Cosmic Horror Story
aka: Lovecraftian

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Image courtesy of yohkai. Used with permission.

"Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large."

Imagine a universe where even the tiniest spot of hope for the future is blindness in itself, the insane Straw Nihilist yelling about The End of the World as We Know It in the asylum is actually the only one with a clue, and too much curiosity about the true nature of the world is a precursor to a Fate Worse Than Death. A universe where humanity is preyed upon as a mere plaything for all kinds of inconceivable horrors, and all our ideals are naught but cruel illusions; a universe which was once ruled by such eldritch abominations from the depths of space long ago. Nor are they dead; they merely wait, and soon they shall wake. They shall return to rule this world, and all our grandest achievements shall have been in vain. For all our blind hubris we are but mice in the wainscoting, making merry while the cat's away—but even today, the world is more dangerous than we may know.

Take one step away from the comforts of home, and you will find terror and madness on every nook and corner — dark cults, hideous monstrosities, truths so terrible that none may comprehend them and remain sane. Demons gibber in the tunnels beneath your feet. Parasites and worms slither unseen in whatever food or drink you dare put into your mouth. Ghosts hover unseen and unheard around you, discerning and mocking your every thought and secret. The vile essence of an alien disease lurks in the recesses of your own family tree, a genetic time bomb just waiting to go off...

Such was the vision of HP Lovecraft, pioneer of the Cosmic Horror Story. This type of fiction doesn't just scare you with big, ugly monsters—though it can certainly have them—it depresses you with the fatalistic implication of being insignificantly powerless before such vast, unknowable and fundamentally alien entities. On the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, it sometimes lies near the cynical Despair Event Horizon.

If you aren't sure if a work is a Cosmic Horror Story or not, ask yourself these questions:
  • Is the antagonist evil or uncaring on a cosmic scale? We're talking a Big Bad who is capable of destroying humanity, planet Earth, the universe, or all three and doing so with very little or no preparation and/or intent, and with about as much effort as it takes to swat a mosquito that's landed on your arm.
  • Is the attitude of the antagonist towards humanity disregard, simple pragmatism, or incidental hatred? (A godlike antagonist that actively hates humanity and its works is more in line with Rage Against the Heavens or God Is Evil.) Does the antagonist have a worldview and motivations that doesn't really seem to take humanity into account? Are the motivations of the antagonist difficult to explain using human terms?
  • Are the antagonist or its minions so alien in appearance or mentality that simply being near them or seeing them is sufficient to drive a human to madness?
  • Are the antagonist or its minions indescribable -- literally? Lines like "I cannot find the words to describe the vile thing I saw..." are a hallmark of Cosmic Horror Stories.
  • Is the tone of the work deeply pessimistic about the possibility of the antagonist being defeated completely? If it isn't, the work is more likely to be Lovecraft Lite.

Answering "No" to more than two of these means that the work is probably not a Cosmic Horror Story, although it may share tropes with the genre.

Common tropes in Cosmic Horror Stories include:

The genre is sometimes called "Cosmic Horror", Lovecraftian Fiction, or Weird Fiction. Very likely to use Paranoia Fuel and invoke an atmosphere similar to Room 101; both tropes play with the fear of that unknown thing that happens to traumatize all those who encounter it. A Despair Event Horizon or a Downer Ending can be used to add to the depressing atmosphere. Compare/contrast with Gothic Horror (on which prose the first Cosmic Horror Stories, like those from Lovecraft himself, borrowed), Dark Fantasy, Crapsack World, Mind Screw and Through the Eyes of Madness.

Note that while the Cthulhu Mythos Shared Universe originated in the Cosmic Horror fiction of HP Lovecraft, a Cosmic Horror Story need not refer to the Mythos or borrow from its imagery. Lovecraft Lite goes a step further than that by either giving the setting some genuine hope or playing it for laughs.


Examples

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    Anime & Manga 

    Comicbooks 
  • The notorious work of indie comics artists Al Columbia and Hans Rickheit and, at times, Edward Gorey.
  • A Donald Duck comic, The Call of C'Rruso, of all things, features this as its story. Donald tries out for a singing competition organized by a renowned musician, and gets successfully recruited by having his voice altered by an apparent twin of this musician. It's later revealed that the entire world is actually the dream of Ar-Finn, a primordial cephalophoid monster which slumbers in an ancient city at the bottom of the sea. The two twins are manifestations of the monster's conflicting subconscious desires to either continue sleeping or wake up (which Donald's voice will make it do). When the creature does exactly that, the rest of the world vanishes as it no longer creates the world-dream, and everything in its vicinity shapes itself into its image, resulting in Donald and his nephews growing tentacles and stick eyes. It's eventually put back to sleep, but the story ends on a rather dark note as Donald contemplates everybody's existence as mere parts of the creature's imagination.
  • El Eternauta. The aliens called "Hands", who are smarter and more evolved than human beings, are actually unwilling puppets of higher entities that they only dare to call "Them", and they even define "Them" as the "cosmic hate". "Them" are never shown.
  • Fall of Cthulhu by BOOM Comics. Their other lovecraftian series Cthulhu Tales however, being an Anthology Comic, had a lot of individual stories fall into Lovecraft Lite instead.
  • The Filth, also from Morrison, arguably. But Secret Original is living in this: A Captain Ersatz of Golden Age Superman, he discovered his world had no free will and went to change this, by coming into reality. And the reality is: He is just a comic book character...
  • There was an Anthology Comic series from Vertigo called Flinch. In one story, a massive fan of Lovecraft eventually grows up with the realization "We don't deserve monsters" and loses all wonder of creatures out there.
  • It's still uncertain whether Hellboy and B.P.R.D. are this or Lovecraft Lite. It appeared at first to be the latter, but the monsters are getting nastier, and Hellboy is getting increasingly desperate.
  • Leviathan shown in Hellbound: Hellraiser II was described in supplementary graphic novels to be the true Eldritch Abomination.
  • Both Marvel and DC have elements of this. For Marvel, anytime Galactus shows up, and for DC, anytime Starro shows up. Many Crisis Crossover events are this too.
  • The Sandman stories focus on abstract beings of incomprehensible power and age that govern the whole of reality, and where supernovae exploding and wiping out solar systems of intelligent life are so common that they only mention them in passing.
    • An example of a more Mind Screwingly surreal Cosmic Horror Story is A Tale of Two Cities, which is told in the manner of a Lovecraftian ghost story and has a man become lost in a city's dream (i.e. cities have a sort of collective personality shaped by their inhabitants, and if they have a personality, why can't they dream? In Sandman, this sort of logic applies to many of the anthropomorphic personifications and their realms) and meets a man who has been lost there for countless years, but still prefers the possibility of wandering through the city's dream to the alternative: "That the city should wake. That it should wake and-" but he gets distracted before he can tell us what might happen if a dreaming city woke up.
    • In A Dream of a Thousand Cats it is shown that if enough people dream the same thing at once (and it's not a large number, only a thousand or so) they can not only directly change the physical world, they can change history so that the world has always been in its "new" form, and the "old" world not only ceases to exist, but is Ret Goned from the entirety of history so that it never existed at all.
    • That the Dreaming is a place inhabited by sentient creatures makes the end of A Game of You where Dream uncreates the skerry (a land that is apparently as vast and heavily populated as a country) a true Biblical apocalypse for its inhabitants. He quite casually confirms that he could recreate the land and resurrect the inhabitants exactly as they were before if he chose to, adding an almost Religious Horror to it, as it shows just how powerful he is, and how insignificant sentient beings are in comparison.
    • A story where Haroun-al Rashid makes a bargain with Dream to preserve his perfect, magical city from the inevitable ravages of time by giving the entire city to Dream to take into his realm and preserve it forever in his stories. The story is relatively Lighter and Softer compared to some of the others (which tells you quite a lot about them!), but it still involves a real city being effortlessly transformed into a fantasy by the protagonist of the series.
    • At the same time, one of these abstract beings (Morpheus himself) claims that he and his siblings are merely the servants, the dolls, of mortals. For better or for worse, mortals are the dominant power in creation.
  • The Thanos Imperative was a storyline where the main Marvel Universe was invaded by the Cancerverse, a version of the Marvel universe where every living thing in the universe was made immortal by Eldritch Abominations (and turned into hideous tentacle-beard monsters in the process) and got too full of its own version of life and started to invade other universes to spread.
  • Grant Morrison's Zenith mainly fought the Lloigor, shapeless body-stealing beings from beyond time and space who can consume reality. Turns out they're actually the first-generation superheroes who "self-evolved" into Reality Warper Gods and subsequently went mad with power, but were forced to live outside normal space-time since their own universe was too fragile to hold them. And they want back in. Badly.
  • Jonathan Hickman's Avengers is this applied to an entire superhero multiverse; as its main Arc Words put it: "Everything Dies". A number of foundational Marvel heroes, including Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Black Panther, are forced to judge whether to kill other Earths to temporarily save their own as The Multiverse is suddenly locked into an inescapable death spiral. One of them does. On the other side, the optimism of the likes of Captain America and the Great Society (a Captain Ersatz Justice League of America from a parallel universe) is ultimately exposed as meaningless and ineffective against the end of everything. Oh, and also the beings in charge of running the Multiverse want to kill the Earth and any worlds in their way of doing that, and even they're on their last legs because they've been attacked by an unimaginable force far bigger and more powerful than themselves. By the end of the run it's revealed all of this is the result of Eldritch Abomination cosmic beings known as the Beyonders living outside reality, who consider themselves Above Good and Evil. Everything has just been them conducting a callous experiment on the results of the destruction of all creation, and they've already slaughtered every high-tier cosmic being that might have been tasked with stopping them, with the few heroes that manage to confront them such as Thor and Hyperion being destroyed effortlessly. The run concludes with Captain America and Iron Man, the leaders of Earth's Greatest Heroes, dying fighting each other out of spite over mutual betrayals as the universe explodes around them, and there was nothing anyone ever could have done to stop it.

    Documentary 
  • Aftermath: Population Zero: After humanity disappears, most signs of its civilization disappear within a few centuries time, the remainder after the next ice age. Other lifeforms move on and adapt. Planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old, the universe three times that length of time; humanity's whole existence was just the blink of an eye.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live Action 
  • John Carpenter's "apocalypse trilogy" (The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness) is an escalation of the trope over the 3 movies: first, a protean, invasive lifeform threatening to subsume in itself every living thing on the planet in a desolate antarctic setting reminiscent of HP Lovecraft's At The Mountains Of Madness; then a liquid corruption that turns out to be Satan, and whose goal is to bring to our world its true father, the Anti-God, in an old church being investigated by academics from an establishment similar to Miskatonic University; and finally, ineffable, unreal horrors attempting to find purchase in our reality through the writings of a Mad Artist and his previously-fictitious Town with a Dark Secret in the middle of Lovecraft Country, all the while screwing over the protagonist in such a way that it was formerly the Trope Namer for Through the Eyes of Madness.
    • Arguably also the original short story Who Goes There?? which inspired The Thing, although not quite as bleak.
    • The Thing from Another World has elements of this as well, with the monster being an alien unlike anything on Earth (apart from its humanoid appearance) and a being who is nearly impossible to destroy. The main narrative comes off more as Lovecraft Lite, but it's implied at the end that there's more of those things out there, and they may come attack again at any time.
  • The original ending to Army of Darkness had more than a touch of this as in it, Ash drinks too much of the sleeping potion and wakes up After the End, which given how freaky the scenery is was likely a result of the supernatural forces mentioned in the Necronomicon running rampant.
  • Right from the start, The Cabin in the Woods shows that it's not your typical "dumb kids go in the middle of nowhere to get killed off one by one", given that everything is planned and monitored by a nebulous but obviously very well-funded organisation... It's because that organisation's goal turns out to be to provide sadistic entertainment to beings known as the Ancient Ones, who'll otherwise destroy the world. They have bases throughout the world, each enacting scenarios in accordance to the prevalent Horror Tropes of their country/culture, so that at least one succeeds; in the end, they all fail, and the film closes on an Ancient One's titanic arm bursting from the ground.
  • Event Horizon, in which "Hell" is the easiest way for the characters to describe hyperspace, but some elements suggest it to be far, far worse. Warhammer 40,000 fans like to joke that the film is a prequel.
  • The Final Destination series has its protagonists cheating Death and trying to survive the consequences. Death is never presented as a defeatable force, and is unimaginably cruel about how it goes about balancing the books. And no matter what the characters do, Death will always claim them, even if it has to break the laws of possibility and probability to do so.
  • The Forgotten turns out to be one. Telly and Ash's children were kidnapped by Eldritch Abominations and put through all that hell because they were experimenting. The Abominations have the ability to snatch people right out of the air and instantly make any person close to you forget who you are. They have human agents that go along with them because they can't stop them. There's a happy ending, but only because the Abominations said the experiment failed.
  • While Italian director Lucio Fulci's horror movies are usually more remembered for their bizarre dream-logic and outrageously gory kills, at least two (The Beyond and City of the Living Dead) can be considered to be Cosmic Horror Stories, as both are deeply nihilistic, concern themselves with incomprehensibly malevolent supernatural forces, and end very badly for pretty much everybody. The links to the Cthulhu Mythos (The Beyond features the Book of Eibon as a MacGuffin, and most of City of the Living Dead takes place in a town named Dunwich) help a bit.
  • Possession, a film by Andrzej Zulawski which maps Cosmic Horror Story onto a disintegrating marriage.
  • The Ju On series and its American remake series, The Grudge are actually quite young in regards to the time scale of the horror since the curse only started in the past 10 years or so before the events of the films, but for all respects they have the characteristics of a Cosmic Horror story. The curse itself was technically a jealousy-turned-murder-turned-revenge story gone wrong, but it seems that the fulfillers of the curse have strayed from this path to include everyone, even (and especially) the innocent ones, in their targets. Once you do as little as taking a little a step inside the the vicinity of the house or being associated with someone already cursed, it doesn't matter if you're in the cursed house, in your own residence, in your school, in the hospital, in the countryside, or even in another part of the world (the second and third American films take place in Chicago) or if you think that you're safe for a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a year, or even 10 years (the third Japanese film's third act is set a decade after the others), It. Will. Always. Claim. You.
    • Best exemplified in the third Japanese film. The whole of Tokyo is deserted, apparently having each and every of its inhabitants claimed by the curse.
    • Notable also is that the series have the appearances of a simple ghost story, but for whatever reasons, people who see the fulfillers of the curse always cower or frozen in fear, as if seeing them breaks their mind to do anything other than, well, cower and frozen in fear. This reason is why the films all end in Downer Ending.
  • The Toho Universe, i.e. the fictional universe the Toho Studios films take place in. Invading aliens, Kaiju, ancient civilizations that worship unearthly beings, and humanity just barely able to survive any of the ongoing mayhem. Even films that have happier endings still heavily imply that the danger is far from over and that humanity are essentially insects to the giant monsters that rampage across the world.
    • Gojira is this as well as an allegory for the atomic bomb. A giant ancient monster is awoken/mutated by nuclear testing and ends up wreaking havoc upon humanity. Godzilla ends up destroying Tokyo, swats down airplanes and crushes tanks like they're little more than flies, and is impervious to conventional weaponry. At the end, it takes something worse than the monster to kill it (i.e. The Oxygen Destroyer). And, even then it's heavily implied that Godzilla wasn't the only one of his kind. Cue the sequels.
    • Ghidorah The Three Headed Monster. A princess becomes possessed by the spirit of a long-extinct being from Mars (or Venus depending on which version you are watching) who proceeds to try and warn humanity about their impending doom. Meanwhile, a giant meteor has landed on earth and seems to be growing. Said meteor then bursts open revealing Ghidorah, a giant three-headed space dragon that goes from planet to planet wiping out all life. Why? Just for the hell of it. It takes the combined efforts of Mothra, Godzilla, and Rodan (three already powerful monsters that made humans seem like insignificant ants in comparison) just to drive him away.
    • While Matango lacks the space aliens and kaiju of other Toho films, it certainly has its share of inhuman horrors. A group of sailors end up washed up on an island that's strangely inhabited by a lot of unusual mushrooms. They find another boat washed up that belonged to a research crew, but said crew seems to have disappeared. And then we find out what happens when someone eats the mushrooms.
    • Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack!. Not only do you have the Godzilla returning from the first film as a vengeful zombie-thing possesed by the spirits of those who died in World War II, but you also have three kaiju that were so feared by people that they were actually worshipped as gods. Said three gods (Mothra, Baragon, and Ghidorah) are awoken to help protect Japan against Godzilla's wrath due to the JSDF once again being useless against him. And, even then, the most powerful of the three god-monsters (Ghidorah, who also happens to be the Yamato No Orochi) is no match against Godzilla.
    • Godzilla VS Space Godzilla centers around Godzilla going up against his alien clone. To give an idea as to how dire the situation is, when asked what would happen if Space Godzilla were to defeat his earthly counterpart, the Shobijin refuse to answer. As if that wasn't bad enough, the ending of the film also implies that Godzilla's battle with Space Godzilla was the catalyst that causes Godzilla to become Burning Godzilla.
    • The Legendary Pictures reboot film centers around the premise that hundreds of millions of years ago Earth was dominated by radiation-feeding giants, but some have survived. A mere three of them in the modern day threaten to wipe out human civilisation entirely, with the M.U.T.O (Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism) pair destroying any electronics and are a breeding pair with possibly thousands of eggs, while Godzilla himself creates tidal waves just by rising from the ocean and in the past shrugged off multiple nukes to the face. The most powerful military on the planet can only serve as a distraction, and the only thing that can be done is hope Godzilla kills the MUTOs, as he doesn't like them anymore than humans do.
  • Vanishing on 7th Street gives us a phenomenon that can consume entire cities. Darkness becomes a sentient, malevolent force that hunts down and absorbs everyone it can, leaving only Empty Piles of Clothing and turning those it snatches up into shadows in its thrall. Light can keep the shadows at bay, but becomes harder and harder to sustain the longer the phenomenon is active, and the daylight hours grow shorter and shorter. There is no reason or explanation for this phenomenon, only the growing, desperate sense of inevitable doom. It's heavily implied that the will to live is the key to surviving this, but even then the darkness does everything it can to break the resolve of the few remaining survivors, and succeeds in almost every case.
  • The V/H/S films. Essentially, a large collection of tapes appear throughout various places portraying strange and disturbing supernatural events. The tapes are a Brown Note and watching them drives people into murderous insanity and resurrects the dead as violent zombies. The wraparound of the third film has an unseen force or cult uploading footage from the tapes to phones and computers in a city. In the end, the force behind the tapes manipulate the protagonist into activating a mass upload that presumably causes mass destruction as people all over the world go insane and begin attacking everyone around them.