Figured it was time for a good, old fashioned non-fiction post. Had to happen sometime. Just roll with it, see where it takes us.
Some of you may have read my latest post, The Pond. It’s not finished. It was a super rough draft and I’m still working on it. It’s also already one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written. I’ve always been a fan of Cosmic Horror, but I’ve never tried to write one before. I thought I’d take a break from editing to discuss this genre of horror, which I feel is depressingly underrepresented in modern horror, discuss a bit of history (as much as I can remember right now, anyway), some prime examples of it, how it fits in with modern horror, and finally discuss some of the inspirations for my latest attempt.
So just what is “Cosmic Horror”? I could go into some long winded explanation, give a textbook definition, and bore you to tears. Or I can explain it with a metaphor.
Take a trip into the imagination with me. You’re in the kitchen. It’s evening, dinner has been had and the dishes cleared from the table. Rather than let them sit in the sink, you decide to load the dishwasher before bed. You close the washer, get it running, then start wiping down the counters. You wipe anything soft enough (no twist ties or chicken bones) into the garbage disposal. You turn it on. *CRCHNKTKTKTKCHRTCK* Your heart skips a beat and you flail wildly at the switch to turn it off. Something was in there that shouldn’t have been. Something metal. Without looking, you know what it is.
*spoiler alert* It’s a spoon. It is always a spoon. It will never be anything other than a spoon. Never a fork or, god willing, a knife, something that could BENEFIT from a little extra serration. No. It will always be a spoon. And now every time you pop open a cup of yogurt you are setting forth on a perilous adventure! Why is this? Surely you use forks and knives just as much as spoons, but none the less it will always be a spoon in the garbage disposal.
And that’s cosmic horror in it’s most basic form. The universe doesn’t even care about you enough to give you even odds on it being something besides a spoon in there. In fact, you could think that, for some reason, some….thing contrives to ruin your spoons one at a time. I take it as the best case that there is no just and caring God in the universe.
Now, most horror writers would spice it up a bit. There would be some cabal dedicated to an ancient slumbering god who hungers for spoons in the deepest pits of reality. However, allow me to quote Monty Python for a moment and say “Strange dieties, lying in ponds, distributing cults is no basis for a cosmic horror. Supreme, cosmic terror derives from man’s complete and utter insignificance in the universe, not from some farcical aquatic ritual.” At least, I think that’s how the quote goes. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that movie. (No it hasn’t. It was yesterday).
Now, yes, I understand that a good story needs an antagonist. That’s what separates cosmic horror from some Nietzsche-ian existential rant. But I needed to bring up the first point so that I could fully explain the second. And the second point is this: the bad guy, doesn’t care about you, probably doesn’t even know you exist. For cosmic horror to be truly effective, whatever the protagonist is struggling against must be so huge, so intelligent, so ancient, that humanity is quite literally so much dust in the wind. And what’s worse is the fact that, however horrible, however mind bendingly insane, the antagonist represents the larger universe, and is, in all probability, actually “right”.
Most people probably know who the greatest Cosmic Horror writer of all time was. He was one of the most influential horror writers ever to have lived, perhaps surpassed only by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker (though Stoker took a hit when vampires started sparkling, but I won’t get into that now). I am, of course, talking about Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Good ole H.P. Ia Ia, Cthulhu Fhtagn! Other horror writers have their own universes that they like to deal with, H.P Lovecraft has a Mythos.
But why was he so influential? I honestly have to say that I have never been “scared” while reading any of Lovecraft’s stories. I got scared listening to one one time, but that was more due to the quality of the reading. No, I’ve never been given the shivers or hidden beneath the covers. No, he never scared me….until a few days after. And then it sank in. Until I realized just what was so terrifying about his stories.
Take “The Call of Cthulhu” for example. The story is told in the first person in the past tense. The narrator is alive, and well, and spends the entire story telling us of OTHER stories that he heard. I’m not even sure if there’s a term for that, it’s like… 1st person in the 3rd person. All of the action has already taken place, in a much greater way than other past tense stories. Cthulhu is defeated. He got hit by a boat and throw back into the pit. Case closed.
But it’s not. He’s still there. And he’s not the only one. There are an unknown number of similarly alien entities possibly looking to use the Earth as a playground. The narrator realizes this, and realizes that even though they have delayed them, evil only has to win once.
And let’s take it a step further. Yes, it’s a story. It’s fiction. Cthulhu probably doesn’t exist. But the real universe is a big place. What waits for us out there. How will it view us? Will it hate us? Will it even care enough to notice us as we are swept away? Can it be beaten? Or only placated for a time?
And let’s not forget we already find great and terrible mysteries in our world and beyond. Incredibly loud “organic” sounds emanating from the bottom of the ocean (now tentatively identified as an “ice quake”….possibly). Vast swathes of space 1 billion light years across (you could almost think that everything there had been…devoured). Scientists have created robots so advanced that they LIE to each other, essentially committing MURDER against fellow bot. The list goes on.
And that’s what makes Cosmic Horror so scary. Not the immediate threat of danger (though that is usually present), but the realization that the danger is never gone. Humanity could achieve a state of total peace and understanding and happiness and at any moment a vast, uncaring universe could gobble us up and we wouldn’t even be missed.
A little while ago I read a short story. It was by one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, someone he was in close correspondence with. His name was Frank Belknap Long, and the story was called “The Space Eaters”. It dealt with 2 friends talking alone on a misty night when a mutual friend stumbles in, telling of a frantic ride through a forest and terrible creatures lurking in the mists high in the trees. As the story goes on they 2 friends realize that their new companion has a hole in the back of his head. The man claims he never felt it, never heard a gunshot, but that he did feel something wet trickling down his back. Upon closer inspection, the two friends realize that the man’s head is completely empty. No brains. They begin to speculate about the creatures the man saw, and where they came from. Eventually the reach the conclusion that the creatures are extraterrestrial in origin and, since they must have come from so long away, must be very intelligent. And very hungry.
Long story short, they eat brains. When I read this story, I, for some reason couldn’t remember why it seemed so familiar. A few days later I remembered. I had a memory of a rainy summer morning alone at home, watching television with my older sister. We were watching Monsters, an old show that ran for a while and showed re-runs on Sci-Fi channel before it turned to shit. And the episode was based on this story. And it was the most scared I had ever been in my life, maybe even to this day. I was young, elementary school age, and like I said, it was a rainy day, and it was a rainy day in the show.
Here’s the episode, if you’re interested.
Needless to say, I’ve been a fan of cosmic horror for a long time. And as I said, I think it’s sorely underrepresented in the modern horror scene. I suppose one day I hope to help change that. I love Lovecraft, but his stories are dated, and he was a terribly racist man. I hate the fact that I love “The Horror at Red Hook” and “Herbert West: Reanimator” so much, because they’re so god damned racist.
If you’re interested in modern cosmic horror, check out the works of Laird Barron and Brian Brian Lumley. Also, some of Clive Barker’s stuff from Books of Blood is great, especially “Midnight Meat Train” (much better than the movie).
Now, this got way longer than I’d hoped, and I still don’t think I did a good job, but whatever. I just want to mention a few things about my latest story, my ideas behind it, my “inspirations”, what have you.
I have a pond nearby my apartment building that I go walking by sometimes. It’s fairly nice, but it has a tendency to be a strange greenish blue color and smell of rotten eggs. The former is probably from runoff from nearby roads, parking longs, construction, etc… and the latter, I learned, is because in hot, calm weather, shallow ponds separate into different temperature levels of slightly varying density and composition. All the really putrid stuff sinks to the bottom. When it rains, the water is disturbed and the icky stuff rises to the top, mixes with the runoff, and smells bad.
I wanted to write a story about that, but I didn’t know how. I figured there would be something in the water, probably something pulpy and tentacly, as water monsters are wont to be. But I wanted it to be different, it needed something special. So, I thought maybe the main character was feeding it. Sure, why not. But it still wasn’t weird enough. So I thought maybe it wasn’t a tentacle, maybe it was covered in tiny things. And that’s when I had the idea to make it a living fractal.
I really liked that idea, the fact that an abstract mathematical idea could be given flesh. It had a weird, twisted kind of logic but the abstraction let it stay alien and strange. From there I knew that I wasn’t just writing a monster story anymore, I’d taken my first steps into understanding cosmic horror.
So, yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking about the past few days. Wanted to get it down, organize my thoughts a bit, maybe share some of my insights. If you made it this far, thanks for the read, hope it was enjoyable.