Malign Universe: 13 Works of Cosmic Horror

Ligotti Crop

Styles and themes and topics in horror fiction come and go. One season vampires are all the bloody rage; then next year fans can’t get enough of werewolves or zombies. One midnight moment, the field is saturated with explicit guts and gore; the next, every writer is striving for Henry Jamesian or Shirley Jacksonian subtlety in their frissons. Fresh manifestos and movements bubble up at regular intervals: New Weird gives way to Dreadpunk, with the next buzzword just around the darkling corner.

But ever since its conception, one type of horror seems always to have a goodly number of unfaltering albeit gloom-filled partisans. (And right now, their numbers seem to be trending upward.) It’s a type of writing that acknowledges and caters to some of the most essential, existential fears and metaphysical bugbears of the modern and postmodern eras — the fear that humanity is akin to a small bug trying to survive in a careless, malign realm of implacable titanic beings and forces.

That mode is “cosmic horror,” sometimes dubbed “Lovecraftian fiction” in honor of its most famous exponent, the man whose work helped to crystallize and codify the subgenre. The phrase itself predates Lovecraft, being found even in such anomalous sources as George Milbry Gould’s The Meaning and the Method of Life: A Search for Religion in Biology (1893). “I have learned that many another sensitive despairing soul, in the face of the glib creeds and the loneliness of subjectivity, has also and often felt the same clutching spasm of cosmic horror, the very heart of life stifled and stilled with an infinite fear and sense of lostness.”

In his book-length essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft defined the mode in this fashion: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

But the seeds of cosmic horror were planted at least a century or so earlier. Brian Stableford, writing in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, finds elements of cosmic horror in Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime, and from there the concept passed into the poetry of the Romantics, and the first wave of Gothic novels.  From here, Stableford illustrates, Victorians such as Bulwer-Lytton, Huysmans, Flaubert, and Baudelaire manifest the form.

Since the birth of cosmic horror can be attached fairly firmly to the Enlightenment, when humanity received a shocking reordering of its place in the cosmos, Stableford begins his history in the middle of the 1700s. He looks at the works of Kant, and at Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, finding elements of cosmic horror in Burke’s notion of the sublime. These distinctions and literary goals swiftly pass into the poetry of the Romantics, and the first wave of Gothic novels. From here, Stableford illustrates, certain Victorians such as Bulwer-Lytton, Huysmans, Flaubert, and Baudelaire manifest the form.

When the twentieth century dawns, the mode has established enough recognizable antecedents to become something of an off-the-shelf tool. Popular professional writers such as William Hope Hodgson and M. P. Shiel employ it. Soon, Weird Tales is born, cosmic horror has a home base, and the more-familiar-to-us era of Lovecraft, his peers, and his successors arrives.

Given this long history and universality of the mode, it’s hard to disagree with with Lovecraft’s observation: “No one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist.”

Here, then, are some fine examples of Lovecraftian fiction, in roughly chronological order.

 

The House on the Borderland
By William Hope Hodgson

Notable for the sheer amount of visionary madness contained within its brief span, Hodgson’s masterpiece chronicles the intersection of otherworldly planes with our defenseless realm, one of the prime themes of cosmic horror. His inspiration to base some of his monsters on earthly swine was a masterstroke. Had he not died at the age of forty as a soldier during World War I, we might today be talking of “Hodgsonian fiction” rather than “Lovecraftian fiction.”

 

The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies
By Clark Ashton Smith

An eccentric, hermetic contemporary and friend of Lovecraft’s, Smith began his career as a poet and retains a minor reputation today in that field. But he soon exhibited a flair for conjuring up rococo horrors whose sometimes clotted presentation ultimately and effectively served his aims of deracinating the reader. This opening sentence might illustrate his method: “I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, shall write with my left hand, since I have no longer any other, the tale of everything that befell Tirouv Ompallios and myself in the shrine of the god Tsathoggua, which lies neglected by the worship of man in the jungle-taken suburbs of Commoriom, that long-deserted capital of the Hyperborean rulers.”

 

The Watchers Out of Time
By H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth

August Derleth was a great and invaluable friend to Lovecraft during the latter’s lifetime and is in large measure responsible for Lovecraft’s posthumous reputation, founding with other devotees a publishing firm, Arkham House, just to keep HPL’s oeuvre alive. Derleth also took fragments from the Lovecraft papers — sometimes as little as a single sentence — and expanded them into pastiches, such as the ones contained in this volume. At times he subverted Lovecraft’s messages and esthetics, but he was an effective storyteller, and these tales serve to counterpoint Lovecraft’s unique genius.

 

Dark Entries
By Robert Aickman

Never part of American genre circles, UK author Robert Aickman descended spiritually instead from writers whom Lovecraft admired, such as M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. Aickman’s subtle, sometimes surreal scripts, in which dollhouses materialize human-sized in the woods and visitors to a strange spa find they can never leave, approach the uneasy accommodations of Kafka while still juggling the tropes and vibes of cosmic horror.

 

 

Our Lady of Darkness
By Fritz Leiber

As a young man, Leiber became friends with Lovecraft and imbibed epistolarily from his font. Maturing into a Grandmaster, Leiber worked in many modes, from science fiction to sword-and-sorcery. But in this late-career novel he returned to cosmic horror, telling of the queerly inexplicable events that befall amateur astronomer Franz Western in Leiber’s beloved city of San Francisco, which proves to be the West Coast counterpart to HPL’s Providence.

 

The Ceremonies
By T.E.D. Klein

Many critics in the field feel that Klein’s book from 1984 kick-started the most recent renaissance of cosmic horror, and they regret that he has seemingly abandoned any further fiction writing. But the novel, whose plot resonates with HPL’s “The Colour Out of Space,” remains a monument to Klein’s talent and influence, as does his stint as editor of Twilight Zone magazine, where he supported cosmic horror by others.

 

Seed of Destruction
By Mike Mignola

Cosmic horror is, of course, no longer restricted entirely to prose. It has been transplanted to painting, music, films, and graphic novels. Perhaps the most satisfying flowering of cosmic horror in the last-named field is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series, whose current 2015 installments find the entire planet overrun with occult monsters. This first volume, the basis for one of the Hollywood adaptations, starts out a bit more quietly, as our juvenile horned hero is summoned to Earth by human intervention, launching him on his fated path.

 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe
By Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti, a slow and painstaking writer whose output over the decades is relatively small, has earned a reputation as the fellow whom other cosmic horror writers look to as a standard bearer. His uncompromisingly chilly and arid, yet somehow sensual tales are almost nihilistic, save for an authorial undercurrent of pity and compassion. One such as “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” not only exhibits a title utterly resonant with Lovecraft’s work but also a scenario of contamination and invasion that the master would have thoroughly approved.

 

The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All
By Laird Barron

While Ramsey Campbell, a major Lovecraftian who debuted in 1964, is still practicing at the top of his form, the torch of cosmic horror has recently passed to a younger generation, chief among them Laird Barron. Barron appeared in print professionally only in 2001, but since then has generated a large number of creepy stories that tend to overshadow his two novels. He inserts Lovecraftian tropes into resolutely twenty-first-century settings and supplies more depth of character than Lovecraft provided. Of this collection, Barron’s fellow horror writer Brian Evenson says, “Barron is an expert at drawing us into a claustrophobic space without us knowing where he’s leading us. By the time we realize where we are, it’s already too late.”

 

North American Lake Monsters
By Nathan Ballingrud

This strong debut collection from Ballingrud immediately established him as a major force in cosmic horror circles. With an almost cyberpunk attitude at times, he dug down deep into Lovecraftian strata. Perhaps “The Crevasse” best evokes cosmic malaise. A post-WWI expedition to the Antarctic runs into gorgeously evoked Cyclopean ruins: “The place was vast: walls of naked stone climbing in cathedral arcs to the undersurface of the polar plain and a floor worn smooth as glass over long ages . . . ” The shade of HPL would feel right at home.

 

Unholy Dimensions
By Jeffrey Thomas

Even in his most well known work, the science fiction novel Punktown, Thomas exhibits the kind of gritty, eerie, otherworldly menace characteristic of cosmic horror. So in this volume, which assembles a bumper crop of explicitly Lovecraftian tales, he can be relied on to deliver the cosmic horror goods. Playing the game of alluding specifically to the touchstones of the Cthulhu Mythos, Thomas refines and extends the visions of those Weird Tales originators. And surely none of that crew would ever have seen their way to a story titled “I Married a Shoggoth.”

 

The Terror
By Dan Simmons

The fact that bestselling Dan Simmons nowadays works in so many modes — thrillers, science fiction, crime, historical — tends to obscure his first love, horror. His 1982 debut, in fact, occurred in the pages of Twilight Zone magazine, under the aforementioned auspices of T.E.D. Klein. But now and then Simmons reaffirms his commitment to Lovecraftian fiction, as with this shuddersome novel set in the uncanny polar realms favored by horror writers from Poe onward. Mixing factual verisimilitude with non-naturalistic elements, Simmons evokes the mysteries that lie just outside our daily remit.

 

Cthulhu Fhtagn!
Edited by Ross Lockhart

Publisher and editor Lockhart has leaped recently to the forefront of purveyors of Lovecraftian fiction. This anthology offers the perfect sampler of writers currently working in this mode. The table of contents features vibrant veterans such as Wilum Pugmire, who first saw print in 1973, as well as newcomers like Jesse Bullington, who debuted in 2009, and all authors in between. Just the title of Laird Barron’s story, “Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form,” hints at the wit and creativity on display.