Thomas Ligotti and Tantric Horror

‘Consciousness has forced into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are-hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.’ ~Thomas Ligotti

‘The awesome, horrifying renunciation of the aghori sadhu seems to defy the norms of civilized life. He will live only in the cremation ground, cook his food on the fires of the funeral pyre, eat and drink from a hollow skull that he uses as the sadhu’s bowl.’ ~Rajesh Bedi, ‘Sadhus’

I have been a Thomas Ligotti fan for almost a decade now. While not my top favorite author for exploring the macro-tale of humanity, he is always an author I return to, again and again. I do not share his relentless pessimism, but I do share his scorn for optimism. And in his endlessly dour world view I find something intensely useful to meditate on. For indifferentists and ‘true neutrals’ like myself do share a very common world view with the Ligotti’s and Cioran’s of the world, we simply respond differently.

For Ligotti, a previously underground horror writer who writes mostly short fiction and whose fame increased greatly after it was realized by the public that he was a big inspiration of the first season of True Detective, the cut of his work is to write philosophical fiction with a dose of cosmic horror. His style is like that of an early Twentieth Century absurdist mixed with the gothic elements of Poe and the themes of a very modern alienation that come with certain trends in postwar fiction. He tends to ruminate on ruins, dying and diseased towns and cities, and the innate intrinsic horror of existence. Obviously of a depressive character, he, like the philosopher Emil Cioran with whom he is often compared, has a wry and quite funny sense of humor wrapped up among this bleakness. Not everyone sees it…though I do.

I have also seen much ink spilled about the intellectual traditions of pessimism that such figures belong to in the western tradition. But I think they are a far closer approximation to the school of thought I have become most interested in these past couple years, Tantra. I have shared my thoughts on Tantra before in its own right. How a school of thought began as rebellion from Brahmanical pieties and embraced a kind of material baseness as a method to investigate the inter-connectedness of things. While I disagree with the monist trends in most modern practices, I find the exploration of the self and the world through challenging oneself by confronting-by-embracing the darkness of both self and the world to be a remarkably interesting and novel approach, specifically for those who find little use in our present self-censoring eggshell-treading age.

In Tantra, one confronts the fear of death by meditating on a corpse. The fear of lust by engaging in sex to attain full control. The fear of the forbidden by eating what society proscribes. Deities of compassion and wisdom are depicted as terrifying relentless monsters for only such could cut through illusions and shock you into the ruthless nature of reality. Once shocked into reality one is less likely to be shocked by it again. One lives with reality as it is, without fear. Tantra is the opposite of a trigger warning. It challenges you to define your greatest fears and then plunge into them. You are going to think about them after all, so why not face them directly?

Ligotti’s fiction (and his one non-fiction work, ‘Conspiracy Against the Human Race’) does exactly this but in a modern post-industrial context. The charnel ground is no longer representative of our fears of the future, but the dying blighted town or the crumbling ruin is. It is on such subjects that Ligotti likes to focus on. ‘The Red Tower’ is a rumination on a ruined factory and the connections it made throughout the community when it manufactured whatever it was that it made in a pointless process of self-replication. ‘This Degenerate Little Town’ (spoken by the author himself in this clip no less) sees the entropy of the universe reflected in the image of a horrific miserable small town that lies symbolically at the center of everything. Having once visited one of ‘the most dismal towns in Britain’ specifically because it was near a ferry I had to catch and the town was described as such in a guidebook, I have the specific image of the small and suitably named community of John O’ Groats in mind whenever I hear this prose poem. Perhaps the greatest Tantra-adjacent work of Ligotti’s, however, is ‘The Shadow, The Darkness.’ A longer story bordering on novella about a hack artist who suddenly becomes filled with talent and drive after a near death experience forces him to confront his lack of self, humanity, and practically anything save the terrifying Schopenhauerian ‘will’ that drives his body to simply perpetuate its own existence. But even this is not enough for both the artist, and his social clique, and they respond in various ways depending on their psychological disposition.

While Tantra’s end goal is liberation from fear, weakness, and myopia, Ligotti promises no liberation. Even death is not an end of the horror for reasons best summed up in a Cioran quote, ‘It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.’ Of course, I see the humor in that quote. I would also say that there is a form of liberation-through-darkness that lurks implicitly in the background of Ligotti’s works. This is most apparent in his one novel, ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done.’ This novel is often not talked about by Ligotti fans, the consensus seeming to be it is more a send up of insufferable co-workers and office culture than part of his serious canon. I could not disagree more.

While ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done’ is a workplace revenge fantasy involving making a dark pact with a cosmic being in order to torment ones workplace foes to death or fates worse than death, it is in some ways the ultimate modern Tantric novel and thus has as much philosophical value as Ligotti’s other works, if with a different tone. Like the works of contemporary horror author Richard Gavin, himself a Tantra-adjacent author in my view, its a story that speaks to people who walk a different path from the sunshine lollipops and rainbows of most of society while also avoiding the mopey ennui of those kinds of manic depressives who, by their aspect, let tell that they are really dejected and scorned optimists at heart. ‘My Work’ shows us that an immense amount of capability can be bestowed on one willing to plunge the depths of horror. The reward is still basically to die, but to die honestly with no illusions about what oneself is and what the world at large is as well. Ligotti’s (and Gavin’s) works are for those who walk a different path and are not enlightened nor empowered by the things we are taught are supposed to bring joy to our lives. The band Garbage had a catchier way of putting it, I suppose.

The Tantric approach is an attitude, one befitting those of trickster like disposition I might even say. It need not be followed like the counter-establishment religion of a very specific time and place that gave rise to it to be worthy to us today. Our cremation grounds are rotting towns and cities and our holy men are horror authors. Our world can be thoroughly material and yet still one of immense and awesome horrors. But rather than the Lovecraft protagonist who shrinks from exposure a world where humans are not at the top of the food chain, we embrace the shattering of our illusions because, as Ligotti himself says, ‘We can hide from horror only in the heart of horror.’

Indeed, the Cult of Dionysius back in the classical era arrived to similar conclusions on its own. As Professor E. R. Dobbs wrote about Euripedes’s play ‘The Bacchae’: ‘The moral of The Bacchae is that we ignore at our peril the demand of the human spirit for Dionysiac experience. For those who do not close their minds against it, such experience can be a source of spiritual power and eudaimonia. But those who repress the demand in themselves or refuse its satisfaction to others transform it by their act into a power of disintegration and destruction.’

3 thoughts on “Thomas Ligotti and Tantric Horror

  1. Yeah I’m really too much of a natural optimist to be into horror. One funny story I like to tell is that of one of my college English professors giving us an assignment to write the ending of half a short story by Kafka he gave us where a cat was gonna eat a moise and I just had the animal eat his way through the wall into an open field an open field and the look the professor gave me was a perplexed one XD (but he didn’t discourage me!) Reading that quote about the futility of killing yourself reminded me of that incident cause I just thought “better late than never right?” and realized I was doing it again XD. It’s especially funny because I’m often told I have a dark sense of humor because of stuff like that but really I just have the natural inclination towards looking on the bright side.

    Also relating to that consciousness quote at the beginning I’m reminded consciousness is primarily responsible for spinning the truth for an external audience. The egos job isn’t to make decisions but merely to defend them. This is why to achieve zone the ego must be eliminated. I hate it but then again I’m not one of those who can understand people who don’t think in words so guess I just gotta wait till I get the cyber enhancements.

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    • If I could have only one fiction genre (and indeed in my late teens through most of my twenties I did) it would be horror because A. I love atmosphere over everything else, and B. since Lovecraft its been the only consistent genre of anti-anthropocentrism.

      If I was finishing the Kafka story it would involve the rat being eaten by the cat, but eating the innards of the cat on its way to death, killing them both in a kind of ouroboros of carnage.

      Big agree on the ego. Thats basically what I think to. But it doesn’t just justify, it agonizes over past errors too. But whats done is done and most of what happens is instinctual predilection first.

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      • You’re totally right at the end there! Also I like your version of the story too, perfectly balanced as all things should be XD. #moreantianthropocentrism

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