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Cosmic Horror’s Amoral Universe

beautiful-thingA recent review of Laird Barron’s new story collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, highlights a growing subgenre in the ranks of weird fiction: “cosmic horror.” Barron is a rising star in the horror pantheon, as much for his stellar prose as the creeps they evoke. But the Salon reviewer, Adrian Van Young, sees in Barron’s stories more than just a deft craftsman at work weaving tales of terror. Rather, Van Young also recognizes the author as a philosopher, fleshing out the horror of a universe without Hope.

Behind every work of fiction is a worldview that frames it. Likewise, one difference between the traditional horror genre and cosmic horror is the cosmoses they occupy. While the horrors of Dracula, The Exorcist, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Stand, or The Picture of Dorian Gray, are decidedly Moral — as in an Ultimate Good vs. Evil, or the violation of Good for Evil —  the terrors of cosmic horror are uniquely amoral.

In his article, Beyond Black., Van Young traces the slow evolution, or mutation, of cosmic horror.

In its original conception, the cosmic horror genre is as primal and ungimmicky as our fear of the dark beyond cracked closet doors. It’s most often credited to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though traces of its operatic pessimism appear well before him, most notably in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, and Guy de Maupassant. Post-Lovecraft, the genre has undergone custom mutations in the work of Stephen King (The Tommyknockers and It), Dan Simmons, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and many others.

What finally emerges from cosmic horror’s miasmic evolution over the course of the 20th century is a literary concept that is equal parts genre and philosophy, cerebral and primordial. On the one hand, it entails deep contemplation of humanity’s non-optimal place in the pecking order of the universe; on the other, its greatest tool is nothing more complicated than our fear of what’s hidden—the dark of the closet, or The Dark of the stars. (bold mine)

Importing an author’s worldview into their fiction is par for the course. The dread of Dante’s Inferno is not “inspired” by “The Dark of the stars,” but of an afterlife consisting of a very real Heaven and Hell. In Dante’s cosmos, being subsumed into Matter is hardly as horrific as standing before the Maker of Matter to give account of ones deeds. That being the case, if the ascendance of cosmic horror is “equal parts genre and philosophy,” we would do well to contemplate the ontology behind such stories.

Using one of the characters in Barron’s anthology, Van Young articulates:

In the story “More Dark,” a suicidal horror writer attends the reading of a colleague with a Salinger-esque pall of mystery about him. At the reading, Tom L’s assistant, a “vulpine” blonde, sidles up to the narrator, while Tom L himself puts the reading audience into a trance.

That Tom L and his entourage are actually creatures from another dimension bent on the subjugation of humankind won’t come as a surprise if you’ve read even one of Barron’s past books. “I can see that you’ve seen,” the woman whispers in the narrator’s ear. “Infinite dark, infinite cold, infinite sleep…All you have to do is let go… Don’t linger like HP and die of a tumor, last days spent wasting away on tins of cat food and the indifference of the universe. Don’t end it foaming and raving in a ditch as dear Edgar did. Who’d come to your grave with a flower and a glass of brandy every winter to mark your sad demise? You don’t rate, I’m afraid.”

That “indifference of the universe,” hastened along by the appetites of creatures like Tom L and his assistant, is the essence of the “cosmic horror” genre. (bold mine)

The true nature of the cosmos determines its horror. For the traditionalist, the horror of a world gone wrong, spiraling from God, Good, or Absolute Morality is the basis for abomination. Cosmic horror, on the other hand, strips the world of any and all abominations by ridding the cosmos of God, Good, or Absolute Morality.

To succumb to cosmic horror, “All you have to do is let go…” and surrender to “Infinite dark, infinite cold, infinite sleep…” On the other hand, the tropes of traditional horror ground tension in the opposite, as…

  • resisting Evil
  • fearing Hell
  • illuminating The Dark
  • abhorring and/or pitying the Monster
  • slaying Randall Flagg

While cosmic horror sees humanity’s place in the universe as “non-optimal,” the biblical worldview is one that envisages humankind as only “a little lower than the angels” and “crowned with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). Indeed, as the bearers of God’s image, we occupy a space distinct from plankton, orangutans, archangels, and tree ferns. In this universe, the greatest horror is in surrendering to a philosophy of Moral “indifference.”

As much as I love Barron’s stories, their underlying strength is not just in the dread they conjure, but in the evocation of the dread such a cold universe would elicit. This is not an argument against the existence of such an amoral universe, but a sore reminder that embracing such a godless universe can only be hellish.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Bob Avey September 12, 2013, 11:03 AM

    A few months ago, while listening to the radio as I drove to work, a pastor, who identified himself as a messianic Jew, spoke of something that chilled me to the bone. The basis of his sermon was that God had turned away from his people once, and he could do it again.

    The concept of such a thing stayed with me throughout the day, and the more I thought about it, the more frightened I became. It occurred to me, as I contemplated a world without God, just how horrible such an existence would be. I cannot think of anything worse. Indeed, being separated from God just might be the true definition of hell.

  • Katherine Coble September 12, 2013, 1:36 PM

    Cosmic horror is a subgenre that has led me to have to step away from all horror reading for a time. It’s very bleakness doesn’t mesh well with my need to keep unnecessary darkness at bay. So it’s a personal decision, not a “horror is bad” type of decision. But it was pretty bleak, even reading the blurbs for some titles. Hence my stepping away.

  • Barry Napier September 13, 2013, 6:44 AM

    I can’t tell you how glad I am to have found your blog. I have been tripping over that fine line between the macabre and Christianity. I have awkwardly been trying to incorporate it into my own blog as it is ow a big part of my writing, but it’s tricky. You, sir, have just picked up anther reader.

  • D.M. Dutcher September 13, 2013, 3:34 PM

    I don’t find that style of story compelling, actually. I like Lovecraft, but he was less about the philosophy and more about primal fears than he gets credit for. Without primal fear, the modern, literary cosmic horror people feel to me to be surprisingly ethereal and weightless. “Infinite dark” isn’t scary because it’s a meaningless concept. Same with “the indifference of the universe” especially when in the same work the universe seems to be indifferently trying to kill you for reading this particular book.

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