In the past, I’ve used the perhaps prickly comparison of “cosmic horror is the literature of helplessness.” I think it, like Judge Dredd, is tough but fair. After all, what is more iconic in cosmic horror but the witnesses to it being simply overwhelmed, reduced to a place of not even subservience but utter meaninglessness in the face of the Horror From Another Place. You can’t win, you can’t break even and it’s the only game in town, which you like an idiot started playing by dint of the terrible crime of having been born or written into a piece of cosmic horror.
But let’s explore another potential, more generous, axis. Let’s discuss cosmic horror as an apocalyptic construct. Now, I’m not talking the apocalypse as in the most boring possible construction of Imagine Dragons this is it the apocalypse which leads to the dystopia which fuels the imaginations of a generation of readers used to life in relative affluence and even privilege. That’s dull. The Apocalypse as destruction isn’t even a real thing, but perhaps in one aspect which I’ll get to, I promise. And I won’t go deep into eschatology, Christian or otherwise, though I suppose the roots of this view, or rather the rhizome-construct, ties into this way deep in my core. Yeah, I spent Sunday mornings watching Dr. Eugene Scott and flicking across various televised for your enlightenment and contributions Sunday School programming. No, it never really took, though it did prime me for revisiting them years and years after.
The apocalypse here I’m talking about is the hidden truth of things. After all, isn’t this the basis of all the horror in Lovecraft? Humankind is revealed to have been a cosmic accident and not the heir to Kingship of the Universe. Yeah, the tentacle creatures hold that crown. We can’t even look at them because the sight of their quivering magnificence triggers suppressed genetic memories and we are reduced to gibberish uselessness. We fail our SAN rolls and lose all of it at once, only we’re still together enough to keep writing this letter that you’re now reading. I know. It’s fiction. I’m taking cheap shots because I can. That and the influence of the man is in the concepts that are now so deeply ingrained in contemporary fantasy and horror, they’re never coming out. I kid because it can never be erased no matter what I do (hint: read my story “Chunked.”) I tried.
So, the basis of horror is revelation of a hidden truth, something so terrible we can’t look at it directly without surrendering everything we are. I know. You’re gonna say “Oh, Matt, there’s nothing like that in real life.” Oh sure there is. The Founding Fathers believed in absolute freedom yet owned slaves. There you go. Our history as Americans is not one of benevolence but of chains of slaughter so that we could have the land and resources that required in order to enrich comparative handfuls of people and fuel expansion. But that’s a truth very few people can look at and reconcile with the myths we tell ourselves about Exceptionality and Greatness. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be talking about fantasy and horror. Whoops.
Luckily, I’m not the only person to look at things this way. Take, for example, Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN, which is a novel of cosmic horror disguised as a deconstruction of the myth of western expansion in America. Cowboys. What could be better? What could be a more American archetype? What could be more pure? Yeah. McCarthy turned the idea of the Cowboy as agent of civilization and reclamation into bloody uncle and insensate carnage, carnage unleashed against the Other, against Innocents and against themselves. It’s a harrowing read, and one of my favorite books, one that’s probably had too much influence upon me, honestly. Maybe I’ll outgrow it one day.
And what good would cosmic horror be without its avatar of the uncanny in the strange and hairless Judge Holden, who sought to catalog all things known and to smash what which did not fit into his view. But is he actually the Uncanny or is he just Reason given form? The civilizing urge unleashed on an untamed landscape (and the men set out to tame it, ultimately.) Which truth is more shattering? Yes. They both are. We are both the monsters that killed and pillaged and stole and reduced the achievements of any culture in our way so that we could forge this magnificent civilization we now walk in. There's the shattering truth, the truth that must be hidden so that the myth of exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny and every other justification wielded to explain away the actions of the past, so that those myths can survive.
If a thing can be destroyed by the truth, then let it be. Only that can't abide. So history is rewritten and suppressed and shrieked at NO! NO THAT WASN'T HOW IT HAPPENED AT ALL. Only it was.
So yes, BLOOD MERIDIAN is cosmic horror played out on a different stage, a different set of pageants. Rather than the interior horrors, or the weird and ghastly of New England, or the glimpses into the otherworld, the terror comes from a blood-soaked landscape and that we all know whose blood it is and who spilled it. (Note and aside. This is not to say AND WE ARE THE MONSTERS because I still see that paraded around as if it is some great revelation, some absolutely new thought and unique and original, and my people, it simply isn't. Even if it's said interestingly, and it almost never is. Nor would McCarthy be so crude as to come out and say it. So let's put that whole line of thought aside.)
The land itself is made strange and unknowable, alien and unloving, inhuman because it is primordial and staggeringly vast. It will never be fully tamed, just as the humans on it will never be fully tamed because they've managed to fool themselves as to the nature of reason and civilization and will continue to do so because to look at it will destroy what they cherish. Just as Lovecraft's protagonists are utterly shattered by the truth that it isn't white and educated and wealthy men at the center of the universe, with their cherished ideals and words. No it's not them at all. Instead it is something other, not even human.
Cosmic horror is exposure to the hidden truth and the revelation that comes swells and pushes out any other rational thought, filling instead with the wisdom of the gulfs between stars and other worlds. Often, it's tied to the nihilist/defeatist "we are nothing compared to this [points to everything]." I don't truck with that. But then I don't really write cosmic horror. Oh sure, I'll straight-up steal from it, no problemo. See, in fiction, the shattering truth can be allowed to destroy the viewer. End of book, last page turns, movie fades to black etc etc. We are not so lucky in life. We not only must continue from that shattering truth, we must take it within ourselves and grow and fight and try to bend events into some kind of better order. Or just keep lying and hug that myth.
More later, but I'll be honest in saying that there's been what appears to be pretty unwelcome, though unsurprising news. Oh look, a truth that shatters. Yeah. So I need to assimilate this and move on.
EDIT to add - That shattering truth at the center of HPL? That Rational White Dudes of Culture were not the center of the universe? Of course this was a truth that was known by anyone who wasn't a Rational White Dude of Culture. So what passes as Shattering Cosmic Horror to that cohort probably doesn't even rate a snort of scorn or a laugh from literally every other cohort. Again, this is far from a new observation, but I thought it worth including in this so as the point could be made more directly.