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Authors: Thomas Ligotti

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The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

BOOK: The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
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Books by Thomas Ligotti


Songs of a Dead Dreamer

Grimscribe: His Lives and Works


The Nightmare Factory

My Work Is Not Yet Done

The Shadow at the Bottom of the World

Teatro Grottesco


I Have a Special Plan for This World

This Degenerate Little Town

Death Poems



Copyright 2007 Thomas Ligotti

Parts of this work were published in a different form in Fantastic Metropolis (Web site),

“Literature Is Entertainment or It Is Nothing: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti” by Neddal Ayad, October 31, 2004; Horror: Another 100 Best Books, eds. Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, “Thomas Ligotti on Sweeney Todd, 2005; The Tenant by Roland Topor, Introduction by Thomas Ligotti, 2006; The Teeming Brain (Weblog), “’It’s All a Matter of Personal Pathology’: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti” by Matt Cardin, 2006.

I would like to extend my thanks to the interviewers who provoked much of the matter presented herein and to the editors and publishers who provided the occasion for same, to Tim Jeski for supplying me with materials essential to this work, and to those who offered me the benefit of their comments throughout the stages of its composition. The responsibility for the use made of these valued contributions lies entirely with the author.



A Short Life of Horror

Thomas Ligotti




“I have to admit that the results of these considerations won’t amount to anything for anyone who ‘stands in life still fresh and gay,’ as the songs says.”

—Jean Améry, On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death Look at your body—

A painted puppet, a poor toy

Of jointed parts ready to collapse,

A diseased and suffering thing

With a head full of false imaginings.

—The Dhammapada





Thinking Horror ……………………………………………………………….. pages

Facing Horror …………………………………………………………………… pages

Consuming Horror ……………………………………………………………… pages

Living Horror…………………………………………………………………….. .pages

Creating Horror………………………………………………………………..…...pages





In his study The Nature of Evil (1931), Radoslav A. Tsanoff cites a terse reflection set down by the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen in 1847, when he was seventeen years old. “Man is a self-conscious Nothing,” declared the young man. Bahnsen was not, of course, the first to arrive at a dour appraisal of his own kind. For millennia, humanity has been the butt of epigrams and tantrums that do not portray it with favor. Nevertheless, the reigning sentiment expressed on the subject more often ranges from qualified approval to loud-mouthed braggadocio. In general, we have given ourselves rather high marks as a form of life and are not chagrined by flattery, especially if it is cleverly devised to forefend our blushing with pride for being the standout guinea pigs in nature’s laboratory.

Anyone pursuing an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: “If you can’t say something positive about our species, then say something equivocal.” These facts, in themselves, are neither cause to ridicule the judgment of the majority nor grounds for conforming to it uncritically. Tending toward the negativity of the latter mind-set, Bahnsen went too far, as if to assure himself a lasting obscurity.

While Bahnsen does not figure in the following pages, I should say that his negative spirit is nonetheless present in this work, the brunt of which is concerned with how blind we are to the horrors of our existence as well as how adept we have become at sloughing them off. In short, my foregone conclusion is that our positive estimate of ourselves and our lives is all in our heads. As with many propositions that shoot for loftiness (“To be or not to be”), this one may be mulled over but not usefully argued. The few who have gone to the pains of doing so might as well have not existed. History proves that people will change their minds about almost anything, from which god they worship to how they style their hair. An exception to this rule, probably the only one, is that humanity has never seriously doubted its good opinion of itself or the value of its existence. Should demurral to the self-contentment of the masses then be renounced? That would be the brilliant decision. To be silent when no one is listening should be the first rule of dissenters, with special reference to those who are not giddy about being members of the human race. The second rule should be: if you must open your mouth, steer away from argumentation. Money and love may make the world go round, but logical disputation with that world cannot get it to budge. In the words of British author and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.” (Example: every debate over the existence of God is won by His defenders.) And if your truth is not the same as that of Chesterton and his like, you might as well pack it up and go home. It will blow up in your face the second it is heard by those who have already found a truth that is not yours, which in my case will be all but a few fellow miserablists. Still, for those who would lob a bomb at received illusions, logical or quasi-logical arguments are lusciously alluring. As far as the tedium and inutility of argumentation goes, it may be alleviated by gut-level revilements, personal idolatries, peevish blow-ups, rampant pontifications, and tons of pretension. To organize this unruly fusion of the rational and the irrational, I will borrow heavily from a 10

prefabricated thesis of another foreign philosopher, one who anticipated my complaints before I was born . . . and wished I had not been. For the time being, I would like return to the above-cited obloquy from a teenage Bahnsen.

“Man is a self-conscious Nothing.” Taken at face value, this statement is a paradox and a horror. Being self-conscious and being nothing should rule out each other. Instead they are coupled to suggest an unreal monstrosity, an existential chimera on the order of the

“undead.” The greater community of self-conscious mortals will tell you they are something, not nothing. The suicidal will tell you they are something but wish they were nothing. What almost no one will tell you is that they “know” they are nothing—living puppets helpless to act except as bidden by powers unseen—but, being self-conscious, suffer the illusion that they are something. They believe this is how it is with everyone—

that all of us are living the same paradox, the same horror. They also believe we will do anything to keep this knowledge out of our heads because if we did not, how could we go on living? And why would we replenish the world with more self-conscious nothings, more puppets?

Take a moment to consider the puppet. It is an object made somewhat in our image that does not know what we know . . . or believe ourselves to know, which amounts to the same thing. Undeniably, our minds have wanton moments when a puppet seems as if it can come to life, hop up like a human being, know things that we know and perhaps other things that we do not. Then an insoluble psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends a tremor of supernatural horror through our being.

(Anthropomorphobia is the term for the anxiety evoked when inanimate forms begin to disport human qualities.) Whether we believe or suspend belief in supernatural manifestations, they terrorize us because by habit we think of ourselves as natural beings living in a natural world, which is why we tend to equate the supernatural with horror. A puppet exists, but it cannot know how or why it exists. It is a know-nothing. And still it may have something to tell us about the natural and the supernatural.

Effigies of ourselves made by our own hands and minds, puppets were created to be actors in a world of their own, one that exists inside of ours and reflects back upon it.

What do we see in that reflection? Only what we want to see, what we can stand to see.

Through the prophylactic of self-illusion, we hide from what we fear to let into our heads.

But puppets have nothing to hide. They are more than willing to betray a secret too terrible for us to know. Our lives are full of baffling questions that virtuosos of speculation trifle with and the rest of us forget about. Naked apes or embodied angels we perhaps may be, but not self-conscious nothings. We are somebodies who move freely about and think what we choose. Puppets are not like that. They have nothing in their heads. They are unreal. When they are in motion, we know they are moved by an outside force. When they speak, their voices come from elsewhere. Their orders come from somewhere behind and beyond them. And were they ever to become aware of that fact, they would collapse at the horror of it all, as would we.

When we are through playing with puppets, we put them away. They are only objects—

like a corpse in a casket. The dead do not return except in horror stories and nightmares.


Ghosts and such are faulty transmissions from haunted minds. If they were not, our world would be a paradox and a horror in which no one could be certain of anything, not even of whether we were just puppets whose orders came from somewhere behind and beyond us. All supernatural horror depends on a confusion of what we believe should be and should not be. As scientists, philosophers, and spiritual figures have attested, our heads are full of illusions; things, including human things, are frequently not what they seem.

Nevertheless, one thing we know for sure: the difference between what it natural and what is not. Another thing we know is that nature makes no mistakes so untoward as to allow things, including human things, to swerve into the supernatural. Were it to make such a mistake, we would do everything to keep this knowledge out of our heads. But to all appearances, thank God and nature, there is nothing to worry about. Almost everyone believes we are natural beings whose lives have an inborn value. No one can prove that our existence is a paradox and a horror. Everything is all right with the world.





For ages they had been without heads. Headless they lived, and headless they died. How long they had thus flourished none of them knew. Then something began to change. It happened over unremembered generations. The signs of a transfiguring were being writ ever more deeply into them. As their breed moved forward, they began crossing boundaries whose very existence they never suspected . . . and they trembled. Some of them eyed their surroundings as they would a strange land into which they had wandered, even though their kind had trod the same earth for countless seasons. And during idle moments after dark, they looked up at a sky filled with stars and felt themselves small and fragile in the vastness. More and more, they came to know a new way of being. It was as if the objects around them were one thing and they were another. The world was moving farther and farther away, and they were at the center of this movement. Another world was forming inside the heads they now had. Each of them, in time, became frightened in a way they had never known. In former days, they were frightened only by sights and sounds in the moments they saw or heard them. Now they were frightened by things that were not present to their senses. They were also frightened by visions that came not from outside them but from within them. Everything had changed for their kind, and they could never return to what they once had been. The epoch had passed when they and the rest of creation were one and the same. They were beginning to know a world that did not know them. This is what they thought, and they thought it was not right.

Something which should not be . . . had become. And something had to be done if they were to flourish as they had before, if the very ground beneath their feet were not to fall away from under them. They could do nothing about the world which was moving farther and farther away from them and which knew them not. So they would have to do something about their heads.1


The phenomenon known as consciousness is not a mainstream obsession. Most live and die without considering it, and who can say they are poorer for their neglect of this matter? A few have made its study into a line of work, one that has yielded as many theories of consciousness as it has books on the subject. Psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, philosophers of mind, and other interested parties may intransigently espouse whatever conclusions seem most probable to their heads as they butt up against the heads of their colleagues. Consciousness: what is it, how does it work, and why has no other species of organic life been so honored with its peculiarities as we have?

Although no solid answers seem impending on the broader questions presented by consciousness, there is general assent on its main effect: to make human beings the only creatures who know they are alive and know they will die. From this knowledge, everything that separates us from other life-forms derives.

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