H.P. Lovecraft, Cosmic Horror, and Current Cosmology
Note: the author’s cosmic horror novel The Shadow Over Sarnath has just been published.
I. Introduction: H.P. Lovecraft, Cosmic Horror, and the Modern Worldview.
What is cosmic horror? The idea begins not in the usual places, with bumps in the night, or jump scares, or faces concealed by hockey masks, but with a certain sensibility about our place in the universe. A place hardly alien to modern science, as we’ll see.
Cosmic horror suggests that if we fully faced this sensibility, it would drive us insane — slowly if not quickly.
I’ll let its greatest exponent, the late Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937), expound on the matter. From the beginning of one of his most famous stories:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (“The Call of Cthulhu” ).
This paragraph helps us pinpoint characteristics of cosmic horror. Our senses and reason are woefully finite. The familiar comforts us. The unfamiliar unsettles us at best. Something utterly unknown coming without warning terrifies us.
Is it possible that familiarity is artificial, a cocoonlike existence on a “placid island of ignorance”? Elsewhere Lovecraft writes of the
fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance.
[This brand of horror] suspends: our morality, desires, interests, [when] notions of how the world seems to work or is…