Oblivion Beckons: On Thomas Ligotti’s “Pictures of Apocalypse”
By Greg CwikJune 26, 2023
Pictures of Apocalypse by Thomas Ligotti
The beautiful is always bizarre.
A SUI GENERIS strangeness suffuses the work of Thomas Ligotti, lingering like an ancient air—odd or archaic choices of vocabulary; prose set to an uncommon rhythm and canted cadences to keep you unsettled; a pervasive chill of nihilism; and ambiguities, awful and awesome, creeping along the caliginous corridors of his imagination. The unknown is supreme and answers are elusive, perhaps impossible. Traditional notions of logic and rationality are overthrown by the possibilities of terror; you recognize his world, it’s familiar, but there’s something wrong, an aberration. His cryptic sentences survey the depths of the anomalous. He has the abnormal obsessions and peculiar prose of a man who learned to write from reading old stories, gothic tales of the mad and macabre, and he cut his teeth writing for little-known genre journals that were willing to take a chance on an amateur writer with such an uncomfortable vision. He is totally uninterested in the popular, more traditional forms of fiction, like the staid style of Stephen King and his everyday anomalies; or the penchant for simple prose and reliance on plot in current genre work; or the easy agreeability you find in modern mainstream fiction, the kind of books, manufactured by any of the homogeneous MFA factories strewn about the country, that greet you as you walk into Strand in Manhattan.
Ligotti’s writing is rooted in a profound sense of sorrow and anxiety; it is the poetic product of a troubled mind. He has said that writing is a “matter of personal pathology,” an “exercise in agony.” He cites Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft as influences, sure, and Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, of course, but he’s also indebted to Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, embedding references to obscure philosophers and archaic texts in his stories and especially in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010), his manifesto on cynicism that cites an intimidating amount of philosophical ideas from intellectuals whom the average horror reader has likely never heard of. He is as erudite as he is unnerving, a scribe who doesn’t acquiesce to popular demands. Ligotti conjures unsettling images, like a nightmare that exercises a hypnotic power forcing your mind to review its images and events over and over no matter how much you want to forget them.
These stories are populated with perversions of rationality, monstrously subtle malformations of our reality. In his heralded “The Red Tower”—a tale of dereliction and dread-draped tangibility collected in 2006’s Teatro Grottesco that hearkens back to Lovecraft’s panoply of desolate buildings, with their dirty, rotten walls and sickly light and smothering darkness—Ligotti describes a strange factory peddling perfunctory products that, in their purposelessness, are somehow menacing, a betrayal of purpose:
These were a gruesome array of goods that could perhaps best be described as novelty items. In the beginning there was a chaotic quality to the objects and constructions produced by the machinery at the Red Tower, a randomness that yielded formless things of no consistent shape or size or apparent design. Occasionally there might appear a peculiar ashen lump that betrayed some semblance of a face or clawing fingers, or perhaps an assemblage that looked like a casket with tiny irregular wheels, but for the most part the early productions seemed relatively innocuous.
Ligotti spent the first three decades of his career shrouded in obscurity, quietly accruing a small but fervid legion of acolytes. Songs of a Dead Dreamer, his first book, was published by Silver Scarab in 1985 with only 300 copies printed. It was later reissued in 2015 by Penguin, coupled with his second collection, Grimscribe (1991), putting Ligotti in prestigious company. It wasn’t until Nic Pizzolatto pilfered freely from his work for the first season of True Detective (2014), stuffing the writer’s ideas into Matthew McConaughey’s mouth, that Ligotti finally got his due. Funny, a writer very few people read getting famous because another writer got famous from stealing from him. Pangs of nervousness quiver in Ligotti’s works, from the early gothic Poe-isms to his later longer works, written with deceptive economy. Like his beloved Lovecraft, Ligotti has an anthropological interest, as in the novella “The Last Feast of Harlequin” (included in Grimscribe), whose narrator is writing a scholarly article. Some mysteries can never—and maybe shouldn’t—be solved.
Now Ligotti is back with his new collection of cataclysmic poems, Pictures of Apocalypse (not, mind, Pictures of the Apocalypse, suggesting a theme, a concept, rather than a single event, a single eternity; the lack of a the in the title shows how careful the scribe is with his words). It’s a startling sliver of verse, replete with black-and-white illustrations by Jonathan Dennison that, in their ebony-ink darkness contrasting with the unsoiled white, capture the sense of the sublime for which Ligotti is always searching, the doom and gloom with which he is burdened. The art recalls old wood carvings, or Charles Burns’s work in Black Hole (1993–2004). Ligotti’s melancholy benefits from the miraculous marriage of the art: each turn of a page (the poems take up about two pages each) presents a new, startlingly beautiful illustration.
In “Damn the Cost,” Ligotti writes, “There is a toll we must pay / to a dark, malignant spirit, / a presence sensed but not seen.” Again, as with his fiction, the unknown, an eldritch enigma, holds dominion over the human soul. And in “In Anguish to the End,” he proclaims: “Suffering makes you strong.” The line ends with a period, which makes that simple declarative sentence a grand statement of its own, a position not vague so much as it is vast and universal, and not, as you might initially think, pessimistic or fatalist, but hopeful; as Ligotti writes often of suffering, you can now read his stories as depicting the strengthening of the human spirit. If writing pains Ligotti, then he must believe that it is worth it, or else he wouldn’t keep doing it. Time is “fungible.” In the end, oblivion’s echo beckons and the Sisyphean curlicues of our lives’ trajectories, looping and circling back, are still ever-looming. “Never again, I vow— / Never, never, never, never.”
In the insoluble “Conversations in a Dead Language” (a story from the 1994 collection Noctuary, my personal favorite), about a man’s history of giving kids candy on that spookiest of holidays, Ligotti punctuates the inscrutable sinisterness of seemingly quotidian activities and careful, creepy vagaries of language with kiddie terms like “Sammy-Wammies,” “Knifey-wifey,” and “meezy-weezy.” Or take this: “It was an especially cootie-ridden residence in a bad neighborhood that bordered on an even worse neighborhood,” he writes in “Purity,” from Teatro Grottesco. Notice the use of “cootie-ridden,” an innocent, uncorrupted way of calling a house haunted. Though Ligotti often feels like a man who is smarter than you are, he weaves childish phrases and ideas into his dense texts in a way that almost recalls Thomas Pynchon.
His poetry in Pictures of Apocalypse is also filled with such sardonic wordplay and modernist bits of form found in his later fictions; more old-fashioned, starker ruminations, lyrical and bitter, sparser than in his early works; and severe imagery, espoused eloquently and with an unhappy beauty that is, for all its deftness, quite modest—it breathes with the elegiac ease of a final sigh, and it wastes no words. It is precise and unsmothered, at times hearking to Charles Baudelaire in the way he finds the beautiful in darkness, and many poems have the syntactical and structural nuance of microfiction, with the hint of story hovering in the fog of words. Some are mere insinuations. And some, like “Omega,” are imbued with the same succinct malaise as Don DeLillo’s paranoid work. This is some of Ligotti’s finest writing, and even if he doesn’t conjure anything that gets under your skin quite as deeply as “The Red Tower,” this work is imbued with and compelled by the same singular disquiet, the same obsessions, as his fiction.
“For good or ill, all things must end,” Ligotti begins his introduction, and indeed the splinters of verse here are concerned with oblivion; but it doesn’t seem like Ligotti fears the end. He doesn’t exactly embrace it, either, but sees it as an ineluctable inevitability, something to accept, and once you accept it, then the way you see life, its fleeting flints and the various ways we measure happiness and success, will change. He goes on to say that “[n]o apocalypse will be anything but awful.” This belies the pessimism (or whatever you want to call it) that pervades Ligotti’s work and provides the entire impetus of his nonfiction. There are innumerable notions of The End: there’s Jim Morrison’s lone friend, or the typical wastelands of ash and smoldering ruins in everything from Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) to any of the bloated-budget blockbusters tarnishing movie screens, a great ascension for the faithful while the rest broil in hell, or even Sam Neill’s character in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) laughing as he watches himself on a movie screen while ineffable grotesques destroy the world. What Ligotti is saying is that the end, no matter how you envision or imagine it, is coming, and it will suck. And his choice—his need—to write and publish this slender collection suggests that he thinks beauty still matters too. A line from the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley comes to mind: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
Greg Cwik has written for The Believer, Reverse Shot, Mubi, The Brooklyn Rail, Kinoscope, and other fine places.
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