Tag Archives: Thomas Ligotti

From the archive: In the Mouth of Madness (part 2): “The sooner we’re off the planet, the better”

In our last post, I discussed the various literary influences apparent in In the Mouth of Madness.  Today, I’m delving a bit deeper into some of the tropes and philosophies that informed Lovecraft’s work, and this film in turn.

In the Mouth of Madness opens with John Trent being admitted to an insane asylum, where he recounts his story to an investigator (David Warren). One of the most common tropes in Lovecraft’s work is the notion that some truths are so terrible as to cause the knower to go insane. Consider this noteworthy opening quote from “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In some Lovecraft stories, acquiring forbidden knowledge not only causes insanity, but forces bodily mutations upon the victim. This is apparently a trope within Sutter Cane’s fiction and also happens to unfortunate readers  of his newest novel, In the Mouth of Madness. In some respects, these mutations are reminiscent of transformation scenes in John Carpenter’s earlier film The Thing.

An ominous painting foretells the fate of residents of Hobb’s End

Misanthropy was rampant in Lovecraft’s fiction. In a letter to Edwin Baird, editor of Weird Tales, Lovecraft wrote of a young writer who wished to pen a story of a mad scientist who strives to conquer the world by unleashing a plague. To Lovecraft, this vision unoriginal and simply did not go far enough. “Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology–the usual stock in trade, and all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace…Who ever wrote a story from the point of view that man is a blemish on the cosmos, who ought to be eradicated?…I told my friend, he should conceive of a man with a morbid, frantic, shuddering hatred of the life-principle itself, who wishes to extirpate from the planet every trace of biological organism, animal and vegetable alike, including himself…Only a cynic can create horror–for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, longs to pull them to pieces and mock them” (Quoted in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror) .This attitude is rampant in Sutter Cane’s work, and John Trent offers a similar opinion at one point when he tells Linda Styles, “The sooner we’re off the planter, the better.” However, Trent is ultimately unable to maintain that stance–or perhaps it was mere posturing all along–because he tries desperately to save humanity in the film’s final act.

“I think, therefore you are.”

The last and perhaps most important Lovecraftian trope is identity-based horror. (And here I spoil the best scene in in the movie.) In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Lovecraft writes, “No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.” Savvy viewers would know that John Trent is set up for such a fate, given his arrogance and frequent comments along the lines of “I’m my own man; nobody pulls my strings.” The revelation that he is not his own man and in fact has no free will is expected, but the specific nature of this revelation delivers a gut-punch arguably superior to similar twists penned by Lovecraft himself. In a confrontation with between Trent and Sutter Cane, Cane reveals, “This town didn’t exist before I wrote it, and neither did you…You are what I write!” Trent sputters and protests that he is not, in fact, a “piece of fiction,” Cane responds, “I think, therefore you are.” Trent is not even left with the solace of having once been human. He simply never was what he believed himself to be, and technically, was never real.

I will further discuss the notion human existence as puppet existence in our final post on In the Mouth of Madness and its religious implications, and in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon  (2006) was possibly the first slasher films to engage with Carol Clover’s theories. I actually do not view the Scream series as having this honor. The Scream films were savvy about the “rules” of surviving  slasher films, but these rules amounted to acknowledging what Thomas Ligotti called the “kindergarten moral code” of such films in his excellent essay “The Consolations of Horror” (as published in The Nightmare Factory) Everyone who watches slasher films knows that kids who drink, do drugs, or have premarital sex are going to die.

 

Behind the Mask is smarter and goes deeper, delving into the psychoanalytic elements of the genre as outlined by Clover. To some extent, it does examine the “rules” of slasher films as they apply to the killer. For example, the killer cannot kill a person while they are hiding in a closet, because the closet is a symbolic womb and therefore a sacred space. (To which the protagonist quips, “Does that mean you’re pro-life?”) He has to allow the “survivor girl” access to an appropriately phallic weapon. As he puts it, “she’s arming herself with cock.” The discussion isn’t limited to Freudian concepts as discussed in Clover’s book. There’s also discussion of the practical aspects of being an effective killer. One needs to do a lot of cardio and be insanely fit to make it look like he’s walking while everyone else is running.

We are privy to this information because the soon-to-be killer Leslie Vernon allows a crew of documentary filmmakers observe stalk his intended victims for months. This film occurs in a universe in which the events of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street are all entirely true. The lead filmmaker wants to understand the perspective of the next infamous killer. As an added bonus, Robert Englund has a small role as Dr. Halloran,  filling the role of the “Ahab” archetype.

 

Leslie himself is a likeable, funny guy. Perhaps even a Nice Guy. This makes things more difficult for the filmmakers to decide whether or not to intervene when he finally tries to kill people. Of course, Leslie may have already planned for such an event.

Come back tomorrow for the final entry in Final Girls Week, in which I save my favorite for last.

Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS”

 

Although it’s enjoyed popularity due to frequent references on True Detective: Season 1, Thomas Ligotti’s first and only non-fiction work, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, is not bound for approval by the masses. Ligotti is all too aware of this fact. As he states in the introduction, “As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: ‘If you can’t say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal.’ ” While a promising series, even True Detective could not maintain Ligotti’s worldview. In the first season finale, die-hard pessimist Rustin Cohle has a benevolent vision of the afterlife and is converted to a more socially acceptable worldview. Ligotti would never pen such an ending, in his fiction or otherwise.

Early in the book, Ligotti rhetorically asks if life is worth living, to which he answers his own question with a resounding NO. Drawing from diverse sources including philosophy, psychology, neurobiology, and selected religious texts, Ligotti makes a compelling argument to support this claim that human existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (his emphasis). Although Ligotti does explore varieties of theistic determinism (see also my previous post on Calvinism), and doesn’t seem to entirely dismiss the possibility of a  malevolent Higher Power manipulating us like human puppets, his own view is atheistic. According to Ligotti, we are “Nature’s blunders,” programed by our genetics and evolution to have no free will, yet evolve to develop consciousness, which serves no good purpose. It merely provides us with the illusion of having a self, and constantly reminds us of our own inevitable demise. The “Conspiracy” of the title is committed by the human race against the human race. That is, we lie to ourselves and others that life is worth living, and by reproducing, we doom future generations to needless suffering.

In case you wonder how this book fits in with Apocalypse Month, I include it because he offers suggestions to proactively correct Nature’s blunder of giving us consciousness: “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?” Ligotti provides suggestions. The mildest solution would be to strive for ego-death, as advocated by Buddhism. Alternately, we could willingly opt to gradually reduce the population into extinction by instituting a one child per couple policy, or all all of us could decide to stop reproducing altogether. The most extreme solution would be for us to leave the planet, and before exterminating ourselves, blow up Earth from outer space to prevent Nature from ever making such as mistake ever again.

Ligotti’s views are bound to be censured or dismissed outright. Paradoxically, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is sometimes comforting. I doubt that was the intended effect. I’ll explain. My favorite section of the book is the chapter “Cult of the Grinning Martyrs,” which is really about the cult of positive thinking. Ligotti is in part influenced by Schopenhauer, whom he quotes, “I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbor nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked, way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the most unspeakable sufferings of mankind.” Our culture is relentlessly “bright-sided“to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s term. Our society doesn’t merely favor optimism, but actively suppresses and marginalizes those who recognize the negative side of human existence. Between positive psychology and the Law of Attraction, we take it up one end or down the other. We are forced to actively lie to ourselves about things that cause us pain, either pretending these things don’t exist, actively lying to ourselves and everyone around us about these realities, or, well, looking for the “bright side.” Only a vision as dark and uncompromising as Ligotti’s could serve as a counterbalance to this trend, but it’s strange that such a malignant work could be so gorgeously written.

In the Mouth of Madness (part 2): “The sooner we’re off the planet, the better”

In our last post, I discussed the various literary influences apparent in In the Mouth of Madness.  Today, I’m delving a bit deeper into some of the tropes and philosophies that informed Lovecraft’s work, and this film in turn.

In the Mouth of Madness opens with John Trent being admitted to an insane asylum, where he recounts his story to an investigator (David Warren). One of the most common tropes in Lovecraft’s work is the notion that some truths are so terrible as to cause the knower to go insane. Consider this noteworthy opening quote from “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In some Lovecraft stories, acquiring forbidden knowledge not only causes insanity, but forces bodily mutations upon the victim. This is apparently a trope within Sutter Cane’s fiction and also happens to unfortunate readers  of his newest novel, In the Mouth of Madness. In some respects, these mutations are reminiscent of transformation scenes in John Carpenter’s earlier film The Thing.

An ominous painting foretells the fate of residents of Hobb’s End

Misanthropy was rampant in Lovecraft’s fiction. In a letter to Edwin Baird, editor of Weird Tales, Lovecraft wrote of a young writer who wished to pen a story of a mad scientist who strives to conquer the world by unleashing a plague. To Lovecraft, this vision unoriginal and simply did not go far enough. “Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology–the usual stock in trade, and all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace…Who ever wrote a story from the point of view that man is a blemish on the cosmos, who ought to be eradicated?…I told my friend, he should conceive of a man with a morbid, frantic, shuddering hatred of the life-principle itself, who wishes to extirpate from the planet every trace of biological organism, animal and vegetable alike, including himself…Only a cynic can create horror–for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, longs to pull them to pieces and mock them” (Quoted in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror) .This attitude is rampant in Sutter Cane’s work, and John Trent offers a similar opinion at one point when he tells Linda Styles, “The sooner we’re off the planter, the better.” However, Trent is ultimately unable to maintain that stance–or perhaps it was mere posturing all along–because he tries desperately to save humanity in the film’s final act.

The last and perhaps most important Lovecraftian trope is identity-based horror. (And here I spoil the best scene in in the movie.) In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Lovecraft writes, “No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.” Savvy viewers would know that John Trent is set up for such a fate, given his arrogance and frequent comments along the lines of “I’m my own man; nobody pulls my strings.” The revelation that he is not his own man and in fact has no free will is expected, but the specific nature of this revelation delivers a gut-punch arguably superior to similar twists penned by Lovecraft himself. In a confrontation with between Trent and Sutter Cane, Cane reveals, “This town didn’t exist before I wrote it, and neither did you…You are what I write!” Trent sputters and protests that he is not, in fact, a “piece of fiction,” Cane responds, “I think, therefore you are.” Trent is not even left with the solace of having once been human. He simply never was what he believed himself to be, and technically, was never real.

I will further discuss the notion human existence as puppet existence in our final post on In the Mouth of Madness and its religious implications, and in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

I Have a Special Plan for This World: “No more worlds like this, no more days like that”

It’s not often that we get to feature apocalyptic audio recordings, especially of poetry. I Have a Special Plan For This World is the result of a collaboration between Thomas Ligotti (author) and the experimental band Current 93. Ligotti’s poetry describes a vision for his “special plan” which involves the destruction of this world and all worlds, perhaps even the destruction of reality itself. Current 93 provides an ominous soundtrack with Ligotti’s verses read broodingly by David Tibet. An oddity is the intro of the opening track, which was allegedly created by a mentally ill man who left tape recordings of his ramblings near Ligotti’s workplace.

As this recording is a mere 22 minutes long, it should be experienced firsthand. I Have a Special Plan for This World has been uploaded in its entirety to Youtube (see the link below). Though out of print, copies of the CD can be purchased second-hand through retailers such as Amazon.