Exploring the Unknowable in Cosmic Horror
Reading and writing cosmic horror might help prepare you to face eldritch horrors and stay sane.
Monsters that lurk in the dark. Shadows in the corners of your eye. That person who doesn’t seem quite…human. The classic tropes of horror can be very fun to dive into when you’re writing, but what if you want to do something bigger? Then, my friend, it might be time for you to explore cosmic horror.
Cosmic horror, sometimes called Lovecraftian horror, is a subgenre of horror fiction that focuses on existential fears and themes of human irrelevancy. It’s experienced a major resurgence lately (which is…concerning) and so has become a very popular field to write in. It’s also popular in the world of movies, being used as a major trope in films like Event Horizon, The Endless, The Void, The Cabin in the Woods, Evil Dead, or The Mist (beware: the ending of this one is extremely disturbing).
Want to know more about this strange and esoteric genre? Read on, if you dare.
What is cosmic horror?
Horror, by definition, is a genre that is intended to scare and disquiet the reader. The purpose of horror is to explore dangerous, unpleasant, or downright disgusting topics in a safe way; we’re experiencing these threats vicariously, so they have no way to physically hurt us and therefore we’re free to enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with them.
What, then, makes horror “cosmic?” In the most basic terms possible, cosmic horror is a horror subgenre that goes above and beyond the scope of the “normal” world; that’s the reason it’s also called weird fiction. It’s media that explores a certain pessimistic existentialism - there are things outside of our world that we don’t understand, and that’s a bad thing.
The key to cosmic horror is that it focuses not on being targeted by some big bad, but simply ignored or trampled by it. In cosmic horror stories, human beings aren’t at the top of the food chain; they point out our insignificance when compared to the scale of the entire universe, sometimes even an entire multiverse. We’re not as important as we like to pretend we are, and the forces beyond our world are far more powerful than we’ll ever be. At most, they see us as an inconvenience. Sometimes they don’t see us at all, and the destruction they cause is akin to you stepping on an ant hill – you might barely notice, but the ants would be devastated.
Cosmic horror stories don’t play on the fear of death or the dark or the depths. They play on the fear of the unknown and the unknowable, and the lack of any real control over our place in the universe.
Cthulhu and The Problem with HP Lovecraft
The cosmic horror genre’s creation is credited to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, an American author who lived from 1890 to 1937 and is sometimes referred to as the “King of Weird.” Lovecraft’s work focused on the Great Old Ones mythos and stories - including those that cover the now-famous Cthulhu, his cultists, and the “Necronomicon” - as well as themes of “otherness” and the danger that comes with that feeling. He’s also known for the fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts, which is referenced in several of his stories, including The Color Out of Space. If you’re a fan of graphic novels, Batman in particular, you may recognize the name Arkham Asaylum – it’s name is a reference to the works of Lovecraft.
His creatures from beyond, and especially the Cthulhu mythos, were wildly different from any other horror being created at the time, and went on to inspire other subgenres like body horror, as well as countless horror movies and retellings like the currently-popular Lovecraft Country (both the book and the HBO show).
Unfortunately, Lovecraft was also extremely racist, with prejudices that influenced his work to a painful degree. Lovecraft described the horrific lynch mobs roaming the rural American South at the time as an “ingenious” move, and once described Jewish people as being “hook-nosed, swarthy, guttural-voiced aliens.” And these are some of his nicer descriptions of people who aren’t white. His hateful commentaries were less direct in his writing, though it is important to note that every protagonist is driven insane or murdered by some “otherness” that disturbs their perfectly normal life - and they’re almost always explicitly stated as being white.
It is actively impossible to separate Lovecraft’s derision of any non-white non-Christian people from his work, as it was actively inspired by the fear of otherness and a sense of a hostile world around him. To try and divorce this author from his work would be like trying to depersonalize a memoir.
So, while the works of HP Lovecraft are important and we’ll touch on them later on, why don’t we focus on other excellent cosmic horror creators for now?
Fantastic cosmic horror examples
Here are some more modern cosmic horror greats that you can reference to get an idea of what this genre looks like in action.
The Magnus Archives
The Magnus Archives is a fiction podcast from Rusty Quill which follows the misadventures of Head Archivist Jonathan Sims as he attempts to digitize the stories of people who have had brushes with the supernatural. The story begins in a monster-of-the-week style, with unique statements in every episode exploring encounters with strange almost-people, caskets that moan when it rains, books that do strange things to the world around them, and a peculiar house in Oxford, among other things.
This is a wonderful example of cosmic horror in that (minor spoiler warning) the larger plot of the series revolves around extraplanar beings that feed on human fear. It emphasizes the fact that fear is innate and immutable; we can’t stop being afraid any more than we can stop breathing, even when that fear begins to destroy us.
It’s dark and creepingly terrifying in a bone-deep way, which, because of the nature of the story, pulls you further into it and allows you to immerse yourself completely in its world. It’s just realistic enough to be unsettling, which means that it’s doing its job right.
While it may seem more like mainstream horror, the 1979 classic Alien has some fairly significant aspects of cosmic horror that are really fun to explore.
The crew of the Nostromo is prematurely awoken in deep space, halfway back to Earth after a mission, when they receive a strange transmission from a nearby moon. Upon investigating, they find hundreds of dark eggs, one of which hatches to produce a face-hugging alien that attacks a crewmate. He’s carried back to the ship, but the crew realizes too late that this is a bad idea when the growing creature bursts out of the crewmate’s chest and escapes into the ship, trapping the crew with this highly-evolved killer and no backup plan.
While there is, of course, the classic horror element of a tangible monster attacking the humans, there is also the existential threat of being cut off completely from the rest of the human race, doomed to die a painful, violent death and leave no one the wiser.
No one is looking. No one is coming to help. They are completely and utterly alone.
Our brilliant protagonist Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, and the entire Nostromo crew really sell this isolation and dawning terror. Their panic and early paranoia do nothing to save them as they’re picked off, one by one. And it’s not that they’re incompetent; in contrast to many other horror films where the cast is simply making all the wrong decisions, the Nostromo crew are inventive, good at improvising, and fight tooth-and-nail for their survival. The fact that they die anyway leads to a sort of inevitable dread: it’s only a matter of time before they’re all gone.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
This modern book reimagines the idea of haunted houses. It follows Miranda Silver as she struggles to come to terms with the paranormal connection afforded her by the four-generation Silver household in Dover, England. Being a sprawling estate full of strange passages and uncomfortable secrecy, it’s the perfect backdrop for a devolution into madness and an exploration of the fears that come with losing oneself to a seemingly unstoppable hidden force.
Miranda’s struggles with her own health and wellbeing, affected both naturally and paranormally by her mother’s sudden death, are amplified by the contrast between her experiences and those of her brother and father, who seem to walk the halls of this “witch house” unaffected by whatever power claws at her. This drives home a sense of intense loneliness and despair that are hallmarks of cosmic horror. It’s a good example of the genre working on a relatively small scale.
Other authors of cosmic horror to check out: Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Jeff VanderMeer, Robert W. Chambers, Laird Barron, and Thomas Ligotti.
How to write cosmic horror
So, do you have to write on a cosmic scale to get cosmic horror right? Do you have to deal with massive monsters or wide open spaces? Not necessarily.
Here are some tips for writing cosmic horror, from the ground up and out.
Get familiar with the genre
As with any other genre, it’s important to read a lot before you can write with any confidence. Reading within your genre gives you a good idea of the conventions that exist and the language used most commonly. You could start with some of Lovecraft’s stories:
- The Call of Cthulhu, his most popular and well-known short story which has been adapted and re-adapted a million times over, about, well, Cthulhu and his power over a small New England town.
- The Dunwich Horror, another Cthulhu story that’s been readapted into more books and movies in recent times, about the grandson of an Old One hiding something horrible in New England.
- The Shadow Over Innsmouth - The narrator of this novella investigates the ruined town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts, and discovers a horrifying civilization living underwater.
- At the Mountains of Madness, about an Antarctic expedition that fails spectacularly. This one has extraterrestrials!
I also suggest reading Oyeyemi’s book from the previous section and other modern cosmic horror tales, as well as more general horror writers with greats like Stephen King, John Carpenter, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Read these stories deeply; take notes and dive into their stories. Examine what fears they tap into, and how they do it, then consider how you might approach the same fear. You might also consider joining or creating a local book club to discuss them with other readers and get some more insights into how people interpret the books and these Lovecraftian monsters, especially by asking about what kind of fear they inspire.
Get unfamiliar with the normal world
Cosmic horror is, again, the deep fears that humanity experiences, and a great way to explore those fears is by making the normal world seem as unfamiliar as possible. After all, a very basic fear is that of the unknown; if we don’t have a reference point for something or we find that our reference point is wildly inappropriate and unhelpful, we suddenly have no way to assess the thing’s threat level, which can put us in a lot of danger, so makes us uneasy.
Taking something familiar and making it weird is a literary tactic known as defamiliarization. You can defamiliarize almost anything when writing weird tales, but some of the more popular tropes associated with it are:
- “That’s not a deer” is a trope that relies on…well, something that’s almost a deer, but definitely isn’t a deer. It looks like a deer, walks like a deer, but there’s something about it that’s just not right. It doesn’t have to be an animal, of course; it could be a Not Person, too.
- We’re Not In Kansas Anymore is a trope where a character or set of characters experience a dramatic shift, either by going to a completely new world or experiencing a massive change in their perception of their own world. Maybe they grow really big, or (more commonly) get shrunk down small. Maybe they get thrown into a video game or pulled out of one. Either way, they end up in a world that doesn’t make any sense to them based on their previous lives.
- The Fish Out of Water is a trope similar to We’re Not In Kansas Anymore, but typically following the other side of the story - a set of characters meets up with a new character from a wildly different setting who’s trying to “blend in” with them. This can either work or not work at all, depending on the story you want to tell. They need to find ways to adapt to their new world, and usually need more extreme adaptations the longer they have to stay there.
- Raised in a Lab is a trope where the character we follow was raised in complete isolation from normal society, usually for a specific purpose such as becoming a weapon or learning some ancient art. When they enter normal society, they experience total culture shock and may either snap from the pressure (and go on a bit of a murder spree) or feel like they’ve missed out on a major part of their life by being separated from it all. This is another spinoff of We’re Not In Kansas Anymore, used most commonly in science fiction and horror.
Remember that we mean nothing
As depressing as it sounds, the whole point of cosmic horror is coming face to face with how little humanity means in the grand scheme of the universe. In a place so infinitely vast and uncaring, which existed long before we did and will keep existing long after we’re all gone, what’s the point of a single, century-long life? What’s the point of anything humanity does?
Put that fear to use in your writing. Tap into the images of cosmic vastness offered to us by space exploration and quantum theory, and use that to make your characters feel as small as possible. Consider setting your story in space for that extreme isolation, or in a desolate corner of Earth with very little outside contact.
You might even go in the opposite direction, and have your characters focus on something much, much smaller than they are to come to that realization - a classic way of doing this is with an ant colony or other hive of bugs, or even bacteria cultures.
Focusing on this fear will give your story that unsettling factor it needs…just remember to take breaks from it. This is big stuff.
Speaking of the big stuff, fear of irrelevance isn’t the only massive human fear! You might choose to have your cosmic horror focus on another big, daunting, difficult-to-pin-down truth.
Consider tapping into:
- The fear of aging and what happens when we die.
- The fear of madness and being trapped in your own mind.
- The fear of being forgotten and left completely alone.
- The fear of being on display and scrutinized from every angle.
Take care of yourself and be mindful
That advice was all very heavy, so I want to make something abundantly clear: cosmic horror is still fiction. Remember that the “truth” you’re revealing to your character doesn’t actually have to be a universal truth - it just has to be a relatively universal fear. You don’t have to believe that all of humanity is worthless to write about it, just like you don’t have to believe in fairies to write a fairytale. It is fiction, and fiction lets us explore not just what is, but what might be.
If you find yourself feeling actual, genuine discomfort while writing or reading, or if you find yourself experiencing symptoms associated with anxiety and panic attacks: stop writing, stop reading, put it all down, and go do something else. Fiction like this can be revelatory and good for examining the human psyche, yes, but it can also be incredibly overwhelming and stressful, especially if the circumstances outside of your writing - in your personal life or the world in general - are stressful as well.
Fiction writing is supposed to be a creative exercise, not a traumatic one. Please know that you don’t have to engage with this kind of writing if it hurts you.
Cosmic horror is a deep, philosophical, and frankly extremely unsettling genre. I love it dearly - any big, freaky monster that doesn’t care that I exist is golden in my book - and I know that there are some brilliant writers out there who can take these depressing deep-set fears and turn them into something both terrifying and terrific.
I’m sure you’re one of those writers. Now that you’re armed with the tools of the trade and some recommended reading, go out and write about how we don’t matter! I’m excited to see what you have to say, even if the universe isn’t.