willow and other trees beside river

Thoughts on Cosmic Horror in Fiction

I recently re-listened to a program about H.P. Lovecraft. It prompted me to think about the element in his writing for which he is best known: cosmic horror as embodied by Cthulhu (who has become quite popular recently; you can even buy a cute Cthulhu stuffy).

But cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror–what is that? Keep in mind that HPL was an atheist and rationalist. He most definitely had no time for magic or godlike supernatural powers.

H._P._Lovecraft_in_DeLand_Florida,_June_1934
H.P. Lovecraft in 1934.
Lucius B. Truesdell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

HPL was inspired by the vastness of the known universe, and especially the not-known universe. The word vigintillion (meaning the number 1 followed by 63 zeroes) appears in a few of his stories. He was thrilled by the idea of the utter unknown, and how little humans (even educated, refined, white men of New England) matter in the grand scheme of things. The utter indifference of the cosmos to humanity is Lovecraft’s horror.

The beginning of his story “The Call of Cthulhu” pretty much sums up the idea:

double quotation mark open

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I can relate to this. At one time, I hoped to write a piece of fiction that could be called Lovecraftian, but I have never done so. Yes, my novel The Friendship of Mortals is based on Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” but it’s not cosmic horror in any sense. Come to that, the original story isn’t either. It precedes HPL’s exploration of that realm. Herbert West is an atypical Lovecraft character in that he has a smidge of personality, which was what inspired me to build a novel around him.

The reason none of my fiction can be called Lovecraftian is because it’s character-driven. It contains supernatural elements and even a bit of horror, but it’s really about what happens within and between the characters. To be honest, at times the supernatural stuff (revivified corpses, mysterious forces, and artifacts of power) is difficult to incorporate into the stories in a plausible way. True Lovecraftian fiction might be described as situationally-driven. The point of the story is a slow, gradual, apprehension of the situation by the character. Understanding is followed rapidly by terror.

In HPL’s stories, the point-of-view characters (they can’t really be called ‘protagonists’) are merely human vehicles to deliver the manifestations of inhuman, indifferent, monstrous entities to the reader. In no way are those stories about the characters. Yes, they have names, professions, family backgrounds and all that. But they are not struggling with relationships, bosses, addictions, or mental breakdowns (not until later, anyway). Their sole focus is whatever manifestation of cosmic horror HPL wants to show the reader. Even though I’ve read “The Call of Cthulhu” many times, I don’t remember the main character’s name. And that doesn’t even matter.

So what elements are needed in a story of Lovecraftian horror?

  • A main character with an orderly, unremarkable life without extremes or hazards, but who is alert and articulate. This person is a happy solitary, a single academic or similar. Not someone with a lot of people in their immediate surroundings. First person or close third person p.o.v.
  • A richly imagined setting. It could be almost anywhere, but should be realistic, to make its eventual wrongness seem, well, wrong.
  • A subtle and gradually increasing sense of wrongness in the surroundings.
  • An eventual sense of isolation of the narrator or p.o.v. character, brought about by the discovery of the cosmic horror.
  • A creeping sense of existential peril as a result of recognizing the cosmic horror.
  • The precise nature of the horror is never fully revealed (even when there are tentacles).
  • Destruction or madness of the p.o.v. character as the result of interaction with the cosmic horror. Note: there is no doubt that the character was sane at the beginning. This is not “unreliable narrator” territory.

A perfect example of this type of story is “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. It’s a novella originally published in 1907, and so precedes Lovecraft’s stories by a couple of decades. In fact, HPL cites it in his study Supernatural Horror in Literature as one of the finest pieces of writing in that genre. “The Willows” has all the elements I have listed. The characters are two ordinary guys on a canoe trip down the Danube River. The narrator is unnamed, and his companion is referred to only as “the Swede.” The only conflict between them is about the significance of phenomena observed in their camp on a tiny island in the river, overgrown with willow bushes. The narrator believes he is more sensitive to subtle influences than the oblivious Swede. Gradually, he becomes aware this is not so. Trust me, the story is subtly terrifying, even without a tentacle in sight.

Before I put away my pen and computer for good, I still hope to write a truly Lovecraftian story. One day I’ll re-read this post and take a shot at doing just that.

(If they let me.)

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41 comments

  1. A interesting blog , an antidote to grounded thoughts of pumpkin heads. Wouldnโ€™t it be fun if speakers and world leaders this weekend just lost it and cried out โ€˜What are we all doing here anyway, what is OUT there?โ€™

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree with this. Cosmic horror and conspiracy theory stories have quite a bit in common. Namely, both usually have a lone protagonist gradually uncovering a chain of events that points to a huge, powerful, but nearly-invisible force in the world.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Audrey. I’ve never read any Lovecraft. So many wonderful writers to catch up with. The way you describe his style, he sounds a bit like William Hope Hodgeson, whose “House on the Borderland” (1908), scared the life out of me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I think Hodgson is one of the writers whose works are similar to Lovecraft’s. I read The House on the Borderland years ago, but admit I don’t remember much of it. I have also read his The Night Land, which is interesting in a uniquely shuddersome way, although the rather saccharine romance is a bit irritating.

      Like

  3. Excellent homage to Lovecraft Audrey (and I had to drag myself away from the radio programme…it’s on my favourites to return to).
    At last I am returning to reading fiction books; have commenced with Herbert West – ‘Friendship of Mortals’ and am enjoying your own style of Lovecraftian.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never read Lovecraft – I’ve never been attracted to horror – and my books are more like yours – character based. I do have one character who fits some of the criteria above. Ian Glencrosse is undeniably sane in the beginning, but is unhnged by the discovery of a “cosmic horror” whose nature is never fully revealed, only hinted at. (The horror could be only a mental aberration, which is why on the cover of “Fathers and Demons” I show the entity emerging from a brain.) Fortunately, a mythic explanation enables Ian to live with the horror, which he never really disavows.
    Capt. Nikalishin’s reaction to the horror at the end of Eagle Ascendant takes a more normal psychological course, devolving into galloping PTSD, which he is aultimately able to overcome with the help of many friends (and no thanks to his wife).
    And then there is my novella “Monster is in the Eye of the Beholder,” which is definitely not Lovecraftian, since the horror in the universe is Us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I quite agree that Homo sapiens is a horror. You have to wonder about a species that dubs itself “wise” and then carries on in ways that suggest otherwise.
      Your works are definitely character-based and too nuanced to warrant a single genre label.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What an odd coincidence…
    https://jttwissel.com/2021/10/29/dreads-and-fears-in-the-sensitive-soul/

    Which led me to find The Willows on Gutenberg Project and slam through it (way too much droning on about the island and the spookiness). But, I got the supernatural bit Algernon was trying to communicate.

    Yeah, the Universe is absurd and humans shouldn’t spend too much time trying to fathom the pointlessness of existence. Been there, done that — and wish I hadn’t.

    I just can’t get into reading HPL’s stuff. I enjoyed your TFoM, but prolly because of your characters — and your writing.

    Cthulhu is so… implausible, I can no longer brook outlandishness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure that “The Willows” would be a good one to read fast. You have to let it soak in. It scared me seriously when I was 12 or 13 (impressionable age, I know).
      Some of HPL’s stories are better than others. I liked “The Call of Cthulhu” up until the monster showed up. Wondering what might be is potentially more horrifying than seeing what is.
      And of course you saw Berthold Gambrel’s recent post about Carmilla.
      It’s the time of year to indulge in this stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t have the time or patience to have a writer tell me eighteen ways a river slows to a crawl. Or after the tenth time the sand divots are described.
        Well, you got a few more hours to luxuriate in loathsome ghastliness.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh my. I don’t think I could write a Lovecraft style story and stay sane so good luck! The setting for the Dunwich Horror is actually the area in Massachusetts where I was born but I try not to take offense. I just reread The Willows and I believe Blackwood is a bit less macabre than Lovecraft. Lovecraft is really able to ratchet up the disgust level! Happy Halloween!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a fascinating post, Audrey, and thank you for explaining cosmic horror so well. While I’ve known Lovecraft’s name for years, I’ve never read his work. Maybe I should start, and I’d certainly love to read whatever story you come up with in this genre!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I enjoyed your post. I’m a fan of Lovecraft and his colleagues at Weird Tales circa the 1920s and 1930s. Your critique of his work and description of what makes a story “Lovecraftian” is quite accurate. He was strong with mood, setting and big ideas, but struggled with dialogue, characterization, (all his characters are basically himself), and relationships among his characters. If you get a chance to read any of the major biographies of Lovecraft, (by Joshi or De Camp for example), you can get a deeper understanding of this author, who makes a fascinating “case study”.

    Liked by 1 person

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