As I had mentioned in my review of Crimson Peak, Gothic horror is a subgenre of horror that had fallen by the wayside, overtaken by a more modern school of visceral thrills. However, the core tenets and ideas of Gothic horror have not all gone away. The fear of the unknown, of what may be lurking in the darkened corners of our world or in forbidden secrets, is still a powerful idea in the realm of horror. In fact, while Gothic horror fell away, a new form grew from that core idea and found itself a far bigger canvas to paint its terror. This new fear of the unknown arrived to literature in the form of cosmic horror, and the author who would develop and pioneer this style was H.P. Lovecraft.
Born on August 20th, 1890, Howard Philip Lovecraft had a childhood spent living with his mother and extended family after his father was put into a mental institution. Though he was frequently ill and suffered from a difficulty in mathematics, Lovecraft was able to find some enjoyment in his youth through a love of reading fostered by his grandfather and a fascination in chemistry and astronomy. After a nervous breakdown which had stopped him from graduating high school, he started a largely isolated existence as he began his writing. However, things would begin to change when he wrote a series of letters to a pulp magazine, criticizing them for their insipid love stories. His letters caught the attention of Edward F. Dass, the president of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), who in turn extended an invitation of membership to Lovecraft. Membership in the UAPA reinvigorated Lovecraft, who pursued his writing with more zeal. He also found himself developing a number of correspondents within the group, including such writers as Robert Bloch (who would go on to write the novel Psycho) and Robert E. Howard (a pulp writer with much to his name, most famously the Conan the Barbarian series). Such was the beginning of H.P. Lovecraft’s literary career, which would see him writing a variety of stories most commonly categorized within three types: Edgar Allan Poe-esque horror stories, tales set within a dream world, and most famously his Cthulhu Mythos stories. It is within these stories that he developed a form of horror that would be known as cosmic horror.
Cosmic horror is a style of horror that, like Gothic horror, thrives on a fear of the unknown. However, its fears are not simply of shadowy monsters lurking in darkness or a dark secret in a family history. Instead, it takes a far more bleaker view as its central tenet: that the universe is a cold, frightening place in which human emotions and ideas ultimately have no significance. The world that Lovecraft wrote for his stories was one where humanity’s existence was a small speck in a cold universe, one that was populated by all sorts of bizarre creatures and alien gods that lurk outside of our normal existence. However, these gods are not ones invested in humanity. Unless they are the rare few who actively pursue some form of malice or treat people like a kind of plaything, most of them do not even treat mankind at all. They simply do not care. Attempts to witness them and other alien creatures, much less understand them, lead people down the path of madness and death. In short, his stories evoke more than a fear of the unknown. They evoke a fear of the alien, of that which challenges our preconceived notions of life and existence. It is no wonder, then, that Lovecraft’s stories would become such an influence to horror storytellers over the years.
Thanks to his expanding on the fear of the unknown with an existentialist touch and with alien creatures whose appearances are kept vague as a result of their impossible being, Lovecraft’s notion of cosmic horror has ensured that he would become an influential figure in the world of horror. Along with being an influence to his contemporaries, plenty of other artists and storytellers have felt the draw of his chilling visions. Authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker have noted his influence, while comic book writers like Alan Moore or manga artists like Junji Ito have captured their own take on the notion of such alien terror. Even filmmakers have shown the impact of Lovecraft, whether it is through more direct tributes like John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness or with seeds of influence in works like Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the comic book Hellboy. Of course, it is one thing to note the storytellers who have felt his influence. It is more worth it to see that source of influence for yourself.
Of course, there are many points where you could choose to first read the work of Lovecraft. For example, there is The Call of Cthulhu, which follows a man trying to piece together his granduncle’s notes and how it relates to a mysterious being known as Cthulhu (a god-like creature who would become the iconic figure within Lovecraft’s world of cosmic horror). There is At the Mountains of Madness, a tale of archaeologists who discover the ruins of an alien city in Antarctica, which is often regarded as his strongest work. For me, however, I would recommend one of his stories that does not involve the Cthulhu Mythos. It is a short story called The Colour Out of Space.
The Colour Out of Space tells the tale of a family plagued by bizarre mutations and afflictions after a meteorite strikes their land, containing within it something from beyond the stars. Personally, I recommend this story as a good beginning point for reading Lovecraft because it offers an alien that seems truly alien. It is a semi-liquid, semi-gaseous creature, one whose color is outside of our visible spectrum and as a result appears like some kind of silvery grey. It is not clear if the alien has any kind of consciousness, or even intelligence. Not even scientists within the story are able to fully explain it. Most science fiction stories, when writing about aliens, tend to put some degree of humanity into them. Whether by giving them a humanoid form or by giving them sentiments and attitudes very familiar to human existence, it is still putting something understandable into them. Lovecraft, however, refuses to make such concessions and offers an alien that possesses none of that. The result is a creature that people cannot understand, nor fully comprehend. It is something to fear that is not simply unknown, but quite possibly unknowable. That, to me, offers a perfect encapsulation of the dread that cosmic horror offers.