Thomas Ligotti seems to have retired from fiction writing. Suffering from chronic anxiety and general So Whatidness, his non-fiction writing delves into his nihilism at great length. The creator of TRUE DETECTIVE has acknowledged he is a fan of Ligotti’s pessimistic work.
Ligotti has not published a novel, though he has published a longish novella. Most readers will not delve into his non-fiction opus on the uselessness of it all, THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE. I’ve read a little of it, and while I understand the attraction for some it just isn’t my cup of arsenic-laced tea.
My Cliff’s Note’s summary: Everything sucks, the universe is the void, and human life is one long denial of all of the horrors we endure until the end of our unendurable existence. The End (thank the godless universe).
Ligotti had his greatest popularity for a short time in the nineties and early 00’s, when S.T. Joshi and other critics championed him. When Penguin published a combined edition of GRIMSCRIBE and SONGS, it looked like he had arrived, since Penguin books get the sort of reviews small press collections of horror stories never do. The good reviews came, but Ligotti was no longer putting out many stories. He seems to have retired from his day job. http://www.ligotti.net is still a going concern, but the News section is all about panels at conventions about his work and foreign publications.
For a guy so many tried to make happen, Ligotti doesn’t seem to have caught on.
Ligotti is not another Stephen King. He’s not even another Dennis Etchison, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kathe Koja or Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom have distinct styles more out-there than King’s, all of whom have gotten more acclaim and are better known than Ligotti.
His work is about a mood, the creation of a state where his philosophy can permeate the reader’s thoughts. His stories often lack solid, satisfying conclusions. Mix some of Kafka’s worldview with some of Lovecraft’s dread. Ligotti isn’t big on striking characters; his stories usually feature some guy who stumbles into a situation and then continues stumbling until he stops.
His stories come to climaxes, but the reader is usually left as puzzled as the characters are about where their ramble has brought them.
The Penguin SONGS/GRIMSCRIBE opens with “The Frolic.” This was adapted into a short film, a nice effort that manages to be tedious and comes to a less-satisfying ending than the original. It’s one of Ligotti’s tamer stories, and an odd choice to open the book; if someone new to Ligotti read this first they’d wonder, “What’s the big deal?” A psychiatrist interviews a serial killer, “John Doe” (this was written over a decade before SEVEN), who kills children so they can “frolic” together, and the psychiatrist has a child. The story’s ending is both sharp and inevitable. But the story isn’t going to make anyone think, “WOW! This is like nothing I’ve ever read before!”
“Les Fleurs” is a series of excerpts from the diary of a man who meets a woman who we think might be The One, but he’s more into her job at a flower shop. At first I thought this would end up like a Ramsey Campbell “And then he pulled out the hammer and pounded her head in, the blood hitting the arrangement of lilies in the vase” take on a serial killer, but it drifts away from the usual narrative target. Our hero belongs to a mysterious group, the members of which become concerned with his interest in her.
It’s less about a satisfying narrative than creating a mood of oddness and despair.
“Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” is just what the title says. The narrator talks about horror stories, then seems to fall into a ‘real’ world he investigates, leading to his personal transformation that is a kind of post-modern fleshy embodiment of his theories.
I’m telling you, this guys stuff is messed up.
Like all fine horror writing, Ligotti’s work is best taken in moderation. Read one of his stories, then read something else for a few days or a week. His dark outlook is expressed in stories that might frustrate a reader’s desire for a more straightforward narrative. But if you’re like me, Ligotti’s unique work will take up residence in your mental library. You know what I mean when I describe something as “Like Stephen King,” Kafkaesque, or Lovecraftian; after a few of these stories, you’ll know what someone means if they say “Like Thomas Ligotti.” Not that you’re likely to ever meet someone who knows his work.