Ligotti’s Smile: The Puppet is our God

The Puppet is our God: the image of our malignant intellect, the excess of our dysphoric flesh. Cold and reptilian it lives amid its own dark powers like a fetid dreamer of kenomic intent, neither observant of its constructions nor aware of its catastrophes. Blind and alone it builds its nightmares out of the ruins of Time. This demiurge of deliriums gave us the frenzied jouissance of our murderous being, and we like stubborn agents of despair have uttered the words of war ever since. Broken and hollow we gaze upon the silent seas of this catastrophic creation not realizing that creation and catastrophe are one and the same. His gaze is our gaze: the bloody and barbarous god of a doomed and entropic toyland built in dust. The anaretic place and killing fields of our hellish paradise…

In Thomas Ligotti’s anti-gnosis one becomes aware not of some a-cosmic soteriology or God of Exit from this vastation and delirious nightmare realm, but rather one discovers that humans are “not only helpless to untie themselves from entangling puppet strings; they can’t even find the knots!” 1 Like members of a timeless horror show we wander in this circular hell seeking neither solace nor salvation but rather the temporal fulfillment of our secret cruelties. We are the soulless angels of a broken thought, the derivative creation of a blind god whose only positive is the negation of his own creation. We are here to accomplish that deed.

As the wicked witch in ‘Eye of the Lynx’ asks:  “Do you know what I do with little puppets who’ve been bad?” she inquired. “Do you?” Like this mindless puppet we sit there unable to answer, our impervious gaze tempered by the fruitless dust of our forgotten heritage. Like the puppet of this horror tale we too tremble slightly staring into the sightless gaze of our maker, our wooden expression giving no hint of the terror in our dark heart as she says:

“I’ll tell you what I do,” the witch continued half-sweetly. “I make them touch the fire. I burn them from the legs up.”

Condemned to this revelation by violence we await the fires of illuminating necessity to quicken us from the wooden decay of our corrupt and contaminated being, only to find our salvation is our curse. At this will we like the puppet of this tale have the courage of our despair to answer so wisely as it: “And what will you do,” the puppet asked, “with all those old dresses, gloves, veils, and capes when I’m gone? What will you do in your low-rent castle with no one to stare, his brow of glittering silver, into the windows of your dreams?” Isn’t this the half of it, what will this machinic god of nightmares do without us? Isn’t it as much a puppet of us as we of it? Without us who is this dark progenitor but a frozen thought amid the trembling spheres of dust and nothingness?

Or, shall we be like the madman before the wizened mage, speaking of that inhuman realm of saboteurs and assasins,

“Not if I have become mad but of what my madness consists is the knowledge I seek from you. And please understand that I have no hopes, only a searing curiosity to riddle the corpse of my dead soul. As for the assertion that I have always been engaged in deeds which one might deem mad, I would be obliged to answer—Yes, countless deeds, countless mad games of flesh and steel. Having confessed that, I would also avow that these were sanctioned provocations of chaos, known in some form to the body of the world and even blessed by it, if the truth be spoken. But I have provoked another thing, a new madness which arrives from a world that is on the wrong side of light, a madness that is unsanctioned and without the seal of our natural selves. It is a forbidden madness, a saboteur from outside the body of known laws. And as you know, I have been the subject of its sabotage.”

Haven’t we all? Are we not even now in the Kingdom of Assassins, our world like the ancient gnostic world of Anareta, known as the Interfector or the Killer Planet.2 It is the non-place where one must answer that which one is there being no escape, it the place of noise and silence: the place of strife and conflict, the zone of endless combats and eternal war. As Heraclitus reminds us “War is father of all and king of all; and some he manifested as gods, some as men; some he made slaves, some free.” Coming to terms with our lot we ultimately realize our predicament: “We must recognize that war is common, strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity.” (Heraclitus)

Conflicting powers of opposites, including those of elemental bodies, make possible the world and all its variety; without that conflict we would have only lifeless uniformity. In the former passage Heraclitus is perhaps criticizing Anaximander for his view that cosmic justice consists of a punishment of powers that overstep their boundaries. Justice is not the correction of an excess, but the whole pattern of the dominion of one puppet followed by that of the other.  The endless series of masters and victims without outlet, dying each others deaths we live each others lives. This circular movement between womb and tomb is the cycle of our madness, the glory of out dark escapades. Some awaken to the frenzy, others remain wooden sticks in the hollows of their frozen horrors.

As Ligotti’s madman would say to the mage,

“Since the madness began working its destruction, I have become an adept of every horror which can be thought or sensed or dreamed. In my dreams—have I not told you of them?—there are scenes of slaughter without purpose, without constraint, and without end. I have crept through dense forests not of trees but of tall pikes planted in the earth; and upon each of them a crudely formed head has been fixed. These heads all wear faces which would forever blind the one who saw them anywhere but in a dream. And they follow my movements not with earthly eyes but with shadows rolling in empty sockets. Sometimes the heads speak as I pass through their hideous ranks, telling me things I cannot bear to hear. Nor can I shut out their words, and I listen until I have learned the horrors of each brutal head. And the voices from their ragged mouths, so clear, so precise to my ears, that every word is a bright flash in my dreaming brain, a brilliant new coin minted for the treasure houses of hell. At the end of my mad dream the heads make an effort to…laugh, creating a blasphemous babble which echoes throughout that terrible forest. And when I awaken I find myself standing on some hillside where I have never been, and for a moment the night continues to reverberate with fading laughter.”

A lost troubadour of pain and jouissance this knight of the sorrowful countenance like Browning’s seeker of blasted memories comes upon the anaretic place where a dark tower:

Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
While to the left, a tall scalped mountain … Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight!

Isn’t this true of us all, haven’t you been moving toward that dark place in your mind, seeking answer to the growing pain in your heart, a justification for all the horror? Realizing that it all comes down to this, that for all our knowledge, for all our supposed wisdom we are but dunces of time, dotards and blind fools who’ve spent our whole lives training for that moment of clarity and when it comes on us all of a sudden, when the veil lifts and the dancers dance in the flames of desire we are not prepared at all? And, like Ligotti’s madman we are left standing on the hillside hearing the fated laughter of some terrible unreal world just outside our vision… seeking solace in its dismal corridors and haunted regions of eternal darkness?

“But did I say that I awoke? If I did, then that is only one more madness among many. For to awaken, as I once understood this miracle, means to reinherit a world of laws which for a time were lost, to rise into the light of the world as one falls into the darkness of dream. But for me there is no sense of breaking through the envelope of sleep, that delicate membrane which excludes merely a single universe while containing countless more. It seems that I remain a captive of these dreams, these visions. For when that one leaves off this one begins, each giving way to the other like a labyrinth of connected rooms which will never lead to freedom beyond their strange walls. And for all that I can know, I am even now the inhabitant of such a room, and at any moment—I beg forgiveness, wise man—you may begin to disembowel weeping children before my eyes and smear their entrails upon the floor so that in them you may read my future, a future without escape from those heads, that hillside, and from what comes after.”

For in the end we all know with a knowing that is not of the intellect or heart that we are doomed, fated to this broken circle of dark light, forever bound to the wheel of pain and jouissance. Victims not of our own intent or of that of another, but rather of the very machinic pride of our own creative powers, our catastrophic inheritance is that we all together created this killing planet, this universe of doom and war for our own pleasure and cruelty. Our doom is our salvation, the only truth is not our defeat at the hands of some blind god, but rather the endless resurrections of our wars of eternity. For this universe is both our creation and our catastrophe, the bliss and rapture of our pains and joys. We cannot escape it because we cannot escape ourselves: it is one and the same, an eternal round and amor fati.

The madman continues…

“There is a citadel in which I am a prisoner and which holds within it a type of school, a school of torture. Ceremonial stranglers, their palms grooved by the red cord, stalk the corridors of this place or lie snoring in its shadows, dreaming of perfect throats. Artists of mayhem curse softly as their mutilated canvasses prematurely expire of their elegant lacerations. And somewhere the master carnefex, the supreme inquisitor waits as I am dragged across crude, incredibly crude floors and am presented to his rolling, witless eyes. Then my arms, my legs, everything is shackled, and I am screaming to die while the Torture of the Question…”

Enough says the magician of despair, I will hear no more:  “No, demon horror, we are not. You are indeed the foul thing the wise man described to me, all the dark powers which we cannot understand but can only hate.” Denial of that which we are and are not. This endless inquisition of the “Question” – it’s terror and torture that brings us all to the place: the hidden place of nightmares and killing – Anareta – our hellish paradise.

Or will we come upon a half-truth and like the puppet awakening from his puppet dreams realize the magician who has shaped our nightmares is himself a puppet of desire? “At least the magician spoke of me as a being, albeit a type of god or demon. But I might even be regarded as a person of sorts, someone who is just like everybody else, but not quite like anyone. I honor him for his precise vision, as far as it went. But you’re wrong to contend that no one understands me; and as for hating the one who stands before you—nothing, in truth, could be farther from truth. Listen, do you hear those brawling voices in the streets beyond the window. Those are not voices filled with hate. In fact, they could not possibly hold a greater love for me. And reciprocally I love them, every one of them: all I do is for them. Did you think that my business was the exceptional destinies of heroes and magicians, of kings and queens, saints and sinners, of all the so-called great? Such extravagant freaks come and go, they are puppets who dance before the eternal eyes of my true children. Only in these multitudes do I live, and through their eyes I see my own glory.”

Isn’t this the truth, that we are not our own, we are all puppets and eyes of the Puppet God whose only triumph is a murderous intent, the endless wars against himself in the place of non-being, the dance of this intricate virtual zone of laughter and war? And if you awakened from this nightmare where do you think you’d find yourself? In some heaven of salvation? Or, in another chamber of this hideous zone of killing? Wouldn’t the truth be something more like this, awakening on some gritty floor gazing out into the dust filled semblance of a time worn world where “a few life-size dolls hang suspended by wires which gleam and look gummy like wetted strands of a spider web. But none of the dolls is seen in whole: the long-beaked profile of one juts into the light; the shiny satin legs of another find their way out of the upper dimness; a beautifully pale hand glows in the distance; while much closer the better part of a harlequin dangles into view, cut off at the neck by blackness. Much of the inventory of this vast room appears only as parts and pieces of objects which manage to push their way out of the smothering dark. Upon the grainy floor, a long low box thrusts a corner of itself into the scene, showing off reinforced edges of bright metal strips plugged with heavy bolts. Pointed and strangely shaped instruments bloom out of the loam of shadows; they are crusted with…age. A great wheel appears at quarterphase in the room’s night. Other sections, appendages, and gear-works of curious machines complicate this immense gallery.”

Maybe our impressionistic furnace is but the gathering place of mirthful derisions and the crucible of inertial dreams, and yet: like that “mysteriarch,” who is never a philanthropist of the mind, nor a “restorer of wounded psyches,” we long neither for restoration nor eclipse; and, in no way do we seek a therapeutic approach with the inmates at the sanitarium of delirium, rather our place in the site of anaretic necessity should  not be viewed as a realm of souls that are possessed, either by demons or by their own painful histories, but as beings who hold “a strange alliance with other orders of existence,” who contain “within themselves a particle of something eternal, a golden speck of magic” which is thought as the enlarged capacity for experience and the impossible. Thus, our only ambition should lead us not to relieve the “patients’ madness, but to exasperate it—to let it breathe with a life of its own”. And if we did this then in certain ways we might wholly eradicated what human qualities remain in these people. But sometimes that peculiar magic we see in each the other’s eyes would seem to fade, and then we might institute a ‘proper treatment,’ which consists of putting ourselves through a battery of hellish ordeals intended to loosen our “attachment to the world of humanity and to project them further into the absolute, the realm of the ‘silent, staring universe’ where the ultimate insanity of the infinite void might work a rather paradoxical cure”. The result would be something as “pathetic as a puppet and as magnificent as the stars, something at once dead and never dying, a thing utterly without destiny and thus imperishable, possessing that abysmal absence of mind, that infinite vacuity which is the essence of all that is immortal.”

Isn’t this the nightmare gallery of beginnings and endings, where “marbles of the dancing floor break bitter furies of complexity…” (W.B. Yeats). And, in the moment of our dark transport: in the interval of an eternity, where our fleshly memories and desires “begins to rise in a puppet’s hunch, then soars up into the tenebrous rafters and beyond, transported by unseen wires.” Our arms and legs twitch uncontrollably during the elevation, and we scream…fade into the interminable night where Time our God puppet like swerves back down into the killing zone… and, like our Puppet God we begin to Smile in cruelty and delight.


  1. Ligotti, Thomas . The Nightmare Factory. (“Consolations of Horror”). Carroll & Graf (June 27, 1996)
  2. Anareta From the Greek, literally destroyer. Applied to a malefic that occupies an anaretic place and afflicts the Hyleg; believed by ancients to be life-destructive. As well the anaretic place is the final degree (between 29° and 30°) of any sign, also called the degree of fate. Planets and house cusps that occupy anaretic degrees indicate fundamental issues with which one must deal. Unlike the ancient Gnostics, Ligotti does not seek a soteriological a-cosmic salvation from this realm of horror, but rather an immortal entry into the dark unreal realms that support it below the mirage of our own self-projected insanity. For we are already in the place of no-place, the site of non-laminating wisdom where existence is itself the only end and beginning we will ever have or know.