Cosmic Horror: A History

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January 14, 2023

In 1921, American author Howard Phillips Lovecraft began publishing the first of his stories in what would later be collectively coined the Cthulhu mythos. Heavily influenced by the tradition of Gothic horror, H. P. Lovecraft found inspiration in the work of such esteemed authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker, Robert W. Chambers, and Arthur Machen. However, Lovecraft’s personal take on horror evolved as he began to incorporate scientific inquiry and his atheist and Anglophilic attitudes in his stories.

Guided by a personal philosophy steeped in the belief that humans are an insignificant presence in a vast universe, Lovecraft wrote about terrifying cosmic forces and powerful alien entities. By the time he began publishing his work in Weird Tales in the late 1920s, Lovecraft had firmly established the central concepts of the ideology that would dominate his fiction for the rest of his days.

Cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror, explores the meaninglessness of human existence in a mechanical universe through Eldritch entities such as the Great Old Ones, ancient aliens existing outside human comprehension, and the Elder Gods, elemental deities once revered by humankind.

Early works in Lovecraft’s canon include “Dagon,” a story about a morphine-addicted man stranded at sea and his experience as he witnesses the emergence of a submarine monster (Weird Tales, 1923), and “The Call of Cthulhu,” an interconnected tale introducing the gigantic, oceanic entity known for its tentacled face, scaled body, clawed feet, and rudimentary wings (Weird Tales, 1928).

Despite the presence of racism, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia in Lovecraft’s work, his deft employment of existential dread and the fear of the unknown shaped the subgenre. Other pivotal works in Lovecraft’s canon include “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales, 1929), a novella about the grandson of a cosmic entity; “The Dreams in the Witch House” (Weird Tales, 1933), a short story about a student plagued by bizarre dreams of an Elder city and interactions with the occult;

At the Mountains of Madness (Astounding Stories, 1936), a serialized novella following an Antarctic expedition and the resulting discovery of an ancient ruin holding the secret of the extraterrestrial origins of the Elder Gods; and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936), a novella about a student visiting a decrepit seaport only to discover a sinister secret kept by the strange people who live there.  

Lovecraft’s work has been named as a major influence for many renowned authors including Thomas Ligotti, Jorge Luis Borges, and Joyce Carol Oates. But perhaps one of the most interesting trends in recent years hinges on the overturning of Lovecraft’s tropes by authors determined to reimagine the late author’s stories through the lens of marginalized and underrepresented characters, the same people Lovecraft deplored.

For instance, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles teamed up in 2015 to offer a new take on the Lovecraft mythos in the anthology She Walks in Shadows. “There is a paucity of women in Lovecraft’s tales,” write Moreno-Garcia and Stiles, “Women have emerged from the shadows to claim the night. We welcome them gladly.”

In 2016, renowned author Victor LaValle retold Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” from the viewpoint of a Black man in his novella The Ballad of Black Tom. The same year, Matt Ruff released his novel Lovecraft Country, which was adapted by Jordan Peele for the 2020 HBO mini-series exploring racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws.

Other notable works in in the subgenre of cosmic horror include The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson (2016), The Fisherman by John Langan (2016), Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw (2016), Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys (2017), Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2017), and The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin (2020).

As we move into a new century of cosmic horror, permutations of Lovecraft’s dreams and nightmares continue to evolve. Fear compels us, but on the other side we also brush up against the sublime. Hate is transformed, and what is more awe-inspiring than that?

Learn more:

Cosmic Horror: A Checklist for Writers

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