Lovecraftian horror is a subgenre of horror fiction that emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (and in some cases, unknowable) more than gore or other elements of shock, though these may still be present.
There are few things out there that can beat what H.P Lovecraft did for the genre and phenomenon of cosmic madness and horror. Vastly homaged and imitated in countless movies and fiction but never truly succeeded by, the Old Ones mythos conceived by H.P. Lovecraft houses the very definition of the human idea of evil. The puny human mind was not made to witness or comprehend that of which it was never supposed to be exposed to and when it is, we are obliterated on the spot. While sounding incredibly grandiose and pretentious, the extra-dimensional malevolence of the Elder Ones (ie. everybody’s favourite octopodoid figurehead Cthulhu) is perhaps one of the greatest literary personifications of the unknown epoch evils of old ever written. None of these creatures even consider humanity a legitimate life form or even a threat, they see humans as little more than the most miniscule speck of dirt on the fabric of time, space and the wilds of time. No, not even that, we are absolutely nothing at all to them and they have absolutely no compunction or mercy when it comes to enslaving the human mind and subsequently killing it like one would an ant. I admit, writing this article feels redundant to me, but considering I find the Old Ones worthy subjects to write about in my Villainlicious column, I wanted to at least give it a bash. After all, what’s the worst that can happen, right? (Famous last words)
Lets’ talk about the notion of cosmic horror and cosmic madness. While pretty self-explanatory in words, allow me to basically break it down for those who aren’t as familar with Lovecraft and his leanings as others:
Cosmic madness: Although the etymology of the phrase doesn’t actually have a definable origin, I’d like to submit the works of Michael Foucault to the fore here in terms of his definitions of insanity in men and women:
Cosmic madness: An association with tragic and eschatological figures (figures from holy scripture, more or less).
Critical madness: Ironic jousting partners with reason.
Sinful madness: Association with the seven deadly sins.
Okay, so religion is a very subjection notion at best and it’s not my intention to talk about the finer ins-and-outs of theology, but Foucault’s idea of cosmic madness is intriguing because it links the insanity with figures from scripture. In Lovecrafts’ prose, the Old Ones are more or less gods and like gods they live in worlds that exist beyond our understanding and if we were to lay eyes on it, we just wouldn’t get it because we were not made to. Lovecraft in a sense created another religion by this time installing monstrosities into the positions of God, Allah, Christ and other figures religions of the world acknowledge. I feel that what Lovecraft wanted to do (other than to scare the pants off readers) was to challenge our own social mores about how we build up idols in our image by writing of beings that were not created by us, but created by themselves. Not only that, but the Old Ones are a reflection of the human tendency to think lowly of those who we deem lesser than ourselves. When something ceases to be human or humane in our eyes, how do we think of them? Nothing more than a thing, a thing that deserves none of our pity or consideration. The Old Ones in a sense are the nature humans as a species have demonstrated when it comes to deciding what is sympathetic and what is not. Through a mirror darkly, yes?
The pantheon of Old Ones is so densely populated by sons, daughters, mothers, cousins, fathers and creations, each and every one of them responsible for a source of imperceptible terror, each one of them artful creations of inevitability and madness. You have creatures that appear to have come from the deep but live among the stars, you have creatures that appear to be from the abyss of space but dwell in the Stygian depths of the sea and you have things that the only way to describe them in the human language is “What The FUCK?” and “HOW THE FUCK?” The simple fact of the matter is, the Old Ones can live anywhere and there are strongholds that are sacred for them but far too much for our little brains. For a general comprehensive list of, head on over to THIS place to read up on the various denizens and generations of the Old Ones because I don’t wanna waste your time by putting all of that here because I prefer you to waste time on your terms.
One of the greatest attractions to Lovecraftian horror is because of how it goes against the grain when it comes to other examples of horror fiction. Most of the terror and unease that is derived from Lovecrafts’ tales comes from the power of suggestion and textile sensibilities with an ironic leaning toward applied human sciences. Lovecrafts’ descriptions of the environment where an Old One is present convey a notion of being incredible as well as inconceivable and unsightly. Lovecraft tended to favor exploiting the senses and the environment; foul, odorous substances, structural oddities (referred to as ‘non-Euclidean’), mind-bending mathematical theorems and a permeating sense of dread can all be found in his words. Here is a very short excerpt from ‘Dagon’ which a mad sailor gives his account of coming across a liminal plain whereupon he stumbles ancient artifacts of yore before coming face to face with the Drowned God himself, Dagon which sends him over the edge into a frenzied, feverish state of insanity.
Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear.
The sun was blazing down from a sky which seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty; as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet. As I crawled into the stranded boat I realized that only one theory could explain my position. Through some unprecedented volcanic upheaval, a portion of the ocean floor must have been thrown to the surface, exposing regions which for innumerable millions of years had lain hidden under unfathomable watery depths.
So great was the extent of the new land which had risen beneath me, that I could not detect the faintest noise of the surging ocean, strain my ears as I might.
Nor were there any sea-fowl to prey upon the dead things.
For several hours I sat thinking or brooding in the boat, which lay upon its side and afforded a slight shade as the sun moved across the heavens. As the day progressed, the ground lost some of its stickiness, and seemed likely to dry sufficiently for travelling purposes in a short time. That night I slept but little, and the next day I made for myself a pack containing food and water, preparatory to an overland journey in search of the vanished sea and possible rescue.
On the third morning I found the soil dry enough to walk upon with ease. The odour of the fish was maddening; but I was too much concerned with graver things to mind so slight an evil, and set out boldly for an unknown goal. All day I forged steadily westward, guided by a far-away hummock which rose higher than any other elevation on the rolling desert. That night I encamped, and on the following day still travelled toward the hummock, though that object seemed scarcely nearer than when I had first espied it. By the fourth evening I attained the base of the mound, which turned out to be much higher than it had appeared from a distance, an intervening valley setting it out in sharper relief from the general surface. Too weary to ascend, I slept in the shadow of the hill.
I know not why my dreams were so wild that night; but ere the waning and fantastically gibbous moon had risen far above the eastern plain, I was awake in a cold perspiration, determined to sleep no more. Such visions as I had experienced were too much for me to endure again. And in the glow of the moon I saw how unwise I had been to travel by day. Without the glare of the parching sun, my journey would have cost me less energy; indeed, I now felt quite able to perform the ascent which had deterred me at sunset. Picking up my pack, I started for the crest of the eminence.
I have said that the unbroken monotony of the rolling plain was a source of vague horror to me; but I think my horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night. Through my terror ran curious reminiscences of Paradise Lost, and Satan’s hideous climb through the unfashioned realms of darkness.
As the moon climbed higher in the sky, I began to see that the slopes of the valley were not quite so perpendicular as I had imagined. Ledges and outcroppings of rock afforded fairly easy footholds for a descent, whilst after a drop of a few hundred feet, the declivity became very gradual. Urged on by an impulse which I cannot definitely analyse, I scrambled with difficulty down the rocks and stood on the gentler slope beneath, gazing into the Stygian deeps where no light had yet penetrated.
All at once my attention was captured by a vast and singular object on the opposite slope, which rose steeply about a hundred yards ahead of me; an object that gleamed whitely in the newly bestowed rays of the ascending moon. That it was merely a gigantic piece of stone, I soon assured myself; but I was conscious of a distinct impression that its contour and position were not altogether the work of Nature. A closer scrutiny filled me with sensations I cannot express; for despite its enormous magnitude, and its position in an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the sea since the world was young, I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures.
Dazed and frightened, yet not without a certain thrill of the scientist’s or archaeologist’s delight, I examined my surroundings more closely. The moon, now near the zenith, shone weirdly and vividly above the towering steeps that hemmed in the chasm, and revealed the fact that a far-flung body of water flowed at the bottom, winding out of sight in both directions, and almost lapping my feet as I stood on the slope. Across the chasm, the wavelets washed the base of the Cyclopean monolith, on whose surface I could now trace both inscriptions and crude sculptures. The writing was in a system of hieroglyphics unknown to me, and unlike anything I had ever seen in books, consisting for the most part of conventionalised aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopi, crustaceans, molluscs, whales and the like. Several characters obviously represented marine things which are unknown to the modern world, but whose decomposing forms I had observed on the ocean-risen plain.
It was the pictorial carving, however, that did most to hold me spellbound.
Plainly visible across the intervening water on account of their enormous size was an array of bas-reliefs whose subjects would have excited the envy of a Dore. I think that these things were supposed to depict men — at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shown disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage at some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well. Of their faces and forms I dare not speak in detail, for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint. Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer, they were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features less pleasant to recall. Curiously enough, they seemed to have been chiselled badly out of proportion with their scenic background; for one of the creatures was shown in the act of killing a whale represented as but little larger than himself. I remarked, as I say, their grotesqueness and strange size; but in a moment decided that they were merely the imaginary gods of some primitive fishing or seafaring tribe; some tribe whose last descendant had perished eras before the first ancestor of the Piltdown or Neanderthal Man was born.
Awestruck at this unexpected glimpse into a past beyond the conception of the most daring anthropologist, I stood musing whilst the moon cast queer reflections on the silent channel before me. Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.
This type of prose was written with a view for the reader to use their imaginations in order to conjure images from the words they read and draw out an instinctive reaction of revulsion. The narrator has clearly come across something that is out of his depth and his curiosity gets the better of him despite knowing that he should not have investigated the unknown ruins of an ancient but clearly not abandoned civilization as well as its’ disturbing geographical location. There are things we were just not mentally equipped to know and despite the fact we tell ourselves we know better, we just can’t help but sate our own questions and we have nobody but ourselves to blame when we find out the horrible truth. In what is considered to perhaps be the most famous of Lovecrafts’ mainstream stories ‘At The Mountains of Madness’, the science and practice of Arctic exploration, something that was commonly encouraged and admirable by society, is the agent that opens the box of Anesidora and therefore may potentially commence the beginning of the end of the human species. As far as the Old Ones and their kin are concerned, humans have no bearing in their plans and it matters not how we suffer so long as they continue to just BE. The cold, desolate, foreboding landscape is but a mask for the true horrors that lie beneath it, horrors of which cannot be beaten by anything within the human power.
In ‘The Dunwich Horror’, Lovecraft also plays with the notion of body horror combined with the hysterical notion of demonic rape and the ugliness of human nature. In the isolated, desolate and decrepit village of Dunwich, Wilbur Whateley is the hideous son of Lavinia Whateley, a deformed and mentally unstable albino mother, and an unknown father (alluded to in passing by his grandfather, mad Old Whateley, as “Yog-Sothoth”), and strange events surround his birth and precocious development. Wilbur matures at an abnormal rate, reaching manhood within a decade. Locals shun him and his family, and animals fear and despise him (due to a smell he gives off). All the while, his sorcerer grandfather indoctrinates him into certain dark rituals and the study of witchcraft. Again, as per Lovecrafts’ M.O., the idea of the unknown is perhaps the most frightening thing because that of which we cannot understand is something we come to hate and to fear that it becomes an obsession, an obsession of which becomes our very undoing. Although the mutated Wilbur is defeated in the end of the tale by the self-proclaimed heroes (an unusual exception to the rule of Lovecrafts’ work), that is not the end of the Old Ones- the evil continues to fester in the wound.
What I love most about the Old Ones is how it is impossible for them to be killed or even to be truly felled by the pithiness of the human species. Think of it as going into a hurricane using a little cocktail umbrella for shelter. You have absolutely no chance against them and they know it. The only thing that prevents them from tearing through the veil of our reality are unspoken, arcane mystic restraints put on them by powers equal to them, not of our making. They defy science, they defy reason and there is not a single thing you could do, not a single thing you can say or any prayer you can deliver in order to be saved.