So, the daddy of cosmic horror was a sizeable bigot. How do we deal with this?
Few writers have had more of an influence on the horror genre than H.P. Lovecraft. Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, Junji Ito, and countless others cite him as a huge inspiration. His nihilistic vision of ancient, hostile gods, of unspeakable monstrosities, of the insignificance and irrelevance of humanity, of a universe incomprehensibly huge and horrible, of minds crumbling at the slightest glance behind the cosmic curtain, all of it has become well-travelled horror territory.
All that said, Lovecraft was a flaming racist. This should come as no surprise to those of you familiar with his work. Lovecraft’s virulent bigotry has become such a meme that pointing it out is basically the horror-equivalent of that one friend who gets a kick out of telling people that John Lennon beat his wife.
Nevertheless, if you want to write a cosmic horror story, you’re going to have to wrangle with the fact that the people who often do the summoning of the big bad Hentai gods in Lovecraft’s stories are frequently described as “dark-skinned savages” (to paraphrase). As Alan Moore put it in the introduction to the exhaustively researched “The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft”, “his racism, alleged misogyny, class prejudice, dislike of homosexuality, and anti-Semitism [need] to be both acknowledged and addressed before a serious appraisal of his work could be commenced.”
If you’re writing in a genre, you have to understand the moral implications of that genre’s tropes; by refusing to think about the moral implications of a certain trope, you could unknowingly allow those moral implications to persist unappraised. You have a responsibility to recognise the problematic aspects of your genre and face them. This applies to all art and language, not just genre tropes.
To digress into an example I thought was interesting, in the above quote Alan Moore uses the hyphenated “anti-Semitism.” Until researching this article, I didn’t know that the hyphenated form of antisemitism has been disavowed by many academics and institutions because of some rather sticky implications. (See this and this.) I’m not saying that anyone who uses the hyphenated form of antisemitism is a Nazi, merely that art has the power to shape reality, and that, if we’re made or become aware of some sticky implications in our writing, we should address them.
With everything that’s happening in the world, all of this should be obvious to most writers. Yes, Lovecraft was born in a different time, and saying that might explain why he was, quite literally, a xenophobe, but that doesn’t make any of his beliefs right.
The core of Lovecraft’s stories—that fear of the unknown—is not intrinsically racist though; cosmic horror resonates on a level that Lovecraft likely never anticipated. Ironically, the story of isolation and alienation—of staring down the barrel of an uncaring or outright spiteful universe, too huge for any one person to comprehend—is an experience that minorities and oppressed peoples can relate to on a fundamental level. In the age of climate change, international unrest, a pandemic impassively shutting down societies as governments flail to stop its advance, cosmic horror has never been more relevant.
So, how exactly do you deal with Lovecraft’s legacy? How do we write responsible cosmic horror? That’s what I’m going to try and answer here. As I see it, there are two main options open to you: let’s call them implicit rejection and direct subversion. I’m going to outline these two methods, some examples, and the kinds of stories that each might suit. This is by no means a comprehensive look at the ideological history of cosmic horror. Instead, I’m gunning for this to be a guide to the horror writer grappling with the fact that one of the biggest boys in horror was the biggest cornball of them all.
Note: these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. A story can contain both of them, or its approach can sit somewhere between the two. All the same, splitting the subgenre up like this does make it a lot easier to talk about in an article like this.
Let’s say that you want to write a cosmic horror story, but you don’t want to be trapped by associations with Lovecraft; that is, you don’t want to be constantly holding up a big sign that says “I am writing about cosmic horrors, but I’m also not a bigot. I promise.” This is where Implicit Rejection comes in.
As an example, let’s talk about Alex Garland’s “Annihilation”.
Annihilation is a film about a hostile tract of land called the “Shimmer”, expanding from the crash site of a meteor. Within the Shimmer, flora and fauna mutate wildly, people’s minds and bodies are twisted and broken, and earthly reality itself breaks down. This plot appears to draw significant inspiration from Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, in which a meteorite crashes near a rural home and slowly morphs the local flora, fauna and people into alien entities.
Annihilation does something very, very simple to distance itself from Lovecraft’s views. It features an ethnically diverse, all-female cast. Still more interestingly, it never calls attention to this fact. There is no Avengers: Endgame “she’s got help” moment; it’s played entirely straight. Given Lovecraft’s knee-jerk tendency to point out when a character has darker skin, not mention the absence of women in his stories, the naturalistic way Annihilation treats its cast is a statement in and of itself.
Further, Annihilation expands its thematic focus from cosmic horror’s usual, aggressive nihilism to humanity’s self-destructive nature. It builds its own philosophy, using cosmic horror’s nihilism as a springboard rather than a crutch. (If you haven’t seen the film, go watch it. You’ll know what I mean. The themes are delivered with all the subtlety of an ICBM.)
As another example, let’s talk about “Bloodborne” briefly. Bloodborne is a 2015 video-game that I’ve sunk far too many hours into. The game is set in the fictional city of Yharnam. You play as a hunter on the “night of the hunt”. On the night of the hunt, hunters and Yharnamites are tasked with killing beasts. Why? Don’t ask questions. A hunter hunts.
You’re going to end up coming face-to-face with a lot of Lovecraftian monstrosities in Bloodborne—countless human bodies mashed together, others hunters gone insane from the stench of blood, etc.
But, in spite of all this, Bloodborne has a fairly major difference from a lot of other Lovecraftian horror. Yharnam’s infrastructure, society, and institutions are built entirely on powers acquired from cosmic entities beyond our understanding. Churches are dedicated to the elder gods and statues erected in their likeness. They are feared, yes, but everyone seems to have some awareness of the eldritch horrors. Even the hunters have vague, sinister ties to the monstrosities you’re cutting down.
The horrors in Lovecraft’s stories are generally only seen by a few unlucky individuals or worshipped by ancient death-cults. They lurk beneath the surface. In Bloodborne though, the institutions that run Yharnam are actively communicating, weaponising and experimenting on such ancient horrors. This simple reversal makes human hunger for knowledge and power an antagonist on a more institutional level. Civilised society is bringing about the Lovecraftian apocalypse, not African death-cult “savages” or accidental scientific discoveries.
Both Bloodborne and Annihilation have very different thematic focuses, but they twist Lovecraftian tropes just enough to distance themselves from Lovecraft’s wack ideology while still retaining the effectiveness of his horror. The mere act of subverting a few of Lovecraft’s tropes alone is often enough to implicitly reject his ideas.
Lovecraft’s protagonists are usually educated white dudes (by implication). Why not have the protagonist be from a different background?
A lot of people find Lovecraft’s prose to be heavier than a pair of concrete shoes. Why not explore some different styles of expressing inexpressible horror? (Hell, we’ve even got a few story-driven cosmic horror podcasts now, like Archive 81 and Welcome to Nightvale.)
You could set your cosmic horror story in somewhere other than an ancient temple or a backwater fishing hamlet. How about on a space freighter, where no one can hear you scream? (If you haven’t seen Alien, stop reading this. Go watch that too.)
If you’re thinking of these tricks as tokenistic, don’t. Telling stories from different perspectives, employing different settings and messing with the fundamental aspects of a genre all add colour and depth to your story. Interrogate the ideas behind Lovecraft’s tropes, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and, finally, twist what doesn’t work into something that fits your voice, not the voice of a guy who hated small words and minorities.
This kind of approach often lends itself well to showing how insignificant human problems are. Hence, if you do address racism, sexism, etc., you may well end up depicting kindness and hate as equally meaningless in the face of universal entropy. Some people might understandably find that to be an incredibly uncomfortable idea; it’s difficult to deny that that’s a terrifying thought though.
We’ve covered some ways that you might shirk Lovecraft’s questionable views by implicitly rejecting his influence, but what if you want to address his ideas outright? In other words, what if you want to interrogate Lovecraft’s ideas specifically? Well, you might be looking for direct subversion; while it’s not as popular as implicit rejection, it’s super straightforward.
Basically, instead of talking shit behind Lovecraft’s back, we walk right up to his face, grab him by the stomach, and suplex him.
Victor LaValle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom” is an exemplar of direct subversion. LaValle retells Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook from the perspective of a black man. Towards the conclusion of the novella, (spoiler warning, I suppose) the protagonist becomes an agent of this week’s cosmic horror after he falls victim to systemic racism. The cosmic horror—the apathetic, all-consuming force—becomes a way for Tom to assert his own agency.
At the end of the novella, Lovecraft even calls on one of the characters so persistently that the police are sent to “make clear he [isn’t] welcome in New York.” LaValle then goes on to snark directly at the camera, musing that “perhaps his constitution was better suited to Providence.” (Providence is the capital city of Rhode Island, where Lovecraft was born, buried, and spent most of his life.)
So, if you want to face Lovecraft’s racism/classism/etc head-on, maybe look into The Ballad of Black Tom for inspiration and consider rewriting Lovecraft’s stories from a minority perspective. Alternatively, maybe you could go the way of Matt Ruff’s “Lovecraft Country.”
In Lovecraft Country, there are no persistent cosmic horrors, but there is an order of robe-wearing white dudes who fancy themselves wizards, want to use magic and weird rituals to ascend to a higher plane of existence, and are more than willing to use the black characters as pawns to this end. Lovecraft is explicitly discussed by the characters fairly early-on in the book, bringing this ambivalence about his work to the fore, and ensuring that you can’t help but read everything that happens as a commentary on the racial underpinnings of pulp fiction—if the title didn’t signpost this enough.
Go for direct subversion, then, if you want to write a story that’s fundamentally about the genre of cosmic horror. This approach could be used to put you in an explicit dialogue with pulp fiction’s relationship with the historical zeitgeist of racism, class-warfare, the silence of female characters, queer representation, or whatever else floats your boat.
Horror is a genre that reflects the fears of the contemporary; most are likely aware of this, whether they realise it or not. Slasher movies often reflect fears of suburban crime and familial degradation (source), the alien invasion potentially indicates fears of the Other and colonialism (source), 47 Metres Down: Uncaged is based on a fear of good movies (no source required), etc. Cosmic horror was incubated in a very different time, by a mind so addled with anxiety and misanthropy that it should come as no surprise how nihilistic the subgenre is. That this mind was also addled with a deep fear of the Other is not incidental to its stories. Racism is a pretty major aspect of Lovecraft’s work; it’s not inextricable from the subgenre he pioneered, but it can’t be ignored.
I feel obliged to say that not taking a hard stance against your predecessors’ potentially destructive ideas doesn’t automatically make your story unworthy of attention. One of my favourite movies is Blade Runner 2049, and that film kinda ignores that the the original Blade Runnner portrays a scene of sexual assault as romantic. As I briefly mentioned before though, it’s ignorant not to address destructive tropes.
Hopefully, if you want to write some cosmic horror, I’ve given you some ideas on how to turn an otherwise compelling strain of horror into something that speaks more to our modern condition. If, be it for catharsis or masochism, you want to feel more depressed about the world we’re living in, cosmic horror can be quite the drug.
Just make sure you you’re not breathing the fumes that Lovecraft was.
Do you think cosmic horror has value in the contemporary moment? Can cosmic horror can be extricated from Lovecraft’s misanthropic worldview? Let us know in the comments below.