Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s common advice that authors should read, and read widely. Those who have made it will suggest that stepping outside your chosen genre is a must, because sometimes, if you step beyond your comfort zone, you’ll find something amazing to bring back with you. Cosmic horror is one of these treasures, and in this article, I’ll be explaining exactly what it is, and why it can help your writing, even if you’ve never heard of Cthulhu.
What is Cthulhu?
Cthulhu is a squid-faced, world-wrecking monster that’s currently enjoying a surge in cultural recognition – so much so that it’s arguably the newest entry in the pantheon of pop-culture monsters, taking its place next to Frankenstein and Dracula, despite having been dreamt up in the late 1920’s.
Cthulhu, however, isn’t there purely on its own merits – it’s actually become an emblem for a specific type of monster, a type of monster which, in turn, signifies the themes of H.P. Lovecraft and the wider Cthulhu Mythos.
What is the Cthulhu Mythos?
In its simplest form, the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ describes a shared fictional universe with its roots in the work of H. P. Lovecraft, taking its name from the short story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. The rules of the universe are sparse and malleable, but they’re based around the presence of Great Old Ones – unfathomable gods who exist outside of reality.
Many writers have added to the Cthulhu Mythos since Lovecraft, helping to redefine its limits and common features. While certain bits of lore, and even characters, carry over from piece to piece, the core concept of the Great Old Ones, and the ‘cosmic horror’ they inspire, is the point around which the mythos spins.
What is cosmic horror?
Cosmic horror is a specific type of terror that emerges from a human’s discovery of how small they truly are in the face of the universe. In the Cthulhu Mythos, this terror is usually awakened through the discovery of the Great Old Ones, or at least their influence. They’re not scary because they could end the protagonist’s life, but because they reveal it to be worthless.
Lovecraftian heroes seldom defeat their enemies, and in fact usually fail to affect them. In the extract below, Cthulhu is rammed with a boat, only to instantly reform.
The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler could not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern; where – God in heaven! – the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the Alert gained impetus from its mounting steam.
– H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’
This sense of futility is a hallmark of the Cthulhu Mythos, and protagonists are frequently driven mad by a mere glimpse of the terrible cosmic truth. While Lovecraft’s monsters are interesting – partially because they’re seldom seen, and never understood – it’s this emotional experience that can be useful to writers of other genres.
Cthulhu isn’t a creature, it’s an idea – an existential terror. Cthulhu represents our fear of the possibility of our own human smallness. Cthulhu presents us with the revelation of forces that are so much larger than us that they’re beyond our control, or even our understanding. The fear in Cthulhu is in how it shatters our fundamental understanding of our own importance in the universe. To look on Cthulhu is to go mad.
– James Portnow, ‘Why Games Do Cthulhu Wrong’ from Extra Credits
How to utilize cosmic horror in your writing
Of course, you don’t need cosmic monsters to experience cosmic horror. A reappraisal of your place in the world can be terrifying even if it doesn’t involve tentacles, and can act as either the thing that motivates your character to action or the devastating climax of your story.
Perhaps it’s stretching the definition of ‘cosmic’ a little, but this experience is incredibly common in domestic dramas. Cosmic horror rests on the idea that the norms you’d always assumed to be in place were a lie.Cosmic horror has a place in sci-fi, fantasy, and… domestic dramas?Click To Tweet
In the first episode of the drama series Doctor Foster, the title character discovers (or thinks she discovers) that her husband is cheating on her. On finding his phone, she quickly unearths evidence that everyone she knows is in on it – the husband and his lover have dined with their friends, and there’s even a text from her workmate warning him about her suspicions. Worse, the lover isn’t the woman she’d assumed, but the woman’s daughter, who she’d looked straight past.
In this moment of discovery, all Foster’s assumptions are overturned. All her relationships are false, and her worldview is shattered – not only is her husband cheating, but he’s even cheating in a way she would never have suspected.
Cthulhu purists would object to categorizing this as cosmic horror, but as an author, they’re worth grouping together. The style and nature of the realization are the same, and the consequences – the unravelling of a person’s confidence in reality – follow the same trajectory. An author writing a truly involving domestic story could benefit hugely from considering the trauma of their characters through the lens of cosmic horror.
That’s not to say that this kind of horror has to be any less chilling. Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin can be read as a vivisection of the protagonist’s cosmic horror, inexorably swirling towards its awful cause.
Cosmic horror, then, has a place in any story where a character is forced to reappraise their worldview and isn’t happy with the results. While your character may not be moved to madness, there’s lots about how cosmic horror is written that you can repurpose in your writing.
The hidden truth
One of the most vital things to remember about cosmic horror is that it’s about discovery, not change. The world (or the character’s world) has always been a certain way; it’s just that they’re only now finding out. Doctor Foster’s husband has always been unfaithful to her, and her friends have been in on it for a long time – her horror emerges only from discovering the truth.
Because of this, it’s important to focus on foreshadowing when writing any form of existential crisis. Just like your character, your reader needs to be able to look back at the story and see how this new truth was always applicable. For a proper sense of foreboding, it should also feel like something is hidden, even before it’s discovered.If you’re building to a horrible realization, make sure it’s clear in hindsight.Click To Tweet
Knowing your intentions ahead of time is important here, but so is the imagery you employ. This is something that’s done expertly in the short story ‘Mr. Doornail’. Here, the author repeatedly invokes imagery of grotesque truths hidden in the mundane.
A hundred thousand moths can hide in the wallpaper, flattening until they seem as though they’re only part of the pattern, not hungry creatures seeking wool. Winged things find a way in.
– Maria Dahvana Headley, ‘Mr Doornail’ from Children of Lovecraft
Cosmic horror is at its best when it chimes with the tone and momentum of the story. Springing this kind of revelation on your reader is less effective, because it doesn’t have the same sense of dread to back it up. Almost the entirety of We Need to Talk About Kevin is a mother’s growing suspicions that there’s something terribly wrong with her son – the horror isn’t in a loving mother being surprised by her son’s true nature, but in her dread being confirmed in a stunning moment of truth.
That’s not to say that this sort of realization shouldn’t happen in a single moment – in fact, that’s often the best way to do it.
The revelatory item
Cosmic horror doesn’t spring from revelation and surprise, but from realization and confirmation. Despite that, for really effective existential terror, the protagonist should only know part of the story. They know things aren’t right, they appreciate the shape the truth is going to take, but the extent of the truth is still overpowering.
In Lovecraft’s stories, this moment of truth often takes the form of a grotesque – a monster or monstrous situation. In other genres, however, this isn’t always possible, and instead of a monster, there’s a prop or situation. In Doctor Foster, the phone takes on this role, containing texts and pictures that reveal the awful truth. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, it’s a grisly scene that takes the suspicion of malice and confirms it with violence and misery.
In these props, moments, and characters, the true nature of the protagonist’s universe is revealed. It’s not that they have to be staggering in their own right, but that they represent a break in the way the protagonist used to think the world worked.
Running into one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods is like finding a strange pair of underwear in your bed and realizing that your spouse is cheating on you. It’s not the underwear itself that’s stabbing you in the heart; it’s the betrayal it represents. Lovecraft’s monsters are proof to the protagonist that the universe is not benevolent. Finding strange underwear might mean that your spouse never loved you; stumbling upon a Lovecraft creature means that God never loved you.
– C. Coville, ‘5 Types of Movie Adaptations That Must Be Stopped’ on Cracked.com
This moment is the fulcrum of your character’s cosmic horror – the moment they go from clinging on to their old ideas to being swallowed by the truth. The more instantaneous this moment is, the better – ideally, all the groundwork should have been done beforehand, so that just seeing the item tells the reader everything (this is a little easier to do with a monster).Make your cosmic horror more potent by focusing it into a single item.Click To Tweet
In Doctor Foster, the viewer has already met the friends, seen the lover, and been made aware of the protagonist’s fear. Seeing the image of all the betrayers dining together thus has instant meaning. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the reader already understands the characters’ relationships and the protagonist’s fears that her son may hurt her family, and so the damage she discovers has clear implications.
In great cosmic horror, the reader is almost expecting the item, but they’re still not quite ready for it. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow features a recurring play of the same name that seems to drive its readers mad. Strange behaviour therefore cues the reader to expect the play, and when it’s revealed, their dread is confirmed – things are rotten in exactly the way they suspected.
To simultaneously render this item surprising is the pièce de résistance, but often it’s a matter of scale. In Doctor Foster, Foster isn’t ready for the fact that all her friends have betrayed her. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the protagonist isn’t expecting the barbarous extremes of her son’s actions. In ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, the protagonist isn’t expecting a giant sea monster.
Writing cosmic horror
To write great cosmic horror, foreshadow the fact that things aren’t right. Be aware of the hidden truth, and add moments that only make sense when it’s true. This might be a spouse having to work overnight without warning, or odd attitudes that make sense later. In ‘The Harrowing’, an episode of horror comedy Inside No. 9, the protagonist has a friend who acts strangely. This initially appears to be due to quirkiness, but in the end, they’re revealed to have a hidden allegiance.
Foreshadow with enough skill, and you’ll instill dread in your reader – dread that will pay off in a concentrated moment of realization when an item, moment, or character illustrates the hidden truth. It’ll confirm a suspicion that was already growing in the reader, but the scale of its implications will still shock them.
Be sure, also, that your protagonist reacts accordingly. Lovecraft’s protagonists have a habit of descending into madness and, while this might not work for your story, it certainly sells the moment. The moment of realization is a big deal, so make that apparent to the reader – have your character fall apart, even if it’s only for a little while.
These are the style decisions you can make when learning from cosmic horror, but there are also ways that form and structure can serve a similar purpose.
Cosmic horror in form
Cosmic horror is about living with the realization that the rules you’ve lived by don’t apply, and this can be represented in form. Consider the rules by which you write, and how you can subvert them to drive home your tone and message.
For example, could you swap the person in which you’re writing, or the tense? In Nemo: Heart of Ice, Alan Moore writes a scene in which the characters lose all sense of time. Things happen disjointedly, both for them and the reader, and their memories are fractured at best. As they try to make sense of it, their dialogue hints at moments that (for the reader) are yet to come, building the dread of what might happen next.
This can be done even more subtly, simply by disregarding the sanctity of the sentence. In ‘Nesters’, Siobhan Carroll interrupts her own writing to show that the character can’t truly comprehend what she’s seen. Just as she can’t break free, the writing is dragged away from the moment at hand.
It was that fear that finally brought her back to herself, no longer one with the sky and the—
—down in the dark, in the deep
—but back in her shaking, dry-throated body.
– Siobhan Carroll, ‘Nesters’ from Children of Lovecraft
Similarly, in ‘The Secrets of Insects’, Richard Kadrey writes about two police officers transporting a prisoner. Like any good story, it begins with the action already underway, but the protagonist gradually realizes he doesn’t know who gave him the assignment, or even where he’s going. The reader never questioned these facts because the story never put them into question, but it also never confirmed them. It’s the type of assumption most stories ask for, but Kadrey doesn’t honor that contract, weaponizing the moment of realization.
This reversal of assumed norms is effective partly because it replicates the character’s experience for the reader. Both are barreling towards a moment where their assumptions are proved false, revealing a dangerous truth they half-expected.Prime the reader for horror by breaking some rules of form and narrative.Click To Tweet
In the extract below, Stephen King hides a chilling moment in a section of dialogue. The genius is that the dialogue is something most readers know by heart, and so they’re likely not to read it properly. When, a few lines later, one character realizes what was really said, many readers jump back to review what they missed, realizing that the horror was right there in plain sight. From this, they learn that they can’t even trust their ability to see what’s on the page.
“You have the right to remain silent,” the big cop said in his robot’s voice. “If you do not choose to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. I’m going to kill you. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand your rights as I have explained them to you?”
– Stephen King, Desperation
Even the rules of storytelling can be bent and broken in the service of invoking cosmic horror. In ‘Nesters’, Carroll has her protagonist fight off the terrifying monsters that killed her father. Despite this, her life doesn’t change, and she foresees a future in which her sibling will die and her family will be forced to leave their home. Reading this story, many readers will have a blueprint in their mind, expecting the plucky heroine to not just stop the monster but truly triumph. Carroll flirts with this idea, but reveals it as a lie. Crucially, her version makes more sense; when it happens, it feels true, and the reader knows a comforting lie has been swept away.
The degree to which you do this is down to you, but the intent is to remove some of the traditional devices that make readers comfortable. The fallibility of one assumption sets them up to doubt all others. It’s preferable to only undermine one or two aspects of your work, after all, you want to keep things readable; a talented author does just enough damage that, when the character finds out things aren’t as they seem, the reader knows exactly how they feel.
In the end, your character may be feeling more existential terror than cosmic horror, but as an author, the ways in which you communicate their journey will benefit from getting to grips with some Lovecraftian fiction. You’d be surprised how much a vast tentacle-monster can add to stories of domestic betrayal – let alone stories that hinge on a grander realization (a little Soylent Green, anyone?)
For more on translating the strengths of other stories into your writing, check out How To Create New Stories By Adapting Famous Books and The Gothic Secrets Every Steampunk Writer Should Know.
Do you think the trappings of cosmic horror can work in other genres? Have another lesson the Cthulhu Mythos can teach non-horror writers? Got a nice house in R’lyeh you want to boast about? Let me know in the comments.