“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.”
It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.