Many genres of fiction focus on unanswered questions. However, the allegory is rather used to create stories that vividly illustrate great truths in a clear and forceful way. I use the term “great truths” to refer to those ideas that are central to the way the author looks at the universe, many of these ideas have been hotly contested since the beginning of time.
Cosmic horror is the allegorical fiction of a particular brand of hard core Rationalism, most forcefully pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft. It attempts to illustrate the emptiness of human existence and the meaningless, indifferent nature of the cosmos, not using math, logic or philosophy but rather through the careful application of pure dread. Whether that is because dread was what Lovecraft felt was the most enlightening human emotion or simply because Lovecraft thought it was most likely to produce the desired reaction in his intended audience is unclear.
A few quick notes before we go on. First, like all brands of mythology, cosmic horror has gained a great deal of popular acceptance over the years, although it’s still much more obscure than many other flavors. However, just as the movie Clash of the Titans had little in common with Greek mythology, most aspects of cosmic horror that are used in pop culture today have little to nothing in common with cosmic horror. Don’t be surprised if what I describe sounds nothing like the stories about squidheaded Old Ones you’ve heard before. If you’ve no clue what that even means and/or you’ve never read any Lovecraft, Nylarthotep is a decent primer.
Second, like all brands of fundamentalist religion, cosmic horror is not representative of the whole or even the majority of Rationalist thought. However, also like most brands of fundamentalism, it does show what core ideas look like in their most undiluted form.
Third, debating the validity of core ideas is not what the Internet is best for. While I am going to point out what look, to me, like weaknesses in cosmic horror as a storytelling platform, deconstructing an analyzing the systems of thought behind the genre is not my purpose here. It’s way outside the scope of a single blog post. That said, I’m sure one of the reasons I dislike cosmic horror as a genre so much is that I also find the ideas it’s founded on to be… lacking. I do have a bias when writing this, so keep it in mind.
So what defines this obviously very difficult genre of fiction?
1. A strong emphasis on the insignificance, helplessness and doomed nature of mankind. Lovecraft didn’t think much of humanity, looked on them as something of a cosmic accident. They had stumbled onto Earth with their bizarre ideas of reason, purpose and civilization and proceeded to muck everything up. Fortunately, they were constrained by their nature and doomed to an inevitable fall back into what they had originally come from – primal instinct and savagery. These instincts are programmed into man, and he cannot escape them no matter how he tries.
2. Powerful, incomprehensible, amoral and uncaring beings, usually aliens, that exist and sometimes tinker with humanity in some way. Probably Lovecraft’s most enduring creation, the great Old Ones were what he considered the nearest thing to gods to exist, in fact they were often portrayed as at the center of cults and possibly even as the inspiration for major world religions now and in the past. These creatures don’t care anything about what their activities do to mankind, they may not even realize we exist, and if they did we are so different that there is no way we could relate to one another. Humanity is helpless before them, we survive only because the stars have aligned in such a way as to thwart their activities and lock them away. (How such incredibly powerful beings could fail to predict and allow for the mathematically logical movements of stellar bodies is unclear.) So powerful and strange are these creatures that just encountering them drives people insane.
3. An emphasis on occult knowledge. Which is to say, the “truth” of the universe is known only to a select few. These people have delved “too deeply” into some field of knowledge, gone exploring where they should not or studied some arcane, forgotten document and thus been exposed to the truth. These truths will ultimately destroy those who know them, but ignorance is no defense, offering only a false sense of security. Characters are predestined for destruction whether they know the truth or not.
What are the weaknesses of cosmic horror? Well, if I got going we’d be here all day, so I’ll try and just hit what I feel are the top three.
Poor characters. While the protagonists in cosmic horror are usually well educated, articulate or at least worldly men, the emphasis on their total inability to accomplish anything of note really cuts them off at the knees. Ultimately they’re unimportant, so why bother getting to know them? Whether because of the nature of the genre or simply because cosmic horror authors rarely learn to develop good characters, there’s rarely anyone you can relate to in a cosmic horror story. This stems, at least in part, from the constraints the genre puts on human characters.
Poor conflict. The greatest threat to humanity is often the Old Ones, beings so immense in potential that they are to humanity as we are to microbes – they are totally beyond our ability to trouble in any way.
ASIDE: I’m not sure if this analogy is original to Lovecraft, I haven’t read his full body of work, but just about every other cosmic horror writer uses it, so I suspect it is. Regardless it’s a bad one, considering viruses, the smallest of microbes, have probably killed more human beings than war and famine combined… END ASIDE
Back to the conflict part. Since part of the conceit is that Old Ones drive people insane, just being around them effectively ends the story. Cultists are sometimes used as proxies, but in the end they’re just as big dupes as the main characters are. The Old Ones are inscrutable, with aims supposedly beyond human knowing, and totally indifferent to humanity. So, by the same token, clever manipulation or direct hostility on the part of the Old One is out the window as a source of conflict.
Most conflict in cosmic horror consists of the main character(s) trying to escape his fate and finding he can’t. This usually takes the form of the environment reshaping itself to prevent it or the character simply being restrained by inexplicable forces. When the character’s reason or the advice of others plays any part in moving him towards his doom he usually repents of it later, only to find he was trapped by predestination, his birth or the wonderful invisible hand all along.
With all these forgone conclusions built into the genre, there’s very little in the way of doubt about the ending. You just sort of sit there and wait for the hammer to fall. It might be kind of entertaining the first time or two, but it doesn’t really hold up well.
Poor analogies. You would think, after nearly a century of existence, the genre would have come up with some new ways to describe the influence of its prime characters.
But no. There are some phrases the genre simply cannot seem to get away from. Unnatural or non-Euclidean geometries. Fleshy tentacles. A feeling of immense presence or intellect. These analogies are evocative, if vague. Lovecraft himself coined a number of other very nice phrases to explain specific instances. A color out of space is probably the best. However, the genre’s very insistence on experiences that defy reason and rely on occult understanding make it a very poor genre for explaining things. You must either experience it and be equipped to understand, the cosmic writer seems to insist, or you will merely be another one of those deluded fools who can’t handle the truth.
Now it may sound like I’ve just said that the very things that define the genre are part of what make it a weak form of fiction. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m saying. The tropes and devices of the genre actually work to undermine it’s storytelling potential – just one of many reasons I dislike it.
What are the strength of cosmic horror? If done correctly, and the reason most people mention Lovecraft as their example first, last and always is that he’s one of the few people to have done it correctly, cosmic horror is really, really scary. Not in the, “something jumps out of the closet and yells boo” kind of a way, nor in the, “look, there are zombies everywhere” kind of a way. Rather, in the, “something under the bed is drooling” kind of a way. You know it’s out there, and that it’s coming for you. But what are you going to do about it? Nothing! HAH! Because there’s nothing you can do!
Ultimately, there’s not much to recommend cosmic horror. Sure, existential dread is great if you’re an angsty teen or an overly intelligent author who never seems to have developed sympathy for your fellow, less intelligent man, but in the end, even if the allegories it presents us with are true, thinking about it overmuch doesn’t get us anywhere any more than worrying about our gray hairs will make them go away or stop them from coming. I have better uses for my time, and you probably do, too.