You couldn’t be blamed if you had never heard the name of one of the modern era’s foremost writers of uncanny and supernatural horror. Thomas Ligotti hasn’t done much to, as they say, put himself out there to be widely consumed by the masses. The path to Ligotti is circuitous, beset by roadblocks and warnings, sign posts that warn the undiscerning that here there be monsters. He has, for most of his career, existed in the shadows. That, I suspect, is where he prefers it.
It takes a certain kind of reader to be gripped by the works of Ligotti, but even supposing that you’re the kind of reader who would partake in his brand of existential horror, there exists yet another block: availability. For most of his career, Ligotti has published only small runs of collections published by small houses. Their limited availability has made for some rather insane prices in the used market—I myself once happily paid $60 for a used copy of Noctuary and, in all fairness, would likely do the same again.
As part of his mystique, his inaccessibility over the years has been somewhat maddening. (In fact, for a time in the 80s, many were certain that Ligotti himself didn’t really exist, that he was the pseudonym of another author unwilling to attach their name to works so bleak as those written by Ligotti, whose existential nihilism is enough to make Nietzsche say, “Relax, guy.”) I first came to Ligotti in the Peter Straub edited collection Poe’s Children, where his “Notes on the Writing of Horror” was republished for a wider audience.
Since then, I’ve become a Ligotti proponent of near Sutter Cane proportions, asking all whom I suspect might be interested (and many whom I suspect are not), “Do you read Thomas Ligotti?” For years, even as his work has been made more accessible by the advent of e-readers, the answer has, frustratingly, been no.
In 2016, the publishing house reprinted his first two collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe into a single collection, marking the first time that his work was unleashed upon the literary masses. Those two collections, perhaps more than any other, exemplify all that makes Ligotti what he is. He is a writer of the Lovecraftian tradition, weaving tales of uncanny supernaturalism that peer deep into hearts of men and showing them exactly where they stand in this universe. The main difference—aside from the undercurrent of racism that permeates Lovecraft’s work—is that Ligotti’s horrors don’t typically involve the machinations of elder gods who could, on a whim, destroy us all. No, for Ligotti the monsters that lurk in the shadowy darkness beyond our perceptions are the fear of realizing the utter meaninglessness of your existence and the slow comprehension that nothing we do or can ever do will, in the grand scheme of things, ever matter.
Which is a subject he explores at length in THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE, the second Ligotti classic published by Penguin, and one of the most terrifying works ever conceived of by a human mind. Unlike his other works, THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE is work of philosophy, one which finds Ligotti dead set and determined to peel away the layers of your consciousness to reveal the utter futility of not only your life but of existence itself. In doing so, he is given the space to explore just what, exactly, horror is and why it works the way it does.
What the titular conspiracy supposes is that humanity, both by virtue of and despite the extraordinary mutation of consciousness, is unable to fully comprehend the stupefying futility of it all, for to do so would be to succumb to a despair most maddening. Instead, we preoccupy ourselves with positivity and optimism, unwilling to confront true bleakness of our lives. The knowledge of that bleakness and futility, however, lurks just beyond the edges of our awareness, occupying, Ligotti opines, the same space in life that might, in horror, be occupied by the undead or a puppet come to life. To catch even a glimpse of the life’s meaninglessness would, in his worldview, be akin to catching sight of Cthulhu, our minds cracking at the unfathomable reality. His goal here is to make us catch that glimpse.
A fine job he does at that. The bleakness of his fictional work is laid bare in THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE, as Ligotti explores works of philosophy, psychology, religion, and fiction to examine the miscalculated misstep of consciousness and how that lends to the horror of existence. The awareness accidentally bestowed to us by nature sets us apart from nature, meaning we can never again retreat back to our intended state of bliss, and sets us up for the true horror of reality. “Without death—meaning without our consciousness of death—no story of supernatural horror would ever have been written,” Ligotti writes. “[N]or would any other representation of human life have been created for that matter. It is always there, if only between the lines.”
Given that we are all careening to our natural state of non-existence—which is to say, death—and that we are all, in some form or another, aware of this fact, Ligotti attempts to answer, or to at least explore, whether or not we are better off alive or to have never existed. As a work of logical rhetoric, it’s fascinating to see Ligotti destroy our conceptions of optimism. If life is pain, is it ethical that we continue to reproduce? Would not the most ethical decision we could make, en masse, be to cease reproduction—in effect, cease our species?
These questions, and others like them, are the ultimate source of the uncanny on earth, Ligotti writes. Given that the spring from humanity itself, and given how apart from nature humanity is thanks to consciousness, humanity itself is the uncanny. We are the horror. We are what goes bump in the night. We are the destructor. Understanding these facts gives us an insight not just into the nature of our existence but into the nature of horror itself—what it is, how it works, and what it does.
For anyone with an interest in horror, THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE is requisite reading. It’s hard not to walk away from it with a deeper understanding of what scares us and why it does. It’s also, in its own right, terrifying. Not just due to the bleakness of its philosophy, but also to the sneaking suspicion that Ligotti might be on to something. He deftly crushes your objections as he moves, leading you only to the conclusion he wishes you to reach: You are the monster, and you haunt us all, yourself—whatever that means—included.