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The philosophy of cosmic horror fiction: H. P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti


H. P. Lovecraft, the American horror writer known for his terrifically spooky and intellectually rigorous stories, has received lots of attention from philosophers of late, especially those of an object-oriented bent. Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, and Eugene Thacker have all examined his stories as illustrations of what a world deprived of its anthropomorphic patina might look like. In the LA Review of Books, Michael W. Clune looks at another horror writer who is in many ways Lovecraft’s successor, Thomas Ligotti, and asks what kinds of philosophical insight his stories yield. Clune suggests that while Lovecraft depicts a world indifferent to human concerns, Ligotti shows how alluring it can be to escape the human condition entirely. Read an excerpt below or the full text here.

Things are not what they seem. This is the mantra and the practice of cosmic horror. Lovecraft wrote stories in which familiar appearances — mountains, stars, old New England houses — melt away from things that now wear an unspeakably different aspect. While the focus in Lovecraft is always on the alien reality below the appearances, Ligotti is fascinated by the simple capacity of changing appearances to suggest a different reality. He pursues the inhumanist psychology of the process in which appearances come loose from their anchor in the human world …

Ligotti looks for inspiration as much to writers of the high modernist tradition (Kafka, Baudelaire) as he does to Lovecraft. This conjunction should be unsurprising, because the key modernist aesthetic strategy, which Viktor Shklovsky in his classic 1917 essay “Art as Technique” termed defamiliarization, is also the key strategy for producing the unreality of cosmic horror. Defamiliarization cancels the habituated meanings of the human world, and allows appearances to float free.

Ligotti’s grasp of canonical modernism’s resources for cosmic horror helps explain the fact that his prose is the sharpest and most richly imaged of any in the genre. His metaphors are often drawn from the realm of modern art, as when a vampiric narrator compares his life to “a piece of modern music: a slow, throbbing drone like the lethargic pumping of a premature heart.” But while a modernist like Shklovsky claims that defamiliarization restores our human life by awakening us to vivid perception, Ligotti doesn’t hesitate to inform us of the very different aim his own art pursues. Stories like “The Spectacles in the Drawer” dramatize a person’s encounter with defamiliarized surfaces. The narrator introduces a character to a strange lens that transforms vision according to the logic of Shklovkian modernism. Under the spell of this new vision, “everything is so brilliant, so great, and so alive […] Unimaginable diversity of form and motion, design and dimension, with each detail perfectly crystalline.” But as Ligotti tells it, this encounter is not a healthy tonic, but a baptism into a corrosive mode of seeing that, in a shockingly literal manner I won’t give away, disfigures the human. It is likely — as studies of the persistently defamiliarizing vision of schizophrenics suggest — that in emphasizing the destructive dimension of persistent defamiliarization, Ligotti is more realistic than Shklovsky.

Image of H. P. Lovecraft via Pinterest.