On Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers and Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
For the second half of the first decade of my life, nothing terrified me quite like Stephen King’s It. I remember sitting in front of our family room’s TV when I was four or five, momentarily unattended, and watching a silver-eyed clown chase a boy through the strobe-lit doorway of his bedroom. I remember being eight or nine, on vacation with a friend, and listening as he crouched atop a sewer grate and told me of the child-starved monster that clawed its way up from the depths and into one’s bathroom and dragged them into the darkness below. For at least two years, I showered with the door cracked, and shouted at family members who dared to close it. (I knew full well that our water came from a well, and I did not care.) I avoided gutters, particularly on rainy days. For two years, I was Earth’s most efficient hand-washer. Fear, in those days, was a simple, practical thing. As long as one was careful, I thought, it was possible to stay safe.
The Tommyknockers, the first novel King published following the success of It, is the kind of tale that would have left me sleepless when I was very young. After all, so many of the things that made It as good as it is are present, and in abundance. An evil, now in the form of a buried UFO, is unearthed. A hero is compelled to investigate, and is drawn into dire circumstances. A small town is decimated. An alien entity is overcome, but only after its antagonist, the novel’s protagonist, is forced to tend to prior wounds. Where The Tommyknockers fails, though, is in the same places It falls short. No premise, no matter how compelling, can sustain three hundred pages of tangents. The thing that frightened me originally about both It and The Tommyknockers was the idea that devastation lay around any corner. Any life, no matter how carefully constructed, could fall apart. A UFO could lie beneath a wooded trail. A clown could lurk in lightless sewers. King’s mistake lies in thinking that he needs to spend hundreds of pages convincing me, or any of his readers, of the idea that evil is everywhere. A thesis is enough only to get the ball rolling—what I need, and what Thomas Ligotti provides, is a thorough exploration.
Ligotti, most (in)famous for his short stories of philosophical horror collected in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, is the most persuasive advocate I’ve found for the fundamental uselessness of Homo sapiens. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, his most well-known nonfiction on the topic, he provides a survey of the various pessimistic philosophers to precede him, and lands on an ontological stance that is difficult to deny, and for this reason deeply frightening. Everything we do, in his estimation, amounts to elaborate efforts at distraction. “Only catatonics and coma patients,” he writes, “can persevere in a dignified withdrawal from life’s rattle and hum. Without a “yes” in our hearts, nothing would be done.” We know, in our heart of hearts, that life is an unwelcome gift, that the non-existence that awaits us at its end is the natural state of things. At best, death is a merciful curtain-drop. At the worst, it’s pain. And yet we persevere. We earn a 4.0, go to grad school, seek out a lifelong partner. We hope for a lasting reason to hope.
The Norwegian philosopher Zapffe, whose 1933 essay “The Last Messiah” Ligotti here champions, proposes four methods through which we convince ourselves to go on. The last of these, sublimation, describes what I’m doing now, and what I do every time I sit down and decide to type. It also describes why all horror fiction—particularly that of the supernatural bent, like It or The Tommyknockers—exists. It is far easier to blow out the brains of a zombie than to reckon with the notion that we, too, are little more than gluttonous, unthinking puppets. By reshaping one’s suffering, one might shift their burden elsewhere, whether onto the shoulders of others or into the realms of science fiction and fantasy. The other three coping mechanisms—isolation, anchoring, and distraction—make up the remainder of one’s life, and also more of The Tommyknockers than should have ever been the case. It is one thing to ease one’s mind with comforting trash. It is another to read page after page of others doing the same, knowing full well that one is doing as much in the very act of consumption, knowing also that one is helpless to stop. The visual, visceral sort of horror that frightened me when I was nine has long since grown redundant. The premise of terror, the implication of despair—these alone are enough. What I find myself seeking is what Ligotti offers in erudite abundance: a patient, persuasive vivisection of my fears.
What I’m trying to say, I think, is that the thing I most dread is not the lack of meaning, but the systematic diminishment of the distractions I allow myself in order to get by. That we distract ourselves is not, or does not have to be, a tragedy. Even the truest thing in my life—and she is true, and good, and better than I deserve—is a distraction. One to whom I intend to cling for as long as humanly possible—yes—but a distraction nonetheless. To Ligotti, everything, even his writing of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race itself, is a distraction. In Zapffe’s “The Last Messiah,” Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead” is taken to its extreme. Within his framework, God has always been dead. His death birthed the universe. Humanity is but the decaying vestiges of His holy corpse. We were born to die. What we do in the accomplishing of this end is to convince ourselves that this is not our end. According to Zapffe, according to Ligotti, according to a small, frightening part of me, we are nothing more than “a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature.” We are creatures cursed by a grotesquely over-developed intelligence. At my lowest moments, this is the only truth. The thing I am most afraid of is that it is always true—that anything else I might tell myself, anything else I might do, is a comforting illusion.
The best part of The Tommyknockers—shockingly, if you’re a committed reader of King—is the ending. Gardener, the novel’s hero, sails into space aboard the same ship that started it all. Thousands of miles away from Earth, he expires amidst a pool of his own spreading blood. In this act, he embodies the heroic pessimism championed by thinkers like Nietzsche or Udamuno, and which Ligotti shrugs off, and which I do not. All is bleak—sure. But one might still go on, defiant to the last. One might sail into space and escape, if only at the very end, the crushing nothingness. One might still be brave, even if it is for naught. And such bravery, if undertaken alone, is an almost impossible act. It’s why I and so many others, Ligotti included, seek out another to have at their side. Courage is a lonely act, until it’s not.