Conor Halion investigates the origins of cosmic horror and explores why the concept of the unknown is so dread-inducing.
We’ve all had that feeling right? That churning sensation in the pit of our stomach when we see something that makes us uncomfortable for reasons we can’t quite explain. You may have felt it the first time you lost your mam or dad in a busy shopping centre, or maybe you feel it every time you look at baked beans. Fear, plain and simple. And as H.P Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown.”
The genre of literature which plays into fear of the unknown is broadly defined as cosmic horror, or in Lovecraft’s day, “weird stories” , and you can find it referenced in everything from video games, like Bloodborne and Dead Space, to television, like the excellent first season of True Detective. But why does cosmic horror continue to unnerve us so completely, almost a century after its foundation?
Howard Philip Lovecraft spent most of his early childhood buried in his grandfather’s crumbling library, immersing himself in everything from Edgar Allan Poe to Nietzche. Perhaps Lovercraft’s greatest influence was Ann Radcliffe, an eminent gothic writer of the nineteenth century whose sweeping landscapes and dark foreboding ruins played heavily into the concept of the sublime. The sublime, for those unfamiliar, refers to something in nature, which is so large and incomprehensible that it transcends human understanding and makes us feel insignificant next to its sheer majesty. Lovecraft took the concept of the sublime and grafted it onto living breathing characters, namely, his sinister pantheon of “Old Ones”, a race of otherworldly creatures whose horrific forms slumber just beneath the Earth’s surface, ready to awaken at any moment and erase humanity with but the bat of an eye. Cthulhu and Dagon to name only two, their contorted forms are often so horrifying to the human senses that they defy comprehension, or even description by Lovecraft himself.
It is the inability to make sense of the Old Ones that usually drives Lovecraft’s poor protagonists completely insane. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in one of Lovecraft’s later stories, The Colour Out of Space written in 1927. The story features a meteorite crashing on the outskirts of a town called Arkham. The meteorite carries an alien creature which proceeds to infect the surrounding landscape with…colour? However, Lovecraft is careful to describe it as “some diseased, underlying primary tone.”, conveying how truly alien this creature is. While it may seem like an oversight on Lovecraft’s part, his inability to describe the Old Ones is a clever narrative tool used to reflect that these creatures are so otherworldly and terrifying, that there exists no word or syllable in the human language which can adequately describe them.
Interestingly, while the Gothic genre often has heavy religious undertones, the Old Ones of Lovecraft’s stories don’t fit into any religious or moral hierarchy. Crucifixes and prayers are useless against the slumbering malevolence of Cthulhu. Lovecraft’s protagonist’s rarely sin against any moral or ethical code, rather, their only transgression is attaining too much knowledge, which is what inevitably leads to their demise. In The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft comments that the most merciful thing in the world, “is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents.” Someday, the relentless pursuit of science will lead to “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge” that “will open up such terrifying vistas of reality.” When one glimpses past the terrifying physical descriptions of Lovecraft’s pantheon of Old Ones, what is truly chilling about them is their complete indifference to humanity. One must take into consideration that Lovecraft was a post Darwinian writer. As Freud once argued, Darwin’s Origin of The Species had the effect of shattering the collective human consciousness, stripping us of any illusions of the soul, or a grand human destiny. We were no longer the chosen people of some benevolent deity but merely another link in the evolutionary chain, an anxiety also expressed by his contemporary, H.G Wells, in The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau. Lovecraft’s tales remain chilling not only for their descriptions of the sinister Old Ones, but because they confirm the primal fear of mankind, that which we only dare to whisper to ourselves in the darkest of night. “We live on a placid island of ignorance, in the midst of black seas of infinity.”