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What is Cosmic Horror?

i took this picture while running from a shoggoth

So, first and most importantly, I just published a scenario for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game called The Camping Trip. So if you want play a game and pay an author, head over to the Miskatonic Repository and consider buying it. It will convince you that the universe is beautiful and fascinating and you'll never experience it because humanity sucks.

I thought this would be a good occasion to reflect on What I Think about Lovecraftian cosmic horror – in particular, how I can reconcile writing in a genre that was at its outset fundamentally based on being really really racist. H.P. Lovecraft, hater of fish and the sea and women and sex and brown people, was really super-racist. Go look up the name of his cat if you don't believe me. And he really is the key author here. Although he had predecessors and contemporaries and so forth, it's pretty clear that he put an enormous stamp on everything in the genre.

Worse, his racism is not incidental to his fiction: it is the very fundamental animating force of it. The great and terrible truth that his narrators confront? The cosmic horror that man was not meant to know?

It's that white supremacy is a lie.

Lovecraft and his narrators all begin as white supremacists – they believe the point of human history is to produce white men, Civilization, The Enlightenment; that they are going to go out and bring the light of Reason and Science to the dark corners of the world. And they go out, and what they discover is that human history has no point, that human history is meaningless (The Shadow out of Time), that the fate of Civilization is decadence (At The Mountains of Madness, The Mound), that they themselves are really savages under the skin (The Shadow over Innsmouth), that the savages were right about everything all along (The Call of Cthulhu). Lovecraft's horror is always driven by this contradiction, between the bigotry he couldn't let go of and the truth he couldn't deny. In other words, if you take the racism out of Lovecraft's fiction, you take out the emotional core of it.

This is why so many of Lovecraft's imitators seem pale. Lame. Like, there's some dude screaming about how the horror was indescribable and alien and also just a big octopus-fish that eats people? Can't we just bring a bigger gun and solve that problem?

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but when Lovecraft's narrators start going on about how the true truth is incomprehensible and indescribable, we should not take them at their word. The horrors are all too describable; the cosmic truths can be stated clearly. Lovecraft's narrators just really don't want to.)

So there's a question: if you want to write cosmic horror, what is the cosmic truth that the monsters represent? How can we write these stories to be horrifying and not also fundamentally racist and colonialist?

Ruthanna Emrys has one answer: you don't write horror stories. When I first read her Winter Tide, I was astounded: she took The Shadow over Innsmouth, kept every word as canon, and yet also turned Lovecraft inside out. Check Finding the Other Within over at the Lovecraft Reread for what I mean. Short version: she tells the story from the point of view of the "monsters" that get put into concentration camps, not the point of view of the flagrantly unreliable narrators.

Unlike Emrys, I wanted to write a horror story. But her work inspired me to think of the Mythos not as malevolent nor indescribable, but simply as an alien place, operating according to its own seasons and its own logics – a universe that while beautiful has no place for humanity. So that is the horror I settled on: the universe is a vast and terrifying and beautiful and fascinating place, and you get to see just enough of it to realize you will never truly experience it, because humanity is weak and failing and worthless.

Of course, saying any more would spoil the fun. Now go play my game!

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