In Haunt

Fancy delving into wordsmithery which combines the freakish, the grotesque and Otherness all in one? Thomas Ligotti is both a fiction and non-fiction writer whose work not only covers these themes but also mutates beyond them; horrifyingly relevant writing that says a surprising amount about the modern day.

Thomas Ligotti himself is a mysteriously elusive figure, currently based in America and emerging every so often with terrifying tales and non-fiction weighted with weirdness and the dark. Now his work is the focus of a free symposium at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Number 70 Oxford Street: ‘Detecting Pessimism: Thomas Ligotti and The Weird in an Age of Post-Truth’ (with thanks to RAH! - Research in Arts and Humanities at Manchester Met).

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The 12 June event will be an afternoon and evening dedicated to exploring Ligotti’s fiction, theory and impact: featuring talks from various academic experts (including The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) and a keynote by weird expert Professor Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck College, London).

Known for his often philosophical and pessimistic style, just some examples of Ligotti’s work include the arresting titles of Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991), The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales (1994) and The Nightmare Factory (1996). The latter is an iconic selection of short stories gathering some of the most unnerving tales together from Ligotti’s earlier work. It is a publication which has inspired a number of writers in the horror genre including Ramsey Campbell and Matt Cardin, and has also been turned into a comic book.

Ligotti’s writing across forms creates nightmarish narratives and births a particular breed of Weird Fiction, gaining somewhat of a cult readership over time. His work has also attracted acclaim; including the Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection (1996), Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction and a British Fantasy Award, amongst others.

Now that publishers Penguin have recently re-issued his first two volumes of short stories, as well as award-winning non-fiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a symposium on Ligotti’s work certainly seems apt. The day will run from 2-9.30pm, and even includes a unique screening of the Ligotti-inspired, pessimistic monologues of the hit TV show, True Detective. This will be presented partnership with the city’s own Pilot Light TV Festival with thanks to Greg Walker and also Dr Morag Rose (The University of Liverpool) of The Loiterers Resistance Movement.

Read on to find out more from some of the people behind it about how the symposium is even more appropriate to Manchester and still exciting for those who may not have read the work…

Detecting Pessimism: Thomas Ligotti and The Weird in an Age of Post-Truth will feature the following participants (listed here in alphabetical order): Xavier Aldana Reyes (Man Met), Eleanor Beal (Man Met), Fredrik Blanc (Man Met), Helen Darby (Man Met), Chloé Germaine Buckley (Man Met), Jonathan Greenaway (Man Met), Caitlin Jauncey (Man Met), Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck College, London), Rachid M’Rabty (Man Met), Sorcha Ní Fhlainn (Man Met), Morag Rose (University of Liverpool), Leonie Rowland (Man Met), Lucy Simpson (Man Met) and Greg Walker (Pilot Light TV Festival).

Why do you think the work of Ligotti is not just interesting, but important?

[Rachid M’Rabty]: “As a literary stylist Ligotti exceeds many of his peers in that his works exhibit what I’d call a unique sensitivity to bleakness and horror that echoes the very best of Poe, Lovecraft, Nabokov and others. Throughout, his narratives are filled with a litany of beleaguered outsiders and down-and-outs who struggle to cope within a visibly terrifying, uncanny and monstrously debilitating universe, which for many may just resemble a harrowing version of our own post-hope/hopeless world.

“Ligotti has never been interested in fame (he fGothic Style Image 2amously doesn't offer 'live' interviews), but his career in literary and philosophical horror speaks for itself. Since the 1980s, until relatively recently, Ligotti has been something of supernatural horror and weird fiction’s best-kept secret. In recent years, however, with the help of a few notable academic and critical enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic, Ligotti’s fiction has exploded in popularity as it speaks directly to a renewed academic and cultural fascination with all things Gothic and weird, and particularly with a hopeless and pessimistic strand of thought in a world that for many seems increasingly devoid of value, purpose or cause for optimism (think Brexit; austerity; Trump; incessant war; nihilistic terrorism; ecological crisis; soul-destroying labour; the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, for example...).”

Why did you choose to dedicate a symposium to Ligotti in particular? Do you feel that he is a literary figure who perhaps hasn’t received the appreciation he deserves?

[Xavier Aldana Reyes]: “Certainly, and bar the work of a few enthusiasts like Matt Cardin and Jon Padgett (the latter runs Thomas Ligotti online and edits Vastarien, a journal dedicated to the author), there are good reasons for Ligotti's critical neglect. He has never coveted the spotlight - he has often said he realises his fiction will only appeal to a few like-minded individuals - and has always worked with small publishers. Some of his collections, like Noctuary (1994), are out of print and have not been republished. Others, like The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales (1994), have been reprinted, but as limited expensive editions.

“Having said this, although Ligotti may be a cult figure and little-known by the general public, he definitely hasn't been ignored by Gothic and Horror Studies, and he will usually get at least a mention in surveys of the fields. The recent reprinting of some of his work by Penguin will certainly make him more readily available and help him reach a wider audience. We do think he is a pivotal figure in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century fiction. Few writers have as distinctive, solid and cohesive a philosophy underpinning their work as Ligotti does. He is a writer who writes genre fiction because it speaks to, and helps him channel, his overall artistic vision, and in marrying his pessimism with the questioning nature of speculative weird fiction he has given us not just something unique (a profound reflection on the pain of being human) but also something that, we argue, captures the mood of our generation.”

For those people who have not read the work of Ligotti– what can they still take from the symposium?

[Rachid]: “The symposium will be a great opportunity for those who may never have heard of Ligotti to learn more about weird fiction and horror and how it gives us a greater handle on many important critical and cultural concerns and taps into questions related to what it means to be human in worlds stripped away of all pretension to truth or optimism.

“The symposium itself will appeal to anyone who wants to come and learn a bit more about weird fiction, Gothic horror and how it speaks to today’s culture and society. We will be featuring talks on a range of thought-provoking topics not only concerning the works of Ligotti, but concerning philosophy and the contemporary world, the wider Gothic and weird modes, for example, and it will be an opportunity to engage with and perhaps challenge these ideas and our preconceptions.

“Following the symposium there will be a screening of the Ligotti-inspired, pessimistic monologues of the hit TV show, True Detective. Our hope throughout the day is that it will be an inclusive, entertaining and thought-provoking showcase of Ligotti’s work to new and familiar audiences, of weird fiction and supernatural horror more roundly, as well as a showcase of the creative, critical work that is being produced by Gothicists at Manchester Metropolitan University.”

Why would you encourage people to read Ligotti? And where to start?

[Rachid]: “I’d encourage any reader with the slightest interest in the weird or Gothic horror to start reading Ligotti, as he really is one of the most consistently brilliant and original writers of recent decades. His talent for turning the grim, the bleak and the utterly horrifying into something that is provocatively haunting and enticing is up there with the greats of the genre. Moreover, his philosophy, which permeates all his works, raises some truly thought-provoking questions about the role and purpose of art and horror as a response to an ever-growing sense of pessimism and despair in the modern world.

“The best places to start for any budding reader of Ligotti, I’d suggest, are likely Grimscribe and Songs of a Dead Dreamer, recently republished by Penguin Classics in one volume (London: Penguin, 2016 [1989 & 1991]). In these early stories of terror, horror and the weird, the author announced himself as unique and standout voice in the genre. Stories such as ‘The Last Feast of the Harlequin’, ‘The Frolick’ and ‘The Chymist’, for example take typical Lovecraftian and Poe-esque tropes into haunting and terrifying new directions.

“My personal favourites, though, are found in the volume Teatro Grottesco (London: Virgin, 2008 [2006]), which seems a much more concerted effort to explore the ‘derangements’ of the human condition and the nuances of his pessimistic, horrific and often nihilistic worldview. Finally, I’d implore any reader with an interest in the weird, the Gothic or horror to pick up a copy of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, in which Ligotti (assuming the role of austere visionary, philosopher and provocateur) outlines the case for the pessimistic outlook and the role that horror fiction must play in our understanding and experience of the world.”

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Ligotti is often associated with pessimism and nihilism. What can be gained from a study of these themes of apparent negativity? 

[Xavier]: “Well, Ligotti starts from the basic assumption that living positively is to decidedly dupe oneself. There are biological primers, like reproduction, that are naturally set to perpetuate life, and sets of beliefs and economic structures that encourage and promote a futurity-based type of thinking. His main philosophical point is that the development of consciousness was our greatest evolutionary tragedy and downfall: we are the only animals aware of the inevitability of our death, and we know of the pointlessness of existence (of the ultimate death of the universe). When faced with such a stark reality, but importantly, with the very real presence of pain to our everyday lives - to live is to, ineluctably, suffer a lot (emotionally and physically) - coping mechanisms encourage a positivist outlook.

“His work suggests the provocative possibility of embracing that negativity openly, although this is more a form of 'realistic' thinking than a 'negative' approach for him. We just have decided to call a pragmatic and empiric approach to life 'negative'. It's a long and complex philosophical trail of thinking, but fundamentally, what Ligotti argues is that collectively, and for some people like him, it would have been better never to have been. This is not incompatible with a 'socialist' view (and Ligotti calls himself a socialist) that vouches for the greatest good to the greatest number of people.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the planned screening?

[Sorcha Ní Fhlainn]: “In essence, we will be exploring and contemplating these monologues in True Detective as they flag up a growing pessimism, influenced by Ligotti's philosophy, which informs the mood of the show and the futility of searching for meaning in bleak and unimaginable crimes. The futility of trying to understand patterns, to comprehend a notion of fate as a goal (rather than the bleak certainty of an erasure of the self in time) is interesting as it distinctly contrasts with American notions of hope to conclude and solve a crime, and to discover hidden meaning and depths within the significance of that crime (rather than the empty futility of the crime and its horrors for the nullification that it actually is).

 “We have chosen to work with Greg from Pilot Light as they are an external partner that specialises in the recuperation and promotion of television as an art form, and provide a meaningful environment to analyse television as a worthy component of screen studies that engages with contemporary and influential material. As television has experienced an intellectual and industry-driven gold standard in recent decades, it is a partnership that acknowledges the intellectual value of television to the wider external community and in the academic advancement of screen studies.”

[Greg Walker]: “Ever since it aired back in 2014 I've been desperate to bring True Detective to the big screen in some way. This event will be a delve into Rust Cohle's Ligotti inspired monologues and will be a very interesting experience as opposed to a normal linear TV screening of ours! We (Pilot Light) love working with RAH! (Research in Arts and Humanities at Manchester Met) as they are always pushing boundaries with their events and we love being able to put together special curations that fit perfectly with what they are doing.”

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