Thomas Ligotti – interview

One could argue that whoever likes the works of Lovecraft needs not to be acquainted with the writings of Thomas Ligotti, and in a sense this would be correct, for the readers of The Black Aether do like Lovecraft, and in all probability they have at least heard of Ligotti; yet such a statement would be misleading in a way, because Ligotti is more than just an author who is a follower of Lovecraft. Thomas Ligotti is a curious living classic of American weird fiction in the turn of the millennium, whose fiction is essentially a declaration of a worldview, too, and is unmistakable in content and style. When I composed my questions, I was somewhat worried that the high proportion of the questions pertaining Lovecraft would seem narrowing, for Ligotti became a significant writer on his own right, and his art has been shaped by various impressions beyond Lovecraft. Yet it didn’t seem unreasonable, because in Lovecraft, Ligotti discovered a good writer and a kindred spirit. Fortunately he didn’t refrain from answering. Ligotti hasn’t been active for three years now, his last publication was The Spectral Link in 2014 (a collection of his interviews, edited by Matt Cardin, also appeared in the same year), but we had plenty of questions, nevertheless. We would like to express our gratitude for Jon Padgett, founder and editor of Ligotti.net, for helping in establishing contact.

Hello Tom. Thank you for accepting The Black Aether’s request and sparing some time for our questions. The Black Aether being an internet magazine dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft’s heritage, the first block of questions will focus on this topic. Let’s start from the beginning. Your discovery of the works of Lovecraft was an important moment in your professional as well as your intellectual life. How exactly did you discover Lovecraft writings? What was the first story you read and what were your first impressions? Could it be that if you had read a different Lovecraft tale (or perhaps a different set of Lovecraft tales), your interest in his work would not have been raised?

That’s actually three questions, but that’s all right. I first learned of Lovecraft when I discovered in a drugstore book rack a paperback copy of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, an anthology of Lovecraftian stories that also included Lovecraft’s own “Call of Cthulhu.” It was a completely accidental event. A couple weeks before, I found a copy of Arthur Machen’s stories at the same drugstore. These were the days when a U.S. paperback publisher named Ballantine was reprinting titles originally published by Arkham House, which first began issuing Lovecraft collections in 1939. While I enjoyed most of the stories in the Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, the only one that made a strong impression on me was Lovecraft’s. It was marked by a prose style I hadn’t confronted since the works of Poe I read in school but also by a dark worldview that echoed my own morbid and fearful perception of human life. While I was captivated by Arthur Machen’s stories I had previously read, they reminded me more of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes narratives, which I genuinely loved and still do. By contrast, however, Lovecraft touched me on a deeply personal level. He was not only a great writer of supernatural horror, something I found attractive in films I watched during my childhood and youth, but also as a singular mind in the realm of pessimistic philosophy, which I had yet to explore but recognized first in Lovecraft. Whatever I had read by Lovecraft, with the possible exception of some of his Dunsanian short stories, I would have recognized a kindred spirit.

Your most definitely “Lovecraftian” story is “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” which is openly dedicated to his memory. What made the idea of that tale conceive in your mind? What feature of that story is, in your opinion, the most closely related to Lovecraft’s work in any way?

I actually didn’t have Lovecraft in mind while I was writing “The Last Feast of Harlequin.” Of course, I realized afterward that there were likeness between “Harlequin” and some of Lovecraft’s narratives, such as the mysterious town where a festival is held that intrigues the story’s narrator, elements that may be found in “The Festival” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” These elements may also be found in Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence story “Ancient Sorceries.” The dedication to HPL was an afterthought and was copied from Jorge Luis Borges’s Lovecraftian tale “There Are More Things.” “The Last Feast of Harlequin” is at its core based on antinatalism, which is expressed by the degenerate cult in the fictional town of Mirocaw, where the story is set. To my knowledge, Lovecraft sometimes voiced an aversion to human existence in his letters but never elaborated a philosophy of antinatalism. To him, human life was an accident but not necessarily a lamentable development in evolution. In 2010, I published a nonfiction book in which I fully flesh out my pessimistic and antinatalist worldview. This was a viewpoint underlying a number of stories I have written over the past forty-eight years or so. One major feature of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” that is undeniably Lovecraftian is the initial charm of the town of Mirocaw, something that lures the narrator of the story—and ultimately ruins him—in the same way that Lovecraft’s narrators are lured to such places and as Lovecraft himself was drawn certain New England towns. All in all, it makes sense that any reader would judge “Harlequin” as a Lovecraftian piece.

Are there any other writings of yours that were inspired by Lovecraft one way or another?

In “The Sect of the Idiot” I did employ the idea of strange furniture in a place where strange beings gathered, though this particular element was influenced more by Borges’s “There Are More Things,” where it serves as the central and quite interesting idea, even if Borges didn’t develop it to my satisfaction.  I thought it was a nice concept to steal. The title of another Borges, “The Sect of the Phoenix” inspired the title of the story in question. The “idiot” in my story is, of course, Lovecraft’s “blind idiot god Azathoth,” and the epigraph to the story from the Necronomicon names this entity. Two other stories of mine, “Vastarien” and “Nethescurial,” have several times been reprinted in anthologies of Lovecraftian stories as well as anthologies that have nothing to do with Lovecraft. I’m quite happy to admit to the influence of Lovecraft’s work on my own, just as I am the fiction of Borges, Edgar Allan Poe, Vladimir Nabokov, Bruno Schulz, Thomas Bernhard, and many other writers to whom I have been devoted over the years.

What do you consider Lovecraft’s prime strengths and weaknesses as a weird writer?

Off the top of my head, I think Lovecraft’s prime strength as a writer is exactly what so many critics consider his prime weakness: the hysterical intensity of his prose. To me, his principal weakness as a prose stylist is a rather technical matter of his overuse of adverbs in some of his later works such as “The Shadow out of Time” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” I don’t mind the plethora of adjectives he employed in his stories, though I do find some fault with his repetition of the same adjectives over and over again, such as “horror” and “horrible.” I’m sure as I can be that Lovecraft was quite aware of this quirk, since he was perfectly capable of writing quite straightforward and flawless prose in his letters. On the whole, I wouldn’t change a word of Lovecraft’s fiction for fear of diminishing its marvelous effect. My guess is that Lovecraft might have altered his style to some degree if he had had a chance to revise his stories for a collection. To a noticeable extent, one can see some of the revisions and corrections he made to magazine appearances of his work as these versions are visible in S. T. Joshi’s editions of Lovecraft’s complete works for Arkham House.

Do you occasionally reread any of Lovecraft’s works? What do you think makes a story worthy of rereading?

I’ve reread Lovecraft’s works, as well as listened to readings of his works, many times. In my opinion, what makes a story worth rereading is leaving some things unspoken, thus creating a mystery that is never exhausted by being too specific and overly detailed. For instance, the town of Arkham is mentioned plenty of times in Lovecraft, but it’s always described with phrases like “shadow-haunted” instead of drawing a verbal map of the place the way most writers would do. Even where stories are set in a real-world locale, such as Providence in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft is impressionistic in his description. By “impressionistic” I mean to say vague, very much as impressionist art is vague in its outlines and impressionist music is vague in its tonalities. Another word I might use is “suggestive,” as opposed to explicit.” For this reason, Lovecraft’s Mythos does not lend itself to rational explanation. By refraining from explicitness, he evokes mystery, which is the essence of how he felt about aspects of the life that most enchanted him, such as starry skies and narrow, misty streets. Lovecraft might also be seen as an expressionist for his conveying the subjective effect of a place, incident, or entity on a character, and thereby on the reader, rather than its mere objective appearance only.

In your professional career, you occasionally came into contact with the movie industry: your early short story “The Frolic” has been adapted in a short film, and in collaboration with Brandon Trenz, you wrote a script for an X-Files episode (Crampton), even though that episode has never been filmed. Did you ever think about the possibility of adapting any of your stories to a movie? If so, which of your writings do you think are the most eligible for such an adaptation?

The only thing I’ve written that I think could be adapted into a film is my short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done. I initially conceived this book as a film script, though as prose fiction I developed aspects of the story that were not cinematic in the least.

Reading earlier interviews with you, one thing that strikes the reader is the exciting array of books you’ve read in the field of weird fiction as well as philosophy. What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Did the proportion of fiction and nonfiction in your reading change in the course of time? To what extent do you keep up with today’s vast horror/weird fiction output? Are there any contemporary authors in the field whose work you recommend?

I really haven’t read many books in the past twenty years, and the ones I have read have been in psychology and philosophy. During the 1970s and 1980s, I read all the classic work of supernatural horror and kept up with what was being written at the time. Since then, I gradually lost interest in horror fiction. Most of the writers classed in this genre I never regarded as being of great interest. I’ve always been highly selective, which some people might call “narrow-minded,” in my reading. These days, I listen to a lot of psychology and philosophical lectures on Youtube and occasionally recordings of classic works of horror fictions. However, should any Lovecrafts appear on the scene, I would be aware of it and read their works.

What was the most fearsome experience ever that fiction conveyed to you? Was it caused by a book, a film, or some other medium?

Easily the most fearsome experience I’ve known was seeing The Exorcist in 1974. Nothing else before or since then comes close in terms of disturbing and distressing me. Later I came to enjoy The Exorcist as a well-made film, and it ceased to unsettle me.

In a 2001 interview, you call “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” one of your favorite pieces in your work. Looking back at your work today, which story (stories) of yours would you consider your favorite and why? Did your estimation of any of your stories change in the course of time, for better or worse?

I don’t think very much about my own writing, and I never reread my stories except for inclusion in new editions of my story collections. The stories that I tend to think are among my best always happen to be those that I’ve produced most recently. For that reason, I would currently consider my last-published story, “The Small People,” as one of my best. My estimation of the value of any given story I’ve written doesn’t change over time.

Eastern philosophy seems to have exerted a significant influence on your thought. In The Conspiracy against the Human Race, you often make references to Buddhist literature, and in an interview you tell that you meditated for over thirty years. What is it in Eastern philosophy that you found to be so relevant for and worthy of incorporation into your thinking?

Eastern philosophy attracted me because of its negative view of human existence. It preaches that being alive is an undesirable state. I agree with this much of Eastern philosophy. The rest of it—karma and reincarnation, for instance—I think is silly. Looking back, I found meditation to be relaxing but nothing more than that. I never sought so-called enlightenment, because I don’t know what enlightenment is and how can you seek what you do not in the least understand and what has never been conveyed to the world by words or any other means. Many people are devoted to meditation as a therapy or a way of life. I have no criticism of that. There are quite believable accounts of the way meditating can affect you perception and induce experiences not otherwise attainable, much in the way of LSD or other psychoactive drugs.

Thank you very much for your answers.

You’re most welcome.

 

Cover image: Serhiy Krykun / Thomas Ligotti – Teatro Grottesco

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