What is Cosmic Horror?

The Utgarda Trilogy is strongly influenced by what is known as cosmic, or Lovecraftian, horror.  The genre, created by H.P. Lovecraft and others, is a style the deals with the unknown, as opposed to traditional horror traditions, which concerned themselves with things contrary to man, god, or the natural order of things. Most of the traditional horror themes had folklore and/or religious origins, whereas cosmic horror saw mankind and insignificant in an uncaring universe.

Cosmic horror presents situations and phenomena beyond human understanding.  The protagonists of these stories encounter these unknown threats and are incapable of stopping them.  The narrative usually follows a single protagonist (it is not appropriate to call them heroes) state of mind.  These individuals are usually compelled to pursue the mysteries either out of professional curiousity, some obligation, or are influenced by the outre’ to do its bidding.

Cosmic horror stories are often written as first person narratives either by the protagonist, or by another party reading the journals, letter, etc. that the protagonist has left behind. The readers of these documents are often skeptical at first, but find themselves drawn into the horror themselves by association.

Cosmic horror stories contain extended periods of discovery and revelation, during which the protagonist’s mental faculties are challenged and their sanity brought into question, culminating is a shocking reveal.  In some of Lovecraft’s shorter work, such as In the Vault, this reveal is the last sentence, usually presented in italics.

Another common feature of cosmic horror is the utter futility of the protagonist’s efforts to combat the threat.  The nature of the horrors is beyond the realm of human understanding and terrestrial defenses are useless against them.  In rare cases, such as the Dunwich Horror, the protagonists succeed in preventing the immediate threat with the knowledge that there is nothing they can do to prevent its reoccurrence in the future.

Cosmic horror is a relatively new genre.  Lovecraft and his correspondents popularized the fear of the unknowable in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. What started primarily as novellas and short stories expanded into longer forms and films in the latter half of the twentieth century, when it dovetailed nicely with science fiction in an increasingly secular society.

Author: joabstieglitz

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