I have long held the maxim, if you would like to know me better, I would suggest a viewing of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead or a reading of one of what are my two favorite Thomas Ligotti collections, Grimscribe or Teatro Grottesco. What is it about these works that I find such a deep connection with? They certainly are not for everyone’s tastes. I think if you lent one of these to most of your friends, they would come back with a dismissive “ What the hell was that? That was just weird… “ reaction, usually accompanied with a look of disgust. I think these are works best enjoyed in seclusion. These are works I find too deep and too honest, so far away from the banal superhero blockbusters and the life-affirming novels of mainstream culture. Unlike whatever film everyone is talking about on the news and is playing at all the theaters, these works speak to me, and the existence and experience I live. They talk about truths no one wants to think about in their wage slave day to day lives, and presented with a pessimistic humor that is not at all funny.
The illusion of normal society. The horror of existence and consciousness. The utter fraud of social norms. These are some of the issues that both Lynch and Ligotti both keep interrogating again and again in their work. Ask anyone what they plan for their lives to be like. Most people will respond with what most would consider to be the healthiest and sanest answers. Go to college. Marry. Have kids. Retire. Maybe join the military. Help out at church. These people view mankind as the creation of a loving God. And they see the universe as one where everyone has a pre-planned destiny that they are meant to fulfill. But for a small minority, they see life in a very different light. They wake to find themselves existing in a bizarre sack of flesh, always on the verge of madness or injury. We move around to satisfy desires and impulses that seem alien to us, certainly not of our own making. We live just long enough to watch our bodies rot and our minds falter. And to see people finding an intelligent design or a heartwarming meaning in this hideous obscenity of existence, is the height of comedy.
In Eraserhead we find a man and a woman trying, or are trapped into trying, to create what is called a family. Except for the whole notion of birthing some screaming thing into the world is nightmarish. Carrying around some alien thing in your body, a parasite, and then thrusting it into the world covered in blood and placenta, and how most people see this as the holiest of acts, is the height of absurd comedy. Eraserhead is a feverscape of rusted industrial parts that belong to no known machine and swampy terrain of reproductive organs. Our bodies reveal their own strangeness with every abhorrent birth. Midnight desires result in these strange mutants things emerging from our wombs. In Lynch’s world, sex is never erotic. It is baffling and uncomfortable. But decaying factories, figures half seen in smoke and shadow, the aberrations of the body, are of the highest rank of eroticism.
In Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, we find a small town as dissected corpse. Boy scouts falling into sadistic sexual games with mysterious women. The undeniable pull of the perverse on the seemingly wholesome and moral townsfolk. And the underbelly of insectile urges and the all-encompassing drive to self-destruction. The social contract that we believe is there, a need to better ourselves as a community, the basic kindness of mankind, the safety net of our police forces, are seen for what they are, comfortable illusions against the darkness just underneath the surface. As the film’s demented Frank Booth says, “ Don’t be a good neighbor to her!! “.
In Ligotti’s chilling short story Our Temporary Supervisor, we find a factory wage slave slowly falling apart working day after day. Until one day he comes into work and finds there is a new manager. Only this manager only lurks behind the office door. The manager is seen as a vague dark ripple. It may have arm protrusions and head parts. But it is definitely not human. With the new manager comes new nonsensical work requirements and longer hours. And if an employee even thinks about leaving, the new manager makes it known the nightmarish consequences that would befall on one who tried to leave. Definitely one of my favorite short stories. And the thing that makes it even more disturbing? How far away from the reality of working life is this? At most jobs, your boss might as well be some inhuman entity, and what they ask from you is just you work yourself to death. And if you don’t like it? Well, you can just not afford to pay your rent or be able to afford groceries. The idea of a career for most people is more disturbing than what most horror stories are able to convey.
In The Last Feast of Harlequin, Ligotti has his fictional agents of nightmare dress up as hideous clowns, a perfect metaphor for his view of existence. But also, like in most Ligotti stories, darkness covers even deeper darkness. It is revealed that the ridiculous clown makeup is only covering another mask. In the downtrodden ending, when these clowns mutate and bodily descend into these humanoid worms, belonging to some ancient cult that worships non-existence, the disguise rots away, revealing yet another, even more, hideous disguise. The worm behind the clown makeup may be a perfect symbol of the Ligottian “ normal productive citizen “.
We find in their own ways, I think both Ligotti and Lynch share a similar worldview, but from different angles. Lynch see this world of mutant bodies lost in smoke and shadow in an extremely optimistic way. He is fascinated by this world and uses his art to delve into the furthest limits. He sees beauty where others would only see disgust. Lynch fully engages in existence. Ligotti, on the other hand, is extremely pessimistic. He sees existence as something to escape from. He uses his art to wrap the world in a veil of nightmare, to make slow self-destruction the highest art. Ligotti, in discussing Lovecraft, wrote about how “ the great dream of supernatural literature is to convey with the greatest possible intensity a vision of the universe as a kind of enchanting nightmare. “ I think this is one of the most profound statements on horror fiction I have ever heard. When you ask most people what the value of horror is, you get the same tired and untrue statements like, “ it’s a preparation for being able to deal with bad times, it’s a rollercoaster ride, it’s to speak on social issues that are taboo “. Sure those are parts of it. But I think the main purpose of horror is to take the abject things, the horrible parts of life, and create a poetry of them. Ligotti in his pessimism and Lynch in his optimism, complete the duality of horror. To take the mystery and ultimate unknowableness of life and make it an object of worship. To take the nightmare, and enchant you with it. To descend into black depths, far beyond all light, and sing.