Before the arbitrary authority of individual psychiatrists was curtailed after much critique of psychiatric power (without this preventing the concomitant increase in the arbitrary authority of classificatory systems1), psychiatrists used to speak of a ‘praecox feeling.’ This was supposed to be the intuition, when encountering the insane, that they were in the presence of a fundamental incomprehensibility, of an emptiness where a person ought to be. Nobody really speaks of a ‘praecox feeling’ as a genuine insight any longer. But what if such a feeling were an insight? Not an insight into a person, a single, shattered mind mind, but an insight into the truth that such a person’s disintegration might reflect; a general truth. An encroachment of the abyss we barely hover above. An experience of an essential absence. A confusion of whatever it was we thought a person ought to be. And what if such a feeling were attractive?
Thomas Ligotti’s writings seem to be built on the belief in the power of just such an insight. He operates on the literary margins of the horror tradition, creating nihilistic works that, though hardly popular, are increasingly influential.2 The Spectral Link, his new collection (barely a collection really, a mere two stories) is heavy with a zealous pessimism. It attempts in various ways to thematise and enact the attractions of nothingness, to elicit, perhaps, something like a ‘praecox feeling’ about the world. But perhaps it does not quite manage to elicit this feeling.
In ‘Metaphysica Morum,’ the first story, the narrator, a ‘metaphysical mutant,’ infects his therapist with his own state, one of advanced ‘demoralization.’ The therapist’s fastidious appearance, his professional platitudinising, and his worldly actions keep him hovering just above the shabbiness and decay of his surroundings — until he succumbs to the narrator’s bad dream. He is visited by the Dealer, a nightmare figure, who shows him what has already been confirmed for the narrator: the reality that mocks our persistence in life, or the unreality of everything that enables us to persist. He then grants the narrator’s dear wish, to be ‘euthanized by anaesthesia,’ and himself follows the same route. He has been taught a lesson and the story would have us learn it too. It is didactic, it persuades and exhorts. The narrator tells us: ‘Such as it was with our individual lives — from their initiation to their end — so it was with a universal process of disintegration and derangement.’ Nothingness exerts its inexorable pull and the narrator is an apostle of nothingness, trying to verbalise and eulogise this pull. The story ends with a ‘suicide declaration,’ which is also a didactic seduction: become demoralized, seek nothingness, your suffering is almost over . . .
But something is absent from ‘Metaphysica Morum.’ Who is this narrator, this ‘metaphysical mutant’? His childhood is said to be full of disease but the details are vague. They seem to serve only a logical function, as an argument for his ‘diseased’ mind. He is said to be the abandoned progeny of swamp-dwellers but the letter that is quoted as evidence reads like a self-conscious parody, an ironic construction based on a recent stock figure from the horror tradition, the ‘hick,’ with arbitrary suggestions of the supernatural serving to color lurid and grotesque descriptions of incest, deformity and malevolence. Who is this narrator? He is a metaphysical mutant because he is the insight into aberrance produced by aberrance. But he is a metaphysical mutant in another sense as well. He is a metaphysical mutant in that he is a hotchpotch of clichéd horror motifs and effects, and metaphysical ideas. He’s a rhetorical monster. But it’s not the absence of a solidly constructed character that is the problem here, it is something else. A character, understood, anyway, in terms of biographical fullness, would hardly be constructible in the atmosphere of such nihilism. But something should be there, something should be happening — other than the ideas?
In ‘The Small People,’ the second story, he attempts something like an allegory. It is difficult to describe the world of this text, as it is difficult to imagine it. In this world there are human beings and there are ‘small people.’ These are ‘travesties’ of humans, like toys, existing in a miniature approximation of the human world called ‘small country.’ The narrator, telling a perverse story of childhood awakening, relates his fear and hatred of them, their smallness, the way that they swivel their heads. He attempts to research them but discovers that there is almost no literature on them at all. He takes a covert trip into small country with a friend, where he watches them construct a town, or what appears to be a town, but which he then sees is only appearance, a show. The act of construction is divorced from meaning. They don’t have any substance, these small people. Nonetheless, their world is annexing slowly the world of humans, the ‘real’ world. And the narrator becomes aware of the existence of ‘half-small people’ that appear to be humans but are more glassy, more unreal. These half-small people have a ‘spectral link’ to the small people, another and more covert means by which the annexing of the ‘real’ world takes place. He realizes his parents are such beings, and is driven to savagely murder them . . .
This synopsis is inadequate but the basic allegorical meaning can be stated based on it. The small people are objectifications of Ligotti’s pessimistic ideas. Here’s an excerpt:
For them, existence was all chaos, nonsense and emptiness. I knew the same had been written about our world, the supposedly real world. But that was opinion, speculation. And only very few had claimed as much. Yet the small people as a lot seemed to embrace these objectionable qualities as truths. Now it became more explicable to me that they should be passed over in the archives of human thought. Theirs was not a lone voice speaking out of time. Theirs was a society subsisting, even thriving, on the brink of nonexistence.
We have here the main themes of Conspiracy Against the Human Race, the non-fiction book that was the last thing Ligotti published prior to The Spectral Link. Themes such as the fundamental meaninglessness of life, the refusal of human beings to acknowledge the fundamental meaninglessness of life, and the heroism of the lone pessimist who does acknowledge the fundamental meaninglessness of life.3 The small people instantiate these themes. But there is a problem here, a conflict between the rigidity of the allegorical meaning and the attempt at realising a fluid world. The world seems empty somehow compared with the meaning it’s supposed to express. For example, the narrator’s researches and observations show that human beings effectively ignore the encroachment of the small people. Allegorically, this expresses the tendency of human beings to ignore the dark realities of existence but we are never given to understand, or to sense, how this universal evasion actually functions, nor how such an encroachment thus occurs. And the narrator himself is constructed entirely from his perception of this encroachment and his intense fear of it, but, as it is a fear of nothing, it is somehow jarring, as if he is howling at an abstraction.
There is a point in the story that stands out as an exception to this problem and which might serve to help us understand the problem better. It happens during the narrator’s visit to small country.
[T]hey did something, or seemed to do something. This was to lightly press their bodies against ours as we passed. That turned out to be worse than any brute physical encounter we could have had with them — their touch. For they were not stiff and rigid as we expected . . . . Instead, we found that they were soft, very soft. Their shapes felt as if they were giving way as they lightly pressed themselves against us.
Allegorically, the small people here express the insubstantiality of what we call reality. But there’s something more happening than this idea. Unlike H. P. Lovecraft, to whom he is sometimes compared, Ligotti is not really a creator of monsters. But he has deployed in several stories a rare kind of monster, an innovation on the ghost; threatening but somehow insubstantial, inescapable but barely present; a shadow or a shade, menacingly inhuman. The small people in this moment are that kind of monster and we sense, with a shiver, something of their physical reality, all the more perturbing insofar as this physical reality is so spectral. Elsewhere in the story, such reality is absent. For an allegory to work, there needs to be equal and separate, though coinciding, logics: the logic of the idea and the logic of the world. Here the former has entire precedence over the latter.
For both of these stories then we have said something seems to be missing, that their ideas obscure their latent possibilities, creating an absence, a void — a ‘praecox feeling’? No. It is the absence of a ‘praecox feeling,’ the paradoxical absence of the presence of nothingness. But what can this mean?
Everything is ‘malignantly useless,’ Ligotti writes in Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Everything is ‘malignantly useless’ but this malignancy is nothing other than the fulfilment of that uselessness. Everything is useless by virtue of its destiny, which is to end, something which no act is sufficient to abate. Because they are finite, all ‘manifestations’ (to quote what the narrator of ‘Metaphysica Morum’ would have wiped out of existence) are rendered useless. They are rendered useless in advance. We are rendered useless in advance. But this uselessness is still something that we have an attitude towards, it is heralded, as by the narrator in ‘Metaphysica Morum,’ or resisted, as by the narrator in ‘The Small People,’ or else ignored. But our attitudes towards this uselessness are themselves useless. Ligotti even calls the act of writing Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a book about the uselessness of everything, a ‘sublimation,’ a diversion, a distraction, i.e. something useless. Death transcends us, we cannot speak its devastation. But we go on speaking of it.
So, in Ligotti’s position (as we are construing it here4), there is a kind of knowledge that is adduced but is not accessible: the knowledge of death as an underlying truth and a fate outside of time, a transcendent but engulfing force. But there is also an existential knowledge of death, of its threat, which takes place in time along with acts and attitudes that avoid or address it — and which never amounts to the first kind of knowledge. We know but we don’t know. We know but we don’t know, so we go on. We see the end but we don’t see it, so we go on. But this going on, for Ligotti, once we know (but we never know) has only the barest reality. We act but each act nullifies itself by awareness of its own nullity. And as we know that we don’t even know that nullity, we are nullified all the more.5
In Ligotti’s best metaphysical stories (for example ‘The Bungalow House’ and ‘Gas Station Carnivals’ from Teatro Grottesco), he manages to intensely evoke the despair, confusion and horror of being drawn into this phenomenally reduced situation. But in the two stories of The Spectral Link, the triumph of the idea almost completely overshadows the experience of it. So the presence of absence, or the ‘praecox feeling’ (the moment of realisation, the moment of horror) is, well, absent. We are not given even the barest reality. And there’s a curiously worldly tone to the texts as if, despite the apparently singular ideas, a rather conventional complacency were at work, or as if, perhaps, entering the world only as as ideas or entering the world of ideas, which is more and more a marketplace, they are not able to access what might have made them really singular.
In ‘Metaphysica Morum,’ Dr. O states at one point, ‘I seemed to be trapped in a humdrum horror movie, but that’s not how it felt.’ But this story seems to us much like a humdrum horror movie, with additional philosophy. And ‘The Small People’ is philosophy in the rags of a horror movie. Thomas Ligotti’s talent for giving an intensity of feeling to what he often calls the crumminess of the world, as well as to the tired symbols of the horror tradition, is missing from The Spectral Link — and without this his insights miscarry.
1. See the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for the USA, where almost every kind of human behaviour is pathologised.
2. See, for example, Nic Pizzolatto’s sentimental use of Ligotti’s ideas in the recent TV series True Detective, where a harsh pessimism becomes part of the process of realising a renewed and redeemed version of patriarchal power. See also the work of philosopher Ray Brassier, who tries to offer a scientific ‘cure’ for the faults for which Ligotti indicts consciousness.
3. Ligotti would reject the label of ‘heroic.’ But in the rhetorical confusion that is Conspiracy Against the Human Race, he frequently plays on the trope of the heroic outsider, though liberally mixing this with the more contemporary trope of the noble victim.
4. This is, of course, a somewhat partial view. And for Ligotti, it isn’t only death but also pain that renders life meaningless.
5. There are some marvellous paradoxes at play in Ligotti’s ideas. Unfortunately, Conspiracy Against the Human Race doesn’t seriously try to unravel these. It is more a work of opinion than analysis. If only it were a work of rigorous analysis, or else a catalogue of pain. Yes, either a philosophical or a poetic monster, instead of the weak sneer that it is. The three good pages in the book are its one poem.