By Grant Smuts
I have seen the dark universe yawning,
where the black planets roll without aim;
where they roll in their horror unheeded,
without knowledge, or lustre or name.
-‘Nemesis’, HP Lovecraft
Imagine, if you will, a universe where the tiniest hope for humanity’s future is blind ignorance, where the madmen screaming ‘the end is nigh’ are the only ones with a clue, and too much curiosity about the true nature of the world is a precursor to madness and death.
Imagine a universe where humanity is preyed on by all kinds of inconceivable horrors, and where our hopes, dreams and ideals are cruel delusions, a universe ruled by eldritch abominations from the depths of space, long ago. Nor are they dead, they are merely waiting, and will wake soon, and render all of mankind’s achievements vain.
And even in the time before their resurrection, danger and horror lurks just beyond our doorstep – terror and madness waits on every corner, dark cults, strange monstrosities, truths so terrible that none can comprehend them and remain sane.
Demons haunt hidden passages beneath your feet, parasites and worms lurk unseen in whatever food you dare to put in your mouth. Ghosts hover unseen and unheard about you, mocking your every thought and secret. A vile alien disease lurks in the recesses of your family tree, a genetic time bomb just waiting to go off…
This was the vision of HP Lovecraft, the pioneer of the cosmic horror genre. This type of story doesn’t try to scare you with big scary monsters – though it does have those – but instead, it attempts to depress you with the fatalistic implication of being completely and utterly powerless in the face of these vast, superior and fundamentally unknowable alien entities.
Lovecraft was not alone in crafting the mythos – he worked closely with Clarke Ashton Smith, another short story virtuoso who inspired many, and he himself was inspired by a book written by Robert W. Chambers, called The King in Yellow.
Central to the cosmic horror story (at least, as Lovecraft intended it) is this idea of a cosmic cycle, in which the enormous alien entities alternate between waking and slumber. When the stars are right, they rise and inspire madness, worship and death (often in that order, too). But when the stars were not aligned, they could not live, instead binding themselves in slumber in great vaults beneath the earth and the oceans.
Most famous of these is the Great Old One, known as Cthulhu, stated to both number among the Great Old Ones and to be their high priest – the one who will resurrect the others when the stars are right. Cthulhu emits a constant psychic call, inspiring cults across the world, even as he himself lies bound in slumber in the sunken city of R’lyeh (think a nightmare version of Atlantis).
While these cults vary across the world, one phrase remains particular to all of them:
“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Despite common misconceptions of him (and despite modern depictions and the endless fanart), however, Cthulhu was not the most important of the Old Ones, nor the most powerful – but his focal story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is considered among the most memorable of Lovecraft’s tales, and the term ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ was coined by August Derleth, a later (and extremely divisive) contributor to the mythos, choosing Cthulhu as the central point of the stories.
It should be noted that Lovecraft himself often referred to his stories as the Yog-Sothoth Cycle, Yog-Sothoth being the most powerful of the Old Ones (along with Azathoth).
“Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.”
Out of all the Great Old Ones, Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth are the ones most akin to true gods, being related to space-time and radiation respectively; and both are capable of unravelling worlds with a thought, while the lesser entities plunge from world to world between the cycles, then to wreak havoc and rule when they wake.
An important thing to note about Cosmic Horror and why it is so effective is that it relies heavily on a certain level of misanthropy. Lovecraft himself believed in a cosmic indifferentism, believing in a mechanical, purposeless and uncaring universe that human beings, with their limited faculties, could never understand, and the cognitive dissonance caused by this leads to insanity. By extension, in his works, humanity is defined as small, brief and incapable of perceiving reality, and there is nothing in their knowledge or their sciences that would allow them to even countenance the Great Old Ones or the truths they bear.
Since Lovecraft and his direct successors, there have been no authors to fully embrace the tradition of cosmic horror again, although many modern books and authors contain elements of the genre without an absolute devotion to it. Cosmic Horror, with all its rich potential, has also more recently entered the world of video gaming.
Works depicting the Cosmic Horror Genre
- The King in Yellow, by Robert W Chambers – a precursor to the genre as a whole, being the one who inspired Lovecraft.
Weird Tales – the works of Lovecraft and Clarke Ashton Smith most notably, though several other writers succeeded them and contributed to the mythos, building it into what it is today.
- The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock was a marriage of high fantasy and cosmic horror.
- Skins of the Fathers, in the Books of Blood series by Clive Barker – one of the few modern works to embody cosmic horror
- House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, an excellent example.
- Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, often faces off against Shuma Gorath (who bears some resemblance to Yog-Sothoth, incidentally), one of the ‘Many-Angled Ones’ – vast extra-dimensional entities more powerful than many of Marvel’strongest villains. However, as their essence is tied to their own plane, their power is limited when they operate on the mortal sphere, as indicated by their much smaller size. Important to note is that the Many-Angled Ones are officially a part of the Lovecraft’s mythology.
(Unmarked spoilers ahead. Tread carefully)
- Mass Effect – while initially seeming a vast space opera, the Eldritch Abominations soon reveal themselves in the shape of Reapers – vast, unknown AI existing in an inaccessible location to mundane civilizations. They even operate on a cycle – every 50 000 years they emerge from Dark Space to ‘reap’ sufficiently advanced civilizations.
- Dark Souls – the presence of the Dark makes the entire setting this. In humans, it manifests as the Dark Sign, a curse which leaves the victim in a state of undeath, slowly losing their minds and becoming hollows. For gods or those without the Dark Sign, it transforms them into monstrous entities.
- Bloodborne – perhaps the most triumphant example of a classic cosmic horror depiction in a video-game. The city of Yharnam is essentially a playground for the Old Ones – humans go insane with bloodlust or fury, and those that are left sane are picked off one-by-one. There are several cults and factions that no one has any clue about, each bloodthirsty and willing to sacrifice anyone for the sake of the Old Ones they worship. Enforced by gameplay mechanics in that, for the most part, the eldritch nature of the world cannot be seen without ‘Insight’ – defined as a deepening knowledge of the true reality of the world around you. Notably, everything in the game becomes far more dangerous once one gains sufficient Insight. This isn’t even getting to the fact that the entire city is a mass-hallucination/dream wrought by the Great Old Ones for their own dark purpose.
Other Notable References:
- Steven King’s works often contain elements of this genre, with the stories IT and Skeleton Crew being good examples.
- Neil Gaimain’s How to Talk to girls at Parties, is an interesting, almost tongue-in-cheek version, where the narrator ends up at the wrong party, flirting with girls who turn out to be the anthropomorphic personifications of frickin PLANETS.
- The western animation Samurai Jack has several hints of this throughout the series.