“Defining Lovecraftian Horror”, an essay by Pete Rawlik

Pete Rawlik

Pete Rawlik

The following essay is by Pete Rawlik, author of the upcoming Lovecraftian novel Reanimators.

The term “Lovecraftian Horror” gets bandied about quite a bit, including by me, but what does it mean? How do we, (meaning I) define it? Some people use it interchangeably with “Cthulhu Mythos” or “Cosmic Horror”, but to me this is sloppy, and as a pseudo-scholar I prefer some sort of guidance such that I can lump or split the various efforts into some kind of category. Better critics than I have touched on this issue, including Robert Price, S. T. Joshi, and I must admit to building on their work here. If I were doing a formal paper I would be forced to provide a history of the Cthulhu Mythos, provide quotes to elucidate and justify my position, and then cite references. One of the joys of just doing a blog post is that I don’t have to do any of that. Here then is an outline, for defining “Lovecraftian Horror” and its allies.

Fundamental to our discussion is the concept of Cosmicism, a philosophy generally attributed to Lovecraft, but he was neither its originator nor its sole proponent. In brief, Cosmicism is comprised of several core tenets: 1) There is no recognizable divine presence; 2) The cosmos and the forces in it are indifferent toward humanity; and, 3) Humanity is insignificant, and is not the first or the last, nor a particularly special, species in the universe. Writers who have touched on these concepts include Olaf Stapledon, David Brin, Stanislaw Lem, and to some extent Arthur C. Clarke.

A subset of Cosmicism which, I think of as Cosmic Horror, includes the tenets of Cosmicism, but expands upon them to generate a kind of cosmic dread or fear. The hallmarks of Cosmic Horror include: 1) The majority of humanity does not recognize its own insignificance, the indifference of the universe, or its true nature; 2) Individuals, often detached from society, can gain perspectives that allow them to glimpse reality, but this often leads to insanity; and, 3) Regardless of the knowledge or abilities gained, the protagonist has little hope of affecting the course of events, or of revealing all that has been hidden. Any impact the protagonist does have is usually only temporary in nature, or has unforeseen and catastrophic impacts. Such themes are often dealt with in the works of Clive Barker, John Carpenter, Colin Wilson and Thomas Ligotti.

Becoming even more specific, there are in Cosmic Horror distinct brands around which certain authors can be loosely clustered, though some overlap exists. Such clusters are most commonly defined by distinct artificial mythologies including creation stories, pseudo-deities, inhuman intelligences, and forbidden texts that reveal or hint at the true nature of the universe. It is at this level that most people begin to use the catch all phrase “Lovecraftian Horror”. This is because it is below this level that sub-genres begin to emerge, and while the most common is the Cthulhu Mythos, it is not the only one. However, readers who instinctively recognize that a particular story is Cosmic Horror, and therefore bears some similarities to the Cthulhu Mythos, will label it Lovecraftian, even if that appellation does not exactly fit. For example, the work of Stephen King uses these themes, and even adds in some Lovecraftian references, but while some King stories are clearly meant to be part of the Cthulhu Mythos, others are not. Rather they are part of King’s own distinct mythos or world, which may on occasion overlap with Lovecraft’s.

Similarly, Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow stories had once been subsummed into the Cthulhu Mythos, but now appear to be trending into their own sub-genre as expanded by Karl Edward Wagner and Joe Pulver (Pulver’s anthology A Season in Carcosa supports this trend). Certainly some King in Yellow stories belong in the Cthulhu Mythos, but others stand apart, though a formal name has yet to be promulgated (Carcosan?). Thus the term “Lovecraftian Horror” is used because it is clear that the story aligns itself with certain elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, but is recognized to be distinct from that clade. Metaphorically, we know that Horses, Zebras and Donkeys, are all related but are not the same, but most of us lack the language to understand or express those differences, and thus the best most of us can do is call them all Equine.

Having defined “Lovecraftian Horror”, it would be in my best interest to stop, but there are yet some issues I wish to discuss concerning the Cthulhu Mythos and Lovecraft’s writing itself. As explained above, there are within Cosmic Horror clusters, usually defined by specific pseudo-mythologies, and one of these is generally termed The Cthulhu Mythos. Specifically, the Cthulhu Mytho are tales that revolve around the pseudo-deities, inhuman intelligences, and artifacts created by Lovecraft and associated writers. It is the nature of the Cthulhu Mythos that it keeps expanding and adding new components, thus a definitive list of the components is not possible. Additionally, it must be made clear that there exist stories that borrow liberally from the Cthulhu Mythos, using its tropes, but subsuming them into narratives that are not founded on, or reject the tenets of cosmicism and cosmic horror. Often such narratives use the Cthulhu Mythos as an extension or corruption of an entirely different mythology or pseudo-mythology. For example, much of August Derleth’s work in the mythos categorizes the resident creatures as elementals. This itself is tolerable if one considers it as simply another variation on the Cthulhu Cult, albeit one that is opposed to their supremacy. Derleth’s blasphemy is not his elemental theory, but rather his creation of invocations that draw on forces that are clearly meant to be a balancing force of good to the evil of Cthulhu and the others, which in itself can be argued to be incompatible with the Elemental theory.

Likewise, many of the stories in Coach’s Midnight Diner: The Jesus versus Cthulhu Edition use Lovecraft’s creations as manifestations of demonic but wholly Christian occult forces. Similarly, many supernaturally themed television series and films have appropriated the Cthulhu Mythos for brief appearances. It is rare that such uses are dogmatic, as these series generally fail to develop a unified and coherent mythology, but rather flit from belief system to belief system depending on the needs of the story. Exceptions to this include the superior Babylon 5, and Laundry series by  Charles Stross who created an overarching framework that allows for various systems of belief and magic systems to compete with each other. Other authors are simply too casual with the name dropping. Robert Weinberg’s story Catacombs in the anthology The Further Adventures of Batman Volume 3: featuring Catwoman, starts with a quote from the fictional Cthulhuvian poet Justin Geoffrey, but then does not otherwise link to the mythos. Indeed, the naming of the sanitarium in Batman’s Gotham City as Arkham Asylum, hijacks the fundamental dread associated with the name, but rarely follows through with stories that do it justice (though The Doom That Came to Gotham is a rare gem effectively merging both the Batman and Cthulhu mythos).

Yet even the Cthulhu Mythos must be considered divisible. Core to the Cthulhu Mythos are what can only be thought of as the Lovecraft Mythos, those stories written by Lovecraft himself, which belong to the Cthulhu Mythos. There is a tendency to draw a distinction in Lovecraft’s writings, suggesting that some of his works (Lovecraft Mythos) belong to the Cthulhu Mythos, while others, do not (or did not until they were retroactively included by other authors ). To aid in discussing this issue, it might be useful to define the Lovecraft Mythos stories by their adherence to certain common tenets which, paraphrasing Robert Price include cosmic horror, a pseudo-mythology, and a New England setting, sometimes fictional, and sometimes only briefly present, or represented by an individual from the region. Using these guidelines, The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Out of Time are clearly part of the Lovecraft Mythos, as are At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. But what are we to do with Herbert West Re-Animator, set in Arkham, but lacking any real sense of the cosmic. What do we do with the Randolph Carter stories, or Pickman’s Model, the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, or the Dreamland stories in general? For the most part these are not Cthulhu Mythos stories, but rather more pedestrian tales of the supernatural or dark fantasy (though a case can be made for The Unnameable being a bit of Cosmic Horror). However, in the Through the Gates of the Silver Key Randolph Carter encounters Nyarlathotep and does experience a kind of cosmic horror and this link to the Cthulhu Mythos is only strengthened by Carter’s cameo in Out of the Aeons. Given these stories, it seems unlikely that dividing Lovecraft’s stories into categories that make them part of the Lovecraft Mythos (and therefore the Cthulhu Mythos) or not, is simply not going to be as comfortable as one would prefer. Some stories are linked to the mythos through setting or characters, but themselves do not meet the criteria to be stories of Cosmic Horror.

This is not inconsistent with the definition, recall that one of the hallmarks of Cosmic Horror is the failure of the masses to recognize the true nature of things. Thus in stories like Herbert West Re-Animator, The Statement of Randolph Carter, and The Picture in the House, the Cosmicism is implied by the milieus in which they are set. Under this proposal Cosmic Horror is implied, even if it doesn’t intrude, simply by the setting. In other words, there exist in the Cthulhu Mythos stories in which cosmic horror may be wholly absent, indeed the narrative may not even be categorized as horror. Imagine stories that are Dramas, Mysteries, Thriller or even Romances in which nothing supernatural or horrific occurs, but because they are set in Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, Kingsport or even Campbell’s Goatswood or Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley the threat of the cosmic is subtly implied, always lurking just beyond the veil of the narrative.

Such stories already exist outside of Lovecraft’s own writings. In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there is an ocean liner named Miskatonic. In Skulls Have No Ears by Henry Kuttner, the antagonist is revealed to be a wholly natural being, rather than the outré thing the protagonist feared it could have been. Such stories, while traditionally not considered part of the Cthulhu Mythos, yet clearly belong to the same milieu, and though it may be difficult for some to use that appellation. Perhaps other turns of phrase should be developed to encompass such narratives, which are wholly free of a supernatural or cosmic element, but are meant to have occurred in a setting where such forces exist.

I dare not attempt such a categorization here, my task is done, and then some, better men then I will have to develop terminology to deal with such tangential tales. Ultimately the term “Lovecraftian Horror” as a catch-all for those tales of Cosmic Horror that parallel the Cthulhu Mythos will still be used, at least until such time as other clades emerge and gain a foothold in the genre.

Pete Rawlik is the author of the upcoming Lovecraftian novel Reanimators.

Reading Lovecraft, by ~FisHgRiNd: http://fishgrind.deviantart.com/

Reading Lovecraft, by ~FisHgRiNd: http://fishgrind.deviantart.com/

9 responses to ““Defining Lovecraftian Horror”, an essay by Pete Rawlik

  1. What if we remove all the humans from Lovecraft’s stories? Would they still matter?
    Human emotions and Humanity is right at the center of the Lovecraft’s stories I have read so far. that does include the protagonist’s inability to change the course of events (The Whisperer in Darkness), his loneliness (the crawling chaos), no one believes him and he is in asylum (The Tomb) etc.
    Lovecraft’s narration tells the common people are thrust into uncommon situations. Though something else is said ..a bullet mark…a charring smell and yellow color…etc…normal people’s reactions and observations are narrated BUT other preternatural observations are said.
    there is no grand scheme or goal …just a pervasive sub-current of ill-defined fear – which is paralyzing.
    Nevertheless I can related to each protagonist because of my own insignificance.


  2. We need to be able to define Lovecraftian horror for a number of reasons. Those of us who write Lovecraftian weird fiction need to have a foundation of meaning, to realise what it is that makes a story Lovecraftian. And editors of Lovecraftian anthologies need to have a clear idea of what they are looking for as a way of guiding those who submit work and to whom their books are marketed. The rad thing is that it is very difficult to precisely pinpoint what the term “Lovecraftian horror” means. There are some who insist that the one and only writer who could produce such work is H. P. Lovecraft, and everyone else is a wannabe. As a writer, I am obsess’d with producing work that pays homage to the genius of H. P. Lovecraft, and thus I try to make my horror Lovecraftian and yet still retain my own individuality as far as voice and vision is concerned. It ain’t easy.


  3. I have a really magnificent collection of Lovecraftian fiction, but I cast a wide net in that definition, often including things other collectors ignore. I enjoy it all, but when I began working on my own stories, I wanted them to jive up with the existing body of the work. Some of this just can’t happen, too many between source contradictions, but it formed a basis for my ideas of what is core Cthulhu, what is not, what is Lovecraftian, what is cosmic, and what is parody. Like Chris said it is good to talk about what things mean, when I have a conversation I want to share language. We don’t have to agree but we have to be able to have a frame of reference.


  4. I think you meant the Laundry series by Charlie Stross.

    Anyway, your thinking mostly lines up with mine (or vice versa). In taxonomy there are lumpers and splitters; so too in mythos fiction. I try not to be too persnickety in classifying anything, but I tend to use Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos as a jumping off point for recognizing something as Lovecrafian.


  5. The short answer to Dominique is that it can mean something different to everyone, and Pete has simply supplied what it means to him. This sort of floating signifier is not unknown in genre fiction (or fiction in general, I suppose). The definition “‘Science fiction’ means what I point to when I say something is science fiction” is something of a running joke in SF fandom.

    Ultimately, “Lovecraftian” probably means nothing more than “This reminds me of the works of Lovecraft”, which is necessarily subjective. But I find it instructive to hear what working authors think about various labels they encounter, and I thank Pete for his essay.


  6. A good question Dominique, part of my training is to categorize things, to split based on defined criteria. So I’ve put that to good use here, but I think what drove this is the talk by Joe Pulver about the King in Yellow canon of stories, as opposed to the greater Hastur Mythos. But more importantly, I think that too much gets lumped into the Cthulhu Mythos that just isn’t, it may be Lovecraftian, or Cosmic Horror, but that doesn’t make it Cthulhu. The point may be this, if someone creates a new mythos, with ancient cosmic horrors and such, I don’t think it necessarily has to be forced into the Cthulhu mold, it could be an entirely new and independent path in cosmic horror, and should be acknowledged as such.


  7. I suppose my question is, why do Lovecraftians feel such a dire need to define and catagorize their subgenre? It happens a lot in horror, I think, and honestly, it seems to me to be a way to legitimize the genre in a scholarly way (we have many different types, and we can label them, therefore it’s not just degenerate). You see it to a smaller extent in Romance fiction, I think. But Lovecraftians tend to take it all more seriously, it seems to me. I’m curious as to why. Why is it that Lovecraftian fiction has to fit into a certain set of perameters (I’m 99% positive I spelled that wrong, I realize), and it can’t just mean something different to everyone?


  8. Thanks for a very insightful condensation of the teem. I sometimes am convinced that authors ans publihers latch onto the term to garner easy sales.


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