beings do not only occupy a less important place in the world; their lives in it are completely bereft of any significance and meaning at all. Our lives and our selves, as the narrator of “The Sect of the Idiot” writes, are of “no matter” period. Whatever serenity or excitement we seek is no more than a distraction from the reality of the strange destinies of pain and the illusion that this pain has any worth. Nevertheless, illusion is all we have until what is real in this world befalls us. Then our bodies and minds, or both, are altered for the worse, and we must face the horror and nothingness of our lives. Yet, while horror stories can have such a dispiriting message, they are themselves both an engagement with and an escape from the worst aspects of our lives. As I say in one of my early interviews, they provide a “confrontational escapism.” If they did not do this, then no one would read them. Horror fiction could not exist as a literary genre. You would not have interviewed me. And I could never have spoken about how I was born to fear.
The following question and answer — the latter concluding with a particularly personal anecdote — were part of the original conversation, but they do not appear in the final, edited form of the interview as originally published. This is their first public appearance.
Sławomir Wielhorski: Is there anything else you might want to share with Polish readers of your writings?
Thomas Ligotti: I’ve always answered “no” to this kind of question. In this case, I hope that those Polish readers who are serious about horror literature like my stories. I don’t know anything about Polish literature that differentiates it significantly from other European, and especially Eastern European, literatures. When I started working as an editor of literary criticism back in 1979, one of the first authors about whose work I collected a selection of literary criticism in English and provided an introduction was Henryk Sienkiewicz. What a bore! But he was typical of the kind of author who received the Nobel Prize in literature during the early part of the twentieth century. Fortunately, Polish literature eventually produced such authors as Witkiewicz, Schulz, Grabiński, and many others of distinction for the benefit of those of us whose sensibilities are at least a hundred years ahead of our time. America is a country stuck in the present or, even worse, the future. I belong to the first generation of my family whose native language is English. My ancestry is three-quarters Sicilian and one quarter Polish. I like to think that this genetic combination has contributed to the bizarre quality of my imagination and to what has been called its “universality.” I remember my Polish grandmother telling me stories when I was a child, although they weren’t horror stories. Nevertheless, perhaps this experience put me in touch with an older and stranger world than I would otherwise have known and that emerged when I started writing stories so many years later.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sławek Wielhorski lives in Warsaw, Poland, where he is a hobbyist photographer, book collector, and aficionado of the literature of the uncanny. Raised in a bilingual home and educated internationally, he enjoys making translinguistic explorations in search of lesser known literary talents. A long-time Ligotti devotee, he actively participated in the preparation of the Polish edition of Teatro Grottesco. He is currently rediscovering The Belgian School of the Strange and the prose of Tommaso Landolfi.
ADDITIONAL ITEMS OF INTEREST
- The original Teeming Brain interview with Thomas Ligotti: “It’s all a matter of personal pathology“
- Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti