- "Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." -H.P. Lovecraft
Much has been written at length about the horror subgenre of "Cosmic Horror", and it remains an important and vital subgenre that H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries might take great pride in having introduced to the horror genre.
The term "Cosmic Horror" can be applicably defined Lovecraftian Horror and Cosmicism, and cosmic horror is heavily influenced by the philosophical notion of existential nihilism and philosophical pessimism, as well as the desolate quality of the natural world, and cosmos in general.
Thematically, the primary attribute of the cosmic horror story is the idea that human beings are insignificant and inconsequential in the scope of cosmic reality. Humanity is at best a nominal footnote in the history of the universe, and at worst deserves no notice whatsoever.
While the stories themselves seem essentially pessimistic, Lovecraft himself believed that the negative connotation of "pessimist" was improper, preferring "indifferentist".
The fear of the Other, the alien, and the unknown are central tenets that underscore the terror in the cosmic horror story. The xenophobia and racist overtones in many of Lovecraft's stories are unarguable, but the underlying fear of what one does not understand remains the pervasive note. One might argue that the enduring nature of Lovecraft's work is not in spite of his racism, but precisely because his racism allowed him to tap into every reader's deepest irrational terror of the Other.
This alienation further extends to the self. There is often an alien nature to a character's ancestry and personal relationships, with questions of alien or supernatural parentage and sinister personal acquaintances. Furthermore, the characters are often loners, and isolated people without close personal ties.
The characters of cosmic horror stories often skirt the line of rationality and sanity. Sanity is displayed as a fragile and tenuous thing, with the experience of the horrors of the true nature of reality being enough to drive one to madness.
The themes of cosmic horror stories express themselves in many ways, but are frequently seen in a number of tropes:
- The Eldrich Abomination -- This type of antagonist, is a common trope in the cosmic horror story. Always horrific in appearance, and occasionally beyond human description or comprehension, these monsters threaten the boundaries of reality. At best their motives are inconceivable or in disregard of humanity, at worst they are a malevolent force actively seeking to subvert or corrupt human society. The various "gods" of the Mythos are counted in this category.
- The Cult -- This other common antagonistic force frequently seek to act as agents of Eldrich Abominations or other malevolent/alien forces. The reach of their sinister network is unknown, but is suspected to influence many powerful men and women.
- Secret Knowledge -- Whether it's the forbidden tome of the Necronomicon or an ancient chant that speaks of mysterious evils, secret knowledge drives many cosmic horror stories. Often this secret knowledge or the revelation thereof may drive a character to madness or send them down a path of horror and despair. Frequently, these secrets reveal the agency of a Cult or an Eldrich Abomination or give a forbidden glimpse into their realm.
- The Tainted Bloodline -- In no small part influenced by the philosophy of eugenics, and H.P. Lovecraft's own prejudices, there is a recurring theme that one has a horrifying or monstrous ancestor. This, by virtue of the bloodline, taints the character and may influence them as if by proxy.