Cosmic Horror: A Study of the Unknowable

Cosmic horror. To the initiated, those words bring to mind images of scheming cultists in dark basements, gibbering monstrosities lurking in the shadows, elder gods beyond the ken of mortal reckoning, and the unthinkable vastness of the universe itself. At its heart the genre is about the insignificance of mankind in the face of these unknowable terrors.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H.P. Lovecraft

What is Cosmic Horror?

For the uninitiated, the scope of the genre may often be misunderstood. It has experienced a rise in popularity across a variety of media, from film to electronic and table-top gaming; but these only scratch the surface of the true depth of the genre. Games like Arkham Horror or Elder Sign by Fantasy Flight Games give us a glimpse into it, painting a picture full of standard genre elements.

In cosmic horror, we often see early 20th century amateur detectives uncovering clues of an ancient evil, battling cultists and monsters, and fighting to keep the Elder Gods from escaping an eternal prison. At a glance, one might surmise that the genre consists solely of these elements. And tentacles…LOTS of tentacles.

Cthulhu artwork by Danilo Neira.
Cthulhu by Danilo Neira

But cosmic horror—or Lovecraftian horror as it is interchangeably referred to—runs far deeper than detective stories with cultists, strange monsters, and ancient deities. At its heart, the genre explores the “fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance.”1

The core element that defines cosmic horror is that it plucks at the strings connected to two fears that arguably every person shares: fear of the unknown and fear of insignificance. Lovecraft himself may have said it best when he said that “it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage…without laying stress on the emotion of fear.”2

The Man and the Mythos

It’s impossible to talk about the origins of cosmic horror without discussing Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 – 1937). His tragic life and unique upbringing shaped much of what went into his fiction, and his own worldview contributed to the focus on the fear of the unknown and the helplessness of the mortal man.

Disclaimer: A lot has been said about the bigotry of H.P. Lovecraft. While I do not support this worldview, it is important to recognize its importance to shaping what would eventually become cosmic horror. I’ll leave the ethical debates for others; as our focus here is on his work, not his moral character.

The Man

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an only child born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. His father was committed to a mental hospital in 1893 and died five years later, when Howard was only eight years old. After this, he and his mother moved in with her two sisters and her father, successful industrialist Whipple Van Buren Phillips.3

Suffering often from illness of his own, Howard spent much of his time at home and did not attend formal schooling on a regular basis as a child. His grandfather formed a close bond with the young Howard, who found in his new home a library that would build the foundation of his later literary career. Among the influences found here were Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsany, and Homer.3

As Howard grew and his health improved, he attended school more regularly and found another interest in the sciences. He dabbled in the study of chemistry at first, and later astronomy. His first forays into writing were astronomical articles, and he was first published in 1906 with a letter on the subject to The Providence Sunday Journal. He continued writing articles on the subject for various newspapers across the eastern U.S. for the next ten years.3

During this time leading up to his career as a fiction author, several tragedies befell H.P. Lovecraft. His grandfather died in 1904, and with the financial affairs of the estate not managed correctly the family home was lost. Howard and his mother then lived in a modest apartment, and he failed to complete high school and obtain a diploma due to a mental breakdown. His mother suffered from mental collapse in 1919, was admitted to the same hospital that his father had been, and died there in 1921.3

H.P. Lovecraft spent much of his life as a recluse, both before and after his mother died. His only regular contact with the outside world was his writing, much of which would take the form of an astounding number of letters to various scholarly institutions, publications, and editors; with some estimates placing the total number of them around 100,000. It is interesting to note that one of the closest bonds to come from these correspondences was with Robert E. Howard, author and creator of Conan the Barbarian and other popular characters.3

H.P. Lovecraft married Sonia Haft Greene in 1924, but only lived with his wife for a year before she was committed to a sanatorium and then later moved to Cleveland to pursue career interests. They divorced in 1929. Lovecraft lived out the rest of his life in poverty, struggling to support himself and even turning to ghost writing to avoid abject destitution. He died—almost penniless and in relative obscurity—at the age of forty-seven from intestinal cancer in 1937.3

The Mythos

Looking back at the life of H.P. Lovecraft, one can already see some common themes that might crop up in his fiction. Mental illness, death, and the helplessness one feels when their life takes unexpected turns they can do nothing about. His isolationist lifestyle likely played a large role in his intolerance of people unlike himself, a worldview not uncommon during this time but notably a prominent component of his psychological situation. All of this, coupled with his fascination with astronomy, combined to create the environment where H.P. Lovecraft explored his own fears. Fear of the unknown—or even simply the unfamiliar—and the insignificance of mankind in the face of a vast cosmos flourished under these circumstances.

The hallmark result of this convergence was the creation of what is known as the Cthulhu Mythos. While some argue that it’s not a part of the official mythos, others say it began with the publication of Dagon in 1919. The first expansion of the mythos, and what some say is the first actual story set within the bounds of it, was The Call of Cthulhu; published in 1928.4 Lovecraft went on to write twenty-three stories considered to be central to the mythos before he died.5

The Cthulhu Mythos, named for the eponymous central figure of The Call of Cthulhu, would form the inspirational foundation from which would spring the genre of cosmic horror. While Lovecraft died in relative obscurity, his work would later experience a resurgence in popularity and the mythos would be expanded upon by dozens of authors. Notably, the likes of “Stephen King, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, and others have contributed stories, poems, and novels to Lovecraft’s shared universe.”6 One of the most notable authors to contribute to the mythos actually pre-dated its creation. In 1895, Robert W. Chambers published an anthology titled The King in Yellow. Lovecraft would read this in 1927 and incorporate elements of it into his own work, and students of the genre have retroactively considered it to be a part of the complete shared universe.7

Cosmic Horror Beyond Lovecraft

Beyond the dozens of authors who have contributed stories to the Cthulhu Mythos, there are numerous representations across all kinds of media. As mentioned earlier, one can find everything from board games to video games to film and television that draw heavily enough from Lovecraft’s work to be considered part of his world.

The legends that sprung from the mythos have since gone on to become part of our culture. One could argue that the Cthulhu plushie, available from an array of manufacturers, is the seminal example of how the mythos is ingrained within our collective cultural consciousnesses.

This deep correlation between the work of H.P. Lovecraft and the genre of cosmic horror has even lead some to the assumption that the two are mutually inclusive. While many authors, game designers, and film makers do draw heavily upon the Cthulhu Mythos, there are as many others who see it as a source of inspiration and delve into the themes it represents without tying into that shared universe. The Thing by John Carpenter is a wonderful example of a film that utilizes many elements inspired by the works of Lovecraft without directly tying into the mythos (although admittedly the two sequels to the film do tie into it in a more direct fashion.)

As a niche genre with such an influential founder, it is difficult to find many examples of works of cosmic horror that do not draw heavily upon Lovecraft for inspiration. Stephen King, recognized by many as the modern master of horror fiction, explained this phenomena best:

“I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the Twentieth Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” 8

Stephen King

My Journey into the Unknown

Inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, like so many others who have come before, I have taken my own leap into the realms of the unknown and the unknowable in the form of my first cosmic horror novel: Parting the Veil.

I will be the first to admit that Lovecraft is a primary influence behind this work, but my goal was to break down the core elements of his vision and other influences and then build them back into something entirely new.

Rather than listing the various elements I feel contributed to the book, I’ll allow a colleague of mine to give you his perspective of what the results were:

This story includes aspects of Lovecraft, Verne and the Indiana Jones series, yet the author has a voice that is distinctly his own.

Professor Cognome, on Goodreads

What is Parting the Veil?

American socialite Richard Jericho is a world-renowned treasure hunter. British professor of archaeology Wilkins Chapman is his stoic compatriot.

Together, the two have uncovered antiquities from South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. On their most recent trip to the jungles of Peru they discover something more than they expected. As the fabric of reality comes apart, the two must journey across the globe chasing clues. As one answer leads to more questions, they begin to piece together a puzzle older than primal memory itself.

And the more they part the veil, the more of what lies beyond the veil spills into our reality.


Parting the Veil is available on 9 August, 2019 from Kyanite Publishing.


Works Cited

1. Ralickas, Vivian. “‘Cosmic Horror’ and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18, no. 3 (2008).
2. Lovecraft, H.P. “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” Amateur Correspondent, 2, No. 1 (May–June 1937).
3. Joshi, S.T. “Howard Phillips Lovecraft: The Life of a Gentleman of Providence.” hplovecraft.com. http://www.hplovecraft.com/life/biograph.aspx. (20 MAR, 2018). Accessed 6 AUG, 2019.
4. Price, Robert M. “H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos.” Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House; 1990.
5. Lovecraft, H.P. “The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales.” New York, NY: Fall River Press; 2013.
6. Harbin, Steven. “Best of the Cthulhu Mythos.” Goodreads.com. https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/316.Best_of_the_Cthulhu_Mythos. (17 JUL, 2008). Accessed 6 AUG, 2019.
7. Joshi, S. T.; Schultz, David E. (2001). “Chambers, Robert W[illiam]”. An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
8. Wohleber, Curt “The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King”. americanheritage.com 46, no 8. (DEC, 1995). Accessed 6 AUG, 2019.