Thomas Ligotti (1953 – ) is an iconic American writer of weird short fiction whose oeuvre has been as ground-breaking as, if not always as well-acknowledged as, that of Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and H.P. Lovecraft. His first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986), is an outright classic in the field, with a subsequent compilation from several collections, The Nightmare Factory (1997), cementing Ligotti’s reputation. The influence of workplace experiences infused Ligotti’s fiction with fresh energy, resulting in the masterpiece My Work Here Is Not Yet Done (2002). “The Town Manager” (2003), which we reprinted in our The Weird, showcases Ligotti in this phase of his writing. An underlying dark sense of humor is more prevalent in his fiction generally than is acknowledged by most critics, which becomes clear in the interview.
Two of the stories cited by Ligotti below are featured on WFR.com this week: Algernon Blackwood’s classic “The Willows” and, in a new translation by Edward Gauvin, the Jean Ferry story on Ligotti’s list of under-appreciated weird stories/writers. (Check our main page for details.)
Ligotti tells us that this is the first time that he has been asked specifically about weird fiction, “let alone did a whole interview on it.” On a personal note, one of our most prized possessions is the hardcover “In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land” by Thomas Ligotti, with soundtrack by Current 93, pictured above. – Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Weirdfictionreview.com: What writers were your introduction to the “weird”, whether the Weird Tales kind of weird or something stranger?
Ligotti: The first story I read that is usually classed as a specimen of weird fiction was Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan.” I didn’t fully understand the story, but I felt immediately captivated by it. There was a real whiff of evil behind the events of the narrative. I then read other stories by Machen—“The White People,” The Three Imposters—and sensed that I had found a world where I belonged: a kind of degenerate incarnation of the Sherlock Holmes tales I loved so much. Immediately after reading Machen, I read Lovecraft and recognized the resemblance between the two authors, no doubt because Lovecraft was influenced by Machen. I was never enamored of the Weird Tales writers. There was nothing distinctive in their style, and their plots were embarrassingly conventional. Lovecraft wrote in one of his letters that he felt that writing for Weird Tales had a detrimental effect on the style of his later stories, and I think he was right. Not that these stories were not brilliant in their conception and imagination, but they had lost a poetic quality present in his earlier stories. By the early 1980s I had read practically every horror/weird/ghost writers there was to read. And by that time I had already begun to read foreign writers of every nationality in translation. These were mostly Symbolist and Decadent writers as well as writers influenced by these nineteenth-century literary and artistic movements. What these and subsequent authors I consumed had in common was a temper of pessimism, whether it was overt or implicit. Around the early 1990s, I had stopped reading horror stories altogether, unless someone sent me something they wanted me to read or a publisher was kind of enough to supply me with a free copy of a book they had just published. For a while I became interested in “the uncanny,” which accounts for my use of this concept in The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Quite a number of literary critics and European philosophers have taken an interest in the facets of meaning suggested by the uncanny, which I consider to be interchangeable with the weird. In fact, if I had to use a word that most accurately describes most of my own stories, it would be “uncanny.”
WFR: Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and even if so, is the difference important?
Ligotti: I think that if it weren’t for Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, no one would ever have thought in terms of “the weird,” which is used copiously throughout his 1927 monograph. This is rather odd since the subject matter of the work is designated in its title as “supernatural horror.” On occasion I’ve thought in terms of the weird without being as invested in it as much as Lovecraft. I once wrote an essay titled “In the Night, In the Dark: A Note on the Appreciation of Weird Fiction.” Toward the end of this piece, I asserted: “By definition the weird story is based on an enigma that can never be dispelled. . . .” Semantics aside, the important thing to me in a so-called weird tale is an impenetrable mystery that generates the actions and manifestations in a narrative. A good example is Lovecraft’s favorite weird story “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood.” There’s nothing in the willows themselves that is responsible for the phenomena that menace the two men who stop on an island while boating down the Danube. The willows are only a symbol of some invisible, unknowable force that means no good to those who are unfortunate enough to be caught by bad weather in this atmospheric locale. This force is patently supernatural—or, given Blackwood’s view of nature, preternatural—but it need not be. In Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator can explain his motive for killing the “old man” only because there is something about one of his eyes that maddens him to murder. Again, there is an enigma at the heart of the story, a mystery that cannot be solved and that keeps the story alive. With horror stories, it’s the exact opposite: there must be a “legend” for the horrific goings-on and this legend must be revealed in the story or movie, even if the explanation is rather vague. Example: “Something must have gone wrong with the laboratory experiments they was doin’ on them monkeys that made ‘em so ferocious and 28 days later infected almost everyone and turned ‘em into those zombie things that run around like nobody’s business.” Horror legends are endlessly reusable and have a logical or pseudo-logical explanation. Weird narratives are usually one of a kind and leave an enigma behind them. That’s the difference I see between “horror” and “the weird.”
WFR: When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?
Ligotti: I believe that if a work of weird fiction fails the reason for its failure is that the author is innocent of the emotional states and experiences that are necessary if one is to conjure a sense of the weird in the reader. Without question, Lovecraft was possessed of the emotional states and experiences required for writing superb weird fiction. And it wouldn’t be going out on a limb to surmise that they were indicative of an unhealthy psychology in Lovecraft’s case. In fact, I would say that to be a successful weird writer, it can’t hurt to be afflicted with one mental ailment or another. There are numerous cases in which weird fiction writers suffered from some pathology, and when the pathology isn’t the stuff of legend—as in the instance of Poe—it may be something that has simply never been exposed. Personally, I’m utterly perplexed why anyone would want to write weird fiction without being at least a little over the edge, if not a basket case. Of course, it may be that there are no such individuals. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a matter of weird fiction that fails as it is of weird fiction that differs in type and is not to a given reader’s taste. (One factor that contributes to a liking for one weird writer over another is prose style, a characteristic that has made Lovecraft a favorite for some and a joke for others.) Certain weird writers are obviously preoccupied by obsessions that mean nothing to others. Nevertheless, the all-important ingredient in every weird writer is that of having been born in the vicinity of mental institutions the world over. This line of argument is naturally subject to dispute. My opinion is based on personal emotional states and experiences that seem conspicuous to me in my fellow weird writers.
WFR: Frankly, “The Town Manager” is one of dozens of stories from you we could have included in The Weird. What drew us to it in part was a kind of dark sense of humor underlying the story, possibly better expressed as “absurdism” rather than “humor”. Do you see any of your stories as humorous, albeit in a dark way?
Ligotti: I’m quite aware of the humor not only in my stories but also in the stories of many authors I admire. Nabokov’s fiction is uniformly comic, although the endings of his stories and novels are usually grim, sad, or spooky in some way. The same could be said of Gogol, who was a big influence on Nabokov. Stories like “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” are comic nightmares. Bruno Schulz wrote highly weird stories in which humor was essential and natural. In the work of all three of these authors humor was organic to their purpose. It wasn’t an element injected into a given narrative in order to provide laughs in the manner of a low-budget horror movie. In contrast, Poe wrote some stories that were intended to be purely comical. These he designated as “grotesques.” His weird stories, which called “arabesques,” are always serious from beginning to end. Some critics would call them self-serious or parodic of the Gothic fiction of the day. Lovecraft also made a strict distinction between the few humorous pieces he wrote and his weird fiction. I like to think that the kind of humor in my own stories is integral to their weirdness. But at the time of writing, I’m not consciously trying to produce a concoction of humor and weirdness (or horror or the uncanny). Even though I’m writing a weird story, I want it to be all of a piece. I wouldn’t want anything humorous in the story to undermine the story as a whole, which is definitely not supposed to funny.
WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?
Ligotti: When someone says that something I’ve written is “too weird,” I take it to mean that they didn’t enjoy what they read. Why else would someone who likes weird fiction consider a story too weird? I do my best to make my stories work on two levels. On a superficial level, I want to tell an enjoyable weird story. On a deeper level, I want to write a story that is enigmatic in the way I mentioned above. The example I gave was Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” Another story by Poe that works on two levels is “The Fall of the House of Usher.” On first reading, this story seems to make all the sense in the world. But the more you think about it, the more you say to yourself, “What the hell was that story about?” It’s on the first level that I think a story of mine might be considered too weird. I’ve had people write to me and ask what some part of a story was supposed to mean. This usually has to do with the deeper level of a story. Sometimes, though, I realize that I could have given more clarity to either the superficial or the deeper level of the story. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to write a hypnotically appealing story without the reader understanding it either literally or symbolically. Think of Kafka. And the whole of Bruno Schulz’s output consists of stories like this. Over the past few years, I’ve had the good fortune to revise the stories of my first three collections. And while many of the changes were technical or stylistic, I also altered some stories to emphasize their sense in part or as a whole. I remember reading that T.E.D. Klein rewrote his great novella “The Events at Poroth Farm” every time it was reprinted, which was often. Ramsey Campbell said the same thing about revising whole collections of his stories, at least the early collections, when they were reprinted. Then, of course, there’s the striking case of Henry James, who rewrote thirty-five volumes for the definitive edition of his works. And speaking of Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: “I have visited some literatures of the East and West; I have compiled an encyclopedic anthology of fantastic fiction; I have translated Kafka, Melville, and Bloy; I know of no stranger work than that of Henry James.” If nothing else, Borges makes the case that weirdness is in the mind of the beholder. Who else but Borges would say that he knew of no stranger work than that of Henry James? On the other hand, if you think of James’s “Turn of the Screw,” you may begin to understand what Borges means. To my mind, it’s impossible to read this novella without thinking that James somehow botched the narrative in such a way that from the time it was published in 1898 to the present, no reader or critic has been able to produce a universally credible reading of it. I analyzed and annotated every page of “Turn of the Screw” and went away defeated. I think that says it all regarding stories that someone might consider “too weird.” That is, unless one wants to get into the fiction of the Symbolists, the Futurists, the Surrealists, or any number of modern and post-modern writers.
WFR: What’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?
Ligotti: The weirdest stories I’ve ever read composed the collection Hollow Faces, Merciless Moons (1977) by William Scott Home. The prose is so complex and recondite that it’s all but unreadable, much like that of Clark Ashton Smith. Furthermore, Home’s narratives are baffling and sometime barely comprehensible, somewhat in the manner of Robert Aickman. For a while I thought that Home was either an inexpert writer or a mental case. Then I found an essay by him in a festschrift devoted to Lovecraft called HPL. The essay was lucid and insightful. I forgot the title, but I included it in a compilation of criticism on Lovecraft when I was working on a series of books called Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism for Gale Research (now Gale Cenage). It’s in volume 4 or 22.
Weirdfictionreview.com: Can you give us a list of five or so overlooked or underappreciated weird writers, from any era, that readers should really take the time to discover?
Thomas Ligotti: A Kayak Full of Ghosts: Eskimo Tales, ed. Lawrence Millman (I know that the title of this book makes it seem an unlikely compilation of excellent weird stories, but it is. I wrote a review of it for The New York Review of Science Fiction.)
Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kiŝ (Kiŝ called Bruno Schulz his “god,” so if you like the latter author, you should investigate this unconventional novel by a major Serbian writer.)
“The Fashionable Tiger” by Jean Ferry in The Custom-House of Desire: A Half-Century of Surrealist Stories, ed. J. H. Matthews (Ferry’s story is an example of a crossover between Surrealism and the uncanny. Most of the narrative is told in a matter-of-fact, rather banal prose style that characterizes foreign works of the weird.)
“The Colonel’s Photograph” by Eugène Ionesco in The Colonel’s Photograph, and Other Stories. (“The Colonel’s Photograph”—told in a matter-of-fact, rather banal prose style—is linked in its bizarre, all but inscrutable events to Ionesco’s The Killer, a key play of the Theater of the Absurd. Both works convey a feeling of what might be called “dream terror,” that is, an inexplicable sense of a weird presence or set of circumstances. In his life, Ionesco was an anguished individual who felt that human existence was nothing but alienation, fear, and general misery.)
The Beelzebub Sonata by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkiewicz wrote philosophical novels and plays. He is best-known for the latter, and any one of his plays consists of a bizarre ensemble of characters who collectively express a nightmarish vision of the demonic and the nihilistic.)
The Magician’s Garden, and Other Stories (also published as Opium, and Other Stories) by Géza Csáth (Among his other accomplishments, Csáth was a short story writer and a psychiatrist. His stories often feature a similar mix of cruelly demented characters and morbid atmosphere associated with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Csáth was addicted to morphine, opium, and sex. He committed suicide by taking poison not long after he shot and killed his wife.)