What does “cosmic horror” mean? Five horror writers weigh in

This article is by Acep Hale.

My dear unknown friend,

Please give a quiet moment of support to Lovecraft eZine‘s founder Mike Davis, because he’s the poor soul who is second in line to hear my harebrained ideas. (My wife is first in line, but she has learned to ensconce herself within her office and ignore any and all that does not sound like it requires an immediate phone call to emergency services.) Mike is surprisingly game for these flights of fancy, and what you now read is the result of such a flinging towards the sky.

I realized some time ago that as members of this community, we casually employ terms such as “cosmic horror” and “quiet horror” as if we all agree upon their meanings. Yet if you take a minute and contemplate, you may find that you yourself are uncertain as to how these terms fit within your own personal mythology, much less how the person next to you defines the very same term. Unfortunately, we cannot all live at NecronomiCon 365 days a year participating in a hive mind panel discussion hammering out a consensus. My flight of fancy, then, was to start a semi-regular feature wherein I asked five writers to contribute a paragraph explaining what they felt a particular term meant.

I have recently been reading Harry G. West’s Ethnographic Sorcery. West is an ethnographer, and while studying residents of the Mudea plateau in northern Mozambique, where sorcery is defined as the ability to envision and thereby reshape the world, he was suddenly confronted with the fact that the people he was observing considered West himself a sorcerer. The methods that West used, the techniques and tools of modern ethnography, were to them simply the toolbox of another culture’s sorcerer to understand and thus transform the world. Instead of rejecting their viewpoint, West took this as an opportunity to contemplate and reflect upon anthropological theory and interpretation. His final conclusion is that we are all ethnographic sorcerers. None of this would come as a surprise to anyone passingly familiar with the works of Kenneth Grant, Alan Moore, or Robert Anton Wilson, all of whom have stated for decades that artists have a large hand in shaping the reality that surrounds us.

Never one to first dip a toe to check the waters, I decided to jump straight into the deep end, and the very first term we’ll explore is “cosmic horror.” I am deeply humbled and still in awe by the opportunity to communicate with artists I hold in such high esteem, and I owe all of them a deep debt of gratitude for taking the time out of their schedules. As we are all too aware, the life of a writer is not an easy one, with time being a very valuable commodity, so agreeing to take part in these articles is a sacrifice indeed.

1. Matthew M. Bartlett burst onto the scene in 2014 with the self-published Gateways to Abomination, a collection of short fiction that contains a cleverly concealed surprise for its reader. This has been followed by The Witch Cult in Western Massachusetts: Volume 1, Rangel, and Creeping Waves. His expanding mythos revolving around the town of Leeds has fascinated and seduced countless readers. For a beautiful overview of Bartlett’s abominable world I would direct the curious reader once again to Joe Zanetti’s insightful blog, Musings from the Outer Worlds. Without further ado:

Matthew M. Bartlett

Matthew M. Bartlett

For me, cosmic horror is about not only man’s insignificance, but his fragility, both physical and mental.  Except for the fact that man is haunted by the vast gulf of nonexistence before his lifespan and its fast-returning resumption, he is in a fundamental way not terribly different from a newborn who dies within minutes of his birth. There’s an awakening into incomprehensible chaos, bright and loud and terrifying, and then it’s all gone. Forever. In our moment of chaos, we witness abjection, corruption, violence, and a ubiquitous instability of all systems—a general sense that we are at all times unsafe. And while there are beautiful things here for some of us–love, comfort, entertainments, the company of friends, and of animals–we fear that those good things exist only to mock us. In the end, we face the ultimate forgetting. All of that, and then there are the monsters.

2. Timothy Jarvis was one of the first names that leapt to mind when I first conceived of this feature. Time, for me, is an oft-neglected component of cosmic horror, and no work has dealt with time in this manner as admirably as Jarvis’ The Wanderer. Here I must make a confession. The Wanderer is a book I desperately need to review for Lovecraft eZine. It needs to be exposed to a wide audience yet it is a work that encompasses so many classics within its own pages, and Jarvis is such an engaging and knowledgeable writer, that any reviewer that tackles that work had better be fully on point. Now that I write this, I find it to be yet another definition of a wildly successful novel, one that is a joy for the reader yet a trap filled maze of mirrors for the critic. I feel Timothy Jarvis’ take on cosmic horror gives you a delightful taste of the wonders you will find in his opus, The Wanderer:

Timothy Jarvis

Timothy Jarvis

Cosmic horror has existed, I would guess, for almost as long as consciousness itself. It was born when a woman, or man, unable to sleep, sitting up, at night, by her tribe’s fire, and gazing out over the vast ocean before her, at the mountain range rearing up in the distance off to the left, and, craning her neck, up at the myriad stars in the sky, thought, ‘Do things dwell in those depths, those heights, amid those glittering lights?’ And also wondered, ‘If so, do they mean me harm?’

Ever since, humankind has sought to sublimate or lessen the terror birthed that night.

While that early woman sat there, looking on the ocean, the mountains, and the firmament with awe and trembling, two others of her tribe came up to her, asked what she was thinking. She told them.

‘Monsters, giants, and gods, dwell there, in those places,’ said one of the two who had approached, that member of the tribe who never drank the fermented potato juice (or only drank it in secret). ‘We must offer them sacrifice, or surely they will do us ill.’

The other, who was the tribe’s joker, sneered, squatted, and pissed. ‘There’s your ocean,’ she said. Then, squinting at the mountains, holding her hand out, the highest peak between her forefinger and thumb, said, ‘I’ve shat bigger stools.’ Finally, after sneezing in her hand, she held out a palm spattered with snot. ‘There are your stars.’

The first, she became the tribe’s holy woman. The second, the storyteller. As Mikhail Bakhtin has claimed, religion has used cosmic terror to draw followers to it, and often to cow, to humiliate and oppress, while folk culture has mocked the sources of that horror, brought them low, overcome humankind’s ancient perturbation through laughter. The sacred sees the microcosm in the macrocosm, human affairs reflected in the cosmos; the profane sees the macrocosm in the microcosm, cosmic terrors mirrored in the body, the apocalyptic just so much piss and wind.

And that was how things remained till, in the West, the Enlightenment came, with its categories and its reason, a system of correspondence by resemblance was replaced by a stricter taxonomical conception, and the microcosm and macrocosm were put asunder.

The supernatural literary form that arose in the wake of that moment, the Gothic, is, in one reading, a residue of the Age of Reason’s abjection of medieval folk culture. That’s why the phallic towers and vulval caves, giants and lecherous monks, the dismembered bodies, the shit, piss, and vomit that, in works of the folk grotesque, give rise to lewd laughter, are transmuted, in the Gothic, into things of dread (though carnivalesque energies and cosmic fear still bleed through in some stranger Gothic texts, and then in the literary uses the decadent writers of the nineteenth century make of their Gothic forebears). Under the grotesque, fluidity and the crossing of borders (between human bodies, which are ancestral and renewed each generation, and between human and animal), was a sign of life’s energy and mutability; under the Enlightenment, it became unnatural transgression and abomination. The strange, the anomalous, the hybrid, grew troubling.

But the Enlightenment offered other reassurances – humankind at the centre of things, that all would finally be understood under the calm gaze of empiricism. But these promises were reneged on in the end. The sciences themselves, the implications of Riemannian geometry, entropy, quantum indeterminacy, and so on, began to depredate the certainties they should have upheld, and the rational, coherent Enlightenment subject was shattered by the vast and terrifying gulfs of time and space opened up. This is the irruption of cosmic horror that classic weird fiction exploited, H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.’ Early-twentieth century subjects could choose to resist this horror, cling to Enlightenment certainties, or to give themselves to it, something reflected in the split nature of the literature of cosmic fear of the time, the tendency of its protagonists meet their ends in either madness and death, or rapturous dissolution.

But over the course of the century, humankind grew more and more inured to the terrors of spatial and temporal magnitude, and partly embraced the anomalous and transgressive potential of post-human modification and diversification. Cosmic horror lost its teeth. So where does that leave the literature of cosmic horror? Are its contemporary practitioners mere nostalgic dabblers?

I would argue not, though the form has changed and must continue to change. The classic weird, in both its resistant and ecstatic forms, took cosmic terror and made of it a prognostication, even an ushering in. That terror no longer exists as it did. But, as Brian Stableford has argued, ‘[a]n ability to remain unhorrified by the fact that the entire universe, outside the fragile envelope of the Earth’s biosphere, is extremely and unremittingly hostile to human existence ought to amplify, rather than diminish, the horror implicit in the fact that we are more than sufficiently hostile to one another, and to the human microcosm in its worldly entirety, not to need any cosmic assistance.’

And this is, in part, where I think the literature of cosmic horror can still have its effect. It can show us that our cruelty towards one another is worse by far than the harm done by some indifferent alien entity. It can show us, as Eugene Thacker has argued, the implacable force of the ‘world-without-us’ which we threaten to awaken if we continue goading it with carelessness towards our environment.

And there is, I believe, another aspect to the contemporary literature of cosmic horror. I think the mode can again be, not just a reaction against, but a harbinger. If it can reawaken both the ecstasy of the mystics and the scatological anomalous of folk culture (which, in the West at least, were suppressed by the Enlightenment), the literature of cosmic horror could show us what we might become and where we are going.

3. Christopher Slatsky. I almost feel as if Slatsky needs no introduction here on the pages of the eZine. Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales was another book that deservedly took the scene by storm in 2015. For the briefest glimpse as to why you may check out this review here or our interview with the man himself. As Justin Steele from Arkham Digest and Strange Aeons so wisely observed of the volume, “Slatsky builds dread from page one, and is not shy about amping up the weird.” What I love about Slatsky’s work is he always finds a way to make the cosmic horror personal, or as he says so much more aptly:

Christopher Slatsky

Christopher Slatsky

Since we’re all trapped in this terrible, physical world, confronting the illimitable is our only impetus for astonishment. Cosmic horror is an attempt to describe this transcendental need to explore humanity’s irrelevance when compared to the age of the stars, to find poetry inside the confines of a mechanistic existence. We do so with the full realization that these contemplations are meaningless if we don’t also address emotional turmoil, take note of torn skin and broken bones and heartache that inevitably afflicts corporeal animals—the universe’s ultimate demise isn’t of much concern if we don’t contrast it against the sorrows of humanity, and subsequently, derive a greater sense of why both the secularist and the faithful are overwhelmed in their quest to experience mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Cosmic horror is my attempt to make sense of the senseless, how I derive worth from chaos, and find meaning in the meaningless.

4. Kathe Koja. Wow. What am I going to say about Kathe Koja? I’ll be completely honest here, I queried her as a pie in the sky, “Oh gee wouldn’t it be cool if?” Then she agreed. And I proceeded to fanboy with no shame whatsoever. As we have covered before, I consider myself a reader, not a collector. That said, there are a few books that have survived my nomadic punk rock lifestyle, and all of those books have the name Koja upon them. From a person whose very first act with a hardcover is to get rid of the dust jacket, I still have my original copy of Skin complete with its dust jacket. When my wife heard why I was so joyously gibbering like a loon, she said, “I remember when you first called to tell me about this book, you’d just read that was a love story with a hole.” Yes, I still have my original copy of The Cipher as well. You know, I think when you’re within a presence that overwhelms you, the impulse is to blather on, trying to express how much that presence means to you. But the best course of action is to let them speak for themselves. Once again Kathe Koja worked a piece of literary jiu-jitsu, I think you’ll see why I thought her and Christopher Slatsky were a wonderful one-two punch, and I simply cannot wait to burrow down with her newest work, Christopher Wild:

Kathe Koja - photo by Rick Lieder

Kathe Koja – photo by Rick Lieder

Cosmic horror is not something that disturbs me – it’s much too large, too impersonally menacing, and I’m down here scuffling in the every day. I don’t fear the anything from beyond the stars, it would be like taking personal offense at a hurricane.

But – as per M.R. James – put beneath my bedtime pillow “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and . . . not the mouth of a human being,” nor of animal either, in such a calm and intimate, comfortable spot, and I will scream and scream and scream. This horror shrinks the cosmos down to pillow-size, mouth-size, bite size, and its presence confirms that truly, there is no everyday safety: there is no safety at all.

5. Richard Gavin. To close us out who better than Mr. Gavin? He has been sending rumblings through the community with At Fear’s Altar, The Benighted Path, and the newly released Sylvan Dread. In a genre that stands staunchly materialist, Gavin stands fearless in his approach with, “What if there was something else?” This sense of the other, of wrongness, permeates Gavin’s work in an unsettling manner that sets it firmly apart from his contemporaries. As you read his reply I think you will agree, who better to close us out?

Richard Gavin

Richard Gavin

Somehow, very early in life, I became aware of the Hidden; a realm so incomprehensibly vast and staggeringly Other to the everyday world I knew that the only way it could be sensed was through a chancing glimpse. This glancing transformed my reality into a strange and shadowy garden that was robust with intimations, with mystery. These delicate implications were felt by me when, for instance, the sun shone through the boughs of a great tree in a way that seemed to convey primordial Nature, or when sleep delivered me into a dream too vivid and intricate to merely be memories of my waking life experiences reordered, or if I entered an unlit room too suddenly and witnessed something fleeting in my periphery. But no matter what form such intimations of the Hidden took, my response was always uniform: an eruption of awe and dread. This fearful response was, I believe, not strictly because I had encountered an image or an idea that was “scary” in the conventional sense of the term. Rather it was the result of engaging with something so profound that the only emotion our psycho-physical complex can muster to convey the grandeur of its impact upon us is terror.

While relatively rare, this sensation never felt unique to me. Even as a youth I was confident that others had experienced it as well. The reason for my confidence was the fact that I was a devotee to a form of storytelling where such experiences were germane: supernatural (or cosmic) horror.

Whether it was the Jamesian scholar encountering the Spirit at the heart an ancient rural legend, Dr. Raymond’s exposing of the Great God Pan, or Wilbur Whateley’s fanaticism toward his non-human origins, such works always seemed to be less about feats of the human imagination as an earnest attempt to convey the Hidden Real.

In my own fiction I strive to create feverish yet earnest reportage of my impressions of the Hidden Real that haunts us all. As an author of this very specialized form of horror, I aim to convey the ineffable, to speak the unspeakable, and it is my hope that my readers are able to experience not just the terror but also the profound beauty that I myself experienced through these visions, these vibrant experiences.

The universe is unquestionably indifferent, at times even hostile. But what is belittled or indeed outright destroyed by the Hidden is not consciousness entire, it is merely the ego; that insect-sized persona that humanity loves to inflate until it reaches gargantuan proportions. The cosmic, the ineffable, the primordial, the Other; these forces are the spear that pierces this false construct, leaving us raw and exposed to the pan-daemonic Real that conceals itself eternally on the fringes of mundane awareness.

To experience this is to know true horror, yes, but it is also to experience the sublime.

This article is by Acep Hale.

Article image by Ivan Laliashvili at Deviant Art. View his incredible art gallery here.

5 responses to “What does “cosmic horror” mean? Five horror writers weigh in

  1. A great idea Acep, garnering what cosmic horror represents from 5 different perspectives, especially from those writing on the cutting edge of weird horror. Well done!

  2. Thank you so much! I was blessed that the writers themselves too the time to give me such wonderful answers and Mike agreed to another of my harebrained schemes.

  3. Pingback: What does “cosmic horror” mean? Five horror writers weigh in | The Sanguine Woods: Where the Heart Can Bleed More Freely...·

  4. Pingback: What does “Quiet Horror” Mean? Five Horror Writers Weigh In | Lovecraft eZine·

  5. Pingback: 2016 in Summation | Christopher Slatsky·

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