Cosmic Horror: The Chilling Realms of Lovecraftian Fiction

There are horrors beyond our comprehension in this universe and possibly others. At least, that’s a fundamental idea for most people intrigued by the unknown. And it’s an idea that has been cemented in our collective unconscious by the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937).

The famously problematic American author from Providence, Rhode Island, has been so influential that a subgenre of horror was named after him. He is known as the father of Cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian horror if you prefer.

The Essence of Cosmic Horror

H. P. Lovecraft’s work emphasized the insignificance and fragility of humanity in the face of vast, ancient, and incomprehensible forces from beyond our understanding.

As Lovecraft explored the concept of forbidden knowledge or forbidden texts, and the psychological effects of encountering the unknown and the horrifying realities that exist beyond the boundaries of human perception, he created a myth known as the Cthulhu Mythos. It features a pantheon of ancient and malevolent cosmic entities, such as Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and Azathoth. These deities and their associated myths form the backdrop for many of his stories as the characters often grapple with their own sanity as they witness or uncover unfathomable horrors.

H. P. Lovecraft’s writing style is characterized by intricate and atmospheric prose, which creates a sense of dread, awe, and the unknown. His vivid descriptions of ancient cities, grotesque creatures, and surreal landscapes contribute to the immersive and chilling nature of his stories—a number of them take place in the fictional New England setting of Arkham, Innsmouth, and Kingsport.

Not for the faint of heart, his body of work will do more than just give you the shivers, it will also psychology haunt you with the fatalistic notion of being insignificantly helpless.

Additionally, it must be noted that the trigger warning you may add to the opening of his stories applies not only to the story’s frightening content but also to the fact that his writing displays his prejudice against non-white races and civilizations.

What is The Cthulu Mythos?

The fictional entity introduced in the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” first published in the magazine Weird Tales in 1928, Cthulhu is “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”

According to legend, Cthulhu is the priest or chief of the Old Ones, a race that arrived on Earth from the stars before the emergence of human life. The Old Ones went slumber, and their metropolis disappeared beneath the Pacific Ocean in the Earth’s crust. They used telepathy to speak with people, and in remote parts of the globe, primitive tribes recalled and worshiped Cthulhu through repulsive rituals. These groups chanted the phrase “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming” and displayed statues of Cthulhu that appeared to be made of materials that are not common on Earth. When the time is ripe, the city will rise, and Cthulhu will awaken and once more dominate the earth with the aid of the everlasting Cthulhu cult.

Built around that, the Cthulu Mythos was developed through multiple short stories. The first ones were written by H. P. Lovecraft, but his friends and colleagues, including August Derleth, who coined the term Cthulu Mythos, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard, contributed to the creation of the mythopoeia by incorporating and developing aspects of the Cult into their own stories as though they were real.

Beyond Lovecraft: The Expansion of Cosmic Horror

By letting other writers of his time borrow from him, Lovecraft’s style and ideas became rapidly influential among fans and authors of the horror genre.

In the wake of Lovecraft’s legacy, cosmic horror continued to captivate and inspire writers, leading to a flourishing of the genre in both literary and multimedia forms.

Contemporary authors have expanded the boundaries of cosmic horror, infusing it with their own unique visions. Caitlin R. Kiernan (Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart) mixes cosmic horror with gothic themes to explore the disturbing unknowns of the world. Thomas Ligotti (Songs of a Dead Dreamer) is noted for his dark and philosophical take on cosmic horror. Laird Barron (The Croning) combines cosmic horror with aspects of noir and supernatural mystery, whereas Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series combines cosmic horror with elements of espionage and humor. The influence of Lovecraft is also apparent in the comic book industry, notably in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe, as well as Alan Moore’s work and his Providence series.

While staying true to the core themes of existential dread, the insignificance of humanity in the face of cosmic entities, and the fragility of sanity, these writers have introduced fresh perspectives and narratives that resonate with modern audiences.

Furthermore, the influence of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror can be seen in various forms of media beyond literature. Films, video games, and tabletop role-playing games have embraced the themes and aesthetics of cosmic horror, allowing audiences to immerse themselves in terrifying and otherworldly experiences.