An Introduction to Cosmic Horror, 2015’s Halloween Literary Subgenre of Choice


Each October, drunk on anticipation for the spooky revelry promised by Halloween office parties, the publishing industry inaugurates or refurbishes a horror trend. Last year it offered Body Horror, a pitch to the public that was easy to make because Cronenberg, its filmic paterfamilias, had just released a not-half-bad Body Horror novel.

It could be because I am perilously estranged from my own body — I am already body-horrified — but I prefer this year’s trend: Cosmic Horror. There is something about the material fear of the ineffable, the strange, the alien that chimes more with the sad music of my soul. Still, Cosmic Horror is not without its problems, as Jeff VanderMeer has pointed out. If Body Horror finds its benign, Canadian overlord in Cronenberg, it’s safe to say that Cosmic Horror is beset with an ethically problematic, anti-progressive despot named H.P. Lovecraft.

Even if it’s not possible (or fair) to excise Lovecraft’s influence entirely from the Cosmic Horror mini-canon, it is true that non-Lovecraftian elements of Cosmic Horror existed before he wrote (and after). The below starter list, drawn primarily from three new books — The Rim of Morning by William Sloane (NYRB), Shadows of Carcosa (NYRB), and Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti (Penguin) — shows a genre coming into its own.

The Walk of the Night and The Edge of Running Water, William Sloane

A reissue of two remarkable novels with an introduction by Stephen King, this amounts to the Cosmic Horror discovery of the year. Both are unabashedly literary, as King points out, primarily because they ignore genre distinctions. And, as King also says, both are best enjoyed “after dark… possibly on an autumn night with a strong wind blowing the leaves around outside.” It’s time to get started, then.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, Thomas Ligotti

A cult figure or “secret” of contemporary horror, Ligotti will become a household name with the release of this collection, which brings together his first two books of “philosophical horror.” Each of these stories signals that some kind of cosmic flaw has seeped into the universe — even the moon is lit by “false fires.”

“The House of Sounds” from Pale Ape and Other Pulses, M. P. Shiel

A xenophobe who may have invented the phrase “the yellow peril,” Shiel’s foremost contribution to the genre is this admittedly innovative story that imbues sound and hearing with the terror of the ineffable.

The House of Souls, Arthur Machen

A kind of Pan’s Labyrinth of the Cosmic Horror universe, Arthur Machen’s lasting contribution to the genre is (indirectly) a story about a young girl tempted by witchcraft, and it has the unfortunate title “The White People.” This title is made all the more unfortunate because of Machen’s membership in the organization known as The Order of the Golden Dawn.

The Willows, Algernon Blackwood

One of the great precursors to contemporary works of Cosmic Horror, The Willows, a novella, is remarkable for the way it depicts a natural world shot through with ontological danger.

“An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” Ambrose Bierce

The idea of the fictional city of Carcosa comes not from Chambers but from Bierce’s tale of a man who awakes, like Dante, in an alien wood.

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, Laird Barron

This first collection of stories from Barron, one of the better-known contemporary writers of Cosmic Horror (among other things), is (at its best) more Ligotti than Lovecraft. The stories in this (highly decorated) volume cultivate an expansive sense of terror that threatens to overwhelm its often hard-boiled characters.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s reductive to call VanderMeer’s brilliant Southern Reach Trilogy “Cosmic Horror” — but hallmarks of the genre can be found here nonetheless. There are aspects, too, of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, only the “zone” in VaderMeer’s work (called Area X) roils with what writer Siobahn Carroll calls “the ecological uncanny.”

Update: This paragraph originally and incorrectly attributed Roadside Picnic to Stanislaw Lem.

Threshold, Low Red Moon Caitlin R. Kiernan

A sort of Modernist revision of the Cosmic Horror genre that will sit especially well with younger audiences — Cosmic Horror for the post-Twilight crowd, if you will. Kiernan’s award-winning short fiction is also a great place to start.

Revival, Stephen King

The King of Horror takes a stab at Cosmic Horror, to moderate effect. Still, it has to be included on any list of the genre.