A zombie doesn’t scare me nearly as big sky country, where there’s nowhere to hide. Yikes! That’s why I connect with cosmic horror. Cosmic horror stories are a whole different kind of nightmare: the terrifyingly unknowable. These cosmic horror tales draw upon the power of the sublime to make us feel small, inconsequential, and totally helpless against something vast and natural. For instance, that featureless white landscape of a total whiteout snow storm. Or the panic you might feel if the electricity has gone out and you encounter a pitch black house.
Cosmic horror is about finding those moments where the unknown crashes up against the known. Maybe you’ve always avoided open water because it makes you feel powerless. A good cosmic horror story would play on that fear, driving you to a startling encounter with the ocean where you are forced to confront how little you can do to change vast cosmic forces that shape humanity. If you thought we have control over our natural world, cosmic horror will make you think twice.
Cosmic horror can also be intensely psychological. This genre of horror will often ask us to doubt our default psychological experience. What is “reality” if not a construct we take for granted? Psychology still has blind spots in understanding the brain. Cosmic horror delights in exploiting that endless unknown of the mind. Some of the best cosmic horror crosses over into psychological thriller.
The cosmic horror genre generally credits American writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft as its founder, and, indeed, “Lovecraftian horror” and “cosmic horror” are often used interchangeably. A prolific author, Lovecraft penned many stories and novels that are often grouped together in the Cthulhu Mythos. Some of his most widely known work include the novellas At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936),and The Shadow Out of Time (1936). A few acclaimed short stories are “The Rats in the Walls” (1924) and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928).
Lovecraft’s fiction established the Cosmicism literary philosophical movement, of which cosmic horror is one example. At the Mountains of Madness, for instance, is written as a narrative by the leader of a failed Antarctic expedition. The crew encounter a lost prehistoric alien civilization. When this seemingly dormant community shows itself to be active, the men come face to face with an—unnamed and once unknowable—evil. In “The Rats in the Walls,” a man moves back to his ancestral home, a mansion where he hears rats crawl in the walls, a paranoia he cannot prove to be true. As buried family secrets are unearthed, the man’s quest for understanding leads him into the heart of sinister forces. But it’s the sound of the rats—invisible and unknowable—that begin to erode his mind.
The Imago Sequence and other stories by Laird Barron
Laird Barron is a leading author of cosmic horror known for high-concept terrors. In this collection, read some of his acclaimed short fiction like the titular novella, “The Imago Sequence,” which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award.
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Love Netflix’s Stranger Things? You’ll devour Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, an ode to the unique way that horror scares us when we are young. In this cosmic horror novel, a band of teen detectives have grown up after one divisive summer trying to unmask the Sleepy Lake monster in 1977. Fast forward to 1990 when they team up again to find the truth about their past.
The Shape of Water by Guillermo Del Toro
In this novelization of Guillermo del Toro’s Academy Award-winning film The Shape of Water, a mute woman takes pity on a sea creature being studied in secret by the U.S. government. She rescues the creature, only to fall in love with it. This exquisite study of a romantic connection between humans and the unknowable others is classic cosmic horror.
Cthulhu’s Daughters by Silvio Moreno Garcia
Inspired by Lovecraft, this collection of cosmic horror by female authors brings another perspective to the traditionally male-dominated genre. In 25 chilling tales, authors like Selena Chambers and Arinn Dembo give voices to the women characters in Lovecraft’s work. (Note: Cthulhu’s Daughters is the American edition of the anthology She Walks in Shadows).
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation helped make new weird mainstream. The opening in the Southern Reach trilogy, this gripping thriller traces the escalating terror among an all-women scientific expedition to the mysterious classified Area X. The narrator, a biologist, is after more than plant observations: she’s trying to solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearance in Area X. Annihilation was made into a feature film starring Natalie Portman. The movie is an excellent adaptation of the novel. Personally, one of my favorite movies of all time.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Kelly Link’s debut short story collection, Magic for Beginners, almost defies words, winning comparisons to Alice Munro, George Saunders, J.K. Rowling, and others. What’s clear, though, is Link’s voice is distinct and wholly original. Blending magical realism, surrealism, and the absurd in stories featuring fairies, zombies, and rabbits, Link’s work celebrates the weird.
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting
Hazel has recently escaped a psychologically abusive marriage to a tech CEO. Seeking refuge with her father and his lifelike sex doll, Hazel settles into the trailer park for senior citizens. Meanwhile, a conman has a born-again moment after which he can only get aroused by dolphins. As their paths intersect, things get weird.