In Defense of Cosmic Horror

Posted: 2019-02-07
Word Count: 1042
Tags: horror rpg writing

For the Prosecution

There’s a lot to dislike about the Cthulhu Mythos:

Lovecraft Was Racist

H. P. Lovecraft, credited with inventing cosmic horror. was a neurotic racist xenophobe. His racism was sometimes blatant like the name of the cat in “Rats In The Walls”, and sometimes implicit like the recurring theme of “degenerate” races, often darker skinned.1 Imitators occasionally adopted these tropes along with the creatures that embodied them: ghouls, Deep Ones, the “Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young”, probably others I’m forgetting. His stories and those of his imitators are worse for it.

Cthulhu Is A Pop Culture Meme

Other Lovecraft creations, arguably silly to begin with, have been used and reused until they lose their shock value. Cthulhu, the cephalopod-headed titan from under the sea, has inspired stuffed animals, Chibi versions, and other decidedly non-scary effigies. The Call of Cthulhu RPG catalogs all the creatures mentioned in Cthulhu Mythos stories and adventures for the game; creatures created to inspire fear now have the equivalent of a D&D Monster Manual.

Modern Readers Don’t Feel The Fear

Lovecraft rejected modernity in many ways, from his deliberately archaic writing style to his out-of-date pseudo-science to the aforementioned racism. Centuries of scientific discoveries revealed that mankind emerged after millions of years in a blind, savage natural process, that Earth was but a small rock whirling around a mediocre star in a mind-bogglingly vast void, and that the Universe contained forces and objects that could obliterate humanity at any time. Our little world was an oasis compared the rest of the cosmos, which consisted mainly of empty space, thin vapor, airless rocks, and burning balls of gas. Our entire known history, even the then-unknown length of human existance, was but a blip.

To people of that time, especially Lovecraft, that was a shocking revelation. Nearly a century later, we as a culture have gotten used to it, with some notable exceptions.

For the Defense

On the other hand, the “cosmic horror” genre still has life in it.

Cosmic Horror Doesn’t End With Lovecraft or “The Mythos”

As a trivial example of moving beyond the Cthulhu Mythos, the RPG Silent Legions includes random tables to generate one’s own “mythos”. One needn’t use Cthulhu, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, mi-go, shoggoths, and the rest of the Lovecraft catalogue. Naturally the results are Lovecraft-ish, but GMs can conjure up unknown horrors to surprise, bedevil, and unnerve their players.

On the literary front, Thomas Ligotti cites Poe, not Lovecraft, as a primary influence. Nevertheless his work expresses cosmic horror better than better-known names. Instead of Lovecraft’s angry seafood and scary foreigners, Ligotti uses images of mannequins, puppets, abandoned structures, mists, voids, and false memories. He also relies on one of Poe’s favorite tropes, the Unreliable Narrator. (But is the narrator unreliable, or is what we call reality?)

Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” series takes Lovecraft’s creatures semi-seriously, but then redefines them into more modern terrors. In the world of the Laundry, Lovecraft created fake monsters using what turns out to be real magical lore; Alan Turing stumbled upon the algorithms that attract very real, if mostly noncorporeal, monsters. The Laundry is a top secret British agency dedicated to keeping true knowlege of mind-eating horrors and the means to summon them hidden, yet using the same knowledge to keep them at bay. Using this millieu Stross tells darkly humorous tales about office politics, bureaucratic stupidity, and (sometimes literally) Faustian bargains with amoral monsters, only some of whom aren’t human. In his most recent Laundry novel The Labyrinth Index Cthulhu (sort of) appears, but in Stross’s world it’s more insect than cephalopod to the extent that terrestrial biology applies, and as yet it can only speak through its Brundlefly-like avatars.

No doubt I’m neglecting other modern authors. The above two examples, however, demonstrate that one can discard the worst of Lovecraft’s legacy and still tell effective stories of cosmic horror and otherworldly catastrophe.

The Twenty-First Century Has Its Own Fears

Cosmic horror’s original inspiration came from a feeling of helplessness before an incomprehensibly vast and uncaring universe. Our universe is still merciless.

While fiction with a message has a (deserved) bad reputation, it isn’t hard to replace the squid gods who bring global madness from the 1920s with otherworldly agents who trigger plausible global catastrophes in the 2020s.

A Manifesto of Renewed Cosmic Horror

… is what I’d like to write. Instead, I’ll summarize the main points.

  1. Cosmic horror relies on fear of catastrophic events outside our control.

  2. A secondary theme is the fear that some facts lie beyond present or future human comprehension.

  3. Its main metaphor is of otherworldly, implacable, incomprehensible entities that present unsolvable mysteries and/or threaten to cause catastrophes.

  4. Writers can and have created “cosmic entities” outside the framework of classic cosmic horror writers like Lovecraft and his circle.

  5. While some “Cthulhu Mythos” story elements, tropes, and themes have not aged well (to put it mildly), other parts are worth borrowing or at least analyzing to create entirely new cosmic horror stories for present-day readers.

  1. One can also see the cults that form around his fictional deities as disparaging the religions of brown-skinned people. According to some sources, though, Lovecraft was an atheist, and his cults parodied all religions including Christianity, which in his view revolved around praising gods whose own holy revelations revealed them to be mass murderers. A parody of a Chick religious tract called “Who Will Be Eaten First” highlights the parallels between Lovecraftian cults and this view of mainstream religion. ↩︎