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Horror’s Happy Ending?

Read Monday, 2 Nov 2015

Only horror nerds (and nerdy nihilists) knew the name Thomas Ligotti two years ago.  Now, thanks to a plagiarism controversy involving hit HBO series True Detective, a volume of Ligotti’s work has been released by Penguin Classics. Long-time fan Anthony Morris has mixed feelings on Ligotti’s new-found fame.

Thomas Ligotti’s 1991 story collection, <em> Grimscribe</em>, has been reprinted along with his 1986 debut collection, <em>Songs of a Dead Dreamer</em> by Penguin Classics.
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The first story by Thomas Ligotti I ever read was in a New American Library horror anthology called Prime Evil. The story was ‘Alice’s Last Adventure’ and the year was 1988. I was staying at my grandfather’s house in rural South Australia on a family holiday, which in my case meant staying indoors and reading the huge pile of horror books I’d brought with me. In the previous few years, I’d devoured everything from Stephen King (whose success in the 1970s had sparked a massive boom in horror publishing) to Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell to Dennis Etchison, Peter Straub to H.P. Lovecraft. But nothing scared me the way ‘Alice’s Last Adventure’ did on that holiday; nothing ever has since.

In the story, an ageing author of children’s books gets drunk on Halloween and recounts a string of unsettling incidents that have plagued her over the last year. Things seem disturbingly reversed, as if she’s fallen through a mirror. The laughter of one of her characters rings in her ears; tiny capering figures can be glimpsed in the corners of reflective surfaces. Her final fate is confusing and ghastly. I was hooked.

Nothing scared me the way ‘Alice’s Last Adventure’ did on that holiday; nothing ever has since.

Horror boom and bust

Problem was, even in the late 1980s when horror fiction was as popular and mainstream as it was ever going to get, Ligotti’s gloomy, image-driven work was fringe material at best. By 1990, when his first collection of short stories, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, was reprinted by a major publisher (the first edition, from a small press in an edition of 300, had sold out years before) the horror boom was already starting to bust. Ligotti kept putting out short story collections but they became harder to find. I ended up ordering his second and third collections from the publisher direct.

After that, his work was only available via various speciality imprints, so obscure even stores specialising in fantasy and science fiction didn’t always stock them. I started scouring the upcoming books listings in science fiction and fantasy trade magazine Locus, looking for anything he might have coming up.

Not very much is known about Ligotti himself; he’s always kept a low profile. In photos he looks normal enough and the bleak workplace satire of his 2002 novella My Work is Not Yet Done suggests both experience of regular employment and a regular disdain for it. He only did a handful of interviews early in his career (yes, I tracked them all down) and some fans suspected that Thomas Ligotti was really the pen name of some other, more established writer. (Sadly for the conspiracy theorists, Ligotti started doing interviews again a few years back. A collection of them, Born to Fear, was published last year.)

For a period, Ligotti turned his back on fiction and in 2010 he released a philosophy book, The Conspiracy against the Human Race. In the book, he argued that as life is pointless and being aware of that pointlessness is the ultimate horror, suicide is the only logical response. Ligotti is fully aware of the irony that, despite his logic, he remains alive – it’s just part of the bleak humour that animates this text.

True Detective controversy

These days Ligotti fans congregate at Thomas Ligotti Online. At the start of 2014, the exciting news for fans was supposed to be that Ligotti had finally returned to writing fiction. His first new stories in almost decade were to be published in a new collection, The Spectral Link. Instead, astonishingly, the big news ended up coming out of the entertainment world. Some Hollywood types working on an HBO crime series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson had decided: Let’s spice up this generic cop double-act with some gloomy chat! The show was True Detective and much of the gloomy chat appeared to have been lifted from the work of Ligotti.

It’s hard to deny the claims made by a group of fans that some of the speeches made by McConaughey’s character were a little too close to some of Ligotti’s work. But to me the argument that True Detective was directly stealing from Ligotti seems overblown. All artists have their influences, and putting Ligotti’s philosophy (which is hardly original to him, as he’s repeatedly acknowledged) in a buddy-cop setting was different enough to work as something original.

But many of his fans were outraged at what they saw as a theft, and outrage equals media attention, especially when a hit TV show is involved. In Ligotti’s case, the attention was pretty much all positive, though, as his fans – always a passionate group even back in the days of fanzines – took advantage of the kerfuffle to get the word out about his work. In the past, friends had smiled and nodded politely when I’d rhapsodised about Ligotti; now they were pressing me for recommendations. (It’s taken more than a year but thanks to Penguin Classics, there’s finally a readily available collection of his early works I can steer them towards.)

Seeing Ligotti’s work finally achieve mainstream attention thanks to a speech delivered by the Texan heart-throb from How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days seems pretty surreal.

From cult to canon

In 2015 True Detective has gone off the boil thanks to a lacklustre second season. Meanwhile, despite no new work on the horizon, Ligotti remains a giant of the horror field and of literature in general, possessing a startling and distinctive voice that’s perfectly suited to a time of unease and fear. It’s tempting to suggest the world’s a darker place than when his first works were published; that we’ve finally caught up to his worldview. But Ligotti’s view is so bleak at its core – so inventive in the ways it suggests we are nothing but hollow puppets trapped in an indifferent universe – that a world actually in sync with his vision would be one that promptly put an end to itself.

As a long-time fan, seeing Ligotti’s work finally achieve mainstream attention thanks to a speech delivered by the Texan heart-throb from How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days seems pretty surreal; the kind of twist even Hollywood would reject as ‘too out there’. But maybe it’s just that I’m no pro at sunny endings. After all, I’ve lived more than half my life obsessed with the writings of a gloomy nihilist.

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