Loving the Alien: Thomas Ligotti and the Psychology of Cosmic Horror

By Michael W. CluneJanuary 27, 2016

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

THE REPUBLICATION by Penguin Classics of Thomas Ligotti’s first two story collections marks the next stage of the ascendance of cosmic horror to the commanding heights of our literary culture. H.P. Lovecraft’s breakthrough — represented by the Library of America edition of his tales a decade ago — inaugurated the first stage. Over 70 years intervened between Lovecraft’s original appearances behind the garish covers of Weird Tales and his canonization in austere black binding. Ligotti has had to wait less than half that time: his first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, appeared in an edition of a few hundred copies in 1986.

The two writers share more than a genre and a trajectory from an underworld of little magazines and small presses to near-universal critical acclaim. Ligotti’s fiction undertakes a painstaking and ingenious exploration of the territory first mapped by the elder master. This second event — the Ligotti breakthrough — transforms our understanding of the first. We have fallen in love with the world revealed by Lovecraft’s fiction, but we have not understood what we love or why. Ligotti shows us.

First, we must acknowledge the symptoms of the love of cosmic horror all around us. To take an example near to hand, the Lovecraftian Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin volume, was published by the high-lit house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux to high praise in 2014. But perhaps Lovecraft’s most ardent recent lovers have been philosophers like Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, and Eugene Thacker, who approach his work with a new kind of intellectual intensity. These philosophers see Lovecraft as effecting a kind of Copernican revolution. In story after story, he depicts the invasion of the human world by a monstrous perspective, embodied in hideous forms of alien life. But what makes Lovecraftian horror genuinely cosmic is the capacity of the monstrous perspective to put humans in their place.

Ancient Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s demon/god/alien, represents a universe profoundly indifferent to human life. Cthulhu’s evil is not the Christian evil that specifically targets the human — like the devil, who spends his time prospecting for souls — but a more unsettling impersonal malevolence that simply fails to register anything of value or interest in our species. This is the impersonal malevolence of billions of icy planets, of trillions of miles of space, of primordial rock formations under the sea. They don’t care about us.

The philosophers believe that Lovecraft’s fictions dramatize the truth about the universe. To understand the world we find ourselves in, we need to “unhumanize our views a little,” in words of Lovecraft’s contemporary, the poet Robinson Jeffers. A good unhumanizing exercise is to ask: how does the world look to Cthulhu? The monstrous perspective of Lovecraft’s invention presents the ultimate challenge to anthropomorphism, which these thinkers argue became endemic to philosophy with the work of Immanuel Kant.

The philosophers imitate Lovecraft by resolutely pushing to the margins our own interest in the world, our own desire for the world, our own experience of the world. They tell us that we should strive to see ourselves as the puny and fundamentally insignificant beings we are. We need to abandon our comforting illusions of a human-centered world and orient our thought to the vast cold universe of things. We must inquire how things look from the perspective of the things themselves; we must attend to the world without us. As Thacker writes, those who desire truth should lose interest in their own experience, and instead track “that which in the shadows withdraws from any possible experience.” We will thereby overcome the Kantian human revolution and become soldiers of Lovecraft’s inhuman revolution, on the horrific path to the things in themselves.

From a distance, this strict disavowal of human experience gives Lovecraft’s philosophical readers a kind of alluring rigor. They ruthlessly expunge any human residue from their brave investigation of the abysses of the material world. But, after Nietzsche taught us to seek the desire behind the commitment to objectivity, we should perhaps be a little skeptical of any philosophy that claims to have freed itself from human psychology. And so we must ask:

Is it true that we who love cosmic horror are only interested in the truth? If Lovecraft is the last word in disenchanted realism, why is nearly every page of his tales stuffed with supernatural phenomena of the most unreal kind? Can it be that this strict avoidance of anthropomorphism is itself a mystification? Are we afraid to peer too deeply into our experience of the Lovecraftian abyss? Do we fear learning the nature of our desire for what Lovecraft offers?


Before reading Ligotti, I didn’t ask such questions. But in miniature narratives of uncanny craftsmanship, Ligotti psychologizes the phenomenon of cosmic horror, showing us the human appeal of inhuman vision. He suggests that our desire for knowledge of the world beyond the human conceals our desire to lose ourselves in it.

Consider the following passage from “The Mystics of Muelenberg,” in which the possessor of an uncanny enlightenment describes his new perspective on the social world:

I hear them buzzing like flies in the blackness […] they are struggling, straining every second to keep the sky above them, to keep the sun in the sky, to keep the dead in the earth — to keep all things, so to speak, where they belong. What an undertaking! What a crushing task! Is it any wonder that they are all tempted by a universal vice, that in some dark street of the mind a soft voice whispers to one and all: “Lay down your burden.” Then thoughts begin to drift, a mystical magnetism pulls them this way and that, faces start to change.

Today one often hears the call to surrender our anthropomorphic vision as an ethical challenge. Being less anthropomorphic will enable us to care for the environment better; it will advance animal rights. Such calls confuse inhuman vision with human empathy. Empathy might be a door leading to inhuman vision, but inhuman vision is not empathy. To unhumanize our vision involves a disintegration of the world where such things as “care of the environment” make sense. When one truly sees the world inhumanly, there is no environment. Nor is there care.

Ligotti gives this wild impulse to surrender our human way of seeing things its proper name: vice. His protagonists voluptuously give themselves over to it. They seek disciplines and practices that will give them the capacity to see the human world as a deceptive veil, “an ornamented void.” They wish to live, as the speaker of the lines quoted above lives, “in unwavering acceptance of the spectral nature of things.” Organic and inorganic matter pushes through the familiar shapes of the human world and warps them. Our world dissolves in fantastic shapes and unreal colors, “appearances cast out of emptiness.”

To understand the allure of the vice of posthumanism, you must empathize with the workers in the quotation. Have you ever felt the things of the human world like a burden you carry?

Some of us have. The critic Rei Terada has written about how mild optical illusions — something so simple as looking at your room through a bit of colored cellophane — lift the burden of reality slightly. As I look out my window now, I see cars, houses, streetlights — all heavy with the boring solidity of human social life. But if I follow what Terada tells us about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic, proto-Ligottian practice, and squint my eyes in just the right way, the streetlamp outside looks like it is submerged beneath flowing water. The burden has been slightly lifted.

What happened? A little gap opened between appearance and reality. For a moment, the streetlamp looked different. It looked as if it belonged to another world than the one I know. At such moments I am like the protagonist of Ligotti’s greatest story, “Vastarien”: “a votary of that wretched sect of souls who believe that the only value of this world lies in its power — at certain times — to suggest another.”

In the human view of things, appearance is welded to reality. Things are what they seem. The appearance of the streetlamp is welded to the function of lighting streets, which is welded to the effort to prevent crime, which is welded to the concerns of middle-class suburbanites, and so on. This is human reality. But if you can short-circuit the connection between appearance and depth, between thing and meaning, you can open a little hole in reality. You can make this human world suggest another.

What if this streetlight is submerged under water?

What if this streetlight is a fantastic antenna operated by a secret organization?

What if this streetlight is a thin metallic alien holding its breath until I look away?

Things are not what they seem. This is the mantra and the practice of cosmic horror. Lovecraft wrote stories in which familiar appearances — mountains, stars, old New England houses — melt away from things that now wear an unspeakably different aspect. While the focus in Lovecraft is always on the alien reality below the appearances, Ligotti is fascinated by the simple capacity of changing appearances to suggest a different reality. He pursues the inhumanist psychology of the process in which appearances come loose from their anchor in the human world.

What happens when I see the streetlamp as a strange species of antenna is not that the new, alien reality of the streetlamp is revealed beneath the old human reality of the streetlamp. It is that the streetlamp begins to look slightly unreal. And I like this, because “everything in the unreal points to the infinite.” The unreal is “unbounded by the strictures of existing.”

To Ligotti’s protagonists, this unreality is deliriously liberating. The hero of “Vastarien,” the story containing the above lines, develops a taste for unreality by noticing a few odd appearances in his city. These whet his appetite. But he finds persistent and satisfying unreality in an occult book, which gives him extended dreams of an unreal city. From the finitude of the human world, his consciousness is released into the infinite. Other Ligotti protagonists discover the gap between seeming and reality in strange religious rituals, or in exotic artifacts.

Ligotti looks for inspiration as much to writers of the high modernist tradition (Kafka, Baudelaire) as he does to Lovecraft. This conjunction should be unsurprising, because the key modernist aesthetic strategy, which Viktor Shklovsky in his classic 1917 essay “Art as Technique” termed defamiliarization, is also the key strategy for producing the unreality of cosmic horror. Defamiliarization cancels the habituated meanings of the human world, and allows appearances to float free.

Ligotti’s grasp of canonical modernism’s resources for cosmic horror helps explain the fact that his prose is the sharpest and most richly imaged of any in the genre. His metaphors are often drawn from the realm of modern art, as when a vampiric narrator compares his life to “a piece of modern music: a slow, throbbing drone like the lethargic pumping of a premature heart.” But while a modernist like Shklovsky claims that defamiliarization restores our human life by awakening us to vivid perception, Ligotti doesn’t hesitate to inform us of the very different aim his own art pursues. Stories like “The Spectacles in the Drawer” dramatize a person’s encounter with defamiliarized surfaces. The narrator introduces a character to a strange lens that transforms vision according to the logic of Shklovkian modernism. Under the spell of this new vision, “everything is so brilliant, so great, and so alive […] Unimaginable diversity of form and motion, design and dimension, with each detail perfectly crystalline.” But as Ligotti tells it, this encounter is not a healthy tonic, but a baptism into a corrosive mode of seeing that, in a shockingly literal manner I won’t give away, disfigures the human. It is likely — as studies of the persistently defamiliarizing vision of schizophrenics suggest — that in emphasizing the destructive dimension of persistent defamiliarization, Ligotti is more realistic than Shklovsky.

In describing Ligotti’s stylistic achievement, I wouldn’t want to denigrate the other practitioners of a genre that is often richer at the level of the sentence than the aesthetics of realism can appreciate. Lovecraft, as Harman’s brilliant study of him demonstrates, is a criminally underappreciated stylist. But Ligotti is characteristically more intentional and insightful about the psychological implications, the inhumanizing psychological function, of his style. As in “The Spectacles in the Drawer,” which is the story of perhaps the strangest aesthetic education in history, Ligotti frequently doubles the style of his sentences with reflections on style’s occult power carried out at the level of the plot. In “The Lost Art of Twilight” a painter discovers abstraction to be the most direct expression of his inhuman being. “Alice’s Last Adventure” depicts the invasion of an author’s reality by her style. And in nearly every piece we can find lines that serve both as a description of the action, and of his own art. Consider this sentence from “The Dreaming in Nortown”: “All that was needed to shatter this acceptance waited outside — something of total unacceptability atop a rickety scaffold of estrangement.” His stories are allegories of a style of writing that carries out guerilla warfare against the familiar world. They feature characters that fall victim to — or develop an insatiable taste for — seeing the world the way Ligotti’s style sees the world.

Another way to show the difference between Lovecraft and Ligotti is through their choice of protagonists. The typical Lovecraft protagonist is a scholar or detective, a seeker after truth, who is appalled to discover that things are not as they seem. While Lovecraft stories contain references to devotees of the occult phenomena that repel his nervous heroes, he rarely explores the cultists’ perspective. In reading “The Call of Cthulhu,” I’ve always wondered why the members of the Chthulhu cult do it. What’s the draw? What’s in it for them?

Ligotti — whose typical protagonist is someone who develops the posthumanist vice, who begins to hunger after occult deformations of the human world — gives us the answer. “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” which Ligotti has described as his breakthrough story, is narrated by an anthropologist investigating a midwestern town’s strange Christmas celebrations. He notes that the town appears to be divided between a middle-class section and a slum area. He soon discovers that people from the latter area are infiltrating the former’s festivities, dressed in unsettling masks. Our professor decides to don one of these masks, hoping to learn more about these slum-dwellers.

To his initial dismay, however, his ruse doesn’t lead him into any communication with his fellow masked celebrants: “If I passed one of my kind on the sidewalk there was no speaking, no exchange of knowing looks, no recognition at all that I was aware of.” The curious community to whom these masked figures belong doesn’t traffic in human recognition or human communication. Less surprisingly, the middle-class folks also avoid them. Our professor, to his surprise, finds himself beginning to like his new role: “As I drifted along with my bodiless invisibility, I felt myself more and more becoming an empty, floating shape, seeing without being seen and walking without interference from these grosser creatures who shared my world. It was not an experience completely without interest and even enjoyment.”

Finally, a pickup truck comes weaving through the crowd, collecting the masked people, and the narrator hops in. He is taken to the underground site of a horrific cult ritual. The massed slum-dwellers begin to sing. “They were singing to the ‘unborn in paradise,’ to the ‘pure unlived lives.’ They sang a dirge for existence […] A sea of thin, bloodless faces screamed their antipathy to being itself.” I won’t give away the conclusion except to say that just before the end, the narrator suddenly realizes the source of his strange “enjoyment” in the crowd. It was “the feeling that I had been liberated from the weight of life.”

Ligotti’s representation of this strange underground religion bears numerous resemblances to Lovecraft’s classic depiction of the Cthulhu cult in “The Call of Cthulhu.” In both stories, the cult consists of an alliance of lower-class workers and alienated intellectuals. Both the revolutionary motives of the cult, and its sociological composition, suggest it is in some way modeled on the historical workers’ parties of the radical left. With the reactionary Lovecraft, it would be easy to dismiss this resonance as expressing an antipathy for the movement. But with Ligotti one can’t be so sure. Perhaps Ligotti is expressing a new form of class struggle: a form appropriate to an era in which the media of cosmic horror and the technologies of unreality thrive among the exploited classes of the developed world. Closer examination of this question lies outside our present scope. It is enough to suggest that the politics of cosmic horror — the politics of the posthuman — may bear no resemblance to the post-class ethical fancies of its academic proponents.

The central difference between Lovecraft's and Ligotti’s cults, however, lies in the latter’s careful attention to the fascination of the occult. Ligotti’s protagonist feels the cult’s attraction. It is true that in rare moments — the final pages of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” for example — Lovecraft allows himself to steal a glimpse inside the experience of a person possessed by the desire to be released from the human world. But this experience is Ligotti’s obsessive subject, and his insights go far beyond the earlier writer’s furtive hints. In many tales, as we have seen, Ligotti describes the allure of the unreal with phenomenological rigor. Though none of his tales are quite free of religious imagery, the full-fledged cult scene of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” introduces a new term — “unborn” — and an equation that will henceforth be at the heart of Ligotti’s writing.

The unreal is the path to the unborn.

One might be tempted, along with Lovecraft’s philosophical readers, to read the story’s reference to “the unborn” as symbolizing an effort to imagine “the world without us.” But just as Ligotti describes the unreal as an experience, as a way of participating in the world beyond the human, so too does the unnatural radiance that clings to the image of unbirth here denote an uncanny new mode of experience.

We might approach this experience by asking: Who is it that feels liberation when the weight of life is lifted? Who is it that feels infinity flower as the appearances of the human world drift free of the things?

If in Ligotti’s cosmic horror “unreal” names the desired object of perception, then “unborn” names the desired subject of perception. The one who opens himself to the uncanny experience of the disintegration of the human world, discovers in himself a trace of someone or something that is not human.

Lovecraft says: There are people who like this kind of thing. Ligotti says: And you are one of them. You who love cosmic horror are one of them, one of us.


Michael Clune is the author of Gamelife. He teaches at Case Western Reserve University.

LARB Contributor

Michael W. Clune’s most recent critical book is A Defense of Judgment (2021). The 10th anniversary edition of his book White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin will appear in March 2023. He is currently Knight Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University.


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