Back in December, I put together an unofficial galley of The Final Reconciliation as a gift for some friends and family. One of the recipients was my father, a person who is not someone I’d classify as a “reader,” per se. For years now, whenever I work on something, I have him in mind as part of my intended audience. The idea is that if I get can get him to read and enjoy something I’ve written, then that particular story will be successful in reaching other non-readers. You might say he’s my variable reader, as opposed to a constant, in this grand experiment of mine. Anyway, I sent him the story, not really expecting him to read it.
To my surprise, he did read it. And he liked it. A lot. That’s kind of a huge deal for me, because like I said before, he isn’t a reader. He asked me, “What would you call this?”
“Probably cosmic horror,” I said. Which was true. I’ve made no secret about the inspiration behind it–namely, the work of Chambers, Lovecraft, Barron, and Langan. My dad, however, isn’t familiar with those names. He doesn’t have a background in horror. Until I started writing horror, I think the last horror novel he read was King’s Pet Sematary back in the 80s. So, when I said “cosmic horror,” he hit me with a question that made me stumble: “What’s that?”
And, seriously, what is that? Cosmic horror. I don’t recall even hearing that phrase used as a definition until recent years. Before that, it was always weird horror, literary horror, speculative horror, existential horror–all adjectives I’d use to describe cosmic horror, but which don’t move us any closer to truly defining what it is.
I gave my old man a definition I’d heard before: Imagine God is a child with a magnifying glass, focusing the sunlight to burn ants on the sidewalk. Except we’re the ants, and there are many children above us with different magnifying glasses.
I wish I could credit the person who said that, but I can’t remember who did (and if you know, please say so in the comments so I can give them proper attribution).
Thing is, that explanation still doesn’t come close to really defining it–and I suppose that’s the point. Cosmic horror is undefinable. It is, by nature, the Great Unknown. It’s something greater than we are, far beyond our scope of understanding, and we are so minuscule by comparison that what we have, what we do, what we are is insignificant in the greater scheme of things. It’s the chaos of the universe, made manifest and labeled in simpler terms that we can understand, but in our limited capacity (or at least in mine), such terms fall short and can only describe the feeling, the madness, and our inability to make sense of something so far beyond (and removed from) ourselves.
Cosmic horror is facing that unknown factor of the universe with open eyes and attempting to comprehend what you see, but failing horribly–and at great cost. It’s something we can only label with platitudes and labels we relate to, because it is by its nature the unknown factor in our lives–and it’s fucking terrifying because it forces us to confront the fact that we’re insignificant in the greater scheme.
We’re the ants. And to the gods, the Universe, the Great Big Unknown, we are nothing. Cosmic horror is us looking up, confronting the reality of the child and the magnifying glass, and screaming.
On a side note: I’m a real hit at parties.