Monday, July 28, 2014

DM's Field Guide to Dark Fiction - Cosmic Horror

Posted by LD Keach on Monday, July 28, 2014

genus: ia ia
order: Terror
also called: Lovecraftian Horror, Metaphysical horror, Existential horror

Common traits – In Cosmic Horror, something exists beyond our mortal plane, and it is too awful to comprehend. Whether it is unintelligible beings floating out of space or hideous ancient gods sleeping deep within the earth, these cosmic horrors are alien and terrifying to behold. One look upon their otherworldly visages will drive a character totally batnuts. These existential horrors are not so much evil as they are cold and completely anti-human, and so they call into question the very meaning of human life—people are as insignificant hiccups in a larger cosmos that is chaotic and unfeeling towards human plight. For this reason, the human animal should be quite thankful it is unable to “correlate all the contents” of the cosmos and just try not to read that book or dig up any ancient relics. The only other option is to set up a cult and worship the otherworldly being, which happens a lot too.

Historical sightings – While many of writers throughout history have contemplated the horrors of the cosmos, cosmic horror has its roots in the works of H.P. Lovecraft—so much so, that it’s often called “Lovecraftian” horror. The linage of cosmic horror can be traced in-step with Weird Tales; the two subgenres are not so much siblings as they are conjoined twins. In Lovecraft’s prolific Weird Tale career, he built his now-famous Cthulhu mythos, which was said to be inspired heavily by Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow and his rampant xenophobia.

Over the years, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos spread like crazy, partially thanks to his willingness to share the mythos with other writers. The “Lovecraft circle” was comprised of writers such as August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber. It was a brilliant marketing move because readers of the time were exposed slowly to an organized mythos shared across several stories, and this helped promote the uncanny feeling that maybe these stories weren’t as fictional as they seemed—maybe the elder gods would wake up and nibble everyone, no matter what distant shores they hailed from.

Modern habitats – Many modern markets that thrive on Weird Tales and Sci Fi- Horror stories would likely not be opposed to new cosmic horror or existential horror in various forms. But, tread carefully; Cthulhu himself has become a bit of a running gag. Some markets still work in the grand tradition of the Cthulhu mythos, just like Lovecraft and Derleth did back in the early 20th century: Markets like Lovecraft e-zine and Martian Migraine press will either actively seek stories within the Cthulhu mythos or tales of an overall Lovecraftian bent for anthologies or serial publication. Publishers like Three Lobed Burning Eye and Dagan Books derive their names from mythos, (although new takes on the Lovecraftian atmosphere are most likely going to be better accepted in such demanding markets). Otherwise, Cthulhu is seen everywhere now from webcomics to coffee mugs, so unless the market specifically asks for “mythos” or “Lovecraftian,” it’s safe to say that wise writers will come up with a new kind of cosmic being to terrify mere mortals with.

See also: Introduction