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The Real Horror of Lovecraft’s Cosmicism

lovecraftCosmic horror is a growing subgenre in the ranks of horror fiction. Cosmicism is “the literary philosophy developed and used by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft in his weird fiction.” The Wikipedia definition follows:

The philosophy of cosmicism states that there is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence, and perhaps are just a small species projecting their own mental idolatries onto the vast cosmos. This also suggests that the majority of undiscerning humanity are creatures with the relative significance of insects and plants, when compared to the universe.

Perhaps the most prominent theme in cosmicism is the insignificance of humanity…

Cosmicism is rooted in the absence of God and, ultimately, any sort of morality and meaning tethered to such a Presence. Lovecraft described his worldview this way:

“The universe is only a furtive arrangement of elementary particles… The human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. Only egotism exists.”

The Cthulu mythos and its vast bestiary of exotic monstrosities is the byproduct of a worldview reeking of nihilism, a dying universe where “everything will disappear,” and “Good, evil, morality, feelings” are simply “fictions.” It’s no wonder then that today’s cosmic horror tales are unapologetically bleak. For example, the Lovecraft eZine posed the question to five horror authors, What Does ‘Cosmic Horror’ Mean? Matthew M. Bartlett provided a good summary of the consensus sentiment:

…cosmic horror is about not only man’s insignificance, but his fragility, both physical and mental. Except for the fact that man is haunted by the vast gulf of nonexistence before his lifespan and its fast-returning resumption, he is in a fundamental way not terribly different from a newborn who dies within minutes of his birth. There’s an awakening into incomprehensible chaos, bright and loud and terrifying, and then it’s all gone. Forever. In our moment of chaos, we witness abjection, corruption, violence, and a ubiquitous instability of all systems—a general sense that we are at all times unsafe. And while there are beautiful things here for some of us–love, comfort, entertainments, the company of friends, and of animals–we fear that those good things exist only to mock us. In the end, we face the ultimate forgetting.

Such a universe of “incomprehensible chaos” and its “vast gulf of nonexistence” that awaits us is the outgrowth of a rather simple philosophical swap. In his essay on Lovecraft entitled Atheism’s Mythographer, Jason Colavito notes:

“The key to the abyss in Lovecraft’s world was Science itself. It was through science that the well-spring of horror arose, and this is what captivated the minds of those who read him. Lovecraft introduced a new brand of horror that dispensed with the supernatural as an opposition to the natural order.”

And this is what Lovecraftian horror has on traditional horror. The real horror of Lovecraft’s cosmicism is that it has “dispensed with the supernatural.”

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. And therein lies a different type of terror.

One is the terror of Something, while the other is the terror of Nothing.

The materialist, the individual who jettisons the supernatural in favor of “a furtive arrangement of elementary particles,” can fear only “the vast gulf of nonexistence.” Living is simply a game of existential Russian Roulette in which every chamber is loaded and your turn is next. No evil can truly befall the cosmicist because he has chucked any notion of absolute Good for amorality. Pulling the trigger is as “good” as not. Things like “love, comfort, entertainments, the company of friends, and of animals” are simply meaningless distractions while we hurtle towards “the ultimate forgetting.”

The worldview of the cosmic horrorist is astonishingly different, and much less meaningful, than the theistic, or Judeo-Christian conception of existence.

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. While cosmic horror sees humanity as simply “a furtive arrangement of elementary particles,” 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 Spanish moss.

In this universe, the greatest horror is in surrendering to a philosophy of nihilism and Moral indifference.


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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Kessie November 2, 2016, 12:41 PM

    I love your dissections of Lovecraft and his strange horror of ocean animals. Someday I wish you’d dissect male/female horror. Male horror = being alone (Lovecraft). Female horror = submission (Twilight, Saw).

  • DD November 8, 2016, 7:14 PM

    “The key to the abyss in Lovecraft’s world was Science itself.” Strictly speaking, it wasn’t science, but a naturalistic interpretation of science. Whether labeled an atheist, materialist or methodological naturalist, Lovecraft had a belief system – one that stood in contrast to what we see. He was a master of the genre – brooding and atmospheric and didn’t rely on the shock value that modern horror often does – but in the end, missing the powerful realization that evil exists.

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