Let me get this out of the way: my love of reading was largely sparked by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. There’s not much to be said about him that hasn’t already been said by somebody older and smarter than I am; the influences the man had on the horror genre speak for themselves at this point. Admittedly, many of his stories have not aged well into 2020, but nobody can deny that he’s left his mark on popular culture in a massive way. Since most if not all of his work is now available in the public domain, the last decade has seen a massive influx in the number of books, games, movies, and comics that either overtly or more subtly reference Lovecraft’s work. And this absolutely kills me, because it’s so rare that I’ve seen anybody get Lovecraftian horror right in the modern era.
Think, for a moment, about what H.P. Lovecraft is most famous for. I’ll wager most people know him best for the Great Old Ones, the god-like aliens such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth. After all, you can barely even navigate to your Steam library without tripping over a new game that has Cthulhu in it.
Maybe Cthulhu Saves Christmas is totally deserving of its Very Positive rating, but seriously guys?
Likewise, it seems like modern attempts to recapture the wonder of Lovecraftian horror in literature are focusing way too much on the street cred of certain big-name monsters instead of chasing what, to me, has always made Lovecraftian/cosmic horror different and fascinating. Although, to be fair, books I feel are more likely to actually have a tasteful interpretation of Lovecraft et al.‘s legacy by virtue of the fact that the authors have almost certainly read the original work. I’m less confident that the creators of some of those Steam games have ever read a single story of Lovecraft’s.
I consistently see people misunderstand why the Cthulhu mythos is so enduring. Many believe that the monsters Lovecraft and his contemporaries made famous are the heart of the cosmic horror experience. But really, the monsters are irrelevant to it. Cosmic horror is not about Cthulhu. It’s about the gap between you and Cthulhu. It’s about the fact that Cthulhu can exist. The horror does not come from how scary tentacle-faced batsquid man looks; it comes from the vast unknowability of what he is, where he comes from, and the implications his existence has on everything we think we know. Consider that oft-shared and oft-epigraphed quote:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
That perfectly encompasses what cosmic horror is about. Cosmic horror is the unknown. Cosmic horror is bleakness and amorality. It’s the indifference of the universe and the insignificance of mankind and everything we have or will ever accomplish. So why do so many people set up some copy-pasted Lovecraftian monster as their big bad and shove their main characters into a boxing match with it?
The entire genre of cosmic horror was founded on man’s inconsequentiality. If man is capable of defeating Cthulhu, he is not inconsequential, and you are doing it wrong. It is not the monster; it is the fact of the monster. It is not the monster’s malice; it’s the monster’s indifference. Cthulhu doesn’t give a damn about you. He is not going to enslave mankind any more than you’d plot to enslave the grass growing in that meadow by your house. He is not going to protect or uplift those who worship him, because he probably doesn’t even realize they exist (and if he does, he certainly wouldn’t think them capable of anything resembling complex thought). He is so vastly more advanced than you, so incomprehensibly far above you, that if he even notices your characters, you are not writing cosmic horror and shame on you for trying to capitalize off the popularity of tentacle-faced batsquid man.
And just to be clear, this is not some rant about the sanctity of Cthulhu or any crap like that. I really don’t care about The Call of Cthulhu (and aside from the brilliant opening paragraph, I really don’t think it’s that compelling of a story). Again, it’s not about the monsters. Nor is it about respecting the author’s intent, either. It’s about the real elements of cosmic horror being criminally absent from the modern stories that should ostensibly be taking them and running with them. It’s about cosmic horror being swept under a great big Cthulhu-shaped rug.
The real monsters of cosmic horror are unknowable. Cosmic horror is dead civilizations lost to modern understanding, it’s anachronism and terrible revelations. It’s about finding things that our brains never evolved to process the sight of. It’s about older than old and farther than far, scales vaster than we’re able to comprehend. It’s every dark crevice and cavity in the earth that no human has ever seen before, and the gnawing idea that maybe something else has. It’s the knowledge that our entire civilization is dust, and we just haven’t realized it yet.
And all that is a lot damn scarier than tentacle-faced batsquid man.