Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!
My Honest Thoughts on Cosmic Horror
Cosmic Horror as a genre is dedicated to kicking us humans right where it hurts us the most, our ego. It’s not a very humanist genre. Kind of the opposite actually. Humans don’t matter in a Cosmic Horror story. We are irrelevant, insignificant, and completely helpless in the face of a vast, unknowable universe. That is likely the main ‘horror’ of cosmic horror. It’s not that the horrible monsters beyond the veil want to eat us, it’s that they don’t care when they do.
I’ve read a few stories where vampires regard humans as ‘cattle’. How do I know this? Because they won’t shut up about it! It kind of rings hollow in a way because I have never seen a cattle rancher say that to a cow. Those vampires though just can’t help themselves. They have to taunt the heroes by telling us that we are mere weak prey animals to be butchered at their leisure. While it is a scary thought to be reduced to a mere meal bag to some horrible monster, a lot of horror is still human centric in how it’s written. The vampires taunt us because they have to look arrogant before the ‘weak prey animals’ defeat them and save the day. It’s still all about us humans and even the vampires themselves represent the ugly parts of humanity.
In cosmic horror, the monsters would never taunt us for the same reason we don’t gloat to a chicken before it’s fed through the slaughter house. They don’t care because we don’t matter. That is assuming they even want to eat us at all. A lot of cosmic entities could care less that they are breaking our minds as they stroll past without even acknowledging our presence. If a vampire represents our fears of corruption and avarice, what the hell does a shoggoth represent other than unknowable alien otherness? It’s like the dog kennel scene in Carpenter’s version of The Thing. The characters all rush in and just stare at the alien abomination. There is no theme or motif, just an alien mass of parts and gore.
I think another important element is mystery. The ‘horror’ is irrelevance of humanity while the ‘cosmic’ is the alien quality and unknowable nature of the universe. Star Trek is all about striving to understand the universe. Cosmic Horror is all about how you never will understand the universe and even if you do gain a small glimpse of insight, the very act of acquiring knowledge will forever break your mind.
Cosmic Horror’s biggest weakness is also its greatest strength. It is very novel to have stories that don’t revolve around our importance. Humans are also curious creatures and cosmic horror is all about curiosity and discovery even if those lead us to our doom. Yet we humans are vain and self centered creatures that like stories about our species overcoming the worst of what the universe can throw at us. Perhaps this is why Cosmic Horror has never quite been able to achieve mainstream success? Humans want to read stories about humans. We are kind of biased that way.
Then how come the elements of cosmic horror bleed into so many other works? Lovecraft’s works have been reinterpreted so many times and spun so many new ways. For one, I think the aesthetic is very novel in a lot of ways. Old school science fiction had a lot of forehead ridged aliens and beautiful space elves. Cosmic horror creatures are true aliens and not just in appearance, but their very nature is strange. A lot of writers just can’t help but pilfer those designs and style, but tend to ditch the theme of the irrelevancy of humanity. I don’t blame them. Those monsters sure are cool.
This does upset the purists somewhat, but purists will never be happy with anything that tries to drive their beloved genre forward. I do think that grinding down the horror part does diminish the effect of the cosmic part as well. Where does this horrible monster come from, what’s its nature? Who cares when the heroes just slaughtered 10,000 of them in a single sitting, they are obviously not a threat.
However, introducing an eldritch horror after a lot of foreshadowing can really engage a reader. Having the heroes slowly come to realize the true scope of a cosmic threat can bring a story into focus in ways that a ho-hum dark lord cannot. A dark lord is the perversion of something of this world. His evil nature is often the counter balance to good. Both good and evil are part of the world. An eldritch god is beyond good or evil, an alien presence that doesn’t belong in the world like a dark lord does. You have good, you have evil, and then you have the other. Cosmic horror concerns itself with the other.