When you encounter mist in real life, what do you recall? Stephen King’s novella? Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella? The 2017 TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s novella?
You may have even studied “The Mist” in literature class — the tertiary level equivalent of Lord of the Flies. This popular science fiction horror contains plenty for discussion and analysis.
Or maybe you’ve never encountered Stephen King’s Mist story before in your entire life, and you don’t scream to family members, “SOMETHING IN THE MIST TOOK JOHN LEE!” whenever fog descends.
I’ve seen the 2007 film numerous times but only just read the novella. There will inevitably be some conflation of those two slightly different stories below, so I’m going to talk about both without worrying about mixing them up.
Do humans see reality as it really is? This is a fundamental question behind cosmic horror and is one philosophers and deep thinkers still ponder today. If H.P. Lovecraft had been born 100 years later he’d be fascinated with theories such as proposed by Donald Hoffman — that humans have evolved to see only a veneer of reality, not reality itself.
Cosmic horror is a subgenre of Gothic narrative from this Golden Age of Supernatural Fiction. This Golden Age was drawing to a close by the start of the 1910s. Standout examples of supernatural fiction include:
The first volumes of M. R. James’s ghost stories
Algernon Blackwood short stories and novella such as “The Wendigo” (Audio version: Part One, Part Two)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Arthur Machen’s “White People“
Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw is still popular with modern audiences due to over 30 TV adaptations, most recently The Turning and The Haunting Of Bly Manor. Before that the best known was probably The Innocents (1961), starring Deborah Kerr, a screenplay by Truman Capote and John Mortimer.
“The ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw goes way beyond ‘are the ghosts real or not?’,” says Dara Downey, a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin and editor of The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. “Once you start reading it, you realise that nothing in it is really clear – who the governess is, where she’s writing from, what she sees, why she thinks what she thinks about the children, what happens at the end, what we’re meant to take from the story, what those men in the room hearing the story think of it, and so on.
I have heard writers say the descriptor ‘American Gothic’ is pretty much useless because it seems to describe everything literary written in the American South, ever, and Armstrong seems to be using it here to describe an American strain of cosmic horror:
“In the 1908 Preface to the New York edition, James says that he wants to make the reader ‘think the evil, make him think it for himself’. So, in other words, he never tells us what the ghosts might be doing or saying to the children, or what happened in the house before the governess got there, so we project our own worst nightmares onto it. The fact that James was writing around the same time as Freud makes it so tempting to read something sexual into it, but really it could be anything. The book is part of a long tradition of American gothic from the 16th Century, building on the Puritans’ fears of devils, the unknown, their own sins, witchcraft, possession, ‘Indians’ in the woods, and so on. I think this makes the book perfect for continual reimagining – each era will emphasise what it most fears.”
The name most synonymous with cosmic horror is H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), with an entire literary movement named after him. But Lovecraft has one of those sad, starving artist biographies. He lived in poverty and died in obscurity at the young age of 47. He never lived to see how influential he’d become on 20th century literature and beyond. Lovecraft is best known for the following:
Cosmic horror was heavily influenced by the Golden Age of Supernatural Fiction. We know this for sure because Lovecraft himself said he was influenced by James, Machen and Blackwood.
Lovecraft was very interested in certain tropes. ‘Common human laws and emotions have no significance in the vast cosmos at large.’ Lovecraft also questioned his Christian background at a very young age, counting Jesus as mythological as Santa Clause. For his stories, Lovecraft became far more interested in ancient myth than in Bible stories.
H.P. Lovecraft was also influenced by the nineteenth century art of Gustave Doré.
One unfortunate aspect of Lovecraft was his enduring racism. Lovecraft saw people of colour as the monsters, no different from the unknowable cosmic horror villain. Lovecraft couldn’t understand people different from himself, and didn’t want to. Ironically, to Native Americans, white people were the cosmic horror. Yet Lovecraft put himself imaginatively in the shoes of the victims.
COSMIC HORROR AND LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM
The two movements share something big in common: It’s impossible for any single person to have a handle on veridical reality. There are techniques used by the literary Impressionists which emphasise this theme (e.g. parallactic viewpoints). Literary Impressionist art asks an audience to reconsider their own viewpoints, and accept that there’s always more to a story than our own individual point of view.
Cosmic horror kicks this aspect up to horror levels. It can be terrifying to realise you’ve been very, very wrong about the entire nature of being.
Both movements happened around the time people’s minds were starting to be expanded by big, mind-blowing advances in science. The more we know about the universe, the smaller we feel.
FEATURES OF COSMIC HORROR
The literary movement is known as ‘cosmicism’.
What makes cosmic horror ‘horror’? Cosmic horror typically makes lighter use of suspense techniques than other genres such as thriller and even other kinds of horror. What replaces suspense techniques to create narrative drive?
Well, cosmic horror traditionally makes use of its own kind of suspense, akin to the picture book technique of leaving the scary thing off the stage of the page, revealing to the viewer only an ominous shadow. To modern audiences, however, when a cosmic horror viewpoint character is so overwhelmed by what they’ve seen that they’re rendered speechless, this can feel like a cop out.
In cosmic horror, it’s all about the physiological response. Good horror creates a sensation known as ‘horripilation’ in its audience. This is the feeling that the hair on the back of your neck is standing on end. Cosmic horror achieves this by asking its audience to feel, if only for a moment, that there is way more out there than we can ever know. Humans are vulnerable, ignorant and at the mercy of greater forces. But how, then, is cosmic horror different from psychological horror more generally?
It’s partly in the themes. Thematically, cosmic horror exists to subvert matters of value. Whatever humans value is no longer valuable in the world of cosmic horror. Conversely, whatever humans ignore is actually the most important. (Also terrifying.) The message will be this: humans have got everything wrong.
For this reason the picture books of Shaun Tan count as cosmic horror. The Lost Thing is a perfect example of a weird world which exists just beyond the visible world of adults. Across children’s literature, children are able to see what the adults cannot, until they age out of it, or learn to harness their childlike view of reality, unencumbered by the slog of capitalism and consumerism.
Movies that have been called cosmic horror. In each of these examples, human order falls apart simply due to the existence of something much bigger than ourselves. In some plots the humans have gone looking for it; in others the ‘beast’ has been awoken. That said, if each of these films count as cosmic horror, the definition has been expanded, or the nature of modern cosmic horror has changed.
Cosmic horror remains popular because we’re still dismounting from ‘The Great Chain Of Being’ notion that humans exist at the top of the animal hierarchy. If you’ve lived your whole life thinking God created the world for you, then it can be terrifying to ponder an alternative — that no one gives a hoot about you. You are but a speck in the universe.
CHAIN OF BEING: An elaborate cosmological model of the universe common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Great Chain of Being was a permanently fixed hierarchy with the Judeo-Christian God at the top of the chain and inanimate objects like stones and mud at the bottom. Intermediate beings and objects, such as angels, humans, animals, and plants, were arrayed in descending order of intelligence, authority, and capability between these two extremes. The Chain of Being was seen as designed by God. The idea of the Chain of Being resonates in art, politics, literature, cosmology, theology, and philosophy throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It takes on particular complexity because different parts of the Chain were thought to correspond to each other.
Cosmic horror asks us to consider our own mortality, but also our own reason for being, and the futility of jostling for place in the human hierarchy.
A theme that runs through classic cosmic horror: cults. This is partly why modern commentators consider The Ritual an exampel of cosmic horror.
“Little Runmo” (2019) is an example of cosmic horror. The ‘life’ of a side-scrolling computer game is peak expendability.
You can find cosmic horror techniques in children’s literature. Take the following example from Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, a middle grade novel from the early 1970s. Two children have been sent from London to the country to provide safety during the war, Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe style. There’s a patch of woods which have a very druidy feeling about them. On the way to collect a goose one day:
She couldn’t explain it. It was such a strange feeling. As if there was something here, something waiting. Deep in the trees or deep in the earth. Not a ghost — nothing so simple. Whatever it was had no name. Something old and huge and nameless, Carrie thought, and started to tremble.
In the character set up, the main character will have some kind of shortcoming and they will typically be wrong about something. In Cosmic Horror, ‘being wrong about something’ is central. There are monsters; the main character does not believe in monsters. Whatever the main character is wrong about equals what people in general are wrong about. Cosmic horror says, “The mundane will cloud your view of reality. Pay attention and you’ll see what’s really there.”
Aside from this, the main character of cosmic horror is the Every Man or (very rarely) the Every Woman. They function as a viewpoint character. They arrive to the stage (or page) in statu nascendi. Sometimes when writers create characters they want to make them as relatable as possible in a short space of time. They’ll be saving cats, suffering injustices, reacting in relatable ways. The viewpoint characters of cosmic horror aren’t written in this way. If they happen to be relatable it’s precisely because we know very little about them. The story uses human viewpoint characters as the story sees fit. (We don’t really want to fall in love with the viewpoint characters of cosmic horror because they may not live to see the story out…)
In cosmic horror, the world is more important than the character. In transgression horror the mask comes off the character; in cosmic horror the mask comes off the world.
By the way, in the early cosmic horror tales sometimes the viewpoint character would be one removed: This story happened to my friend. Now I’m visiting him in the lunatic asylum. He went mad and is unable to recount the story himself. See: Go Mad From The Revelation at TV Tropes.
The web of opponents works the same as in any horror — there will probably be infighting between the humans, with all their different desires and weaknesses, and this infighting pales in comparison to whatever master force reigns supreme.
The big bad evil force is your typical horror villain — pure evil. Much Western horror makes use of Christian symbolism and thought, with the rituals of Catholicism. Although rarely explicit, if we think about this, any evil manifested in human concepts of hell can’t have existed prior to religion.
The overwhelming force of Cosmic Horror is sometimes called an ‘Eldritch Abomination‘. Eldritch is an English word used to describe something otherworldly, weird, ghostly, or uncanny. In contemporary culture, the term is closely associated with the Lovecraftian horror.
This is where cosmic horror is a bit different from other types of stories. The Eldritch Abomination in cosmic horror predates religion and even predates humans. It’s probably not even from this world, and may come from a different dimension entirely. Cosmic horror feels to me like an attempt to reject religion by writers who were nonetheless steeped in religious views of the world. As much as they try to nihilistically reject the gods, their fiction keeps coming back to godlike, omniscient, all-powerful… well… gods. Malevolent gods, but gods all the same. (The ancient gods weren’t all that great.) Of all the ancient forces, they are quire like the Djinn, who have been around for far longer than humans have. The Djinn can even fly between solar systems, so their arena is way more massive than ours, as well.
In any case, the humans can’t fight back against this kind of villain. The villain is way too ancient and powerful, and we can’t even understand their motivations, so they’re impossible to foil.
CTHULHU MYTHOS (also spelled Cthulu and Kutulu, pronounced various ways): Strongly influential in pulp science fiction and early twentieth-century horror stories, the Cthulhu mythos revolves around a pantheon of malign alien beings worshipped as gods by half-breed cultists. These aliens were invented and popularized by pulp fiction horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. The name Cthulhu comes from Lovecraft’s 1928 short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” which introduces the creature Cthulhu as a gigantic, bat-winged, tentacled, green monstrosity who once ruled planet earth in prehistoric times. Currently in a death-like state of hibernation, it now awaits an opportunity to rise from the underwater city of R’lyeh and plunge the earth once more into darkness and terror. August Derleth later coined the term “Cthulhu mythos” to describe collectively the settings, themes, and alien beings first imagined by Lovecraft but later adapted by pulp fiction authors like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner, and Brian Lumley. Some common elements, motifs, and characters of the mythos include the following:
“The Great Old Ones,” an assortment of ancient, horrible, powerful (and often unpronounceable) deities/aliens including Cthulhu, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Hastur, Dagon, and Yog-Sothoth.
“The Elder Gods/Elder Things,” A term used interchangeably with “The Great Old Ones” by Lovecraft, but used by August Derleth to refer to a separate group of aliens at war with the evil “Great Old Ones.” They serve as a deus ex machina in several short stories of the Cthulhu mythos.
Servitor races, i.e., lesser alien species that worship and/or act as slaves to The Great Old Ones, including the shape-changing shoggoths, the intelligent fungus crabs (Mi-go) living on Pluto, the tentacled star-spawn, and the aquatic race of “Deep Ones” living near Devil’s Reef in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
The imaginary town of Arkham, New England, used as a setting, along with nearby towns like Dunwich and Innsmouth along the Miskatonic river valley.
The theme of insanity (often protagonists suffer mental breakdowns merely by viewing one of the Old Ones).
The appearance of forbidden books of ancient and dangerous lore, such as the fictional Necronomicon, The Book of Eibon, and Unaussprechlichen Kulten.
This has to be the scariest part of the story. The best of the best cosmic horror stories create a revelation in the reader as well as in the main character, and the reader should feel the whole world looks different, at least for a moment.
However, that poor sucker the viewpoint character doesn’t have the privilege of distance and rather than experiencing life-changing epiphany, goes crazy. The ‘going crazy’ part is a standard fixture of cosmic horror but think widely; they may lose their senses, they may (these days) suffer PTSD. In any case, the human mind isn’t equipped to process the experience.
In many well-known tales of Cosmic Horror, the main character dies at the end. This is partly why you don’t want the audience getting too attached to them.
Cosmic horror is difficult to write because it’s hard to awe a modern audience with a completely new idea. However, the subgenre makes for excellent parody. (Horror and comedy are a great genre blend.) Welcome To Night-Vale is a popular parody of cosmic horror, released as a podcast in the format of local radio. The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy can be considered parody of cosmic horror as well.
Cosmic Irony: An alternative term for situational irony, especially when connected to a fatalistic or pessimistic take on life.
Cosmic Justice: A riff on ‘poetic justice’, in which natural consequences for an action take place in a story, in place of retributive justice meted out by humans, or gods.
If you’re a fan of Renovation Rescue or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and think you’ve seen some good horror stories, you might consider turning brief attention to the story of H.P. Lovecraft, and I don’t actually mean his tragic life story in which he only achieved fame after an early, lonely death; I’m talking about the one in which a guy decides to restore his ancestral home after the death of his only son only to find he is hated by the locals… For creepy reasons which are none of his own fault. Then things get far, far worse.
Kingsley Amis said that this story achieves ‘a memorable nastiness’. Other short stories that have had this same effect on me: “Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.
“The Rats In The Walls” is a great example of a story which has been woven out of an Urban Legend: The Piltdown Man.
The Piltdown Man was a hoax in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. These fragments consisted of parts of a skull and jawbone, said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England.
The first person narrator has spent lots of time and money restoring an ancestral castle which has fallen into disrepair. (Exham Priory.) See this post on Gothic tropes, including Gothic houses.
There has been some horrible tragedy take place in this mansion. The only one left alive (the third son) is the narrator’s direct ancestor. This guy was accused of the murders.
The crown took possession of the property after that.
It’s been studied for its interesting Gothic architecture.
Narrator lost everything in the civil war. Their home burned down when he was seven.
After that they all moved North where his mother had come from.
As a middle-aged man he is wealthy.
In 1904 his father died.
His only son died two years after returning injured from WW1.
He has no wife, either. The boy grew up without a mother. Basically, this narrator is all alone in the world.
In the war, before he died, the son heard a few things about his own ancestry which had been lost within the lore of the family concerned. The son was merely amused by them.
Narrator purchased Exham Priory in 1918. But his son’s return from the war distracted him from the restoration job. That said, a couple of years later he decided to devote himself to it.
His friend, Norrys, learns before he dies that the place is built on top of some (ante-) Druid thing which would date back to the time of Stonehenge. It housed some monks. Norrys is the friend he lived with while the restoration was going on.
According to rumours, the family in that house have a history of losing the men early, replaced by a ‘more typical scion’. Implication being, the boys in this family tend to kill their own fathers in order to be the boss of the joint. An ‘inner cult’.
There are other stories too, like graveyard stenches and wails and howlings. Our narrator takes much less notice of those stories.
It is a bit concerning that a bunch of peasants have gone missing over the years. That said, in medieval times peasants going missing wasn’t all that unusual.
The people who lived at that time believed in a ‘bat-winged devil’ who kept Witches’ Sabbath each night. There was also a legion of rats, who burst from the castle three months after the big tragedy that lead to its desertion. This army devoured everything in its path including pets and two ‘hapless human beings’. (See The Legend of the Pied Piper for another story about a hoard of destructive rats.)
So he moves in in 1923, with 7 servants and 9 cats. He loves cats. He even calls the eldest one ‘Nigger-man’. (As a cat name, this seems to have fallen out of fashion for some reason.)
In a storytelling reveal, he learns the essential truth — that his ancestor escaped to England after murdering his family, but caused no more trouble over there. What made him snap?
The cat has the heebie jeebies in this house.
A servant reports that all of the cats have got the spooks.
In the middle of the night he’s woken up by that favourite cat, and they can hear rats.
Next morning it seems no one else has heard it though.
Next night, same thing. He’s set down a trap and the trap is sprung but hasn’t caught anything. (Lovecraft is making use of the Rule of Three in storytelling.)
Norrys comes round to check out the joint with his lantern at the place where the black cat is agitating.
They find a vault.
They think of leaving this place altogether but after discussing it they make a trip to London to find the expertise of archeologists and scientists to help them work out what this thing is.
These men don’t scoff and are interested in the story. Five of them decide to go back with the two men and look for themselves.
Back in America at the old house, the servants tell the men that nothing weird happened in their absence.
The narrator is disturbed overnight but no one else has been, each in their own guest rooms. The psychic says, unhelpfully, that he’s now been shown whatever it was he was meant to see.
In the late morning the seven men take powerful electric searchlights and excavation tools down to the sub-cellar and bolt the door behind them. They take the black cat in case of rats. Three of the savants have already seen some rats. They examine the central altar and one of the men causes the whole thing to tilt backwards. There seems to be a force behind it, saving it from falling over entirely.
They’re all spooked by this but they’re mentally prepared. Then they find some human bones which look like they’ve been… gnawed… by rats.
The scientist works out the passage they find has to have been chiselled from below.
They find a light at the end of the passage and see an amazing twilit grotto stretching further than the eye can see. There is also ‘an insane tangle of human bones’.
‘Horror piled on horror’ when they find four-legged skeletons, including some with two legs, which had been kept in stone pens. They’ve been fed the ‘coarse vegetables’ that used to grow on the vast estate and it explains why the Romans had such big gardens.
Norrys goes into one of the buildings and even though he has seen the horrors of war, he’s disturbed by the butcher shop and kitchen in there.
The narrator ventures into a different building with no door and finds ten stone cells with rusty bars. He also finds a seal ring with his own family’s coat of arms. Others find more cells and a crypt with bones arranged in some sort of order, carved with inscriptions in Latin and Greek.
One of the doctors opens up a grave and notes that the skulls are somewhere between human and ape.
The cat isn’t worried about any of this.
And then the men go missing, everyone but ‘the plump Capt. Norrys. The cat is spooked now and darts past ‘like a winged Egyptian god’. The rats are after them.
The narrator seems to be temporarily possessed and hates everything and everyone and seems to want to take revenge upon his best friend.
Three hours later he is found, crouching in the dark over the plump, half-dead body of Capt. Norrys. His own black cat is tearing at his throat.
Exham Priory’s been blown up. The cat’s been taken off him and our narrator writes this story from prison.
It’s revealed that one of the expert men is in the cell next door, but the two are not allowed to speak.
TECHNIQUE OF NOTE
Although the narrator knows the entire story before he begins the telling of it, he drip feeds us salacious details to keep us reading on. A super common technique. Easier said than done, though, as a writer, because at some point the decision has to be made: What to reveal and when? In order:
The narrator’s ancestor murdered everyone in the mansion
There was some family cult that spanned generations, in which fathers disappeared mysteriously
The mass murder happened after some revelation, and it wasn’t everyone after all — he spared a few of the servants
The slaughter included a father, three brothers, and two sisters and the perpetrator escaped under disguise.
The masterful thing Lovecraft does is he amends the detail. Folklore would have it that the ancestor killed everyone; upon closer examination we learn he spared a few. So it wasn’t so bad… and rumour is never a hundred per cent true. Hang on. That’s still pretty bad! We also achieve verisimilitude, because we’ve all experienced finding out the truth behind a rumour, learning that some parts have been exaggerated; in this case the exaggerations pale in comparison to other horrific revelations.
The cellar in this story is a classic example of the labyrinthine cellar at the bottom of a tower — unbound by the four earth walls behind it, leading to a vast kingdom no one above ground has any idea about.
The symbol of the Labyrinth goes all the way back to Greek mythology, in which a scary part-man, part-bull Minotaur lives down there.
This labyrinthine, underground cavern continues to be used in stories even today. Under The Dome, the TV series inspired by the Stephen King novel, utilises the underground labyrinth also:
“The Rats In The Walls” also makes use of The Chimera and uses a variety of unidentifiable skeletons, some of them between human and ape, to spook us. We like to put things and people into easily understood categories. Perhaps this partly explains phenomena such as transphobia: centuries of terrifying stories about creatures who span between categories.