But when it comes to Horror, my favourite subgenre has to be Cosmic Horror. I can’t help but feel like the conceit of the genre resonates with me. Because I am not a religious man, I don’t believe in purpose or meaning in life. I believe that meaning is not objective, only we can decide what we want to do with our life - and what we choose to do only has meaning because it matters to us.
Nature does not exist the way it does because it was designed or crafted, but because it evolved that way. Not through choice or desire, but because every other iteration crumbled and died. Good and Evil are irrelevant, in the grand scheme of things, because morality is just another human meaning - there’s nothing right or wrong about the weather, disease, animals or sex, these are just things that exist in this reality. I don’t believe this because I want to, or because I prefer it that way. I believe it because that’s how it is.
To me, this is a powerful and beautiful point of view. Because there is no greater meaning than our own - and even if there were, even if there is some inconceivable god, our inability to conceive it makes our meaning the only one we can know.
But Cosmic Horror represents the only logical conclusion to this point of view. That, objectively, everything is meaningless. From the perspective of the Cosmos, we don’t matter any more than the billions of asteroids floating aimlessly through space. The same atoms that composed the rose that you gave your beloved were once the atoms within a star, that churned in a stellar cauldron of unfathomable heat, until it exploded and collected onto the surface of a gravitational cluster that became our planet.
It wasn’t fate. It wasn’t destiny. It’s just “what happened”.
But more than that, we are just one planet in a vast, vast universe. We have sentience, but what does that mean for the universe? There are two possibilities: Either we are alone in the cosmos, or we are not. Each possibility is equally unsettling to comprehend.
Either we are the greatest minds that this universe has achieved, meaning that all wonder and curiosity at the expanses of the universe are just echoes in the existential emptiness. Or there is something beyond us, which is so unlike us that we could be mistaken for shadows or reflections by their inhuman eyes. Yes, we have meaning because we give ourselves meaning, but all of this matter and meaning is irrelevant to the universe. The cosmis is indifferent to our lives.
I know it is probably just an assumption on my part, but cosmic horror feels like a natural result of knowledge, science and nature. Although he saw it as a call-to-arms for humanitarianism and environmentalism, I feel as though Carl Sagan touched upon the core of cosmic horror, in his reflection upon the photograph of Earth from the Voyager 1 Space Probe, 6 billion kilometeres away - known as “Pale Blue Dot”. In particular, these words:
“ . . . Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere, to save us from ourselves . . .”
— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994
This is science. This is truth. This is cosmicism. It matters a lot, to me.
So, I cannot express to you how shocked I was when I first learned that Cosmic Horror, the genre that encapsulates my awe at the equally wonderful and terrifying size of this reality, was born of hatred.
I call it Cosmic Horror, but most people know this genre as Lovecraftian Horror. First concieved by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, this genre of weird fiction does indeed celebrate certain sciences, in particular chemistry and astronomy, as well as warn of the potential harms and fears of such a craft. It explores how the universe is indifferent and uncaring.
But, this genre was inspired not just by Lovecraft’s adoration of science, but also his fear and loathing of foreigners. Lovecraft was incredibly xenophobic, and this is not just supposition on my part. Lovecraft was infamously reclusive - both due to childhood sicknesses and introversion - and so as well as his fiction he was an amateur journalist and prolific correspondent. In these myriad writings, he detailed his inspirations and opinions, as well as his anglophilic, xenophobic, elitist, puritanical views; both in his self-published magazine The Conservative, as well as many other essays, letters and even poems. If you have a strong constitution, I have included a fraction of these below, and I have even emboldened some of what I considered to be the most egregious statements. Remember, every single one of these words came from Lovecraft himself . . .
“The negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races, and the Northern people must occasionally be reminded of the danger which they incur in admitting him too freely to the privileges of society and government.”
– ”In a Major Key,” from The Conservative Vol. I, No. 2, 1915.
“But I, thank the Gods, am an Aryan, & can rejoice in the glorious victory of T. Flavius Vespasianus, under whose legions the Jewish race & their capital were trodden out of national existence!”
– Personal Correspondence, August 10, 1915
“The mongrel natives, in whose blood the Malay strain predominates, are not and will never be racially capable of maintaining a civilised condition by themselves.”
– an article from United Amateur, 1916
“The most alarming tendency observable in this age is a growing disregard for the established forces of law and order. Whether or not stimulated by the noxious example of the almost subhuman Russian rabble, the less intelligent element throughout the world seems animated by a singular viciousness”.
– “Bolshevism”, from The Conservative Vol. V, 1919
“ . . . if racial amalgamation were to occur, the net level of American civilisation would perceptibly fall, as in such mongrel nations as Mexico–& several South American near-republics.”
– Personal Correspondence, January 18, 1919
“Most dangerous and fallacious of the several misconceptions of Americanism is that of the so-called “melting-pot” of races and traditions.”
– “Americanism”, from United Amateur, 1919
“Heaven knows enough harm has already been done by the admission of limitless hordes of the ignorant, superstitious, & biologically inferior scum of Southern Europe & Western Asia.”
– Personal Correspondence, Demember 13, 1925.
“It is a fact, however, that sentimentalists exaggerate the woes of the average negro. Millions of them would be perfectly content with a servile status if good physical treatment and amusement could be assured them, and they may yet form a well-managed agricultural peasantry.”
– Personal Correspondence, January, 1931.
“The population [of New York City] is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every god damn bastard in sight.”
– Personal Correspondence, November 19, 1931.
“When the alien element is strong or shrewd enough to menace the purity of the culture amidst which it parasitically lodges, it is time to do something.”
– Personal Correspondence, June 12, 1933
“Nothing but pain and disaster can come from the mingling of black and white, and the law ought to aid in checking this criminal folly. Granting the negro his full due, he is not the sort of material which can mix successfully into the fabric of a civilised Caucasian nation . . . Equally inferior–& perhaps even more so—is the Australian black stock, which differs widely from the real negro. This race has other stigmata of primitiveness—such as great Neanderthaloid eyebrow-ridges. And it is likewise incapable of absorbing civilisation.”
– Personal Correspondence, July 30, 1933.
It is also believed that, due to his extreme conservative views, he would have been very much homophobic (but, as he was reportedly a virgin into his 30s, and according yo his wife, never initiated sex, it is believed by some historians that he was not fond of sexuality of any kind, and perhaps considered it uncivilized or ungentlemanly).
But these racist views are not just a facet of his time and culture, he was critical of America, immigration, the failure to maintain a “colour-line” and modern culture. Although the man died over a decade before America’s Civil Rights Movement, he lived through the turbulent era after the abolition of slavery and the granting of equal voting rights for African-Americans; and he was not in favour of either.
For goodness sake - even though he never travelled further than 300 kilometres from his childhood home in Providence, Rhode Island - he felt the need to express his disgust at Australian Aboriginals. As I, myself, am an Australian, I found that assessment particularly stomach-churning.
Although it was most likely due to his Puritanical, reclusive upbringing, and some of the hardships he endured, Lovecraft was uncommonly and irredeemably hateful and openly prejudiced against minorities. Even for those races he admired or considered “cultured”, such as the Chinese, Ancient Rome and some Jews (but definitely not all), he was convinced that you could only achieve a peaceful culture by segregating the races.
So, his personal views, somewhat naturally, bled into and corrupted his writing. His most famous early tale Dagon, speaks of an ancient, barbaric race of aquatic humanoids that rise from the sea to steal human victims.
In his story The Transition of Juan Romero he describes the titular character as an “unkempt Mexican” whose main features are that he is “ignorant and dirty”.
In the serialized Herbert West–Reanimator, Lovecraft describes a black man as incredibly ugly, and a “loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs,”
The tale of The Dunwich Horror recounts the tale of half-breed monstrosities, whose racial characteristics are inherently antagonistic, noxious and violent.
And of course, The Shadow over Innsmouth is the story of a town whose inhabitants are all half-fishman/half-human hybrids, and the initial horror of a character learning that his lineage is also tainted with this corrupted bloodline.
But this is more than implicit racism as determined by critical analysis, but Lovecraft himself made explicit mention that his xenophobia, or “fear of strangers” informed his horror fiction. In the June 1937 issue of the Amateur Correspondent, in an article called “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”, Lovecraft had this to say:
“These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.”So, Cosmic Horror and Xenophobia are undeniably intertwined. The heart and soul of Lovecraftian Horror is hatred and fear of “otherness”. It's troubling that something so meaningful to me is born of something just as abhorrent.
However, after some thought, I found myself coming to terms with this fact rather easily.
Firstly, Cosmic Horror is not inherently racist. Despite there being dozens, dozens and dozens more retellings and expansions of Lovecraftian Horror and the Cthulu Mythos, none of these successors have perpetuated the hate. In fact, despite being inspired by hate, the genre functions just as well - and, in my opinion, better - without it. Horror writers weren't inspired by his fear of foreign things, but rather this fear of monsters that weren't so much "evil" as "too powerful to notice us". Rather than fear of aliens as an allegory for fear of "inferior races", most of them focused on exploring the horrors of cultists, unknowable gods and creeping madness, many used as an allegory for losing your humanity. Or even, like me, they played on our existential dread of infinity and cosmic worthlessness.
Secondly, there is much more to Cosmic Horror than Lovecraft. See, what inspired me to write this post is my research for yesterday’s post, looking for bigoted Horror Movies. In my search for a xenophobic horror movie, I explored adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, but none of these movies were xenophobic. Some even took Cosmic Horror, and the “horrific outsider” trope to explore the views of minorities in regards to the majority - so rather than a local being confronted by invading immigrants, it becomes a discourse on the experience of the migrant or persecuted minority, surrounded by cruel neighbours - my favourite example is that of the film Dagon, (actually an adaptation of “The Shadow over Innsmouth”) which made the main character gay, entirely changing the focus of the story so as to explore the fear of being considered an outsider in your own community.
Thirdly, and to me most importantly, unlike Lovecraft, I do not judge something as inferior just because it was born of something alien to me. I am not prejudiced against ideas merely due to its parentage. I fully accept that Lovecraft was a racist - like I said, I accept things not because I want to, but because that's what they are. But, I also accept that his views were wrong. And whilst I will spend an entire blogpost explicitly calling out these racist remarks, and calling the man close-minded and bigoted for it (and, in fact, I think I just did), I aso accept that he was not famous during his lifetime, and considering how many of his family went mad and died within the walls of a madhouse, I think he suffered enough. Of course, we ought not forget his contribution, but I do not celebrate him as a person because his personhood is unworthy of celebration. I merely accept that he had a cool idea, and I thank him for it, despite the rotted garden bed of his mind from whence it grew.
In conclusion, this leads me into, perhaps, the most important aspect of ignorance that I think we need to all consider. Ignorance is dangerous and cruel, but it need not be so destructive. Even those whose views are disgusting and toxic are still capable of art and beauty, and perhaps even elucidating upon the subject of their ignorance.
Whilst I do not, and cannot, abide by the hatreds Lovecraft held - I can see that, perhaps, the reason he was so hateful was because he was so very, very scared. Like I said in my Foolery Pox blog post, fear is a weakness in our critical thinking which makes it easier to fall victim to dangerous ideas. But, even if someone is ignorant, if we take the time to listen to them, we may even find the opportunity both to teach and to learn with them.
I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and I honestly believe that if you have an open mind, you can take something crafted by hatred, and with the right touch, craft it into something inspired by Love.