Cosmic Horror at a Crossroads: Revisiting Thomas Ligotti’s “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”
Thomas Ligotti | The Conspiracy Against Humanity | Penguin Books | October 2, 2018 | 272 Pages
In a simpler time of genre-spanning narratives and metafictional gamesmanship, there was an episode of The X-Files called “Jose’s Chung’s From Outer Space.” The structure of the episode concerned the title character, an acclaimed author, whose research material for a forthcoming book overlapped with an investigation conducted by the show’s protagonists. When asked why he’s working on the book, the author speaks about his desire to create an entirely new genre (and the potential bestseller status that would accompany it): “nonfiction science fiction.” Jose Chung may be a fictional character, but Thomas Ligotti is not; and yet, Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race could be described in similar terms: the first work, perhaps, of nonfiction cosmic horror to ever be published.
2018 brings with it a new edition of Ligotti’s book; the first edition was published in 2010, and some of the essays that make up the book date back even earlier. For much of his long career, Ligotti was a cult writer’s cult writer, someone whose creative vision, philosophical discussions, and ominous prose attracted a small but dedicated audience. And it’s not hard to see the appeal of Ligotti for a host of reasons: he’s a terrific writer, first and foremost, with an uncompromisingly bleak worldview. There’s some of the same pessimism and sense of cosmic insignificance that one gets from H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, but without the baked-in racism that makes elements of reading Lovecraft frequently cringeworthy. And while Ligotti eschews the racism and misanthropy of Lovecraft, that isn’t to say that he isn’t capable of taking his readers to uncomfortable places. His novella My Work Is Not Yet Done nervily showcases how a put-upon man, when given limitless powers, gradually becomes corrupted by them: over the course of its narrative, its protagonist moves from righteous avenger to something much worse.
Ligotti was a cult author for years; then came Matthew McConaughey with a bad ponytail in an interrogation room, talking about the nature of time and reality while surrounded by a series of figures carved from aluminum cans. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolato has spoken about Ligotti as an influence on the show’s first season, and numerous book and television critics explored the influence of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race on the fatalistic monologues memorably delivered by series protagonist Rust Cohle. (For a comprehensive look at Ligotti’s work and a compelling argument for why it falls short as a properly Ligitti-esque work, this Jeff VanderMeer guide is worth a read.) This isn’t to say that Ligotti is to blame for every mediocre “time is a flat circle” meme you saw over the last few years; far from it. And if the ubiquity of True Detective’s first season had a hand in Penguin Classics’ reissues of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe in 2016, along with this new edition of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, so much the better.
Reading the Conspiracy Against the Human Race in 2018 is an occasionally dissonant experience–but then, reading it in almost any era would be. It exists at an uneasy crossroads of philosophy and literary theory. One can read it as Ligotti’s analysis of the horror genre–in his introduction, he notes that “[a]ll supernatural horror derives from what we believe should be and should not be.” But unlike other works in this category, like Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Ligotti is opting for philosophical touchstones rather than pop cultural ones. In other ways, it resembles Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life in both its focus on the nature of horror and its headier aspects. But even those comparisons ultimately fall short; this is a decidedly singular book, and one that seems determined to find the uneasy places in which philosophical thought and literary analysis converge. The closest point of comparison might well be the essays of the late Mark Fisher–notably, his book The Weird and the Eerie–though even that comparison feels somewhat lacking.
Admittedly, 2018 is a year in which the spirit of this book has proliferated into pop culture into several unexpected ways. True Detective is one example; the way in which The Good Place blends humor with a genuine effort to interrogate the philosophers that its characters cite is an even more prominent example. In bygone years, the idea of finding the places in which philosophy and literary genres coincide would be a bizarre tangent; now, it seems like a much more normal endeavor.
This is good, because Ligotti has embedded heady concepts throughout this work. “In the history of philosophical lucubration, arguments for determinism are traditionally the most argued against,” begins one section. But Ligotti has also taken his genre forebears as seriously as he takes his philosophers, citiing Lovecraft in the same passage as Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe. And the chapter titles, which include “The Cult of Grinning Martyrs,” “The Nightmare of Being,” and “Freaks of Salvation,” also hearken back to a pulp tradition that’s entirely at odds with some of the more high-minded concepts here.
That juxtaposition may well be a knowing wink on Ligotti’s part: he’s fully aware of the hybrid nature of this work, and rather than go full academic, he’s brought things back around the grindhouse. (See also: titling one section “Who Goes There?” in a nod to the John W. Campbell story that inspired The Thing.) There’s some precedent for this elsewhere in his bibliography. While Ligotti’s vision is generally bleak, he’s also capable of moments of levity: one story in Grimscribe involving a sinister scientist and no small amount of body horror hits with a comic punch due to the deadpan timing of the story’s narrator.
And if the consciously Gothic chapter titles are envisioned as a kind of wink, there’s another solid reason why that might work: this is an unremittingly bleak book in places. Ligotti dedicates one section of the book to people who have experiences in which their ego ceased to exist. For some, this was a profound experience; for others, it had more unsettling resonances. Among the cases he describes is that of Suzanne Segal, author of Collision With the Infinite: A Life Beyond the Personal Self. The book was published in 1996; “[t]he following year,” Ligotti writes, “she died of a brain tumor at the age of forty-two.” Ligotti goes on to speculate that there may have been a link between her physical condition and her experience–an unsettling note for those of us who seek transcendence in some form.
Ligotti’s book reaches perhaps its bleakest note when he turns his gaze to anti-natalist thinkers, including the South African philosopher David Benatar, author of (among other works) the 2006 book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence; the title should give readers a sense of what to expect. “No different from other species on this planet, humanity will flourish while it can, even though there is no praiseworthy incentive to do so,” Ligotti writes. How one reacts to that declaration is also telling: for some, that lack of difference may be almost inspirational; for others, it could represent a more infernal statement.
Earlier on, Ligotti has discussed the works of Ernest Becker, author of 1973’s The Denial of Death, in the context of Terror Management Theory. “TMT indicates that the mainspring of human behavior is thanatophobia, and that this fear determines the entire landscape of our lives,” Ligotti observes. “To subdue our death anxiety, we have trumped up a world to deceive ourselves into believing that we will persist–if only symbolically–beyond the breakdown of our bodies.”
In exploring the nonfictional underpinnings of some of the most effectively terrifying fiction imaginable, Ligotti deftly finds a connection between the theoretical and the visceral. In the book’s final section, “Autopsy on a Puppet: An Anatomy of the Supernatural,” he turns that on its head and returns to the ways in which fiction has addressed some of these questions. This isn’t simply a case of a master of horror exploring his own area of interest: his survey of nightmarish fictional visions includes works by Knut Hamsun and Ernest Hemingway.
In this way, by pointing out that some of the exemplars of quote-unquote literary fiction delve into as much existential horror and profound terror as anyone summoning up eldritch creatures or legions of the undead, Ligotti was also ahead of the curve in another aspect. Recent years have seen an increased breakdown in the lines between “literary” and “genre” fiction: notably, novels like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling have earned praise from both sides of an increasingly narrow divide.
This new edition of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race comes at a unique time for horror. Certain works, like the films Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale Versus Evil and Nick Mamatas’ novel I Am Providence have opted to take a meta-level view of the horror genre even as they retain the capacity to unnerve and frighten. The continued critical and commercial success of numerous films produced by Blumhouse Productions indicates a wide audience for well-crafted, thought-provoking horror stories. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race can be seen as the apex of a particularly intellectual strand of horror, deconstructing a genre even as it reinforces the unpleasant thoughts that give it its power. At times, the breadth of Ligotti’s book suggests the sort of wide-ranging survey course that a beloved professor teaches each semester, its students emerging from the final class looking as though they’ve been changed for life. Neither the materials Ligotti discusses here nor his conclusions make for easy reading, but taken together they convey a powerful sensation–both of knowing and of the unsettling consequences of that knowledge.