Algernon Blackwood

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 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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Spooks and Speculation: Stories For All-Hallows Eve

Those of us who aren’t 100% occupied with writing books or blog posts may want something suitable to read by the fireplace between visits by trick-or-treaters. I recently found myself thinking about stories of ghosts and the unexplained, and decided to come up with a list for the blog.

I read most of these stories years ago but had no trouble remembering them. Looking in the anthologies in which they live, I see many other stories that have left no trace in my memory. Maybe that speaks ill of said memory, but I prefer to think the stories I remember are more readworthy than the others.

Two come from a book rescued from a dumpster, its spine ripped off. It’s called 50 Years of Ghost Stories, and was published by Hutchinson of London in 1935 (1959 printing). “The Rosewood Door” by Oliver Onions (1873-1961) is played out in the civilized setting of an English country house. A curious door salvaged from a house being demolished seems like just the thing, but it comes with a disturbing history that meshes tragically with the lighthearted atmosphere of an early 20th century gathering of upper-class Londoners. Oliver Onions is also the author of “The Beckoning Fair One,” a story of quietly growing horror and ruin.

Another story from the battered book is “The Library Window” by Mrs. Oliphant (1828-1897). This is a poignant tale of a girl’s first love, that happens on a visit to an elderly aunt in a quiet Scottish town. The story is full of atmosphere and emotion, with beguiling descriptions of long summer evenings in which almost nothing happens. Except there is a window in the College Library across the street, and a room behind it, and a young man… Or maybe not. This is one of those stories that lingers in memory long after it’s read.

Now to a fat anthology called Black Water, edited by the Canadian man of letters, Alberto Manguel. It’s packed with a wealth of “fantastic literature,” as the subtitle states, but the story I recalled from it most vividly is “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” by Robert S. Hichens (1864-1950). A professor who has no use for affection finds it inflicted upon him in a disturbing way. The nature of the phenomenon is never precisely defined, which makes it all the more intriguing and sinister, and a parrot plays a unique role in the revelation.

No selection of scary stories is complete without at least one mention of Stephen King. He is a master at creating real, memorable characters who are far more than vehicles for a plot. He then visits these people with sorrow and horror. A prime example of this is his novel Pet Sematary, but a story with the same flavour is “Sometimes They Come Back,” from a 1979 collection called Night Shift. A high school English teacher turns to black magic after a devastating loss that echoes a similar loss in his childhood. King’s experience as a teacher comes through strongly in this story. In the same collection is another well-crafted tale called “Strawberry Spring.” It vividly conveys the atmosphere of a New England college town where a serial killer is at work, complete with a slap-in-the-face surprise ending.

There are many collections of supposedly true ghost stories around, many with a geographical focus. Such is a slim volume called Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan by Jo-Anne Christensen. Having lived in that Canadian province for twelve years, I bought the book out of nostalgia. One story is incredibly creepy. “Mystery at the Moose Head” tells of multiple strange incidents in the early 1990s at the Moose Head Inn, a popular dine-and-dance spot on Kenosee Lake. The number and frequency, and the fact that many people experienced these things (noises, electrical malfunctions, locks and doors acting up) attracted attention from newspapers and television stations. The owner and his girlfriend lived in an apartment upstairs. After an especially disturbing manifestation, the girlfriend moved out. The owner stayed on, however…

Finally, I must recommend my all-time favourite fear-inducing story: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). I wrote a blog post about this tale a while ago, with a plot summary and my thoughts on why it works so well.

A final thought — the word “haunted” is more effective in inducing fear than the word “ghost,” maybe because “ghost” sounds concrete, while “haunted” provokes the question, “By what?”



The Most Terrifying Story

Among the books and stories I have read, the prize for “most terrifying” goes to… “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood!

Published in 1907, this novella was noted by H.P. Lovecraft in his treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature as a superior example of the terror tale. The story certainly terrified me when I first read it at age 12, and even now, decades later, certain passages from it can bring back a feeling of profound and irredeemable fear. Inducing such fear, of course, is the whole point of horror or weird fiction.

Let’s just have a look at the necessary qualities of this fiction genre. First of all, the author must achieve a feeling of fundamental wrongness in the environment of the main character, or in that character him- or herself. This wrongness must reach out and envelope the reader, who then shares the dislocation of reality and experiences vicariously the state of having no clue as to how to change the situation — a situation which ultimately threatens the well-being or the very existence of the character.

The wrongness or strangeness may be intriguing at first, beguiling even, but eventually it becomes threatening, dangerous, terrifying. We (the fictitious character and the reader) recognize a deadly danger, without knowing what it is or how to deal with it. The result is a fundamental dislocation and isolation.

“The Willows” meets all these criteria to perfection, which is why it is surely one of the most terrifying stories I have ever read. Two friends — young men of the type encountered in English fiction of the early 20th century — are on a canoeing and camping trip on the Danube River. Somewhere beyond Austria, where the river passes through what is now the borderland between Slovakia and Hungary, they enter a region of shifting sandbars and temporary islands overgrown with willows. They camp on one of the islands, and experience a series of minor mishaps and odd occurrences that keep them there an additional night.

At first the narrator feels a strange charm in their physical surroundings — the remoteness, the strong “personality” of the river whose every mood they have come to know, representing wild nature at its finest — and especially the overwhelming presence of the willows. With time, an inexplicable unease develops, but he keeps it to himself because he thinks his companion (known only as “the Swede”) is too unimaginative to appreciate subtle emotions. This has the effect of isolating the narrator with his fears and increasing the tension.

The individual events the campers experience while on the island are not particularly shocking — the sight of a man in a boat making warning signs and crossing himself before vanishing in the distance, a swimming otter that seems to look at them strangely, a missing canoe paddle and a tear in the bottom of their canoe that must be repaired before they can continue their journey, foodstuffs and supplies that seem oddly diminished — but as they add up, the feeling of wrongness becomes undeniable. It builds up gradually while the narrator keeps his fears to himself, but bursts out into terror on the second night, when the two men begin to share their perceptions. By that time, the narrator has seen something inexplicable during the previous night, and has also begun to hear an unaccountable ringing or humming sound that comes and goes.

During the conversation within the safe circle of light cast by the campfire, one of the characters utters sentences that still make me shiver: “All my life,” he said, “I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region — not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind — where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs … are all as dust in the balance — vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul…” Just typing this out, more than forty years since I first read it, brings back the acute fear I felt then.

And another sentence that has never left me: “To name is to reveal.”

So I won’t say how the story ends, but I must point out the characteristic that makes this tale so disturbing: at no time is the source of terror made explicit. From start to finish it remains amorphous and veiled. To me, this is crucial. The moment the horror is revealed, no matter how evil, grotesque or huge, it loses a great deal of its power. Once you see the tentacles, the thing-to-be-feared changes from an unknown, possibly unknowable it-could-be-anything to… a thing with tentacles. Which may be terrifying, but it’s a terrifying something.