“It’s peculiar to me… that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying,” Gloria Beatty says in the third chapter of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” Though the first chapter already reveals that Gloria was shot dead by the novel’s narrator at her request, the line still shocks the reader, like the alarm of a ship that has just hit an iceberg. Even in the Great Depression, this was simply too much.
“The ending of McCoy’s novel is what the average mortal would call bleak. Naturally the bleak-minded readers… swoon with relief when the gunshot has done its work.” So writes Thomas Ligotti of the novel in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, his 2011 survey of pessimism, republished this year by Penguin Books. “Yet even the consolations of bleakness have their limits,” he continues, “for those who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. And should bleakness itself fail them, they have been failed indeed.”
As a writer of horror fiction, he eschewed the basic tenets of concrete storytelling in favor of lyrical and atmospheric “weird tales.” Imagine Kafka on Creature Features. “Best-selling horror fiction,” Ligotti said, “[is] like network television. I’m your local cable access station.” It was only recently that this started to change. Concepts from Conspiracy, his only nonfiction book, began to seep into the zeitgeist. “The only honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, and march hand-in-hand into extinction,” Matthew McConaughey spoke playing miserablist cop Rust Cohle in True Detective. Creator Nic Pizzolatto acknowledged Ligotti’s influence—some claim not enough—on Cohle’s character, whose musings io9 described as “drunken atheistic dorm room philosophy.” But four years removed from the show, and seven from its original publication, Conspiracy can now be judged on its own merits.
And Conspiracy is not a screed but a copiously cited, elegantly argued examination. Consider it the literary equivalent of an offbeat wax museum, the kind found off a blink-or-you-miss-it highway exit, with one proprietor and startlingly uncanny tableaus of human ghastliness. Ligotti, with the wit of a decadent and the eloquence of a funeral organ, guides us confidently through the grimmer corners of intellectual and cultural history. It is gothic nonfiction in the tradition of Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, and Montague Summer.
“This is the tragedy,” Ligotti writes. “Consciousness has forced us into a paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.” This is his gloss of what he calls “Zapffe’s paradox.” Peter Wessel Zapffe, a minimally translated Norwegian philosopher, concluded that humanity’s uniquely acute consciousness merely altered it to “the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive,” and so sought to avert its consciousness as a way of surviving. Zapffe is perhaps the most cited author in the entire book—Ligotti strings the ideas of other philosophers, authors, religions, neuroscientists, ethics, and others back to Zapffe’s thesis, and he tests conventional optimism against Zapffe’s ultimate conclusion. “The sooner humanity dares to harmonize itself with its biological predicament, the better,” Zapffe said. “And this means to willingly withdraw in contempt for its worldly terms, just as the heat-craving species went extinct when temperatures dropped.”
As Ligotti notes, anti-natalism is not a popular field of study. But Conspiracy falls chronologically between two other recent books: David Benatar’s Better to Never Have Been and Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave, published in 2008 and 2014 respectively. While these are more ethical studies, Conspiracy is a bit more multifaceted. Indeed, Ligotti is effectively intertwining two theses. Much of the first half of the book is taken up in bringing the reader up to speed on all the ways people have concluded that “being alive is not all right.” Going forward, Ligotti then shifts to aesthetic matters, and specifically to horror.
Supernatural horror was one of the ways that would allow us to live with our double selves. By its employ, we discovered how to take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives. In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.
This passage is a familiar to any committed horror fan and anyone who’s had to listen to them. But Ligotti’s lead-up to it shows that it is no casual truism. He exposits on horror’s themes and its canon with practitioner’s grace. Ligotti describes the uncanny as “a feeling of wrongness. A violation has transpired that alarms our internal authority regarding how something is supposed to happen or exist or behave.” He lauds Sweeney Todd as a celebration of the human propensity for tragedy: “[Sweeney Todd] is as edifying as any sage when he sings ‘We all deserve to die,’ given that none of us can remake our making.” He contrasts character and supernatural possession in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, in which good characters triumph over an evil intruder, against H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in which characters—good or bad—are at the mercy of the same “wall-to-wall nightmare.” “Apart from vulgar mortality,” Ligotti writes, “supernatural literature also centers on the death of sanity, identity, ideals, passions, and hand-me-down conceptions about the universe and everything in it.”
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes the viewing of horror as “reintegration” of confronting a fear and having it excised. He likens it to the “feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.” Ligotti’s horror—amoral and pervasive; a feature, not a bug—offers no such thrills, easy outs, or escapism. It is the thing from which to escape, if you can. Lovecraft “strove to the end of his life to do what no horror writer had done before him nor will ever do: lay bare his consciousness in an artifact.” He “existed in a no man’s land of disillusionment” and walled it off with his own “earthbound illusions” of his aristocratic pretensions and virulent racism.
The pessimism Ligotti details may, as he is aware, forever be too bleak to be palatable to most people. Yet the cultural landscape has shifted toward his strand of horror since Conspiracy was first published, preferring pervasive dread to narratively and morally coherent thrills. “Horror films dominated the cultural conversation this year,” goes a New York Times Magazine video feature. “Scary movies had an unusual hold on the collective imagination in 2017. Maybe it’s because reality was pretty horrifying, too.”
“No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. The curse is ours alone. Without this hex upon our heads, we would never have withdrawn as far as we have from the natural.” Perhaps this is “dorm room philosophy” after all, and perhaps Matthew McConaughey’s voice on the audiobook will be its spoon full of sugar. But as Ligotti shows, this very thought has haunted our species to such an extent that we’ve committed endless imaginative power to just barely comprehend it. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, in sum, corrupts Reinhold Niebuhr’s line: “Man’s capacity for paradox makes horror possible. Man’s incapacity to resolve its paradoxes makes horror necessary.”