SF/F Genre Glossary

What is Cosmic Horror?

This is a continuation of the Speculative Fiction Genre Glossary Project posts. For the complete genre index click here.

Reading Lovecraft by FisHgRiNd

What is Cosmic Horror? (aka Lovecraftian Horror)

A subgenre of horror inspired by the works and mythos created by H. P. Lovecraft, where the human perception of reality is a thin layer that protects people from the evil or uncaring horrors that rule the universe. To glimpse at the truth can cause insanity, and that there are things humans are not meant to know.

Conventions: visceral textures (goo, slime), anachronistic writing style, tentacles, Eldrich Abominations (monsters that defy natural law and are so alien that the sight of them can drive someone to madness).

Themes: Isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, the fragility of sanity, secrets, fear of the unknown, humanities struggles are insignificant.

Literary Examples:

  • Various writings of H. P. Lovecraft
  • The Mist by Stephen King
  • The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock

I find this genre a bit bleak, but it has influenced comics (Hellboy) and film. Elements of Lovecraftian horror are frequently incorporated into steampunk as well. Anyone care for a side order of tentacles?

15 Comments

  1. The overlap between Lovecraftian Horror and Steampunk probably owes itself, at least in part, to the overlap between the period of time in which Lovecraft lived and worked and the “steampunk” source Victorian and Edwardian era itself. (Lovecraft wrote during the late Steampunk/early Dieselpunk analogous eras – his “Dream Cycle” and “Cthulhu Mythos” stories were written between the years 1920 and 1935.)

    1. That makes sense. I think I remember also reading that Lovecraft was fond of anachronisms and archaic language, even compared to his contemporaries. I see that manifest in steampunk as well.

  2. Hmm. At first I thought The Matrix might sort of qualify (thin layer of human perception hiding an uglier truth) but it doesn’t seem quite a perfect fit…

  3. Ew! Tentacles? No thanks. 😛 Btw, I love the artwork you chose for this subgenre; it’s perfect!

    I’m generally not a fan of horror (too easily scared!), but recently I’ve been sampling some of Lovecraft’s stuff. I like how sometimes he doesn’t really show you the thing of horror, really, just speaks of it. But the buildup and the language he uses is so evocative of the horrendous that it actually works.

    I think I’ll be reading more of him, at least, now. It’s interesting in an unusual sort of way.

    1. Aliens does pick up on some Lovecraftian tropes! Goo and slime, the visceral trappings, and the design of the aliens themselves are very much in line. I think it overlaps, though seeing the ‘alien’ is more of a fearful experience rather than one that would make you lose your mind in insanity.

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