Cosmic horror: the existential fiction we all need right now

by Louis Calvert

Cosmic horror: the existential fiction we all need right now
April 27, 2020 Louis Calvert

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4, sci-fi author and giant of cyberpunk William Gibson noted that society seemed to be averting our gaze from the future. “How often do you hear anyone invoke the 22nd century? Even saying it is unfamiliar to us. We’ve come to not have a future.”

It’s not madness to ask if we even have much of a future at all. Fans of seminal superhero deconstruction Watchmen by Alan Moore will be familiar with the Doomsday Clock; the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, formed in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, created the Doomsday Clock to be a simple, easy-to-understand symbol, warning, and reminder. The hands indicate just how close we could be to the end of civilisation. On Thursday 23rd January the Doomsday Clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight, closer to doom than ever before. For context, in 1952 — shortly after the Soviet Union developed their own atomic weapons — the clock was set to two minutes to midnight. 

It’s impossible to ignore the weight of significant change hugging the horizon of our future: climate change, economic collapse, digital terrorism, large-scale civil unrest, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and possibly even nuclear conflict are just some of the challenges faced by humanity at present. 

As our understanding of planetary formation and exoplanetary detection has improved it’s become easier to argue that we’re probably the singular example of sentient life in the universe — certainly in any contactable or reachable way. Aliens with fabulous technology aren’t coming to save us; indeed, the absence of ‘elder races’ indicates that maybe it’s not possible to develop fantastic technologies like warp drives at all. A worse prospect: maybe there have been other sentient races, but they always manage to wipe themselves out, and self-destruction is the inevitable destiny of intelligent life. Even space travel is harder, more expensive, and less exciting than we expected. The once-glorious future of rocketing around the galaxy in personal starships has faded into taut, danger-riddled paroxysms of introspection and adrenaline, such as The Martian, Interstellar, and Ad Astra.

What happens when all we can imagine is a future we don’t like? Who are we in the face of problems we struggle to imagine solutions for? The issues seem so large we can barely see the edges, let alone a way past them. What do we do?

Looking backwards is a convenient and appealing alternative. There’s no doubt that there has recently been a massive surge in cultural nostalgia, from fashion, to film, to politics. In fact, it seems unavoidable. The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things is set in a 1980s that never was and rode the leading edge of a tsunami of retro-inspired media that’s still flooding Western culture. Recently Star Wars suddenly resurrected Palpatine and the Empire after forty years, to finish off the Skywalker saga with a self-congratulatory nostalgic burp. Utopian fiction like Star Trek is increasingly looking backwards for reassurance; CBS’s Picard wheeled out Sir Patrick Stuart and other fan favourites from well-earned retirement to lament over a broken Federation that seems to have abandoned its principles. Later this year Ghostbusters is set to resurrect the (surviving) original cast and dust off 30 year-old props, in an attempt to trap the ghost of box office glory. The Marvel cinematic universe blasted to unprecedented success by using characters created decades ago to tell stories also written decades ago. Where is the future, the innovation, the confidence? 

Feeling bleak yet? That’s a good place to start: it’s time to talk about cosmic horror.

The master of cosmic horror himself, H.P. Lovecraft, had a particular way of indicating that the story he was telling was only a small fragment of some larger tale, something extending far into the darkness beyond the edges. His 1936 short ‘The Shadow out of Time’ sees the protagonist Nathaniel possessed by alien ‘Yith’. During this possession he finds himself in turn possessing a Yith body, able to discover snippets of information about them and their society. He realises that the Yithians are waiting until humanity dies off and a subsequent (superior) life form evolves on Earth before transferring the entire Yith society into these new host bodies, thereby allowing Yith society to avoid destruction. Nathaniel discovers that the Yith have actually already done this, and that they aren’t restricted to linear time — the Yithian society he’s been experiencing is actually some 250 million years in the past. All Nathaniel believed was once solid and important is revealed to be fragile and impermanent, and his sole objective becomes proving that what he experienced was real, for his own peace of mind. 

Similarly, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (1931) also makes clear that human existence is a tiny slice of Earth’s long and storied history. Lovecraft places humanity in a ‘resting period’ in the history of the Earth, after more impressive civilisations fell (or became dormant) and before better things evolve. 1928’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ claims: “the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men… [are] hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway… when the stars were ready.” None of this is exhaustively detailed; it’s almost sketched in as the protagonists deal with minute-to-minute survival. It’s clear that Lovecraft saw no grand future for humanity: no galaxy-spanning empires or even much of a legacy for future civilisations.

The last two decades have seen a resurgence in popularity for the genre Lovecraft pioneered. These stories come from different cultures and are told in different media, but share the key vision of a protagonist beset by overwhelming forces that can barely be understood, let alone combated.

Junji Ito’s 1998 Manga Uzumaki focuses on the fictional Japanese city of Kurōzu-cho where residents start to become “infected with spirals,” as Shuichi, the boyfriend of protagonist Kirie Goshima, puts it. This ranges from obsession, to phobia (imagine becoming phobic of your own fingers because of the spiral pattern on your fingertips), to full bodily transformation, as people mutate into giant snails, twist themselves into spirals, or find warty spiral growths emerging from them. No explanation is ever given and the residents can do nothing to prevent the curse consuming the town. It’s as though the very essence of reality is pressing spiral patterns into everything, even the way smoke rises and water runs through drains. 

2013’s Banshee Chapter is inspired by Lovecraft’s 1934 short ‘From Beyond’, reimagining the original story’s pineal gland experiments as part of the CIA’s notorious Project MKUltra. It opens with: “[all those that took part in the experiment] experienced the same phenomena under the drug. They experienced something, out there, that came to them… met them halfway”. The film centres on journalist Anne Roland who, by the end of the film, has realised just a few hints about some deeper reality: “I know the truth now — I really wish I didn’t.” 

2017’s The Endless follows two brothers, Justin and Aaron, as they return to a ‘UFO death cult’ they disconnected from as teenagers to get ‘closure’ before the cult ‘ascends’. Initially it seems the cult is a surprisingly benign hippy-ish commune, and the brothers feel a longing to once again belong and to return to the comfort and warmth of its wholesome family atmosphere. However, it becomes clear that an unseen intelligence (possibly inspired by the giant, invisible Whateley creature Lovecraft’s 1928 ‘The Dunwich Horror’) is trapping people in bubbles of looping time for its own purposes. The cult has essentially learned to live with this entity, giving it what it wants in return for the veneer of a good life. Justin encounters a character stuck in a nearby loop who tells him: “don’t ever give in, not once. The trick to this whole thing is to not be afraid of something that’s horrifying.” 

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy isn’t often called cosmic horror, but it features all the best hallmarks of Lovecraft’s cosmicism. The trilogy depicts an area of North American coastline that becomes ‘changed’, named ‘Area X’ by those that study it. Teams that enter the area either don’t return or return changed themselves. The first book follows a team member known only as ‘the Biologist’ through her journals. Within Area X she comes to realise that perception and reality are only vaguely related: the map is not the territory, or even close to it. The characters that get a glimpse of the real territory tend to be physically and psychologically altered by the experience, and even the stoic Biologist finds herself coming unglued as she discovers more about Area X. The trilogy is an exploration of humanity in the face of unrelenting, unacceptable, reality. 

Characters in cosmic horror generally start off with a firm grasp on who and what they are; and then, as the story progresses, they discover they are insignificant in the face of a much larger truth. VanderMeer’s Biologist is initially entirely and selfishly dedicated to her own world and her own viewpoint before discovering that she’s a near-sighted mayfly compared to the enormity of what Area X represents. As with Lovecraft’s protagonists, the Biologist, Justin and Aaron, Anne Rowland, and many supporting characters in each work all struggle to find stable ground as they grapple with a revealed truth of existence. Seems familiar, doesn’t it?

And this is why cosmic horror is what we need most right now. We assume mastery of our fates and that we’re owed existence. We have convinced ourselves that we’re the top of the food chain, the pinnacle of evolution, and patted ourselves on the back for our intelligence. Good cosmic horror forces a redefinition of humanity: it challenges those assumptions, makes us see on longer timescales, takes away control and puts us at the mercy of bigger things. It re-centres us in the scheme of creation — much as Copernicus championed the idea that the Sun, not the Earth, is the centre of the solar system. Cosmic horror reminds us that we aren’t masters, and that we’re only part of something much larger, older, and more complex.

The Biologist experiences a process of change in Area X, of transcendence. She goes from being a scientist, so wrapped in herself that her profession is her identity, to adopting a much wider perspective as part of existence rather than simply an observer of it. She doesn’t win — she doesn’t fight off monsters and stand gloriously on a corpse, asserting her humanity and dominance over all things. She doesn’t strap a flamethrower and a machine gun together and face the darkness with human ingenuity. She doesn’t deduce the nature of the foe and find weaknesses to exploit it using superior human intelligence. All she can do is gain control of at least her own reactions and her own decisions, learn what’s valuable about herself (and what’s unimportant), and accept that change is necessary for survival.

Faced with unprecedented challenges ahead it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to want to imagine that the ‘enemy’ is a larger-than-life villain and the solution is to find a way to punch it really, really hard, before returning to normal life. The truth is that this isn’t going to happen. We can’t punch climate change, we can’t avert an antibiotic-resistant superbug by turning back time and killing it before it gets all the Infinity Stones, we can’t Superman all the nuclear weapons into the sun. Like the entities in cosmic horror, these threats to our future are lurking, hulking monsters that are too vast to fully understand. They thread Brobdingnagian tentacles through everything and have been working unseen for decades or more, above the notice of teeming masses of myopic humans. Like the protagonists in cosmic horror, we’re never going to build a power-suit from scraps or inherit the legacy of alien superpowers, but we can survive and we can face these challenges — but not by relying on a few superpowered individuals to save us and neatly return the status quo. 

Like many of Lovecraft’s protagonists we must accept that reality isn’t what we thought or hoped. Like The Endless’ Justin and Aaron we must stop longing for the past and looking backwards to half-remembered ‘simpler’ times. Like Uzamakis Kirie we might not manage to make a difference at all, and victory will simply be just living through the disaster. Like VanderMeer’s Biologist we must find out how to adapt here, now, to this reality — to survive, to make sacrifices, and even to let go of some things in order to have a future. Or, like many characters in cosmic horror, we won’t make it.

Cosmic horror isn’t about a glorious triumph born of a dazzling orgasmic display of peak humanity. It’s very much the everyman solution: messy, imperfect, often painful, plodding, long-form survival. Just what we need.