Uncle Geekly’s trying something a little different with this week’s 3 List of 3. Let’s break down what makes a certain subgenre what it is and then list a few forms of media that do a good to great job of representing the subgenre.
We’ll start with cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian horror, or Cthulhu horror. I prefer the term cosmic horror because it’s not specific to the writer H. P. Lovecraft (who popularized the mode in the early 20th century) or his creation Cthulhu and focuses more on the concept of something larger or greater than mankind. Something that reaches beyond the stars and shows us how small man is and that mankind’s role in the universe is minor one.
There have been many waves of cosmic horror, several that predate Lovecraft, so we’ll cover what makes the horror cosmic.
What is Cosmic Horror?
An Unnamable Horror
I know that I just said that I prefer the term cosmic horror to Lovecraftian horror, but he did write in the mode a lot, and his work has laid the groundwork for future writers and other storytellers, so I’m starting with a quote from one of his short stories.
From H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Unnamable”
“No—it wasn’t that way at all. It was everywhere—a gelatin—a slime—yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes—and a blemish. It was the pit—the maelstrom—the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable.”
This description goes in several directions. It starts with some explainable forms “a gelatin, a slime, eyes, and a blemish,” but even these bounce from one aspect to another, never settling on anything for long. Then it shifts to something less tangible. “A thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. It was the pit—the maelstrom—the ultimate abomination.” And finally, it becomes a concept: the unnamable.
Readers aren’t supposed to know what the being is or what it looks like because the speaker can’t comprehend the being. The unnamable may as well be “the unknowable.” It’s far above humans and could crush them by stepping on them—that is if it had feet—and this feeds into man’s fear of the unknown.
It also feeds into the literary idea of the sublime, or the awe inspiring, and that’s probably why one could place the birth of cosmic horror in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is when humanity reordered its place in the cosmos (with its thinking, for example Immanuel Kant); it gave birth to Romantic poetry and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The sublime often ventures into the grotesque and in Frankenstein “The Creature’s” horrific outward appearance gets dwarfed only by how grotesque people treat the outsider. Man is trapped, unable to perceive something other or greater than himself, but at the same time, Dr. Frankenstein plays with things he’s not supposed to, and that’s another tenet of good cosmic horror: explore what man isn’t supposed to know.
Phew. Enough of that. Let’s get back to post 18th century.
Horror, not Fantasy
Horror versus fantasy rests at the center of why I don’t like using the term Lovecraftian horror. Most people use the term Lovecraftian fiction and that ignores a different subgenre branch: cosmic fantasy.
Sure. Cosmic fantasy dabbles with horror elements—the unknowable and powerful is innately scary—but while cosmic fantasy beings like the Endless from Neil Gailman’s Sandman could and may kill you if they wanted, the evil entity that sometimes appears as Pennywise the Dancing Clown from Stephen King’s IT will kill you with a smile on its face.
It’s an issue of malevolence versus benevolence or at least malevolence versus ambiguous or ambivalent. Come to think of it, I may have to do a writeup of cosmic fantasy too. Hmm.
Why Visual Mediums Struggle with Cosmic Horror
Okay. I cheated and included a why instead of a what, but it’s an important why. Movies, comics, and other visual mediums struggle at times depicting cosmic horror because the power of these beings come from the fact that they’re unknowable or unnamable.
As soon as a movie shows what the monster or creature looks like, they lose some—or all—of their power. There are a few modern examples of visual mediums getting it right and I’ll showcase some of them in the coming lists.
The Netflix original movie Birdbox sidesteps revealing its otherworldly beings by showing what they make people do. When people gaze upon the creatures in this film, they want to commit suicide in the fastest, most brutal way possible. If someone had mental issues before the creatures arrived, they’ll want to show people their true beauty, the awe inspiring, the sublime.
The most viewers see of the creatures in Birdbox comes from drawings by some of the people who want to show others their beauty. Not only does this eschew large production costs, it allows these creatures to retain their power. It’s effective, but not the only way to make this point.
John Carpenter’s The Thing shows movie goers its monster throughout most of its run time, but this being retains its power because it can assume any form: animals, humans, even inanimate objects. If something can have any form, it has no form. This adds to the film’s tension. Is a character talking to their friend, or The Thing?
The practical special effects may bring The Thing to life in gory detail, but the uncertainty it brings gives it its power.
Event Horizon may look out of place with the rest of the entries here because its characters don’t face an unknown as much as being thrust into hell. But is the black hole in this movie a scientific anomaly or a gateway to pure evil?
Regardless, the characters can’t understand what’s happening to them or comprehend their fate and they fear the unknown, which again, is at the heart of any good cosmic horror. They suffer their greatest pain and fear and that causes the evil in Event Horizon to take many shapes and forms.
I could go with the aforementioned IT, but I prefer Stephen King’s The Shining. Yes. This story could also be classified as psychological horror, a ghost story, or a Gothic novel, but it also makes a compelling cosmic horror tale. The spirits and what drive them go beyond the mortal plane, even if Jack’s alcoholism and anger feed into his homicidal tendencies. The Shining doesn’t attempt to answer why the Overlook wants to relive past trauma.
King is perhaps the best-known writer of this group and several of his novels and short stories could be classified as cosmic horror.
I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest Junji Ito fan, but Uzumaki—as does most of his other work—meets all the criteria of a cosmic horror story. An unforeseen force (similar to a curse) infects the people of Kurōzu-cho (or Black Vortex Town). They become obsessed with spirals or paranoid of them. One citizen even kills himself by bending his body into a spiral. Uzumaki has a knack for the grotesque and many people focus on Ito’s sublime and haunting images, but the pattern that makes it a cosmic horror story is the one where the people of Kurōzu-cho are doomed to repeat a cycle of the town collapsing under the spiral curse, only to be reborn.
It’s fascinating when one thinks of how important and positive many of the images and symbols that Uzumaki (Japanese for spiral) subverts. Spirals appear in comedies and represent warmth in manga. The same cannot be said of Uzumaki.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe
Oh. It’s time to go further down the weird spiral. Some literary critics classify Thomas Ligotti’s work as weird fiction, but his 1986 short story collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer and 1991’s Grimscribe: His Lives and Works are some of the closest we’ll get to true, modern cosmic horror. Penguin books republished these stories as one tome Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe and that’s what I’ve included in this list. They’re must reads for people interested in this subgenre.
The force that contaminates a town in “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” would make Cthulhu smile—if he could smile—and Ligotti references Lovecraft by name in “The Sect of the Idiot.” Unlike many other creative forces on this list, there’s a sense of authority to Ligotti’s work. While others play in a cosmic horror sandbox, he lives it and shares what he finds.
Like so many others of these lists I could keep going. One of our commenters Levi mentioned Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy (which is the basis for the movie Annihilation) and that in part, triggered this 3 List of 3. I have yet to read The Southern Reach Trilogy or watch Annihilation, but a lot of VanderMeer’s other work could qualify as weird fiction (like Ligotti’s work) or cosmic horror. I’m in the middle of reading VanderMeer’s Wonderbook (a writer’s guide); it looks like I may have some more reading in my future and that’s not a bad thing.
What are some of your favorite cosmic horror writers, directors, or artists? I’m okay with you mentioning them in comments but try not to invoke their name more than twice. I don’t want a portal to open on my computer; my ethernet cable isn’t fully insulated.