Cosmic Horror without Lovecraft. Hm.
Yet that is what someone on Twitter proposed in response to my previous post.
So I asked myself how about sword and sorcery without Robert E Howard?
Or Sword and Planet without Edgar Rice Burroughs?
Nah. Not possible.
When a writer is responsible for creating or defining a genre or subgenre of fiction it’s a difficult — if not impossible task — to remove that writer and still maintain the original intent that writer had for that particular story type.
High fantasy was not created by JRR Tolkien. That honor goes to William Morris. But Tolkien’s works are regarded as archetypal: that is, the perfect example of high fantasy.
Take away Tolkien and high fantasy really becomes a different genre.
So is it possible to have Cosmic, or Lovecraftian, Horror without Lovecraft?
We have to first ask, what is Cosmic Horror? Joshua Kristian McCoy, in an article on GameRant published last year, wrote:
Cosmic horror eschews the traditional threat of death that underpins most horror. No serial murderers, no ravenous beasts, no vengeful specters. The central thesis statement of cosmic horror is that mankind is small to the point of insignificance. There is a vast and incomprehensible universe out there that does not know we exist and would not care if we ceased doing so. Beyond the tiny understanding of our reality that we have spent generations cultivating lies endless horrors that would unravel our tiny minds to perceive.
The point of cosmic horror is to reach a logical endpoint of the fear of the unknown. It posits that beyond all the typical questions that science has no answer to lie questions mankind hasn’t even thought to ask yet.
The primary difference between cosmic horror isn’t in the monsters, it’s in the way people react to them.
To my mind, that’s as good an explanation you’ll find anywhere of what Cosmic Horror is. It squares with Lovecraft’s materialistic and nihilistic view of the universe.
So what’s the problem? Well, Christina Ladd in a Daily Nerd post tells us that we must “celebrate being different, outside, and apart.”
The problem I have with Ms. Ladd’s “woke” position is that it is antithetical to what Lovecraft was trying to say.
Lovecraft held views that are not considered acceptable today. He was in his own day a reactionary: he didn’t like his own era. He would have been happiest had he been born in the 18th century to an aristocratic family. He was an ardent Loyalist. No democratic republic for him. God save the king.
And because Lovecraft’s socio-political views are “problematic” for some people today, those people see a need to make him and Cosmic Horror more palatable.
So they recreate Lovecraft in their own image.
Lovecraft is crucified on a cross of political correctness for being a product of his time. He’s decried for being a racist, a xenophobe, a champion of classism and segregation, and he didn’t promote women.
Now I’m not going to fall on the sword in support of Lovecraft’s social and political views. They were his views in a time when those views weren’t particularly unusual, for good or for ill.
But Lovecraft created and defined Cosmic Horror. And we cannot celebrate being different, or outside, or apart as good things and still be writing in a genre that doesn’t celebrate those things. That’s kind of like making a chocolate cake without chocolate. Or writing category romance without an HEA ending.
My position is: if you have problems with Lovecraftian, or Cosmic, Horror — then don’t write it. Invent your own genre and call it whatever you want — just don’t call it Cosmic Horror.
Cosmic Horror is about fear. Fear of the unknown. Not the unknown in your closet —but the unknown in the universe.
Cosmic Horror is designed to force us to realize that we are insignificant. We are nothing in this great vast universe. It forces us to ask ourselves the question: how do I deal with my insignificance?
Cosmic Horror forces us to come to grips with the fact that we are nothing and what are we going to do about that.
At its very root, Cosmic Horror is asking the same question Existentialism asks: because I have no meaning or purpose, what do I become or do to justify my existence? To give myself meaning?
What Ladd and those she cites in her post are trying to do is basically sugarcoat life. We all get a star no matter how we performed, because no one can be left out.
But that’s not Cosmic Horror. The horror of Cosmic Horror is that it shows us we really are nothing, when we always thought we were something. That it would have been best if we’d not been born.
No one gets a star in Cosmic Horror, because there are no stars to give.
The narrator in Cosmic Horror (who is so insignificant he frequently has no persona) often ends up insane because of the horror he faces. He cannot cope with the truth of the greater reality.
Being alone and insignificant, being a creature with no meaning, is a nightmare we don’t want to have. If we can’t stop being born, then perhaps it’s best if we die soon Silenus told Midas. That’s quite terrifying if you ponder on it long enough. Because it’s saying death is preferable to life. And we don’t want to hear that.
Lovecraft was not a philosopher. Yet, Cosmic Horror is the most philosophical of all the sub-genres of horror.
Cosmic Horror does not champion humans. It does not champion the group or the individual. Cosmic Horror tells us we don’t know everything and that we are completely and totally insignificant. And therein lies true terror.
5 responses to “Cosmic Horror Without Lovecraft?”
I totally agree with you CW. Plenty of great horror fiction existed before Lovecraft. Some of it was very similar in the gothic and weird categories. However, Lovecraft was the first to take horror to the non-human, incomprehensible, and cosmic level. H.P. Lovecraft will always be ‘the man’ who introduced us to horror at the cosmic level. No Lovecraft equals no cosmic horror!
Yes, indeed. Thanks Tom!
But I must ask the unanswerable question: Is it your position that no other author would have come along to invent these subgenres? Maybe not as early, maybe not in quite the same way, but never? Great article in any case, and most excellent food for thought.
No, I think Lovecraft just happened to get there in print first. If HPL had never penned a story, I think someone would have voiced his view. Undoubtedly without the Cthulhu Mythos. But they would’ve expressed HPL’s position in some manner.
I think the real question to ask is can we have cosmic horror without the Cthulhu Mythos. And I think the answer is yes. Even for HPL, the Mythos was simply a tool to show us that the universe doesn’t care about us, that we are insignificant, and that the truth of our unimportance drives us to insanity.
Most writers and readers grabbed onto the monsters and missed/miss what Lovecraft was actually trying to say.
If writers can take HPL’s theme of humanity’s insignificance in an uncaring universe, his theme of fear and fear of the unknown, his theme that we think so much of ourselves that faced with the previous notions they drive us insane, or at the very least despondent — then I think you can write cosmic horror without the Mythos. As long as the horror is truly of cosmic dimensions, and not just some bogey under your bed.
Whether he realized it or not, HPL was playing on a theme of Nietzsche found in his “The Birth of Tragedy”: that humans are without any intrinsic meaning or value, and if you want meaning in your life — you have to find it for yourself in being a creative. Which is the base from which Existentialist philosophy stems.
Lovecraft’s cosmic horror might be said to be Nietzsche without Nietzsche’s redemption. Something to think about. There’s no redemption in Lovecraft’s world view. And that world view is what we call cosmic horror. And it is the ultimate terror.
LikeLiked by 1 person
He absolutely did convey that, and in very absolute terms. I think I mentioned before that I came to Lovecraft too early in life and didn’t like him at all. I thought (and still kinda do) that the lack of the “bogey under the bed” was what put me off, but maybe it is the theme of sheer hopelessness.
I’ve long dabbled in astronomy, and I think our resident professional David will back me up on this: In non-fiction terms, the universe, whether sterile or teeming with life, absolutely doesn’t care. We don’t need a superior species or even a nearby supernova to snuff us out. Our own quiet, placid little star that has so nurtured life could at any time cough up a coronal mass ejection that would fry the electronics we’re so dependent on and throw us back into the stone age. Or maybe just blast half our atmosphere off into deep space. That is true cosmic indifference, and when you read Lovecraft, he makes you feel it on a personal level.
But there is a catch to horrors of cosmic proportions: Either we win, and then how do you follow up the destruction of Sauron, for example? His demise should have ended the concept of evil, yet here we are. Or we lose, in which case, how are you, the reader, still alive to read the story? The Pit and the Pendulum ended the way it did because the alternative ending was, “…then I fell into the pit and died.” So, who’s writing that story? The beauty of Lovecraft was to leave us still balanced on that razor’s edge, Cthulhu on the verge of wakening to lay waste to everything we are, but now we’re aware of the danger that we’re in, and we can’t do a thing about it.
But while I appreciate him more in the fullness of experience, I’m still not a big Lovecraft fan. I prefer my horror close and intimate. Perhaps I’ll cobble something together on that subject, but that’s for another day. Thank you for another deep and enlightening discussion. Can’t wait for next time!