I just stumbled across the first review of Born to Fear that I’ve yet seen.It was published today at PopMatters, and the reviewer’s take is positive. He also leads with something I’ve been meaning to mention here for the past month or two: that Tom’s work was a significant influence on the recent first season of HBO’s True Detective, and in fact served as the main inspiration for the icy cosmic pessimism that proved so hypnotic to so many viewers as they heard it articulated by Matthew McConaughey.
I’ll say more about that in some future post, but for now here’s a nice excerpt from the review:
In the 25 years that the interviews span, Ligotti’s take on life has remained constant. If for Shakespeare life is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, for Ligotti “it’s a tragedy that consumes us and makes the world what it is — an inane and grotesque puppet show,” and he would disabuse us of any notion that it might possibly be otherwise.
. . . . In the interviews, Ligotti comes across as a learned man whom one might easily converse with, even disagree with, and still get along. He tells one of his interlocutors, for example, “let me pause a moment and acknowledge the obvious, namely, that my celebration of Poe and Lovecraft, and my derogation of writers who are unlike them, is a pure outpouring of personal temperament — and nothing more.”
Personal temperament, or something akin to it, was exactly what drew me to Camus, and what has made reading his books, along with those of Cioran, Ligotti and others, such a solace. Ligotti has a name for this effect: “This is what I call the ‘I thought I was the only one who felt that way’ syndrome. The farther your thoughts and feelings are from those of the mainstream, the more attached you will become to the writer who speaks for you so. You will feel lucky to have found that writer. And that writer will feel even luckier to have found you.”
With a new collection of interviews with Ligotti to read, hot on the heels of the successful first season of True Detective, pessimists have much to feel lucky about all around.
Beyond the Beautiful Darkness: Mark Samuels on Atheism, Christianity, Weird Horror, and the Road out of Hell
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Teeming Brain interview with Mark Samuels has long been one of our most popular features, and with this post we finally welcome Mark to our Teem of contributors. Mark’s interview was published back in 2006, and it still continues to draw a steady stream of readers these seven years later. This is due, of course, to the fact that Mark’s reputation as a significant writer of weird fiction has continued to grow in the intervening years, with his corpus having expanded from The White Hands and Other Weird Tales (2003), Black Altars (2003), and The Face of Twilight (2006) — all available at the time the interview was published — to include two more story collections, Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes and The Man Who Collected Machen, both of which have received widespread acclaim. His work has been praised by the likes of Ted Klein and Ramsey Campbell. It has been reprinted multiple times in various “year’s best” anthologies. He was also personally fictionalized and lampooned — along with Thomas Ligotti, Ellen Datlow, Michael Cisco, Wilum Pugmire, S. T. Joshi, Gordon Van Gelder, and others — by Laird Barron in the story “More Dark,” which appears in Laird’s 2013 collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (which recently won the Bram Stoker Award).
In the essay below, Mark speaks personally about the central role that religion has played in his life as a writer and a human being. As he traces his route from agnosticism to atheism to Christianity, and as he delves into the relationship between all of this and his attraction to weird fiction, he goes into greater depth and speaks more pointedly about some things he said in his interview. Like his chief literary idol, Arthur Machen, Mark’s Christianity is central to his writing (Machen was an Anglican, Mark is a Roman Catholic). And far from clashing with his weird fictional sensibility, this serves as its very source by charging the world for him with an all-pervasive aura of numinous mystery and an abiding awareness of the Hell that always accompanies the possibility of Heaven. This is, obviously, not a position unique to Mark. It doesn’t even qualify as especially rare among the ranks of his fellow horror writers. But his particular expressions of it puts him at odds with certain prevailing cultural attitudes both within and without the community of horror writers and readers, and Mark isn’t one to mince words. Time for me to be silent and let him speak for himself.
BEYOND THE BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS
I came to Catholicism when in my late twenties, having had a type of secular upbringing, at home and in school, to gladden the heart of the most fervent advocate of the neo-atheist movement. There was no Bible in the house. Christmas was just Yuletide, and wholly pagan. Easter was a time for chocolate eggs.
I do recall undergoing one term of mandatory Religious Studies classes, but these were centered around comparative religion, and the bald, white-haired teacher was regarded by the pupils as a legitimate target for some really vile abuse during his own lessons, over which he had no control. His tolerance was regarded as a fatal weakness. Strangely enough, at this hell-hole, all the other teachers would resort to corporeal punishment and thought little of maintaining order through physical violence, right up until the moment the practice was forcibly abolished in all U.K. state schools in 1983. He, however, refused to do so. In class he was shouted down, ignored, and swore at, and I joined in. We pupils learnt nothing during those classes. Looking back thirty years to those lessons now, I think I learnt more of true worth from his example of baffled dignity than from any other of the classes I took. Needless to say, every single teacher in that school was a good socialist and devout religious sceptic. And they made of me exactly the same thing.
Then, during my late teens, I discovered the works of Lovecraft. I admired his stories to the point of complete adulation. I wanted not only to write the sort of tales he wrote, but to be exactly like this great man himself. When I also obtained his selected letters and read through them, he became, as well my guide in literature, my educator. My vague, indifferent agnosticism was cast aside, and I became a militant atheist and scientific materialist. HPL knew everything (except when it came to his biological racism, but I glossed over this failing, as so many others did), and so I too knew everything, since in terms of his system anything that could not be empirically demonstrated was not worth serious consideration. All else was wishful thinking. I devoured the work of any atheist author I could discover, ignoring completely the other side, and became the master of confirming my own prejudices. Objections, rather than being looked into, were treated as mere trifles only deserving of a sneer or scornful words. Read the rest of this entry
I know that reader interest is very high for this book, which is scheduled for publication this June by Subterranean Press. So here is the full table of contents for those who would like an advance peek. You can click the cover image above or the link below to visit the preorder page and reserve your copy.
Table of Contents: Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti
Introduction by Matt Cardin: “Of Masks and Mystagogues”
PART ONE: ENCHANTING NIGHTMARES (1988-1992)
Thomas Ligotti with Carl T. Ford, Dagon
Carl T. Ford (1988)
Thomas Ligotti with Stefan Dziemianowica and Michael A. Morrison
Stefan Dziemianiwocz and Michael A. Morrison (1991)
Weird Tales Talks with Thomas Ligotti
Darrell Schweitzer (1991)
PART TWO: THIS FUNHOUSE OF FLESH (2000-2003)
The Grimscribe in Cyberspace
John B. Ford (2000)
Disillusionment Can Be Glamorous
E. M. Angerhuber and Thomas Wagner (2001)
Work Not Done
Thomas Wagner (2003)
PART THREE: A NECESSARY DERANGEMENT (2004-2011)
Literature Is Entertainment or It Is Nothing
Neddal Ayad (2004)
It’s All a Matter of Personal Pathology
Matt Cardin (2006)
A Conversation with Thomas Ligotti, The Mumpsimus
Geoffrey H. Goodwin (2007)
Thomas Ligotti Interview, Weird Tales
Geoffrey H. Goodwin (2009)
Interview Nonsense with Thomas Ligotti
David Ableev (2009)
The Damned Interviews: Thomas Ligotti
Tina Hall (2011)
PART FOUR: BORN TO FEAR (2011-2013)
Interview: Thomas Ligotti, The Hat Rack
Nathan Katz (2011)
Thomas Ligotti on Weird Fiction
Weird Fiction Review (2011)
Interview by Pål Flakk, Gateavisa
Pål Flakk (2012)
Born to Fear, Coś na Progu
Sławomir Wielhorski (2012)
Interview with Thomas Ligotti, Wonderbooknow
Jeff VanderMeer (2013)
Last year I provided an introduction to Joe’s surreal horror fiction collection Portraits of Ruin (Hippocampus Press, 2012), and as I explained here when I shared an excerpt from that introduction , the writing of it actually represented a record of my struggle in learning how to understand the book, which I presented in hopes of helping the reader learn to do the same.
Thomas Ligotti provided a blurb for the book, and when he read my contribution he commented that it could actually serve as an effective introduction to any type of poetic work. So here, as provoked by my recent engagement with Kerouac and Co., and bearing the official blessing of Hippocampus Press and Joe himself, is the full text of that intro. Maybe it will convince you to buy Portraits of Ruin and help you unlock its dark delights. Maybe it will provide you with some useful advice for approaching other works written in an unconventional style whose goal is to speak both to and from the non-rational side of consciousness.
In any case, I hope you find that it somehow speaks to the inspired madman lurking within the depths of your conventionally sane self. Read the rest of this entry
In the latest entry in “By Heart,” an article series from The Atlantic “in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature,” novelist Benjamin Percy, author of the just-released werewolf novel Red Moon, talks about the deep and permanent emotional impact that he experienced from reading a certain passage in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
He also branches out into a discussion of the impacts and effects of horror fiction in general, and bases his analysis on the literary technique of the suspenseful slow reveal in which a final, awful revelation gives the reader a shock of horror. “It’s the same reason we climb onto a roller coaster,” he writes. “It’s the same reason we climb a cliff and put our foot out over the open air and pull back. We’re daring the nightmare. You never feel more alive than in that moment. It’s a reminder of our mortality. If you look at the horror novel, or the horror movie, it’s a way of safely dealing with that spike of adrenaline.”
Now, I reject this general conclusion as inadequate, since I find much more truth and depth in Tom Ligotti’s contention, outlined in his essay “The Consolations of Horror” (found in The Nightmare Factory), that the familiar “roller coaster” and “face your fear” explanations of artistic horror’s appeal fall flat before the sole authentic “consolation” the genre has to offer, which is “simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.” (Of course, this could just as well be offered as the final appeal and consolation of any kind of art. But its specific application to horror is especially moving.)
That doesn’t mean, however, Percy has nothing valuable to say. His final paragraphs in particular are buzzingly interesting and worthwhile, since he effectively tackles, and tackles quite nicely — in a scant 400 words — the problem with gratuitous gore, the question of the horror writer’s deep motivation, and the death and resurrection of his own ability to respond deeply to horrifying fiction, specifically on the level of story, after years of immersion in literary craft had effectively numbed him:
I feel that violence needs to be earned somehow — or it needs to earn out. You need to pipe the oxygen in before lighting the flame — or, in the wake of some violent act, there needs to be repercussions: a period in which the characters suffer and soak up what has occurred. Making it part of the causal structure and making it emotionally resonant, too. I would hope that any narrative that wrestles with this sort of thing is meant to horrify, and not excite. To discourage, instead of encourage, violence. And that’s the problem with movies like Saw and Hostel: They make a bloodbath into a kind of joyous exercise.
I’ve been practicing for these kind of scares my whole life. I grew up on genre: Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy novels, mysteries and spy thrillers — but especially on horror. Horror’s always gripped me in its bony fist. So I read everything by Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rice, and Stephen King, and Peter Straub and Robert Aikman [sic], John Saul, and Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft, and Poe. There’s something about me that’s drawn to darkness and to the theater of fear. I can’t quite put a finger on why that is — it’s the same reason some people like romance stories while others like action movies. But my greatest pleasure growing up was terrifying my sister by leaping out of closets with my hands made into claws, or scratching at her bedroom window. She slept with the light on until she was 27. I guess that was training ground for the novelist I’ve become.
I’ve become so attuned to craft that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get lost in a story. When I grew up reading, the only thing that concerned me was the question of what happens next — and the pages turned so fast they made a breeze across my face. The Road, for the first time in a very long time, owned me emotionally in that same fashion. I was able to turn off my craft radar and be swept away. I felt true terror. The kind of terror that used it [sic] make me, when I was a kid, wrap the sheets around my face and breathe through a little blowhole in fear of the shadow that seemed at the edges of my room. Cormac McCarthy, that dark sorcerer, makes me feel that way again.
More: “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road May Have the Scariest Passage in All of Literature,” The Atlantic, May 14, 2013
Click through to the article for the full text of the McCarthy passage in question, along with Percy’s detailed discussion of it.
Also note that for a darkly beautiful exploration and amplification of the Ligottian idea of horror art’s consolations, see Richard Gavin’s Teeming Brain column from last November, “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror.”
In his interesting book-length meditation, Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King posited the following theory regarding the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror:
Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?
The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.
Quite appropriately for somebody with a such royal name, in that passage King effectively gave us the One Theory to Rule Them All, the one idea that would become the ready response to questions about the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror. Countless creators and consumers of such entertainment have regurgitated King’s logic over the past three decades, to the point where it has become a convenient catchall that any Horror fan can brandish whenever his or her morbid predilections are called into question. Why Horror art? Because our souls need boot-camp training to toughen us up for when real life comes a-calling, of course!
Simple? Yes. Memorable? Certainly. Useful? Absolutely. But is it accurate?
Although I am an admirer of many of Stephen King’s works, I confess to finding his logic here deeply suspect. The underlying implication of this theory is that Horror is a healthy, even a socially responsible, pastime: no need to worry if your great-aunt Tilly furrows her brow at your movie night selection. Just inform her that the cannibal frenzy she’ll be enduring in lurid, extreme close-ups for the next ninety minutes is for her own good, because it’s steeling her nerves for tomorrow’s lineup at the DMV.
The mind reels at such an absurd imagining. So violently, in fact, that the experience of it raises a fundamental question about the theory at hand, to wit: Does Horror art in any medium truly help us cope with life? And more importantly, must it? Does it require a purpose beyond serving us a delicious tide of frisson and grue? Surely even the genre’s most sophisticated examples cannot honestly be considered life lessons. Or then again, can they? Read the rest of this entry
What’s this? A discussion of current horror cinema that contrasts H. P. Lovecraft’s worldview of cosmic horror, pessimism, and despair with Arthur Machen’s worldview of redemptive sacred terror? And it’s published by — wait for it — Christianity Today magazine? The stars, it seems, are aligning.
One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two [authors] results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.
… Modern horror films have drunk deep from Lovecraft’s well, repeatedly depicting a dreary cycle of trying to escape the despair … Lovecraft, [Joss] Whedon [in Cabin in the Woods], and [Ridley] Scott [in Prometheus] fall into a deeper current of attempting to find meaning through horror. Whedon and Scott at least take it to the next level by asking deeper questions about how human beings find hope, but they fail because there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules. A different playbook is needed, one written by Arthur Machen. Most modern horror filmmakers have long forgotten Machen, an under-appreciated legend.
… While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God. Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God — or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.”
Some years ago as I was searching for a way to introduce poetry to the high school writing and literature classes that I was then teaching — not just certain, selected poets and poems but the entire idea and import of poetry itself — I started telling my students that language can have an alchemical power. There is, I told them, a positively magical potency to language, particularly of the poetic sort, since language enables a person to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is especially true of lyric poetry, because this form is specifically meant to capture and express an author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of the poem’s formal content but an actual shared feeling with the author. When this magic works, it actually recreates the poet’s inner state in the reader (or hearer), so that poet and reader vibrate in sympathy, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual mental-emotional experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. The poet, sometimes speaking across centuries or millennia, acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else. And this same phenomenon is active to some degree not just in poetry but in all uses of language.
That, in combination with the reading of several short poems to serve as examples, was how I went about trying to “prime” American teens to understand the nature and significance of poetry. It has often been said that a person teaches best what he or she most wants and needs to know, and in this case that little homily was definitely true, because the issue of language’s magical/alchemical potency was something that I was only then beginning to appropriate consciously after years of grasping it intuitively and even using it in my own writings. And it’s something that has only become of more pressing interest in the years since then.
When we consider the ability of language, particularly in its poetical or otherwise artistically deployed form, to alter, shape, shade, and create states of mind and affect, what we’re really considering is a convergence of art and — for lack of a better word to encompass a vibrantly varied set of studies, experiences, practices, and disciplines — spirituality. We’re also highlighting a key distinction in the way language can affect us in both arenas. This distinction is between the transmission of visions, plural, and the transmission of vision. By the former I mean thoughts, concepts, stories, images — all of the actual content that can be communicated by language. By the latter I refer to the much deeper impact that language can have by working a change not just on what we think or “see” with our mind’s eye but on how we think and see. In art and spirituality, the most profound effects come from the alteration of a person’s basic outlook and worldview, his or her fundamental cognitive, emotional, and perceptual “stance” toward self and world. This is the level at which visions become vision, and an entirely new way not just of seeing but of being opens out from one’s first-personhood.
It’s still August 20 in my time zone as I type these words, so it’s not too late for me to send out this year’s Lovecraftian birthday acknowledgment into the cyber-ether.
Thus: Happy Birthday, Howard, wherever you are or are not. If it’s the former, if you really are somewhere, then I know you’re eternally astounded at this refutation of your atheism and mechanistic materialism. If you’ve truly survived in some meaningful form, then I’ll hope that maybe, just maybe, you’ll achieve an actual, final fulfillment of the epic sense of sehnsucht that led you to see achingly beautiful, ineffable, and unattainable beauties and joys peering through cloudscapes and sunsets and assemblages of sloping roofs.
As for Tom Ligotti, we can regard this same occasion as his un-birthday, since it was in August of 1970, eighty years after the birth of Lovecraft, that Tom at age 17 experienced a horrifying 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 was overcome by a direct experience of the universe as a “meaningless and menacing” place in which “human notions of value and meaning, even sense itself, are utterly fictitious.” (The quotes are from one of his many interviews.) It’s difficult to say whether this represents more of a spiritual death or an artistic birth. Or if it’s both, then it’s difficult to say which carries more existential weight and final significance for the overall inner life the man has led. That’s why I think the designation “un-birthday” feels appropriate, especially given the overweening focus on antinatalism that has emerged as the master theme of Tom’s oeuvre in recent years. (See my essay about his and Lovecraft’s literary-spiritual kinship for more details about their respective work.)
In any event, the net result is that each August we can celebrate — although at Tom’s ultimate expense, I fear, since his subjective life has been a grim one — the birth into the world of two towering masters of cosmic horror fiction whose work exercises a truly transformative influence upon its readers. Lovecraft 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. Tom is 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. Paired, they represent opposite poles on the same artistic-philosophical-emotional continuum, with Lovecraft’s outer, transcendent, cosmic focus and Ligotti’s inner, immanent, personal focus finding their mutual confirmation and fulfillment in each other.
The world is richer for having both of them.