Beneath and Beyond: Cosmic Horror Returns

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Readers unfamiliar with the literature of horror naturally must tend to regard every entry in that genre as essentially the same type of thing. After all, the very definition of the category is simple and all-encompassing, even somewhat tautological: stories that make us feel horrified. But the typical human can be horrified at a number of things, in a number of ways, and the literature reflects and supports these subtle divisions. In fact, the critic John Clute, in his The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, has attempted just such a taxonomy of the genre and its tools and effects. (My categories below do not embody his precision or insights.)

And so we have horror that features no supernatural elements, where the antagonist is purely natural: a serial killer, a storm, a lion. We have horror where elements outside the purview of science predominate: ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and their more outré cousins. We have science fictional horror, such as the movie Alien or Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Actually, as a flavoring, horror can be added to just about any other genre: westerns, historical novels, spy novels.) We have “body horror,” or splatterpunk, where the emphasis is on those fragile vessels in which our consciousnesses move around, the gory ends they might meet, or simply the uncanny strangeness of having a body at all. We have religious horror, where theologies old and new come into play. We have psychological horror, where much of the terror has no physical manifestation at all but is purely in the head.

And then there is cosmic horror, often known as Lovecraftian horror, after its most famous codifier and exponent. Cosmic horror arises out of the Enlightenment, when humanity’s old place at the center of a caring, comprehensible universe was shattered, and our species was revealed as a tiny aberration in a hostile or indifferent or unknowable universe of vast forces. The progress of science since then has done nothing but reinforce that paradigm, making cosmic horror more relevant than ever. It’s an existential kind of terror, regardless of its variable objective correlatives, such as Lovecraft’s repulsive Cthulhu or the alien predator who uses sex for bait in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. Cosmic horror tunes in to the sourceless 3:00 a.m. dread even the most secure of us can feel, with no proximate cause.

For a primer in this branch of horror, you could not do better than to pick up two volumes from the New York Review of Books Classics series. The first, Shadows of Carcosa, offers a wide spectrum of authors, while the second, The Rim of Morning, zeroes in on a single writer unjustly forgotten. Together, they go a long way toward illustrating just what cosmic horror means.

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Edited by the mysterious D. Thin, Shadows of Carcosa tours the historical foundations of cosmic horror, with its first selection dating from 1833 and its last from 1927. As such, the stories herein sometimes do not fit the more sophisticated contemporary cosmic horror template as neatly as do later tales from living writers. Nonetheless, each reveals a valuable part of the portrait.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” chronicles the strange fate of a man deposited upon a kind of Flying Dutchman vessel. “The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew glides to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries . . . We are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge — some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.” The sensation of a temporal abyss is matched by the ambiance of physical desolation and isolation.

The depiction of senseless violence followed by gruesome retribution in Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw” harks to the hidden workings of some universal balance, whereby an animal’s life is fully equal to that of a human; while Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master,” about a murderous android of sorts, completes the equation that renders man less than the crown of creation.

Two further stories by Bierce show why he was so seminal to the form. “The Damned Thing” presupposes a previously undetected type of life sharing the planet with us, putting mankind in the role of prey. The spirit of Charles Fort looks on approvingly. And “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” is almost a prose poem, invoking the spirit of Lord Dunsany’s exotic otherworldly subcreations before that latter fellow had perfected the mode.

The legacy of Robert W. Chambers, long kept alive only among genre fans, has assumed larger proportions these days, thanks to the adoption of his texts by the TV show True Detective. Readers can sample firsthand the eerie effects he achieved in “The Repairer of Reputations.” Narrated by a madman — and the insanity that follows terrifying revelations is a theme throughout the anthology — the story riffs on “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” firmly establishing the interlinked continuity of cosmic horror that lends the mode a shared substantiality.

In “The House of Sounds,” M. P. Shiel takes us to a remote island where a curious ancestral home induces madness. “The house moved. My flesh worked like the flesh of worms that squirm.” As with so many protagonists in cosmic horror, our narrator is left alive but gibbering.

The next two stories are so essential to the genesis of this mode that they could almost serve alone as formative models. Arthur Machen’s “The White People” prefigures both Freud and outsider artist Henry Darger in its demented, almost stream-of-consciousness fragments of a young girl’s journal. Her account of a surreal fantasy world takes the previous gentle whimsy of George MacDonald and makes it truly horrific. And in “The Willows,” Algernon Blackwood codifies a core tenet of cosmic horror, the intersection of incongruent realities:

“All my life,” he said, “I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region — not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind — where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires, the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with more expressions of the soul . . .

“You think,” he said, “it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is — neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about us have absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own.”

To find the name of Henry James in this company is not utterly surprising, given his fame for the chilling The Turn of the Screw. But less well known is his “The Jolly Corner.” With his inimitable lucid yet convoluted gravitas, James details the psychology of a man who by sheer force of intentionality causes a rift in space-time, allowing him to peer across the multiverse at a counterfactual self.

The cruelly jesting spirit of Saki, another early occasional contributor to cosmic horror, is shared by Walter de la Mare in “Seaton’s Aunt.” The aunt of the title resembles those suborned humans from Lovecraft’s tales who have sold their souls to elder forces. A kind of lamia or succubus, she instills in her hapless nephew the same sense of alienation found in the Blackwood story.

“And it always seems to me,” he went on ruminatingly, “that, after all, we are nothing better than interlopers on the earth, disfiguring and staining wherever we go. I know it’s shocking blasphemy to say so, but then it’s different here, you see. We are farther away.”

And to conclude with a climactic sense of true attainment of a vision, we come to the pure quill, H. P. Lovecraft and “The Colour Out of Space.” The tale of the cursed meteorite that fell to the Gardner farm is remorseless and inexorable, the pattern for hundreds of queasy contaminations to follow. But in his merciless ruination of the Gardners, Lovecraft exhibits, I think, the essence of the true cosmic horror writer: a lofty, droll perspective on the grand jokes the universe plays on Homo sapiens.

Thaddeus went mad in September after a visit to the well. He had gone with a pail and had come back empty-handed, shrieking and waving his arms, and sometimes lapsing into an inane titter or a whisper about “the moving colours down there.” Two in one family was pretty bad, but Nahum was very brave about it. He let the boy run about for a week until he began stumbling and hurting himself, and then he shut him in an attic room across the hall from his mother’s. The way they screamed at each other from behind their locked doors was very terrible, especially to little Merwin, who fancied they talked in some terrible language that was not of earth. Merwin was getting frightfully imaginative, and his restlessness was worse after the shutting away of the brother who had been his greatest playmate.

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William Sloane (1906–74) was an old-school man of letters, earning his way as playwright, editor, and all-round belle-lettrist. Along the way, he found time and inclination to write two novels that have been regarded as cult classics for decades. Many are the fans of a certain age, myself included, who sought out in secondhand stores the twenty-five-cent paperback versions from Dell, or one of the other, later, almost covert printings, to be kept and cherished far beyond the cover price.

Now these two books — To Walk the Night (1937) and The Edge of Running Water (1939) — return in a handy omnibus titled The Rim of Morning, with a salient introduction by Stephen King, to astound a new generation of readers.

Released hard on the heels of Lovecraft’s unheralded, ignominious death, when his literary and personal influence was restricted to the small crowd around Weird Tales magazine and its outer orbits, the two books could hardly be said to follow knowingly in his footsteps. And yet there is something decidedly Lovecraftian about them — with significant variations — and hence they are signatory to the cosmic horror school.

To Walk the Night tells the strange story of Selena LeNormand. The young, gorgeous, yet oddly maladroit widow of an elderly bachelor-type physics professor who dies under mysterious circumstances, Selena next sets her hooks for one of the professor’s ex-students, Jerry Lister. Their subsequent romantic affiliation leads to Jerry’s suicide — a tragedy we learn about in the first few pages of the book, as Jerry’s friend, Bark Jones, returns to the ancestral estate with Jerry’s ashes to inform Jerry’s father of the outcome of the tainted marriage. In a neatly structured flashback narrative, Bark spills all the facts and conclusions about Selena’s nature he has been amassing. The book, like so many Lovecraftian plots, assumes the shape of a novel of detection, but with the codicil that what needs to be comprehended and ferreted out is almost beyond human understanding.

Sloane was a much more worldly fellow than poor shuttered Lovecraft, and his book is full of Fitzgeraldian mimetic touches that evoke the society of his era with Hollywood-keen precision. In fact, it’s tempting to cast the book mentally with stars of the era. Maybe a smoldering Hedy Lamarr as Selena; an earnest Jimmy Stewart as Jerry; a brooding Gary Cooper as Bark; Eve Arden as Grace, his knowing mother; and good old C. Aubrey Smith as the principled, stern father.

Jerry’s suicide takes place out west, not far from some old Indian ruins, “a place where they had felt that the immensity of the universe touched the immediacies of the earth . . . A memorial to the tremendous force or will that had created the earth and the stars.” Sloane offers the wide-open spaces of American desert as a signifier not of heroic grandeur but of the sinister unknown at a stupefying scale.

The Edge of Running Water reads like a Golden Age Boris Karloff movie scripted by zippy mystery writer Frederic Brown. And in fact, except for a different screenwriter, the film with Karloff actually exists, as The Devil Commands (1941). But although I have not viewed the movie, it’s hard to imagine that it captures the full subtlety and force of the novel.

Like Sloane’s earlier book, Edge is also narrated in the first person, this time by a psychologist, Richard Sayles. Sayles has journeyed innocently to Barsham Harbor, Maine, at the request of his old mentor, Professor Julian Blair. He finds a curious setup: an enervated and obsessed Julian, mourning his deceased wife and now dominated by a mysterious woman named Mrs. Walters. Recently arrived on a mission of mercy is Julian’s young sister-in-law Anne, soon to serve as romantic foil to the creeping malaise. A local housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy, completes the ensemble. This small cast spins dizzily through the eerie events of just a couple of days — in contrast to the more protracted timeframe of To Walk the Night — as Julian’s secret experiments endanger everyone, including the inventor, and threaten the very fabric of reality.

It’s fitting that a psychologist is at the center of the tale, for Sloan’s own psychological acuity is deep. His long exegesis on the nature of fear in Chapter 13 is particularly good. All the motivations of the cast ring true and unforced.

The portrait of the cloistered, suspicious Mainers has more than a little of Lovecraft’s Innsmouth inhabitants about it, although the townspeople turn out to be more sinned against than sinners. And Sloane’s contrasting of the scenic beauty with the noisome productions of humanity makes the most of his chosen venue.

Sloane’s prose in both books stands in contrast to Lovecraft’s more florid and baroque constructions. His colloquial turns of phrase and easygoing dialogue are nonetheless highly effective in the creation of a menacing atmosphere and uncanny effects. And when he needs to pull out all the stops, as in the ultimate blow-up of Blair’s project, he does. If you find that the mannered style Lovecraft so frequently turned to gets in the way of a good scare, try these stories in which everyday life is both counterpointed and betrayed by the writhing abominations lurking just beneath the surface of every sentence.