Terror Incognita: The Paradoxical History of Cosmic Horror, from Lovecraft to Ligotti

By Mike MarianiApril 11, 2014

Terror Incognita: The Paradoxical History of Cosmic Horror, from Lovecraft to Ligotti

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti
The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti
The Crying of Lot 49
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

H.P. LOVECRAFT FIRST published “Supernatural Horror in Literature” in 1927, when the 37-year-old writer had recently returned to his birthplace in Providence, RI and was entering the most prolific period of his luckless, beleaguered career, a six year span in which he would write “The Call of Cthulu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and the novellas The Shadow over Innsmouth and At the Mountains of Madness. For someone who died young, at 47, Lovecraft arguably managed to invent an entire literary genre—weird fiction. He left it with an oeuvre of fabulously original and mythopoeic texts, without which the fledgling young cousin to Gothic fiction and secular, nihilistic descendant of supernatural folklore would never have survived its infancy. In the essay, revised several times in his final years, Lovecraft sets forth a lucid and direct doctrine of his driving force and ethos, his fiction’s raison d’être. There is, of course, the opening sentence, quoted and referenced ad nauseam as if it were a tidy summation of not just Lovecraft’s fiction but of the entire history and canon of fear-inducing literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” But lost in the pithiness and easy eloquence of that opener is the cogent anthropological polemic that follows, a genealogy of fear, superstition, and metaphysical curiosity.

To appreciate the cosmic mystery that Lovecraft so obsessively tried to convey and conjure to hideous life in his stories, we are invited to consider human knowledge as a flat plane in the middle of black depths of outer space. The plane is thin, fragile, and ever-tilting, like a huge pane of glass. Everything within that plane has been explained and understood: terrestrial biology, classical physics, physiology, large swaths of human history. But as soon as you step near the edges, you face the abysmal immensity of all that is unknown: numberless galaxies, planets, and stars that have existed for billions of years; white dwarfs-cum-black holes dense enough to bend time; an infinite kaleidoscopic expanse, potentially just one of many infinite expanses in a hydra-headed multiverse that perpetually begs the question of its own sentience.

A great deal of Lovecraft’s legacy rests on the Cthulu Mythos, a sprawling mythology centered around the short story “The Call of Cthulu” but also enfolding numerous other works by both Lovecraft and other authors who expanded upon his universe and cosmogony. The story, framed as a manuscript discovered among the effects of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, concerns Thurston’s investigation into the far-flung cults, afflicted dreamers, and synchronous states of psychosis that all seem catalyzed by the telepathic powers of the bat-winged, tentacle-faced anthropoid Cthulu. As Thurston digs deeper, both through the notes of his late great-uncle (thereby creating a frame-epistolary narrative) and his own inquiry into the mysterious circumstances of a derelict ship in the Pacific, he surmises an underground network of hostile, primitive cults around the world that pray to the “great priest Cthulu,” who they believe sleeps in a mausoleum-city under the sea and will someday rise again to enslave the earth. 

But in the short story’s assiduous following, the specifics of plot and character have been stripped away over time in favor of the mythological framework Lovecraft built underneath them. Indeed, “The Call of Cthulu” is one of the major archetypes for weird fiction and horror stories that unfurl their own visions of alien histories and clandestine realities oozing into mankind’s painted veil. What would eventually become the major genre paraphernalia of cosmic horror are all present in “Cthulu”: bizarre, atavistic cults, with members crude and grotesque in appearance, suggesting indifference or outright contempt for anthropocentric concerns; sinister prehistories involving god-like species that existed before mankind, and are often all-powerful and eternal; and most importantly, a protagonist or central character who is traumatized, driven insane, or otherwise blown open by his brush with the cold impiety of outer realms not meant for human purview. 

Lovecraft would expand on this aesthetic with At the Mountains of Madness, his 1931 novella recounting an expedition into the furthest reaches of the Antarctic and the discovery of a colossal ancient city of skyscraping towers, monolithic architecture, and intricate labyrinths, all carved out of the glacial wastes with the easy majesty of a Roman metropolis. At the Mountains of Madness differs from some of Lovecraft’s earlier works in its continuity and steady narrative gaze. In “Cthulu,” Lovecraft relied on fragmentation, fixating first on the hypnotic creations of a young sculptor, then a Louisiana bayou pagan cult, and finally a derelict ship drifting in the Pacific Ocean. The story’s geographical sprawl underscores the exotic otherness of this elusive idol Cthulu, a sinister omniscient entity who pulls in its worshippers not by religious doctrine, proselytization, or even physical force, but through the invasive insistence of its veracity, communicated through dreams and hysterias. Thurston is sucked in by a horrifying global synchronicity that remaps the world in accordance with this insidious supernatural force. In Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft chose the perfect location to plumb the depths of the unknown without ever risking encroachment by the familiar. By conceiving a primeval, baroque metropolis rising out of the forbidding ice-mountains of Antarctica, obliterating man’s grasp on earth’s history and his own anthropocentric sense of it, Lovecraft did not need to deal with the deformed, depraved cult members that had heretofore been his middle men between human society and the horrors that lurched and swelled in the surrounding void. 

Through his fiction and famously flinty atheism, it’s clear that Lovecraft is a writer primarily focused on the horror inherent in philosophical materialism: matter is the only form of existence, and human beings’ minds shrivel in craven idiocy to grasp the sheer scale of that matter as it appears through space and time. Allegorically, Antarctica could easily be a stand-in for a planet in another galaxy, with a history and organic kingdom stretching backs tens of millions of years. The important point is that it shatters what Lovecraft called the “humanocentric pose” to tiny pieces, with protagonists never again able to reenter a society propelled by the underlying assumption of its own importance. 

But well before Lovecraft, there was The King in Yellow. The 1895 short story collection by Robert W. Chambers was recently dredged up from literary obscurity by Niz Pizzolatto for his HBO series True Detective. Unlike much Lovecraftian fiction, The King in Yellow is completely terrestrial, a series of ten stories vaguely connected by the play of the book’s title, a work of such beguiling power and artistic perfection that it drives insane whoever reads it. “The Repairer of Reputations,” the first and by far the best of the stories, begins with a concise summary of the U.S. 25 years in the future (1920): an immaculate, hermetically sealed state, ethnically cleansed by segregationist laws and strict isolationism, with edges sandpapered into smooth docility. The pristine veneer of a society flourishing with complete impunity brings to mind the fin-de-siècle movement that was gaining steam in the 1890’s; Chambers seems to hint at the inevitable decadence and spiritual rot unimpeded civilization brings. That very decadence is embodied in the play, which “could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.” The narrator, Hildred Castaigne, is slowly going mad as the play’s rapturous poetry percolates inside him, and harbors bizarre delusions of grandeur, fancying himself prince of an alternate American empire descended from the exquisite lost cities described in the play. The story ends with an Editor’s Note explaining that the narrator recently died in an insane asylum. 

The horror that creeps out of Chambers’ King in Yellow is inverse to yet also philosophically aligned with Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic fear. Chambers is portraying the madness and psychotic narcissism that comes from a society too indulgent, too aesthetically opulent, and fueling delusions of its own grandiose history. But both authors evoke the mesmerizing, irresistible terror that is the natural response to the undermining of human history. Real or imagined by their respective narrators, the vast, sprawling, rococo cities, sublime in their existence outside of linear time, destroys those characters’ sanity and sense of historical proportions. The “purest poison” of The King in Yellow play is not unlike Lovecraft’s arctic city of stone: the briefest glimpse of the beautiful logic of another world serving as a drawbridge to madness. Whether or not these worlds actually exist in their authors’ fictional universe is not the most important factor; what matters is the horrific impression they leave on a character’s ontological assumptions and consciousness. In this way, the spectrum of sanity and insanity is circular: veer too far in either direction, and you’ve undermined the boundaries you were not supposed to know existed, thereby losing your blissful ignorance and suspension of disbelief forever. 

What’s most intriguing about The King in Yellow is how it seems to be a sort of arcane passageway between weird fiction and postmodern literature. “The Repairer of Reputations” is told from the perspective of an unreliable, neurotic narrator teetering on schizophrenia who is infatuated with an underground history of America. Works like Jorges Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius,” and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 similarly feature fanatical, faux-detective narrators obsessed with shrouded histories that either completely reconfigure the known world or open doors to fantastical alternate spaces. The similarities between The King in Yellow and The Crying of Lot 49, in particular, are striking and indisputable: both feature a mysterious play of shady authorship with bizarre, spellbinding contents; symbols — the Yellow Sign and muted post horn — representing cults and secret societies; and deranged psychotics who seem to hold the only keys to whatever secret kingdom the protagonists desperately seek. 

But is there any deeper connection to these works beyond their fetishization of esoterica? Well, I would argue that The King in Yellow, that inconsistent mishmash of stories that in some cases read like weird tarot incantations or sorcerer’s babble, introduces us to the flip side of cosmic horror. Instead of recoiling in abject fear at the materializing possibility of “hidden and fathomless worlds” completely autonomous from the mundane one we take for granted, characters in these works obsessively pursue the breadcrumbs to these phantom frontiers as if they were the truest form of salvation. Instead of wishing them away, as so many Lovecraftian narrators do so that they may regain their sanity, these characters actually participate in the perpetuation of these chimeras. Francis Thurston’s hell is Hildred Castaigne’s heaven. And so cosmic horror is also cosmic ecstasy. 

The forking paths introduced by The King in Yellow become paradoxical reflections of each other: on one hand, you have Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, which declares the insignificance of humanity and its diminutive powers of comprehension; and on the other, a lineage of fiction  (seemingly spurred by the fin de siècle sentiment) so jaded by the smug success of civilization that it invented new realities for its self-absorbed protagonists to pursue simply to cure or alleviate the pervasive ennui they suffered from. What makes this literary bloodline such a sacrilege to Lovecraft, though, is how these alternate worlds—the lost city of Carcosa, the underground mail service W.A.S.T.E., the imagined world Tlön—do not negate or diminish mankind’s intellectual faculties or position in a cosmic scheme, but reinforce them. In fact, they reinforce them to such a point as to suggest that the ceaseless, unchecked power of human consciousness inevitably leads to solipsism, the most extreme permutation of the anthropocentric pose. 

So does the discovery of these exotic underpasses of human and alien history induce terror or rapture? The best way to answer that question is to conclude with one of the finest contemporary cosmic horror writers, Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti’s work, which includes anthologies and short story collections like Teatro Grottesco, The Nighmare Factory, and Grimscribe, has been described as philosophical, Kafkaesque, and nihilistic. And certainly one of his most famous stories, “A Case for Retributive Action,” which centers on a man who starts working for an insidious corporation in a ghastly border town, has the uncanny dream logic, dread, and allegorical overtones reminiscent of Kafka. But other works, like “The Last Feast of Harlequin” (which Ligotti dedicated to Lovecraft), and “In the Shadow of Another World” suggest not malevolent bureaucracies exerting totalitarian control but the narrator’s themselves as complicit agents in their exploration of surreal worlds. 

In “In the Shadow of Another World,” the narrator visits a house imbued with phantasmagoric powers. When the caretaker, a sort of ringmaster to the house’s lurid theatrics, opens the shutters, the windows reveal grotesque dreamscapes brimming with alien fauna, misshapen beasts, and human appendages. The house is a portal to the bubbling anarchy of shadows and nightmares, but unlike a Lovecraft story, there is no logical explanation or historical context for it. It is the stuff of dreams and imagination, alluring to the narrator because of its grisly disorder. Ligotti’s world is one of sensation and impression, like going to a carnival tripping on mushrooms. 

One thing so many of his stories have in common is the implied consent, the tacit willingness the protagonists have to enter these back alleys and decrepit schoolhouses and backwoods Mardi Gras ceremonies that are each gateways to the outer limits of human experience. They are junkies for the sensations that a hidden reality induces. And that seems to appropriately sum up just how far weird fiction and cosmic horror have strayed from the days of Lovecraft’s stuffy, Victorian professors and scholars gasping in never-ending horror as the boundaries of their world melt away. Ligotti’s narrators — part-time students, drifters, and curious nobodies — want to escape the banality and neuroses of the square world and become ravished by the annihilation of material existence. They don’t fear the subversion of human knowledge and existence; they long for it. And that implied consent extends to the reader, who wants her imagination to be spirited away from the manacles of what is known to a more grandiose vision that consummates dreams, intuitions, and memories.

The truth is that complicity has been there all along. Even Lovecraft’s heroes are drawn to dangerous territories and rabbit-hole texts because they know, deep down, that what scholar Douglas Cowen calls the “sacred order” of everything we assume to be true is a farce, a myth masquerading as fact. Despite the inevitable outcome that Lovecraft illustrated time and again — when we go digging around we’re likely to have our anthropocentric fables crumbled to dust — these characters always do it, and we as readers always want them to do it. For them and us, the cosmic ecstasy was always hidden in the horror. The imagination, weaned on a materialistic civilization and thoroughly disillusioned with it, yearns for that sublime unknown. 



LARB Contributor

Mike Mariani is a writer and educator living in Hoboken, New Jersey. His work has appeared in Hi-Fructose Magazine, PopMatters, Slant, Highbrow Magazine, and Premiere, among other publications. He also writes about music for Channel DJ


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.