The universe is indifferent. Humanity doesn’t matter. The gods, if they are here at all, don’t care about us, and that’s if we’re lucky. If not, we’re playthings and prey. There is no hope, no salvation, and whatever truths our tiny brains are capable of comprehending are more likely than not to destroy them. This is cosmic horror, and it’s the subject of today’s installment of So You Want to Read.
Cosmic horror was birthed at the tip of New England writer H. P. Lovecraft’s pen, but his dark universe of alien gods and monsters expanded quickly in the writings of fellow travelers like Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and others — a collaborative arrangement that we’d call a “shared universe” today. Through the work of these and future authors, creations like the cephalopod god Cthulhu became household names.
That said, as synonymous as Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian creations may be with cosmic horror, the genre need not include them. Writers like Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti have done just fine without the Old Gent’s menagerie, and others, like Victor LaValle, have used them in ways that would likely have incensed their creator: a man whose racist bent was arguably extreme even for its time.
The world of cosmic horror literature is as vast as the universe itself, but here’s a few suggestions to start you on your journey.
Shadows of Carcosa
edited by D. Thin
Shadows of Carcosa is an excellent anthology featuring the masters of cosmic horror and their antecedents. Lovecraft may have invented cosmic horror, but he had his inspirations as well, and many of them are included here. Algernon Blackwood’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”, and Robert W. Chamber’s “The Repairer of Reputations” are going to grab the attention of fans of HBO’s “True Detective” — as well as just about anyone else with a taste for the uncanny. Additional authors include Arthur Machen, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lovecraft himself, among others.
At the Mountains of Madness
by H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft wrote dozens upon dozens of short stories, but only a handful of longer works. At the Mountains of Madness is one of the best of the latter. This story of a doomed arctic expedition features almost everything you want from Lovecraft — lost cities, incomprehensibly weird aliens, oozing, gelatinous monsters, madness and horror — and very little of what you probably want to avoid: virulent racism and occasionally unbearable purple prose, namely. This edition of At the Mountains of Madness includes an introduction by China Miéville, plus Lovecraft’s superb essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe
by Thomas Ligotti
Thomas Ligotti may not be a household name, but it should be. Ligotti’s visions of a hostile universe are subtle and terrifying on a deeply existential level. “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto name-checked Ligotti as an inspiration for season one’s nihilistic police detective Rust Cohle, if that tells you anything. This book collects two volumes of Ligotti’s short stories under one cover and features an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer, one of modern fiction’s great masters of Weird literature.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
by Laird Barron
Laird Barron’s The Croning is a masterwork of cosmic horror: a sprawling tale of family secrets, ancient cults, and the author’s signature creation: the inescapable, all-devouring entity known as Old Leech. I’ve recommended it many times before here at Unbound Worlds. However, if you’re just getting started with Barron, perhaps you’d prefer one of his short story collections. The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All features more than a few nods to the mythology of Old Leech, plus hair-raising reinventions of spy thrillers, crime fiction, ghost stories, and much more. If shape-shifting extraterrestrial monsters, pagan sacrifices in the wilderness, and werewolf cannibal murderers are your thing, then you’ll love this book.
The Ballad of Black Tom
by Victor LaValle
Charles Thomas Tester is a dealer in rare occult goods, some of which are too powerful to let fall into the hands of the dabblers and dilettantes who come looking for them. That said, Tommy Tester isn’t here to save the world: He’s got family to take care of, and is more than happy to take advantage of other people’s illusions if need be. Unfortunately, Tommy’s work eventually brings him into the orbit of horrors that even a master hustler might be hard pressed to escape. LaValle is a brilliant writer, and The Ballad of Black Tom is a great introduction to his uncanny and socially conscious work. (Soon to be a TV show!)
She Walks in Shadows
edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s anthology She Walks in Shadows is an all-star collection of cosmic horror by women writers. Featuring stories by Molly Tanzer, Gemma Files, and many other notable names in fantasy fiction, She Walks in Shadows shows that the Cthuhlu Mythos shouldn’t be the sole purview of male writers.