The last time I read anything by nihilistic horror writer, Thomas Ligotti was over twenty years ago when I came across his first book, Noctuary, in my local library. I was a young teenager, more into “shock horror” writers like Shaun Hutson and the new wave of American horror writers coming through at the time, so Ligotti’s dense prose and weird plots didn’t really grab me much. I found his stories too old school for my tastes, so I only read a few of the stories in Noctuary before returning the book and completely forgetting about Thomas Ligotti. Until now, that is, when I just recently stumbled across him again, and I have to say, I’m very glad I did.
My Work Is Not Yet Done consists of a novella and two shorter stories, out of which the novella (where the book’s title comes from) is arguably the best. It tells the intriguing story of Frank, a corporate worker who decides he has had enough of the “swine” he is forced to work alongside every day of his miserable life. Frank decides one day that he would like to kill all of his seven co-workers, enacting a revenge fantasy that he has been harboring probably for years. Initially, the story seems to be heading in that direction, but half way through it takes an unexpected turn and things play out differently to what you were expecting. The story itself is enjoyable, but it isn’t the real star of the show.
For me, the real star of the show in this book is Ligotti’s prose. It’s amazing, and rarely have I come across a writer who seems to have such an awesome grasp of the language as Ligotti. The dense prose and long sentences that I found so off-putting all those years ago when I read Noctuary, I now find to be a joy to read. No one else writes like Ligotti. He is like the Poe of the modern world, that’s the only way I can describe him, both in style and content. Not that Ligotti is a mere imitator, far from it. The amount of originality he brings to his writing is breath taking, and like I said, every single sentence is amazingly poetic and impeccably constructed, full of brilliant imagery, humor (especially in the first story, that caused me to laugh out loud numerous times) and biting satire.
What seems to set Ligotti apart from all other horror writers though, is not just his inimitable prose style and weird imaginings, but his nihilistic and often bleak worldview. Not only does he savage the corporate system that we all live under these days (brilliantly so, through razor sharp wit and spot-on satire), but he also draws attention to the bigger picture, “the grand scheme of things”, the ultimate meaning (or lack thereof) to our existence in this world.
And this is where the bleakness comes in, a bleakness that informs every sentence that Ligotti writes. In My Work Is Not Yet Done, the main character Frank ends up trapped inside a kind of Netherworld that is half way between life and death. From this unique perspective, Frank is able to see and feel the “endless darkness”, the bottomless blackness that lies behind the entire universe. According to Frank (and Ligotti), that is all there is to this world. Just a meaningless darkness, in which we as humans do our best to ignore that fact by pretending that the darkness doesn’t exist. Everything that we do in life is just a futile attempt to bring meaning to a world where none exists.
Ligotti’s rather nihilistic philosophy is not new to me. It is a worldview that I have entertained, and even lived by, in the past. When you look at the grand scheme of things, it is hard not to think otherwise. It’s hard not to think that we are just kidding ourselves into believing that our lives have meaning, when in fact they may have no more meaning than that of a cockroach.
Do I still believe that? Maybe, if I allow myself to. But the point is, I don’t allow myself to think like that anymore. Depression and ultimate despair lie at the end of that road, as I discovered to my detriment often enough over the years. These days, like most people, I try to find meaning wherever I can.
It comes down to choice and what you chose to believe, that’s something I have learned over the years. The fact is, despite the truth of our existence whatever it may be, we are here, and unless we want to be miserable, we have to find ways to make the most of our situation. To enjoy it even. To give the darkness the finger and say, “Fuck you. I’m going to live anyway.” Obviously, even Ligotti thinks the same thing, or he wouldn’t be wasting his time writing great literature like this book. If Ligotti took his philosophy to its logical conclusion, he would be fucking dead by now, by his own hand probably. He obviously prefers sublimation over suicide.
But that’s the great thing about stories, isn’t it? For a while, we can live with and entertain these ideas about existence. We can live in them and explore them to their fullest extent for the duration of the story, but afterwards, when the story is over, we can set aside those dark thoughts and uncomfortable truths and continue pursuing in our lives whatever gives us meaning.
The truth is overrated, I think. Even if everything Ligotti is saying about the universe and our place in it is true (and however true it sounds, we will likely never know or be able to prove it anyway), what does it matter? What are we going to do about it? Kill ourselves? Stop living? No. Fuck that. We go on living, despite the bleakness of our situations sometimes. We find our own meaning in the world and come to terms with our place in the universe, however we may view that.
Apologies for going off at a tangent here. If nothing else, you now know the kind of thinking that Ligotti’s stories inspire. There are not many authors out there who can entertain and also make you think so deeply at the same time. That is Ligotti’s gift it seems to me, even if it is a little hard going at times.
The other two stories in the book? Good, but not as good as the title story. Twilight Zone-esque slices of Gothic horror. Excellently written and entertaining in their own way, filled with the same sense of underlying dread and bleakness as the title story, and certainly worth reading.
If you have never read Ligotti, I suggest you give him a go. Few writers are really deserving of your attention, but this one definitely is. And in the horror field, Ligotti stands head and shoulders above nearly everyone else. If Edgar Allen Poe were still around today, you just know it would be Ligotti he would be reading.
For a deeper insight into Thomas Ligotti and his work, check out this interview with the writer himself.