A Little Horror

Welcome to the web, fans of darkness. I come before you today to offer a decided change of pace. You see, a good number of column-inches have been presented here of late, touting the work of the late H.P. Lovecraft, the father of Cosmic Horror. I’ve enjoyed the work of the Master, and have commented, I hope intelligently, on these posts by several of my colleagues. The grand scale of Cosmic Horror trips the proper switches with me and leaves me properly uneasy, but I find that it doesn’t give me that visceral chill that stories from the other end of the scale do. I prefer my horror cozy and intimate.

Cozy Horror. There’s an odd term, but it’s a valid one. Allow me to offer a couple of examples, one from real life, and one from the literature of fantasy. First, real life. There is a war going on in the Ukraine. Like all wars, it is causing the death and displacement of thousands, most of whom really don’t want any part of it. The vast majority of our readers are from North America, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe. None of us live where we can hear the guns, but we are affected because we are human. If we have an ounce of empathy for the poor unfortunates who march across the screens in our living rooms every evening, we can’t help but pity them. But what can one person do? You might write a check to the Red Cross, or pack up some new blankets to send to a relief agency, but as one person geographically far removed, there is nothing you can do to end the suffering. This is Cosmic Horror.

But now let’s say that during these epic storms we in the northern hemisphere are experiencing, a huge tree on the next lot is toppled and lands on your house, taking out your bedroom, your master bath, and your kitchen. Luckily, no one was hurt, which means it probably won’t be on the news, at least not beyond a minute of local coverage. Your neighbor will cluck and shake his head, and allow as how it’s too bad. He may even offer a little help, but people a block away may not even be aware that it’s happened. But it’s certainly a life-altering catastrophe from your perspective! The first thing that’s going to happen is that your house will be condemned. Unfit and unsafe for human habitation. You and your loved ones will have to find another place to lay your head… today, and you’ll be lucky if you’re allowed to go back in to salvage your clothes. This, my friends, is Cozy Horror, and while your little problem may not register against the suffering of thousands in a distant war, which one would you rather deal with?

Now to look at fantasy. Fantasy is a valid genre because, well, how can you write fantasy without bringing in a dose of horror? In Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien gave us what is undoubtedly the greatest fantasy story ever told; there are those who would argue that it’s the greatest story, period. It deals with several societies who face the embodiment of evil in Sauron, a supernatural creature whose motivation seems to be that he wants to kill everyone, elves, dwarves, and men, and repopulate the world with orcs. It is a giant, sweeping opus that spans a continent and draws in creatures of every stripe and motive, but whose story is it, really? Is the protagonist Aragorn, who will go on to become the king of men? Is it Frodo, who bore the ring to the slopes of Mount Doom? Is it Sam, who literally carried Frodo when the burden of the ring made him incapable of taking another step? Or perhaps it’s Gandalf, who brings the whole quest and all its participants together and assists with his considerable magic power, even coming back from the dead at one point to shepherd them on their way. This is wide, expansive storytelling on a Cosmic scale.

At the other end of the scale we have R.A. Salvatore’s “Dark Elf” series set in the Forgotten Realms universe of Dungeons & Dragons. Let me just say this now: There are a lot of snobby readers and critics who see D&D associated with the name and dismiss it as garbage without cracking a cover. Willful ignorance is a horrible thing in its own right, and anyone who won’t read them because of this is a fool. In these books, Salvatore takes five friends and sends them on a series of adventures that have spanned 38 books plus seven more in two spin-offs over the course of the past 35 years. Salvatore makes us care about these friends, their well-being, their growth and survival in book after book, and while their adventures never stand to change the world, they strive to make it a better place for those whose lives they impact. These stories have moved me in a way that LotR was never able to with its multiple story lines that jump from land to land in a sometimes-confusing blur. The “Dark Elf” saga contains plenty of horror elements, and as such represents Cozy Horror at its best.

Okay, so now that we all know what Cozy Horror is, why do I prefer it over its more “grown-up” cousin? Obviously, from my writing above, you know that I like to get to know the characters, and in the Dark Elf series, you do. You know what their favorite drinks are, and the songs they sing while they’re drinking. You learn their philosophies and watch them change as they grow. You know who the best friends in the group are, and who harbors secret feelings for another. You’re wracked with worry when one of them goes missing. By contrast, did you care when King Theoden fell on the Fields of Pelennor? Sure, you might have said, “That’s too bad,” but his death was unremarkable beyond the fact that it opened the way for his niece, Eowyn, to kill the Lord of the Nazgul who could be killed by no man. Where’s the drama?

But the big issue I have with the great Cosmic sweep is, where do you go when it’s over? In LotR, the alliance of men and elves supposedly struck down the embodiment of evil, Sauron, who modern Christians might call Satan. So, why do we today live in a world where evil seems to have free reign? But let’s gloss that over and say that it grew back because evil always does. Notwithstanding, where do you go after you’ve told a story like LotR? Tolkien tried, tacking on “The Scouring of the Shire” after the Hobbits return home, and while I enjoyed the idea of these petty thugs tangling with the seasoned halfling warriors fresh back from the Great War, Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to mention it in his epic trilogy, and even to me it felt like a bland dessert after an elegant meal. Once you tell that big, sweeping, epic story, there’s just nowhere left to go, and personally, after I’ve read a story in any genre that has captivated me with its characters, I want to see more of them.

And that, to me, is the charm of the small story, the Cozy Horror if you will. I don’t dislike the world-influencing Epic for the Ages, but I find myself at a loss for an entry point. A virtually helpless protagonist, a la Lovecraft, or a cast of protagonists, each of whom is worthy of their own book, confuses me to some extent, and I don’t believe that confusion is a good look for a reader. A Cozy, in whatever genre, pulls me in, invites me to get to know these few people, to take the journey alongside them, to cry with them, to bleed with them, and ultimately to triumph with them. Now that’s a ride I want to take again and again and again. How about you?

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