What if I told you that humans are insignificant in the scope of the cosmos and subject to incomprehensible forces beyond our control? That one day the Earth will be annihilated by those forces which neither know nor care about humanity? That anything we can do to stave off these forces would be as gnats fighting against a monsoon? That all we can do is resign ourselves to our doomed fate, even hastening our coming end?
No, I’m not talking about the end times or climate change—though you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. Welcome to the gloomy genre of cosmic horror.In an age of political unrest, economic uncertainty, and climate cataclysm, cosmic horror is an echo of what I experience daily.
Though it has been around in one form or another since the late 1800s, H. P. Lovecraft is seen as the greatest contributor and even legitimizer of cosmic horror. His legacy as a problematic creator is a complicated one, to put it mildly, and I don’t want to give him all the credit for the genre. He took inspiration from other authors, and more after him have made the genre far less bigoted by turning Lovecraft’s sins on their heads.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle retells The Horror at Red Hook and asks, “Which is worse, cosmic indifference or personal racism?” The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson is a feminist take on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath that questions why men were the only dreamers to visit her world. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country follows a black family grappling with white sorcerers whose ancestors once owned their ancestors through a series of stories that more than rival those published in Weird Tales.
Aside from cosmic horror’s hateful origins and redemptive works, it has some resounding observations about the world. Cosmic horror is more than too many eyes and tentacles and weird geometry—it’s the basis for an entire school of thought.
Humankind is insignificant
“The Sleeping King. The end of this current order, its civilization of subjugation. The end of man and all his follies. Extermination by indifference.” – Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom
Cosmic horror likes to remind humans how little they mean in the grand scheme of things. While humanity may strive for whatever pleases them, the end is coming. We can accept that we are doomed from day one or try—often in vain—to ingratiate ourselves to the powers that be, who may or may not even know we exist.
What we know is bad; what we don’t know is unthinkable
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” – H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
The favorite fear-flavor of cosmic horror is the fear of the unknown. What we don’t know is far more terrifying than the crumbs of knowledge we do possess. Secret knowledge is a recurring theme throughout cosmic horror as the key to some fleeting understanding of the cosmos, but it is also the seed that hastens humanity’s undoing.
Coming to grips with these two things is enough to give people mental breakdowns
“You can as easily go mad from too narrow a life as from one thrown outside human experience. I know which madness I’d choose.” – Ruthanna Emrys, Deep Roots
Inevitably, when characters are faced with the idea of their insignificance and ill-preparedness to withstand great forces, they suffer mental breakdowns. They cannot reconcile an existence without their control, and often they seek to either end their lives or become servants of that which would destroy them.Were I to struggle on by myself, that would be madness.
In an age of political unrest, economic uncertainty, and climate cataclysm, cosmic horror is an echo of what I experience daily. So often, I feel that whatever I’m working towards is in vain. Nevertheless, my faith reminds me that I need not fear. Despite what Lovecraft himself felt, the central tenets of cosmic horror are not that far from those of Christianity. It is everything I’ve mentioned thus far, but so much more.
Humans aren’t just worth the mud we’re made of
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
We know from books like Ecclesiastes that anything we strive for can seem like for naught in the face of eternity. Yet God looks on us as creatures worth recognizing and wants to have a relationship with us. We were made a little lower than heavenly beings, and are loved as God’s children. It is humbling that I am even a thought to God, much less worth a relationship.
We cannot—yet—comprehend the complete nature of God
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Rather than secret knowledge ferreted away for a select few, God desires that everyone should know Him. God’s power is past our comprehension, outside of time and space. And yet, if we love God, we have nothing to fear from Him. At the end of time, all promises from God will be fulfilled, and my limited human understanding will no longer restrain me.
Rather than causing us to lose our grip on reality, we can be comforted that things are out of our control
“He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Psalm 91:4-6).
Finally, we know that to be Christian, Scripture says people must accept they are nothing without God and only made complete in embracing God’s purpose for humanity. Alone, we use one another for our own gains, regardless of what cost we ask others to pay. That’s enough to make anyone want to give up. However, we are not alone. Were I to struggle on by myself, that would be madness.At the end of time … my limited human understanding will no longer restrain me.
Anything and everything may happen to me here on Earth, but I rest in the knowledge that it is not my end. I may face drowning in the next hurricane or my college debt. I may worry over old, wealthy white men who think they possess secret knowledge to decide the fates of millions behind closed doors. I may wonder why my patients are suffering and dying from preventable diseases. These concerns make me question whether I make any difference at all in the world, yet I do not surrender entirely to despair. There are days I absolutely want to. But what have I to fear from my fellow humans—or the unknown?