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Cosmic Horror Story

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The scariest part? This can happen at ANY time.... (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."
H. P. Lovecraft, letter to Farnsworth Wright (1927)

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 pride 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 danger hiding almost anywhere, 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 H. P. Lovecraft, pioneer, Trope Maker, and Trope Codifier 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. As a genre, Cosmic Horror is at the very pessimistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.

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, if any, preparation and/or intent, and with about as much effort as it takes you to swat a mosquito that's landed on your arm.note 
  • Does the Big Bad have any human worshippers or servants? If the said villain can destroy the world with a mere finger lift, why hasn't it done this already? Odds are it's probably locked away, or locked out.note  And that's where its agents or worshipers in the mortal realm come into the fray. Their goal is typically to open the door so that the Big Bad can enter. Expect the cult's leader to be the secondary villain, and be very charismatic. And there's a good chance that if he's not killed before the Big bad enters, the Big Bad will kill him anyway. After all, Evil Is Not a Toy. Bonus points if the Big Bad has no concept of loyalty or if their idea of a reward is to kill their worshippers first - to these beings, the cultists are just Loony Fans who happened to do the right things to attract their attention, and their attention does not take into account voluntary service or any other sort of allegiance.
  • Is the attitude of the antagonist towards humanity disregard, simple pragmatism, or incidental hatred or disgust? (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? Is it just a predator looking for prey? Is humanity just a means to an end? 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 even seeing them is enough 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. Bonus points if it's so divorced from the spectrum of human perception that it causes permanent insanity, brain damage, or death just by looking at it, and/or distorts reality because it is just that incompatible with the laws of this world.
  • Can or will the antagonist communicate with humanity? If it does, is it capable of elucidating its goals or rationale, even if they're something as simple as "you have something I need" or "I'm hungry"? Is its method of communication so bizarre or obscure that humanity has to go to great lengths just to be able to understand it, let alone reply (let alone be understood in return)? Can it be reasoned with, or does it simply make declarations, with no attempt (or, likely, ability) to hold conversations?
  • Is the antagonist's arrival or awakening inevitable, or can something be done to prevent it partially or completely? How great is the price? Is it a permanent fix or just delaying the inevitable? Is it even reasonably foreseeable, or is it just going to swoop in and destroy everything out of the blue one day, with no sign whatsoever that it was coming (or had signs that, in retrospect, were clear, but either escaped notice or were rationalized away)?
  • Is the antagonist alive in a conventional sense, or is it outside of life and death entirely? Common examples of the latter include As Long as There Is Evil, a disembodied consciousness, a death-and-resurrection cycle that is completely inevitable and cannot be stopped, or most Undead Abominations.
  • If the antagonist is undead, is it just a big ugly dead thing or a ghost, zombie, or skeleton with extra firepower, or is it something of terrifying power and scope that cannot be reasoned with, whose connections to life are long gone (or never existed to begin with), that will either just keep coming back or has a price tag attached to its defeat that is almost as bad as letting it run free, and that has alien, unrelatable, or completely selfish motivations?
  • If the antagonist is mechanical, is it just a really nasty Mechanical Monster, A.I. Is a Crapshoot, or advanced and malevolent cyborg, or is it some sort of unknowable force of cold alien apathy, pragmatism, or menace? If it is actively hostile, is it active misanthropic hatred, ruthless self-interest, or just carrying out a programmed duty? Are its abilities advanced but not inconceivable, or is it on the other side of Clarke's Third Law? Lastly, if it cannot realistically be destroyed (common with AIs), can you easily isolate it, or do you have to effectively reduce large swathes of civilization to a permanent pre-technological level just to keep it from finding a way to come back?
  • If the antagonist is draconic, is it just a particularly powerful dragon that maybe has a few extra tricks at its disposal or is something from a setting where dragons are closer to conventional gods, or is it something far worse? Is it an all-destroying cosmic force, an avatar of something unspeakable, or a Physical God with incomprehensible power that makes almost everything else seem insignificant? Is it effectively invincible or unkillable aside from very specific conditions? Is it a rampaging, mindless beast, a diabolical mastermind, or something that is clearly intelligent, but wholly alien and unrelatable with motivations that are best defined in human terms as ignorant apathy or incidental bemused curiosity?
  • 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. Usually the best option to defeat the Big Bad in a standard cosmic horror story is to prevent its human worshipers and servants from opening the door or getting its attention. It can still be a CHS if the antagonist can be defeated completely (or so thoroughly that it will cease to be an issue by any reasonable standard), but will result in a Pyrrhic Victory. If the cost of a complete defeat is insurmountable, its defeat opens the door for even worse things, or its influence continues to fester and pollute the world in its absence, it's probably not Lovecraft Lite.
  • Even IF the heroes do manage by some miracle of fate to save the day, are they driven irreversibly mad by their experiences, or did they have to make one hell of a sacrifice, or did they only stop it temporarily and eventually it will rise again causing the cycle to repeat?note 

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. Note that the scale and stakes of the story is allowed to vary; the fate of the world need not be at stake to qualify as a Cosmic Horror Story, as long as the implication remains clear that The Universe is Scary and some truly horrific events can happen if you look too deeply into things.

In the last few decades it's become fairly popular to invert the common indifference of the Cosmic Horror Story setting, while still keeping it every bit as horrifying, by incorporating elements such as Your Mind Makes It Real, Sense Freak, and Humans Are Cthulhu. Such settings are usually still classed as Cosmic Horror, and are embodied by the works of Clive Barker, and the Warhammer games. In such settings humans often learn that they really do matter, and their emotions and desires really can shape reality... only to then get smacked in the face with Be Careful What You Wish For.

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 (a genre that has a LOT of overlap with this one, although some works are one but not the other), Crapsack World, Mind Screw and Through the Eyes of Madness. Cosmic Plaything could be viewed as this on a much, much smaller scale.

Note that while the Cthulhu Mythos originated in the Cosmic Horror fiction of H. P. 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.


Common tropes in Cosmic Horror Stories include:

They're coming, they're We're here.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Lovecraftian Fiction, Cosmic Horror Stories, Cosmic Horror Genre


The Sinking City

You take on the role of Charles W. Reed, an investigator in the 1920s United States. As soon as you arrive in Oakmont, Massachusetts, you are led to investigate a mysterious flood inundating the city, in the hopes of shedding light on the darkness that has seized the place and corrupted the minds of the inhabitants - and yours...

How well does it match the trope?

5 (9 votes)

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